People of the Talmud: Since When? A Response and Rejoinder

People of the Book—Since When? A Response


Professor Haym Soloveitchik’s remarks regarding my book Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures deserve a fuller answer than I will supply in this venue. More complete comments—on matters he mentions (e.g., textualization and putative errors) and on those he does not (e.g., debates over historical interpretation in which he is deeply invested)—are posted on the website:

Professor Soloveitchik’s wish is that my book might sink “under the weight of its own insufficiencies.” My wish is that people read it and judge for themselves. My aim in writing Becoming the People of the Talmud was to contribute towards bridging the largely separate domains of rabbinic scholarship and cultural history, that each might enrich the other. The book’s ambitious scope and interdisciplinary approach enabled me to offer rudimentary answers to long-standing riddles, but it also made errors inevitable. I thank Professor Soloveitchik for pointing out those that I acknowledge. In the academic environment that I inhabit and try to cultivate, scholars turn to others with greater knowledge in their own specialized arenas in order to improve their own work, and they do so without shame. Conscious of my limitations, I will take Professor Soloveitchik’s corrections to heart (as I have in the past). A future edition of the book will reflect the changes that are warranted. None of these corrections undermine either the book’s thesis or the wealth of supporting evidence it presents.

Professor Soloveitchik has oddly portrayed Becoming the People of the Talmud as a work about the tosafists, 12th– and 13th-century scholars best known for their talmudic glosses. Though he avers that my book is “formulated simply and clearly,” this construal of a book whose focus and scope are so vastly different—chronologically, geographically, and culturally—suggests that Professor Soloveitchik has not understood it. As any other reader of my book will attest, neither the glossators nor the glosses constitute “a major crux” of my argument.

As a work of cultural history with its own arc of inquiry, Becoming the People of the Talmud is interested in tracking concerns and perspectives, voiced between (loosely) the 10th and 12th centuries, that might be construed as markers or witnesses to certain types of Jewish cultural change. The book thus has many actual foci, including the culture of the geonim, the 11th-century Qayrawanese rabbinic commentators, the Andalusian halakhists and poets, the tosafists’ North European rabbinic predecessors, medieval Jewish criticisms of curricular talmudo-centrism, the prominence of custom in medieval Ashkenaz, the worldview and practices of Rhineland Pietism, and, for that matter, the burning of the Talmud by 13th-century Christians. None of these cultural developments is of merely peripheral interest or importance. They collectively map the historical matrix within which the tosafists have an important, but not the sole, or even the most important, place.

Professor Soloveitchik seems to think that perspectives of Rabbenu Tam preserved in Sefer Ha-Yashar (outside the talmudic glosses) are of negligible importance because they are proportionally insignificant relative to that tosafists’ oeuvre as a whole. Such a calculus has no bearing on the historical questions posed in my book. From Becoming the People of the Talmud‘s perspective, Rabbenu Tam’s concern with textual emendation and his predilection for consulting what he referred to as “old books” are made no less significant by considerations of proportionality.

I will cite one incident discussed in Becoming the People of the Talmud (unmentioned by Professor Soloveitchik) because it gives a sense of what might be lost were the tosafists’ cultural profile to be constructed solely from their talmudic glosses. A sustained vitriolic exchange between Rabbenu Tam and Rabbenu Meshullam concerning the manner in which the Talmud was to be deployed in the service of legal decision-making is preserved in Sefer Ha-Yashar. Like their geonic predecessors, both parties to this 12th-century debate understood—and maintained—the ancient rabbinic distinction between halakha and halakha le-ma’aseh, that is, the difference between a received legal teaching and the attestation that the teaching in question was one implemented in practice. Both scholars realized that talmudic legal teachings needed to be mediated, or vetted, before they could be presented as applied law. They differed over the precise sources of authority that were to be used together with the Babylonian Talmud in deciding law. At stake in this altercation was nothing less than rabbinic legal epistemology.

