Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Dank Weight of History


For the past few days and the next several weeks, I have exchanged my chair in a typical, if minuscule, academic office for another less comfortable wooden thing in a major university antiquities collection. Instead of holding a volume of Talmud in my hands, more often then not I find myself gingerly examining artifacts (what else, magic bowls and Sasanian seals) and thinking of the ancients who owned them over a thousand years ago. Along the way, the process has opened up for me a new way of thinking about the tangible age of the world and how we, as academics, try to find our way in it. Beyond their original producers and consumers, like all artifacts the bowls also represent the people who discovered them a hundred(+) years ago, the dealers, collectors, shippers, curators, restorers - the host of characters that contributed to the process of placing a few of them into my hands during this unusually cool summer. Now, a jaunt over to the stacks has itself become a historical journey. Many of the books that I regularly use, for better or for worse, have not been checked out of the library for decades or more. And the stacks are dank, not just with the smell of aging books but the very weight of history: The history of scholarship, learning, and ultimately the way we think now. Like most Talmudists in the wake of Boyarin, I've read the works of that secular prophet, the "archaeologist of knowledge", and his descendants, and I know that scholarship of ancient things is not ancient at all, but an inquiry into things current. So my epiphany in the stacks and in the Babylonian collection is not a revelation of knowledge per se, but an experiential one. Truthfully, this feeling waxes and wanes with the change of seasons and semesters. And sometimes the apology of historical continuity and meaningfulness, especially in terms of the history of ideas, falls flat and limp. As some of you have argued, this is apparently the pervasive angst of many scholars, but especially Talmudists. On the other hand, Talmudists do hold the keys to the "ground zero" of meaning and experience in Judaism. What Jews do and think today is closely linked to particular textual movements in the Bavli (of course mediated by later ways of thinking and experiencing), and we can explain the phenomena fairly well.

With all due respect, I think that historians who need to write op-eds about current affairs like talking heads are not doing anyone a service - even, and especially, when they are great historians.
They are often not equipped to talk about current events directly, and in any case it is unnecessary. There are those who care about the ancient world and texts for reasons of curiosity and spirituality. This is particularly true in the Jewish community - especially amongst those who make Jewish learning a regular part of their schedule. For this (growing) demographic, the role of the Talmudist almost self evident.
There are still a number of real challenges: For the philologically-inclined Talmudist, there is the sense that the Bavli does not read like an open book (even after looking at commentaries and translations). There are manuscripts to be consulted, linguistic analyses to be performed, and textual layers to be peeled away from earlier sources before one can even approach the truth(s) of the text. This partially explains the paternalism endemic to the relationship between Talmudists and the Jewish community, and yes, that paternalism is a problem. Somehow we need to conceive of a way to break down the town and gown barrier, which will include genuine respect for the "community of learners" and the weight of tradition (rishonim, methods of learning) etc. But the dance is that we cannot avoid the fact that some of what we have to say is grounded in real "scientific" analysis and is not simply another "wort" (on the other hand, much of what we have to day is not scientific and we need to admit this). We cannot apologize for this or for the theological challenges inherent in the process. We can only ease the process.

As for those in the Jewish community who are not already engaged in some capacity in Jewish learning, I have little to say. The problem is particularly acute in the US, where the geographic distance from the rest of the world and the chronological gap between us and the ancients is enormous. It contributes to a lack of curiosity in the past (See this preface). Still with the "sexiness" of edgy Jewish learning, maybe the Talmud can also find its way.