Talmud Tales: A (Post)Modern Reading of Bavli Narratives

by Sofia

This was the last paper I wrote for my undergrad. The professor I wrote it for, whom I respect immensely because he is one of the best I’ve ever known, liked it quite a bit.

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Talmud can be mystifying, its obscurity and esotericism off-putting to those unfamiliar with it, and downright intimidating for those who know little (an informal study at a recent Shabbat dinner showed that not only did it not inspire fruitful conversation, it reminded most people they needed to retrieve some more baba ganoush from the food table). Talmud is central in the Jewish tradition as the source of Rabbinical Jewish learning and law, and is the basis for the interpretation and explanation of every aspect of Jewish practice. Given its importance and difficulty, it comes to no surprise that efforts must be made to render it accessible to more people. One such effort is made by G-dcast, a group who makes cartoons of Talmudic stories. These animations are exercises in recasting stories from premodern times for a contemporary audience, with all the changes that that entails. This paper will first survey the approaches proposed by three leading scholars for the study of Talmudic texts, and then utilize these approaches in understanding two narratives, both in textual and video form. As will be shown, these approaches provide frameworks for exploring how any presentation of a story represents a creative interpretation of the original, as the act of reading cannot ignore the reader as a humanly limited and situated producer of meaning. This paper will show how these videos frame the story in a particular way that reveals the context of their creators.

Interpretive frameworks

In Carnal Israel, Daniel Boyarin takes up a way of understanding Talmud that is at odds with the scholarship employed by scholars that read the Talmud as literal, understanding its words at face value. Building on the work of Yonah Frankel, Boyarin holds a view of the Talmud as a fundamentally literary corpus, meaning it is closer to fiction than biography or in otherwise true to historical reality. However, the Talmud’s lack of fidelity to historical truth does not invalidate it as a source of important data about the rabbinical time period during which it was redacted and written. Quite the opposite, Boyarin affirms that, like any work of fiction, the Talmud draws from the cultural environment from which it came, constructs stories from it, and thus reflects its values and discourses (10-12). Boyarin proposes to understand the rabbis as articulating the “cultural, political, social, ideological, and religious problems” they experienced, and determining ideal solutions to these difficulties. In a practice reminiscent of psychoanalysis’ focus on disturbances in speech in order to discover the provenance of internal conflicts, Boyarin proposes to pay close attention to which aspects receive undue “expended energy” in order to discover tensions in the society of the rabbis. This “cultural poetics” is the method that he uses throughout his book in interpreting both halakhah and aggada (15).  In the apologist tradition of Franz Rosenzweig, Boyarin seeks to read Talmudic stories with a form of critique that seeks to provide a holistic view of them, explicating them in such a way as to illuminate and unearth. Like a true apologist, the method of reading he proposes is not meant to produce definitive interpretations, and by no means precludes the possibilities of others (20-21). A cultural poetics is a means of opening aspects of the text which may have been closed in the past to more contextual understanding. 

In the introduction to Talmudic Stories, Jeffrey Rubenstein explains the theoretical and methodological approach to interpreting Talmudic narratives. First, he argues that Talmud must be understood as didactic, as opposed to a reliable historical account; secondly, that the literary way in which the Talmud came into being and therefore its literary nature must be taken into account when interpreting it (3). As the creation of rabbinical culture that finalized in the seventh century, describing the sages of third to fifth century, its historical accuracy is already subject to suspicion. He cites Neusner’s work, which states that the Babylonian Talmud sought to model behaviour, create group identity for the rabbis, and provide founding myths for their culture (4). To know this is to correctly understand the genre and goals of the Talmud. These were to convey transcendent truths rather than historical ones, about imparting messages, not reporting substantive facts of the sages’ lives (Rubenstein 6). Paradoxically, as stated by Cox, the redactors of the Talmud “[used] fiction to convey truth” (Rubenstein 7). Rubenstein argues that it is by focusing on sussing out these poetic truths, that one can arrive at the intended messages of this literature (8).