This medieval feud challenges Professor Soloveitchik’s assertions in several ways. It reveals that the tosafist Rabbenu Tam was not solely a dialectician, uninterested in practical matters of applied law. The debate also constitutes an important “anomaly” vis-à-vis the historiographic narrative restated, unreservedly, by Professor Soloveitchik. It forcefully demonstrates that, as late as the 12th century, there was no rabbinic unanimity regarding the manner in which Talmud was to be used in adjudication. This historical datum (and not my own “revolutionary” claims or my reliance on secondary sources, pace Professor Soloveitchik) is but one of many discussed in Becoming the People of the Talmud that impel and necessitate the search for a new paradigm.

Finally, the argument between Rabbenu Tam and Rabbenu Meshullam illustrates why Becoming the People of the Talmud pointedly avoids referring to the Talmud as “normative.” Neither medieval scholar denied the Talmud’s authority, after all. Not only is my study not equipped to measure “normativity,” I regard the term itself as one that obscures and flattens historical complexities. Cultural authority has never taken one single form; it is continually shaped (and reshaped) by a web of nuanced factors. For this reason, the book I wrote highlights changes in the ways that the Talmud was used in different places and times, but identifies no single development or phenomenon as the “flipped switch” that made it “normative.” Professor Soloveitchik’s ascription to me of the claim that the “Talmud became normative only in the course of the 12th and 13th centuries” is thus wrong on two counts. Similarly unsupportable is his claim that the thousands of responsa written by geonim “attest to the acceptance of the normative standing of the Talmud by the beginning of the 9th century, if not somewhat earlier.” The impressive number of responsa attest to a quest for guidance, but they tell us precious little about the ways in which the geonim used the Talmud or about the reception accorded the responsa by their recipients.

Some readers may have thoughts about the dismissive and derisive tone that Professor Soloveitchik adopts; the virulence of his attack suggests that my book—and/or the award bestowed on it—hit a nerve. Having known Professor Soloveitchik over the course of years as a gracious scholar, willing to share his erudition with others, and as a gentleman, my hope is that his pugilistic remarks were intended as an expression of the combative form of rabbinic discourse known in the Talmud as “milchamtah shel Torah.”

Talya Fishman is an associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania.

People of the Book—Since When? A Rejoinder


Professor Fishman’s response points out the wide gamut of subjects that her book treated and then faults me for concentrating on the tosafists. The central issue, however, is not the range of Professor Fishman’s topics, but whether the sources support what she said about these topics. Generally they do not; as often as not, they state the opposite.

Rather than refer back to Professor Fishman’s book, which most of the readers do not possess, let us analyze the example (chosen from her book) to demonstrate the validity of her argument. Putting her best foot forward in this public letter, she invokes the controversy between Rabbenu Tam and Rabbenu Meshullam as evidence of the central contention of her book that talmudic authority was problematic even in Ashkenaz as late as the 12th century.

Like their geonic predecessors, both parties to this 12th-century debate understood-and maintained-the ancient rabbinic distinction between halakha and halakha le-ma’aseh, that is, the difference between a received legal teaching and the attestation that the teaching in question was one implemented in practice. . . . At stake in this altercation was nothing less than rabbinic legal epistemology.

The controversy between Rabbenu Meshullam and Rabbenu Tam, Fishman writes,

forcefully demonstrates that, as late as the 12th century, there was no rabbinic unanimity regarding the manner in which Talmud was to be used in adjudication. This historical datum (and not my own “revolutionary” claims or my reliance on secondary sources, pace Professor Soloveitchik) is but one of many discussed in Becoming the People of the Talmud that impel and necessitate the search for a new paradigm.

What, indeed, would prove the need of a new paradigm better than demonstrating that the very founder of the tosafist movement and arguably its greatest thinker, Rabbenu Tam (d. 1171), believed that the application of talmudic dicta had to be mediated by extra-talmudic writings such as the midrashim? Let us investigate her evidence, as it provides insight as to Professor Fishman’s methods of citation.

Contrary to what Professor Fishman claims, Rabbenu Tam never distinguishes between halakha and halakha le-ma’aseh in his exchange with Rabbenu Meshullam; indeed, he never mentions these terms at all. He does discuss, as Professor Fishman claims, the authority of the Talmud vis-à-vis other traditional literature, such as the aggada and midrashim. What he says, however, is the exact opposite of what Professor Fishman asserts. Rabbenu Meshullam, a Provençal scholar who moved to Melun (some 65 miles west of Troyes where Rabbenu Tam resided) undertook to alter a number of customary practices of the Ashkenazic (North European) community, as, for example, that of women reciting a blessing over the Shabbat candles. Astonishing as it seems, there is no talmudic directive regarding women lighting candles on Friday evening, not to speak of reciting a blessing on them. This universal and much cherished practice is custom pure and simple, as is much of traditional religious behavior. Religious life is experienced as a whole and is taken by its participants as being cut from one cloth. However, the fact is that some seventy percent of the prayers recited regularly in the synagogue are not products of talmudic dictate but of age-old traditions. Much of the Seder on the eve of Passover is not halakhically mandated, but rather the aggregate of immemorial usage. Needless to say, Rabbenu Tam vigorously opposed Rabbenu Meshullam’s numerous innovations. He stated that when dealing with time-hallowed religious conventions, one can’t lay them out on a Procrustean bed of talmudic law and lop off every excrescence. One must search carefully for references to these traditional practices in the midrashic literature and its cognates. Custom and midrashic literature should be relied on, Rabbenu Tam writes, “where they do not conflict with our Talmud, but add to it.” He specifically states that the Talmud is the normative text. Midrashic literature and custom play a significant role in the interstices of the talmudic system, but never when they stand in opposition to it. Rabbenu Tam’s remarks here would have won the full endorsement of the arch-talmudist of the modern era, the Gaon of Vilna.

In short, Rabbenu Tam’s words run contrary to Professor Fishman’s central thesis. How is this passage dealt with in Becoming the People of the Talmud? Very simply, she cites it thus:

Whoever is not proficient in the Seder Rav  ‘Amram and in Halakhot Gedolot and in Massekhet Sofrim and in Pirqe de-Rabi Eliezer, and in Rabbah and in Yelammdenu, and in the other books of aggadah, must not destroy the words of the Early Ones and their customs . . . And many of the customs that we possess follow them.

Three dots in a citation indicate an omission of some words. The words elided in her citation are “where they do not conflict with our Talmud, but add to it.

There is no space here to illustrate how widespread the problem of misstatement is in Becoming the People of the Talmud; nor would it be profitable, as I have said, to refer readers to a book that most of them do not possess. I simply refer the reader to my reply at (which addresses a lengthier rebuttal of my review that Professor Fishman distributed among colleagues and placed on the Internet in December 2012). In her online rebuttal, Professor Fishman restates in two paragraphs another central theme of her book: the orality of the Talmud in geonic times, so crucial for the contrast she then makes with its subsequent textualization. She evidences her argument with four footnotes. Reaching out to the larger audience of the Internet, there is every reason to assume that she here too took extra care to insure the validity of her proofs. In my reply, I have reproduced verbatim the text of these two paragraphs together with its documentation and examine them, one by one. They do not sustain the claims made by Professor Fishman. All of her evidence is drawn as usual from secondary sources, most of which state the very opposite of what Professor Fishman asserts.

Professor Fishman faults me for concentrating on the tosafists in my review. I had to review a book in a brief compass. I thought it proper to characterize her general familiarity with the subject about which she was writing and instantiate it by discussing a central chapter. The title of the book was Becoming the People of the Talmud, a process that culminated, in her view, in the 12th and 13th centuries, so I concentrated on those centuries: the era of the tosafists. Professor Fishman protests that her book treats many topics other than that of the tosafists. Indeed, it does, but her portrayal of those other topics is of the same caliber as her portrait of the tosafists. The book’s problems are systemic.

Imagine a French literature professor whose command of English enables her to read 19th– and 20th-century English literature, but who can in no way comprehend Milton, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, not to speak of Chaucer. She nevertheless undertakes to read the critical literature on these writers. She scrutinizes, for example, many essays with differing views on Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Winter’s Tale, without ever having actually read the plays themselves. She does the same with Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales. She reads the secondary literature assiduously, but cannot comprehend passages of the originals that these essays cite. The chance of her grasping what the essays are saying is not great; indeed, she may even infer the opposite of what they actually say. She then gathers her insights together, links them with her readings in some school of literary criticism, and proceeds to offer a new interpretation of the shaping of English literature from Chaucer to Milton. This, in effect, is the story of Becoming the People of the Talmud.

What is most significant in Professor Fishman’s reply is what she does not say. While she thanks me for “pointing out those [errors] that I acknowledge,” she does not deny that many of these errors would have been avoided by anyone who had seriously studied the texts of the figures she discusses (e.g., the Babylonian geonim, Rabbenu Hananel of Qayrawan, Rabbenu Gershom Meor ha-Golah of Mainz, Rashi, or the tosafists). The rabbinic literature of well over a millennium, from its inception to the end of the 13th century (where her book terminates), is, from the evidence of her book, terra incognita to her.

In the absence of substantive access to the primary sources, Professor Fishman systematically misread the secondary ones. I referred to the problem, writing:

. . . one might still suggest that a basic familiarity with the primary sources is necessary to read the secondary sources with some discrimination . . . It may equally be needed simply to save oneself from drawing a seemingly reasonable inference from a secondary source, but one so outlandish to anyone in the know that the writer never thought there was any need to preclude it.

Note simply that Professor Fishman also does not deny that she misunderstood, as claimed in my review, both Brody and Lifshitz on the central issue of geonic authority. Indeed, she stated the very opposite of what Lifshitz actually said. Neither does she dispute the fact that she drew from a brief footnote of mine sweeping inferences about the scope and practice of the laws of mourning that had no basis in fact. These are not isolated instances of misreading, as indicated by the “evidence” she adduced from Rabbenu Tam and for the orality of the Talmud in the time of the geonim. The claims made in Becoming the People of the Talmud are simply not substantiated by the documentation provided in its footnotes. I will not trouble the reader with further examples. Those interested can find them (and my answer to her argument in her letter about not knowing how “the geonim used the Talmud”) in my online reply to Professor Fishman.

Becoming the People of the Talmud is based on snippets culled from a host of secondary sources. Professor Fishman then proceeds to locate these snippets, not in the context of the wider literature of her subject matter, which is closed to her, but rather the context of her own personal vision. This does not constitute history, cultural or otherwise.

Finally, a word about the award bestowed upon Becoming the People of the Talmud. There is a strong desire in the American Jewish community, almost a felt imperative, to make the cultural riches of Judaism available to a broader public. This finds constructive expression in the flourishing industry of translations. A less positive manifestation is a misguided populism that seeks to cut through all the needless complications of scholarship and to engage the student and general reader as quickly as possible in discussions of halakha, Kabbalah, or whatever. The “discourse” must be “Jewish” and “intellectual”; whether there is any substance to it doesn’t really matter.

The motivations may be the best; the consequence is increasing pressure for the reduction of standards in Judaica, especially in its oldest and traditionally most rigorous disciplines, talmudics and rabbinics. While Americans have no interest in how American studies are taught at universities, there are segments of the Jewish community who care very much how Jewish studies are taught. This involvement has its upside: the largesse it engenders; it also has its downside: there are agendas afoot, one or two of which are inimical to scholarship. The National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship that was bestowed on Professor Fishman’s book is a good example of this detrimental tendency, and the confidentiality of the names of the judges, a recent innovation, is but its natural complement.

Haym Soloveitchik is the Merkin Family Research Professor of Jewish History and Literature at Yeshiva University.


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