Sunday, April 4, 2010

Historical Criticism and the Talmud

Two things strike me in the following quotation from Robert Goldenberg's outstanding introduction to the Talmud: (1) The issues raised by historical criticism of the Talmud are similar to the issues raised by historical criticism of the Bible; (2) Goldenberg's response is to shift the locus of meaning from authors to texts:

Modern scholars approach the Talmud seeking the answers to all sorts of questions--usually questions of their own devising--and they have developed techniques for working out more or less reliable answers to these questions. In earlier ages, the pious Jew normally approached this same text with one unchanging question in mind, a question itself received from the past: how does the God of Israel, the Creator of the Universe, want me to live? Questions of historical reliability, or of outside cultural influence, were in the long run irrelevant to this kind if inquiry.

Modern historical consciousness actually makes the traditional inquiry more difficult than ever. The new types of investigation are not simply "irrelevant" to such a quest, they impede it. How can the Talmud reveal the eternal word of God if it turns out to be the work of third- or fourth-century men living in the fading world of Near Eastern antiquity? How can questions of Jewish law be resolved from a text that may conceal scribal error on every line? These considerations help explain why modern, critical Talmud study was long resisted in traditional yeshivot and is still excluded from many of them. Historical relativity in general and text criticism in particular turn out to raise new religious issues, issues that earlier masters of the rabbinic tradition never had to face.

Nevertheless, Talmudic study has remained entirely unchanged in a very important respect, and will remain unchanged as long as people engage in it. the Talmud is a book put together by people who saw intellectual activity as sanctifying. They found holiness in their effort to bring rational order to their tradition, and as a result problem solving and disciplined logic became important characteristics of rabbinic discourse. . . . This relish for complicated but careful argument is entirely available to the modern reader, and is very much in keeping with modern tastes. In an important sense, it is immune from historical criticism, because it comes from the text of the Talmud, not from the particular individuals who once composed that text. And the text is still there.

Robert Goldenberg, “Talmud” in Barry W. Holtz, ed., Back To The Sources׃ Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (1984; repr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 165-6:

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