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The Talmud: A Biography by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Princeton University Press, US $26.95, Pp 300, April 2018, ISBN 978-0691161846

The Babylonian Talmud is a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary. Originally written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, the text is largely ambiguous and incomprehensible. But it has remained a popular text throughout centuries. More Jews are studying Talmud today than at any point in history. The Talmud has undergone profound transformations as the book has developed discourses outside of the one that continues the trajectory of its traditional reception. In The Talmud, Barry Scott Wimpfheimer says that these discourses have expanded the range of the Talmud’s readers to include non-Orthodox and even avowedly secular Jews, historians, ministers of the church, and even critical theorists.

The Talmud began life as a work of literature (the essential Talmud), evolved to produce an intellectual and cultural discourse (the enhanced Talmud), and came to symbolize, and even embody, the Jews and Judaism by both proponents and opponents (the emblematic Talmud). All of this had already transpired prior to modernity. But these aspects of the Talmud have all been magnified from the nineteenth century to the present. There has been a queering of the Talmud as this traditional text has come to speak to and for gays, bisexual, and transgender people. These new discourses have, in turn, opened the Talmud to new symbolic manifestations as representing Jewish success for a developing Asian economy, as modeling a format of thinking that lends itself to manifestation in the service of comedy, and as inspiring modern art that reclaims the Talmud through protest.

Wimpfheimer defines the Babylonian Talmud in three distinct ways. First, it is defined as a work of religious literature collectively produced by a group of rabbi scholars who lived in two geographic regions (Palestine and Babylonia) between the first and eighth centuries CE. Second, the Babylonian Talmud is the second canonical work of the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; within an idiosyncratically scholastic culture that relied heavily on texts to ground religious meaning, the Talmud has been the text on which scholars have focused their energies. Third, the Babylonian Bible is a uniquely Jewish scripture and has often come to function as the ultimate symbolic representation of Judaism, Jewishness, and Jews.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer argues that the three definitions are not mutually exclusive. All are true and can work together. It is necessary to delineate these definitions, though, because each implicates a different historical story and each of these stories produces a register of meaning. Wimpfheimer explores all the three different registers of Talmudic meaning both as discrete and as intertwined entities. It also provides historical context for understanding the essential Talmud and some examples to introduce the hero of our story. The three different registers of Talmudic meaning map somewhat neatly on three distinct scholarly fields. Academic scholars of the Talmud are primarily interested in the essential Talmud. Traditional scholars of the Talmud engage the enhanced Talmud. Historians of all periods take a strong interest in the emblematic Talmud.

The Talmud is a comprehensive introduction to the Babylonian Talmud. With his unmatchable academic credentials, Barry Scott Wimpfheimer brilliantly explains the origin, structure and the role the Babylonian Talmud has played in developing the Jewish identity. Wimpfheimer has masterfully made it easy for everyone to understand one of the most complex texts. Packed with new knowledge and innovative perspectives, The Talmud is for everyone who is interested in learning more about the Babylonian Talmud or Jewish religion and history.

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