Rubenstein goes on to cite Jonah Fraenkel, whose work shows how the fragmented character of stories in the Talmud is suited to illustrate a certain point instead of providing a reliable history of the characters or events depicted as would specific chains of events. Similarly, the prevalence of supernatural forces in the stories serves the same function. Fraenkel maintains that as a work of drama, the narratives recounted by the rabbis “[emphasize] human reality with its tensions and contradictions” (Rubenstein 9). The importance of their stories is like that of similar stories today: to approximate as best they can an answer to the dilemmas faced in a life that strives for moral order. Given this understanding of the genre of the texts, Rubenstein employs three critical methods in reading Talmud: literary analysis, source-criticism, and redaction-criticism. Redaction-criticism conceives of the story as a redacted piece of work, taking into consideration the implications that conception carries. Source-criticism looks at how the redacting rabbis used the sources available to them to craft a different, larger story (Rubenstein 25). Finally, literary analysis takes up the literary dimensions of the stories, such as motifs, repetition, and word choice. Here Rubenstein draws from the work of Robert Alter, whose literary analysis of the Bible takes pains to discover the “artful use of language” to create discourses and convey values (27). The fact that stories exist as “self-containing” units means they can be read and interpreted as such, without having to worry that one is not well-versed with the entire corpus before embarking on such a project. The limited scope of these stories also means that contradictions between different stories are not as problematic, as they are not necessarily referential or reconcilable to each other. Rubenstein asserts that the cultural and literary contexts of a text give insight, given that language does not have “stable or determinate” meaning, nor does it correspond to fixed, objective reality (11). He quotes Stanley Fish as explaining that a sentence “ will never be an unsituated kernel of pure semantic value”, meaning it cannot exist as anything other than a piece of its context, never isolated or divorced from it, lest the reader risk misunderstanding its import (11). Thus the redactors, working with earlier material, play an enormous role in actively creating the story, rather than merely transmitting it. For this reason, attention is to be given to understanding how the redacting rabbis’ context—as well as that of the video creators—affects the story as a whole.

Rubenstein explains that the anonymous material found in the Talmud postdates the attributed parts. He calls those responsible for it “Stammaim”, and states they are notably different from the previous material, and are ultimately the ones who insert extensive argumentation into the text before reporting conclusive arguments. The effect is that value is attributed to the means of the legal decision-making, especially debating and raising counterpoints, instead of merely accepting the end result of obtaining a halakhic determination. The work of the Stammaim to include these aspects made the Talmud into much of what it is known for: a forum for many voices, often all avidly convinced and not ready to compromise. The valuation of argumentation makes the Talmud about process. By the same token, this valuation makes Talmud eternal, as the process of learning is never-ending. Interpretation can never be exhausted, as new eyes and minds can always produce new readings. The debate that the Stammaim redacted into the Talmud encourages the age-old practice of discussing it. Finally, in addressing the issue of objectivity, Rubenstein argues that readers produce meaning in the act of reading (32), meaning that each reader brings new truth to the story alongside new biases. Like Boyarin, Rubenstein considers the value of his approach to interpretation to lie in how informative and convincing its arguments are to readers.

Barry Wimpfheimer builds further on the work of Boyarin and Rubenstein in Narrating the Law. Like the scholars before him, he understands the Talmud to be a text crafted by redactors, namely the authors of the anonymous layer. Because this text is more “artful” than simple transcription of how exchanges took place, he considers literary analysis fundamental in critically reading it. Similarly, he explains that the result of such a reading brings out the points of “extreme cultural anxiety” of the society of the rabbis who are responsible for the redaction of the Talmud (6).

Wimpfheimer proposes that law be understood as another kind of discourse, and its writing a discursive activity like any other. As such, halakhah can be understood to create meaning within the context of the society from which it originated (Wimpfheimer 3). This necessitates a shift the idea of halakhah as decreed strictures to include cultural meaning; the crux of the concept is not the how or even whether halakhah was enforced, but the cultural meanings it represented in the time of its writing. By underscoring the choices halakhic decisors make in the Talmud, readers recognize the living, dynamic realities of such legal activity, and thus new opportunities arise to connect ancient law to contemporary times (Wimpfheimer 3-4). Wimpfheimer proposes to read halakhah and aggada together, using the same literary techniques formerly employed only for narrative parts of the text. He states it is especially important to bring attention to previously marginalized voices present in these texts, voices whose import has been diminished in interpretation (4-5). These efforts, he says, are strategies to be used in fulfilling the difficult task of discovering the spirit of the meaning intended by the texts, a task that ultimately is largely influenced by the reader who participates in creating this meaning every time the text is interpreted. 

Animating the Talmud

G-dcast is a non-profit organization that creates short videos that bring to life stories from text from the Jewish canon (“About Us”). A handful of these videos are based on stories from the Babylonian Talmud. Turning ancient texts into animated videos is not unlike the redaction of any piece of literature: the choices made by the authors are important markers of the piece itself, embedding the piece in the time and discourses of the authors who created it. In this way, the videos’s creators are much like the Stammaim who reworked the texts of earlier times into the finished product of the Talmud in the seventh century. Employing the frameworks detailed by Boyarin, Rubenstein, and Wimpfheimer, these stories will be read as units unto themselves, not needing to refer to other parts of the Talmud to understand them. They will be taken as literary pieces, meant to impart messages, and not exact, historical detail.

In “Talmud Tales: The Rise of Yavneh”, writer Becca Grumet and animator Sam Grinberg recount the story of the destruction of Jerusalem from the Gittin tractate. The setting of the conflict is modernized in the video: the fateful banquet is depicted as a party in the middle of the desert, thumping electronic music blasting loud enough for the camels to hear. According to the original text, the story begins with the blame for the destruction of Jerusalem placed squarely on Qamza and Bar Qamza (Rubenstein 140). The video does not make this explicit statement, and through this omission leaves the blame to rest collectively on the series of events that transpire. When Bar Qamza arrives to the festivities and is confronted by the host, the video depicts the rabbis playing cards at a table at the party, obviously feigning ignorance of the host’s rude treatment of Bar Qamza. Bar Qamza even invokes their authority, pointing towards them and telling the host “The rabbis didn’t say I had to leave.” This rendition makes the knowledge and complacence of the rabbis unequivocal as they whistle and pretend not to hear, whereas their guilt is more ambiguous in the text, stated by the humiliated Bar Qamza that “the rabbis were sitting and did not intervene” (Rubenstein 141). The video makes Bar Qamza’s revenge follow more logically, so there is little surprise when he asks himself, “Can you believe the rabbis let this happen?” and then schemes to teach them a lesson. In having Bar Qamza ask that the rabbis intervene, the video reinforces the rabbi’s authority, either morally or otherwise, to rectify the wrongs committed at any event of the lay population. If the rabbis worried about their influence in society, they would have been pleased by this modern portrayal that readily assumes it. 

The video makes several key omissions in its rendition of the story. Perhaps most striking is the absence of R. Yohanan’s statement that the meekness of Zecharia b. Avqulos is to blame for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Israel from Jerusalem. In the both the text and the video, Zecharia objects to the actions the rabbis propose in order to keep the peace between them and the Roman rulers. When they suggest the calf Bar Qamza purposefully blemished be sacrificed in spite of its flaw, and later that Bar Qamza himself be killed to prevent him from reporting back negatively to the Roman authorities, Zecharia stops them on account that others would find out and say that the rabbis set dubious legal precedents. The video discredits Zecharia by having him speak to the rabbis in a dreamy voice, imploring the rabbis to “chill out!” and wondering “what’s the worst that could happen?” immediately before the scene of Jerusalem being destroyed. However, the video does not go so far as to include the scathing statement of R. Yohanan, whose opinion represents a great deal of flexibility in the observance of halakhah in the name of pragmatism. R. Yohanan’s opinion is perhaps not so extreme in light of the fact that Zecharia’s objections to murder or improper sacrifice resulted in the destruction of the Temple, but these two actions seem inordinately rash compared to Bar Qamza’s blemishing a calf. Presenting R. Yohanan’s opinion in the story may have given the impression that the authors considered it correct, and thus that a flexible and pre-emptive approach to halakhah is acceptable. This exclusion by the authors indicates uneasiness with this opinion, and betrays a strict stance on halakhic observance—one likely descriptive of their idea of what Judaism teaches today about its laws. 

