Sunday, December 05, 2010

Penguins on Parade: the Talmud!

Some Penguin Classics stretch the very definition of what a 'book' is. Where do you go if it can be said about your subject text, as Norman Solomon says in his Introduction to the Penguin Classic 2009 The Talmud: A Selection: "The Talmud was not designed as literature for reading"? When Solomon writes further "Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book," surely he's right, and surely that spells doom for Penguin's attempt to add a small selection from the Talmud to its most prestigious imprint of literature? Surely such an attempt is akin to making a Pleiade edition of the Paris phone book?

Which Talmud, for instance? There the Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, which overlap significantly but also differ significantly. Both are enormously detailed commentaries on the Mishnah, the vast set of legal and cultural codes of Judaism that were formulated in the second century B.C.; both are multi-voiced speculations, arguments, questionings, and clarifications of how the Mishnah connects with Holy Writ. And the results of all that arguing and clarifying are staggering: hundreds of thousands of pages of detailed, spirited, incredibly convoluted exegesis, a bristling, contradicting, expostulating universe of talk, a body of sheer data so huge as to be practically immeasurable, and all of it without a single coherent narrative or thought of one. In the beginning was the Torah, the divine revelation given to Moses at Sinai. "The text is free from error or inconsistency," Norman Solomon writes. "God does not make mistakes! Apparent contradictions can be resolved by correct interpretation, not we do not always know what that is."

So Moses, all unsuspecting, descends from the mountain, hands over the tablets, enjoys a moment of blessed silence, and then the arguing begins, and it hasn't stopped since. "A sacred text cannot guide on its own," Norman Solomon writes. "It has to be read, and all reading is interpretation." In Jewish lore, the Mishnah began at Sinai too, the oral counterpart to written law, coeval in age but with the added dimension of debatability. And the pervading charm of reading the Talmud (as I've been doing for days now, in this precious Penguin Classic) is now thoroughly for centuries Jewish readers have jumped into that debate. Every pronouncement of their law is first accepted with reverent humility - and then picked at, interpreted, and cross-examined into the ground. And while there are liturgical and legal reasons for all of that interpretation, the overwhelming impression the Talmud gives is that this is a people who so thoroughly enjoy mental and verbal exercise that it's something of a miracle God ever gets a word in edgewise.

(I myself think the whole business started in Genesis 18, when Abraham has the cheek to dicker with God about how many good men Sodom would need to have in it in order to save itself from destruction; Abraham may be thinking about his poor brother Lot, but you can't escape the impression that he's enjoying himself too, seeing how much he can get away with)(Although it may have started even earlier, with Cain sassing back to Gof when He's asking after Abel, "Am I my brother's keeper?" being a human-to-deity response of a type found in absolutely no other religion)

Norman Solomon has created a kind of masterpiece in the selecting and translating of this volume, and he's the first to admit the oddness of the writings he's introducing. But his insistence on a relaxed approach is certainly wise:
There is no need to start on the first page, since the Talmud is not written in a stepwise fashion. Browse, and you will quite soon find something that attracts you, perhaps some amusing anecdote about an incident in the schools (there is far more humour in the Talmud than it is generally credited for), or perhaps some unexpected gem of wisdom. Make that your starting point. Turn over the pages at random to pick up something of the range and rhythm of the Talmud. Wade in, splash about; soon you may discover that you can swim a few strokes.

That 'range and rhythm' is unending, with segments covering thousands of aspects of human communal living and dozens of learned, feisty voices commenting on each segment. Early marriage is praised in almost the same breath as the trademark misogyny of the ancient world:
The rabbis taught: To learn Torah, and to marry - first learn Torah and then marry. But if he cannot 'control his sexual impulse] without a wife, he should first marry and then learn Torah. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel, The law is, a man should marry first and then learn Torah.l Rabbi Yohanan exclaimed, A millstone around his neck, and [you expect him to] engage in Torah!

Dogs, of course, are disparaged as well (they were ever a cat-loving people):
You should not raise dogs unless they are kept on a chain. The rabbis taught: You may not raise a dog unless it is kept on a chain, but if you live in a border town you may raise one, tie it up by day and release it at night. Rabbi Eliezer the Great says, He who raises dogs is like he who raises pigs. What difference does it make? It is that he is included in the curse.

And every pillar of law or practice is given such a vigorous and multifaceted debate that you can practically hear the voices, even though most of them are centuries or even millennia gone under the ground:
Rabbit Dostai ben Yehuda says, AN EYE FOR AN EYE - [this means] monetary compensation. Do you think it means an actual eye, rather than monetary compensation? Then what would you do if one had a large eye and one had a small eye? How could you call that AN EYE FOR AN EYE, seeing that they are not equal?

If you say that in a case like this [where the eyes are not equal], you should accept compensation, but if the eyes are equal you should apply the verse literally, this cannot be the case, since the Torah says, THERE SHALL BE ONE LAW FOR YOU (Leviticus 24:22) - a law which is the same for all of you.

They said, What is Rabbit Dostai ben Yehuda's problem? Why not say, A has taken the light from B's eye, so the Torah says take the light from A's eye [irrespective of size]? If you don't argue like this, how could we execute a dwarf who killed a giant or a giant who killed a dwarf, seeing that the Torah says, THERE SHALL BE ONE LAW FOR YOU - a law which is the same for all of you? The point is, he has taken a life, and the Torah says his life should be taken ...

And that's just the smallest fraction of the back-and-forth on just that one point - it goes on forever (literally, in fact, since technically Talmud is ongoing), and it effortlessly catches even the least inclined readers up in its net and carries them along. This is the ultimate example of people interacting with texts - this is reading as an Olympic contact-sport. It's mesmerizing, and that's its only potential drawback, because there's several lifetimes worth of mania preserved here. "The Talmud wants your life" was a familiar tag for centuries in medieval Jewish studies, and it's no less true today.

"Above all, enjoy it!" Norman Solomon urges. "The rabbis say that there is no greater joy than that of the day on which the Torah was revealed; whenever the Torah is studied, something of that joy is present."

I can certainly attest to that while reading this amazing volume. It makes me yearn for a Penguin Classic Torah (the version chosen should be Robert Alter's "Five Books of Moses" from 2004, obviously) - and a Penguin Classic Mishnah (the Jacob Neusner from 1991, please) too, while we're at it.

No comments: