From the cover of "The Talmud: A Biography" by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
From the cover of "The Talmud: A Biography" by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

Three books to put you through (Jewish) law school

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The books section is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

Many Bay Area Jews engage in spiritual exploration and Torah study, but my impression is that there tends to be far less interest in studying Jewish law. This is likely because our Bay Area community is generally less observant than other large American Jewish communities, with halachah (Jewish law) playing a central role in fewer people’s lives.

But I consider it a shame, as, even for those who do not consider themselves bound by halachah, exploring Jewish law affords a deeper understanding of Judaism.

Northwestern University professor Scott Wimpfheimer’s “The Talmud: A Biography” is a worthy introduction to the chief collection of Oral Law and one of the foundations of Jewish life. The “biographical” dimension comes in how Wimpfheimer illuminates the Talmud’s changing identity over time, tracing how this enormous collection of centuries of rabbis’ interpretations, arguments and stories came to be assembled, became the basis of religious education and took on diverse roles in the modern era.

The cover of "The Talmud: A Biography" by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

This is not a book on Talmud study, but Wimpfheimer does help introduce the reader to the nature of rabbinic texts. He examines a specific legal controversy introduced in the Mishnah — a case of fire liability — and shows how the issues are viewed differently as new layers of commentary and analysis are introduced over time.

A fascinating part of the Talmud’s history is not only its creation and adoption, but its rejection. While the rabbinic tradition understood the Oral Law, collected in the Talmud and other key rabbinic texts, as divine, there have been many, most famously the Karaites, who have rejected this belief.

And resistance to the Talmud within the Jewish world has continued into the modern era. During the early days of the Hasidic movement of the 18th century, Talmud study was criticized for its emphasis on the intellectual at the expense of the spiritual. During the 19th century, Moses Mendelssohn, the leader of the Haskalah (often called the Jewish Enlightenment), endorsed “a form of Jewish Protestantism that sought to turn to the Bible and away from the Talmud and rabbinic literature.”

And in the 20th century, some Zionist leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion, looked disparagingly upon the Babylonian Talmud, written primarily in Aramaic, as a document of the diaspora, an inferior relative to the Hebrew Bible.

Another stage in history that fascinated me was the development during the Middle Ages of legal codes that sometimes supplanted the Talmud. Wimpfheimer notes that codes like Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch “rely heavily on the Talmud’s legal content, but position themselves as substitutes and even improvements for the Talmud when a final legal ruling is required.”

It’s understandable that the vast and unwieldy Talmud — awash with conflicting views and unfinished arguments — should give way to codes that set forth rules in definitive fashion through a singular voice. And the tension between these two expressions of Jewish law returned to my mind when I read two fascinating new books from the world of contemporary Orthodoxy.

The cover of “The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law” by Leon Wiener DowThe Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law,” by Leon Wiener Dow, a U.S.-born rabbi and scholar in Israel who taught at Berkeley Law for several years, is among the most impassioned accounts of a committed religious life that I’ve read. I would do Dow a disservice to try to summarize his arguments, but, for purposes of tying this to the Talmud, I would say he emphasizes the essential connection between studying text and translating it into action. He holds that “the Oral Torah, as the majority of the sages conceived of it, exists so that it can be lived out in this world.” And this is halachah.

Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage” is a provocative collection of writings by Amsterdam-born Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, a prominent spiritual and educational leader in Jerusalem.

Cardozo’s “plea” is directed to his fellow Orthodox Jews. He holds that, as many Jews are bogged in the stringencies of rigid observance, “halacha[h] has become a platitude instead of being a great spiritual challenge,” and that “left unchecked, mainstream hala[c]hic Judaism will become more and more irrelevant in the years to come.”

The cover of “Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage” by Rabbi Nathan Lopes CardozoCardozo’s sharp criticisms may have limited resonance in the Bay Area, where only 3 percent of Jews identify as Orthodox. However, his discussions of the possibilities of Jewish living make for inspired reading, as he promotes halachic life as a revolutionary endeavor and encourages a more daring, individualized and outward-facing Judaism grown from traditional legal sources.

Interestingly, the aforementioned conflict between Talmud and legal codes surfaces in both Dow’s and Cardozo’s books.

Dow recollects his teacher, the late Rabbi David Hartman, walking into a room to find Dow and a study partner studying a legal code. Hartman expressed disappointment, for he believed that “the task of a rabbi is to provoke questions, not to offer hala[c]hic answers.”

And Cardozo opines similarly that “the quest for certainty paralyzes the search for meaning.” While valuing the insights that the codes offer, he asserts that “the Talmud embodies Judaism in its most authentic form. It is the validity of opposing opinions as part of God’s Torah which actually makes Judaism vibrant and true to its own spirit.”

Both Cardozo and Dow argue for a Judaism without simple instruction manuals, but which turns toward the Oral Tradition as a source of an inspired and authentic religious life. Especially for those who identify Orthodoxy with obedience, these presentations of the creative possibilities of living according to Jewish law will be eye-opening.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.