Making Talmud Make Sense
By Norman Solomon, University of Oxford
20th June 2010
4th Annual Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture, delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon at the New London Synagogue in 2010. Rabbi Solomon starts his lecture by sharing some personal memories about Louis Jacobs and the Affair, before delving into the nature of the Talmud.
He explains that the Talmud was, in many ways, an attempt to navigate Jewish life in a society which was predominantly non-Jewish. The Mishnah was compiled in Palestine under Roman rule; the Babylonian Talmud was formed under Sassonian rule in Babylonia; both works also betray Hellenistic influences. This contrasts with the traditionalists’ understanding of the Talmud as a self-contained work, which inculcates values and lessons far removed from those preached by the non-Jewish world in the late Antiquity.
Who wrote the Talmud? The 10th century Sage Sherira Gaon was the first person to respond to this question, thereby introducing the traditional historiography, according to which the Mishnah and Talmud were Oral traditions, laid out successively by Tana’im, Amora’im, and Savora’im. This conception of the formation of the Talmud was challenged only in 1968 by David Weiss-Halivni, who proclaimed the existence of Stama’im, the anonymous writers who quote the discussions of former sages.
Rabbi Solomon also noted the fact that numerous cultures (Zoroastrians, Franks, and so on) were, in the late Antiquity, committing their own traditions and laws to writing, which might explain why the Jews also compiled the Talmud during that period.
These were a few of the many questions raised by Rabbi Solomon during this session.