Other important omissions are evident in the video. Throughout the clip, several subplots in the story are left out entirely, such as the rich men who supply the rabbis with food and fuel, the rich woman who dies, and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s prophetic conversation with Vespasian, the Roman general. These plots all invoke the Bible, applying different verses to the situations that arise in each case. In fact, all such allusions to Biblical texts are absent from the video. For instance, when the rich woman throws away her gold and silver as she lays dying during the siege, an anonymous voices reminds the reader that the Bible refers to this, saying “Thus it is written, They shall throw their silver into the streets, and their gold shall be treated as something unclean”, quoting from Ezekiel 7:19 (Rubenstein 142). Similarly, the conversation in which R. Yohanan b. Zakkai foresees that Vespasian will be king and then exhibits extraordinary abilities are all predicated on the rabbi’s special knowledge of Biblical texts. Grumet and Grinberg likely left out the Biblical references in order to avoid making the video cumbersome, but the omission was possible to begin with because they deemed this aspect of the story non-essential. To the Stammaim that redacted the Talmud, connections to the Bible created a critical link between the text they crafted and the most holy text of their tradition, thus establishing authority for the new work. In the video, the authority of the Talmud is recognized as canon; the Biblical allusions are therefore superfluous to the goal of teaching the story to the non-scholarly audience intended. In the case of Rabbi Yohanan, his supernatural abilities are left out and instead represented in the video as his ability to persuade Vespasian to save Rabbi Gamliel from the besieged city and allow him to build an “awesome school called Yavneh”. The authors’ choices to leave out the supernatural powers of Rabbi Yohanan reflect their modern audience, for whom these miraculous details would seem weak evidence of the rabbi’s power. Finally, the criticism applied to Yohanan by Rav Yosef for the former’s decision to ask Vespasian for only Gamliel and Yavneh is also excluded from the video. This exclusion, too, gives the end to the story a more traditional, American end: the hero does the best that he could to save the day, and is unanimously praised for his valour. Instead, in the Talmud a scholar points out that Rabbi Yohanan should have attempted to save more than he did—a damning opinion that makes him a more ambiguous figure than these authors would like. In order to preserve his triumph, they omit the criticism and emphasize the creation of Yavneh and leave out the possibility that the hero Yohanan acted inadequately. 

In “Lonely at the Top”, Judith Prays and Samuel Hayes present a version of the story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish from Bava Metsia of the Babylonian Talmud. As in the previous video, the creators tell the story in such a way that is more accessible to a contemporary, mainstream audience. In “The Rise of Yavneh”, the authors bridged the gap between the audience and the ancient story through mixing styles of both worlds. The party/banquet was held in a structure whose architecture is ancient, while the music played is modern. The people in attendance are dressed in a mix of clothes, some in traditional-looking kaftans while others in contemporary shirts and pants. The iconic red Solo Cup, evocative of young adults partying with alcohol, and a subtle nod to college culture, is part of the scenery. Interestingly, there are no women present at the party, which may be more a reflection of current religious segregation of the sexes than an accurate portrayal of ancient practice. In “Lonely at the Top”, the authors similarly make use of youth culture in their depictions. The story is narrated by Prays in the form of a rap song while Hayes beatboxes. The story makes ample use of informal language, colloquialisms, and references to rap culture. Resh Lakish is described as a “thug phenomenon” and his intense relationship with Rabbi Yohanan is called a “bromance”. When discussing the subject of weapons, Yohanan quips, “You would know this stuff”, and Resh Lakish’s tombstone poignantly reads “Goodbye Homie” in a later scene. Using this language and style of music makes it a product for consumption of an audience that is radically different than the Talmud itself; the reader/listener of the story need not have access to ancient texts, be versed in Aramaic or Hebrew, or even know anything about Judaism. Unlike the previous video that did not include any women in its retelling, “Lonely at the Top” is narrated exclusively by a female voice. The story is told from the perspective of Rabbi Yohanan’s beautiful sister whom he makes Resh Lakish’s wife, and so is privy to the relationship between them. According to the translation by Naftali Cohn in the “Story Cycle of Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon”, Rabbi Yohanan promises his sister to Resh Lakish if he took up a life of Torah study with him, and Resh Lakish accepts. Rabbi Yohanan’s sister reappears to plead on behalf of her sons and her widowhood when both protagonists are severely ill, and this is the only time the sister, who remains unnamed, speaks (3). Instead, in having the sister recount the story for her orphaned son, the video takes the approach taken by some Jewish feminist scholars of imagining and re-inscribing the voices of women in the texts that seldom present them. While the video makes the story intelligible to a wider audience, it also targets a specific one that would appreciate its playful style, egalitarian worldview, and cultural cues.

As with “The Rise of Yavneh”, the video of the two scholars makes many telling omissions from its recounting. First is the elimination of the opening sections of the story, in which Rabbi Yohanan is introduced. In it, he claims himself to be “from among the beautiful of Jerusalem” (Cohn 2)—ostensibly a ludicrously high praise to bestow on himself. But this was not an isolated case. Rabbi Yohanan makes a habit of sitting at the gates of the place women used for ritual bathing, so that they should see him and bear children that resemble him. To the rabbis who asked if he was not afraid of the evil eye for his imprudence, he retorted that his provenance from Joseph ensured his immunity from the evil eye (Cohn 3). Despite the fact that Rabbi Yohanan is a brilliant scholar, the video removes this show of excessive pride in his own beauty, as such information discredits him as a positive figure in the story. This echoes the first video’s attempts at aligning the characters with normative ideas about protagonists, which in contemporary American culture feature noble figures who behave valiantly in the face of adversity. In a similar vein, the fight between the scholars is similarly dealt with in such a way that favours Rabbi Yohanan. According to the text, Rabbi Yohanan hurts his study partner by telling him “A bandit knows his banditry”, a reference to his days as a ruffian. When Resh Lakish retorts, stating he is as skilled in Torah as he was in his previous endeavours, Yohanan responds that he is better for coming to Torah, shaming him immensely. Rabbi Yohanan made the vicious comment in response to a disagreement on an argument of ritual purity, a low blow during an ordinary argument between scholars. That Yohanan only worsened it instead of attempting to retract it reveals his poor judgement. However, the video avoids this understanding, stating that “Yohanan saw Resh just wanting to be master / it wasn’t about Torah and it wasn’t about God / and Yohanan got ill, he couldn’t go on”. Following this interpretation, it seems that Resh’s pride is what provokes the fatal fight between them, rather than his good friend’s disparaging comments.

Similar to the previous story, the authors of “Lonely at the Top” exclude all Biblical verses from the story, as well as nearly all specific details from their rendition. The particulars are sacrificed for the sake of the style of the narration, with its demanding need to rhyme. Instead, the authors chose to represent the basic plot of the story and illustrate it emotively rather than accurately. In contrast to the “The Rise of Yavneh”, the story of Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan cannot omit the supernatural illness and death of Resh Lakish following their falling out. In recounting it, however, Prays and Hayes have the narrator say “it’s crazy but it’s true”, acknowledging the leap of faith it would take to believe this aspect of the story for a contemporary audience. Through these details, the efforts of the authors to adjust the text to the sensibilities of a modern audience reveal their own cultural and literary contexts.

Conclusion

Any piece of reinterpretation, be it an animated video or a canonical text of legal decisions and ancient narrative, is subject to a complex process of reading, comprehension, and presentation. The product of this process can be studied to reveal the cultural cues of its redactor, whether intentional or not. In the case of the Talmud, literary and source criticism has shown that the Stammaim formulated previous Tannaitic and Amoraic sources into a complex, discursive compendium of texts. On a far smaller scale, the animation of several of the stories contained in the Talmud is analogous to that process, with the creators wielding heavy editorial power over their product, inevitably stamping it with the cultural biases of their time.

The purpose of the Studio G-dcast videos is to transform the Aramaic texts into a more accessible format and to make it interesting to a young audience. Given this purpose, many of the changes are clearly conscious. The short video format imposes an economy of detail on the stories where only certain things can be retained, and sweeping decisions must be made of what is absolutely essential and what is not. However, when omissions shift the story, emphasizing different aspects of the characters or of its message, these changes likely betray a bias in the way the new redactor has made meaning out of the story. The cartoons analyzed in this paper revealed a tendency of their creators to align the stories with the normative plot of a hero who faces challenges, told in a way that makes sense to the modern, rational, Western reader. In contrast, the original Talmudic texts present stories that are much more subtle, complex, and less based on strict hero and anti-hero categories. In them, many voices compete against each other, each providing different perspectives that are not necessarily discredited when they are not accepted as authoritative. The result is a deeply postmodern vision of partial truths, all allowed space in the canon. Given Wimpfheimer’s claim that the messiness of the Talmud imitates the “messiness of life itself” (2), the “untidiness” of its narratives do more justice to real life than the modernist vision of them set forth by their animations. The Talmud’s complexity refuses to be reduced to a simple, uniform answer to any problem. The result is a rapturous place, both transcendental and mundane, where individuals throughout the ages can approach to read and understand it, and from which a myriad of diverse interpretations can be formed, all partial, all new, all situated in the context of the reader as much as the context of its original redactor.

 

Bibliography

Boyarin, D. (1993). Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohn, N. S. (2013). The Story Cycle of Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon. RELI 498M Coursepack. Montreal: Concordia University.

G-dcast. (2013). About us. Retrieved from http://www.g-dcast.com/about-us

Grumet, B., & Grinberg, S. (2012, August). Talmud Tales: The Rise of Yavneh [Video file]. G-dcast. Retrieved from http://www.g-dcast.com/yavneh

Prays, J., & Hayes, S. (2012, August). Lonely at the Top: A Bromance [Video file]. G-dcast. Retrieved from http://www.g-dcast.com/bromance%20

Rubenstein, J. L. (1999). Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Wimpfheimer, B. S. (2011). Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from Project MUSE database.

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