Salvador Dalí, Christ of St. John of the Cross, detail (Glasgow Museums, Scotland)

Far more than a mere book, the Babylonian Talmud is a vast assemblage of rabbinic learning and lore that in the Soncino Hebrew/Aramaic-English edition runs to thirty volumes. Barry Wimpfheimer’s treatment of it appears in a series called “Lives of Great Religious Books,” and the task facing the young professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University is daunting: How does one shape a “biography” of a collection so vast and unruly that it remains uncharted territory even for many Jews? This eminently readable and even enjoyable treatment testifies both to the author’s command of material and his control of exposition. In a world where obfuscation reigns, the clarity of Wimpfheimer’s prose is a welcome act of resistance.

He makes two smart compositional decisions. The first is to take seriously the conceit of a “biography,” with the Babylonian Talmud passing through three stages: the “essential” (how its many layers were accumulated up until the eighth century CE); the “enhanced” (how its texts were expanded through still further stages of exposition and debate); and the “emblematic” (how its influence waxed even when its actual study waned). This simple structure allows coverage not only of the Talmud but also of a surprising amount of the inner history of classical Judaism, for which—as text and as symbol, as something both reverenced and resisted—the Babylonian Talmud remained the central pivot point. The adjective “Babylonian” is important, for although another version of the Talmud developed in Eretz Israel and retains significant importance as historical witness, it never attained the central place in Jewish life held by the version called the Babylonian. 

Wimpfheimer’s second happy decision was to select, from a centuries-long collection of debates over God’s law, a single example of tort legislation—namely, the damages to be assigned in the case of fire damage caused to a person’s property through the action of his neighbor’s animal—and run it through all the stages of the Talmud’s growth. The specificity of this choice enables a fuller examination of the legal premises and logic involved in discussions that can be arcane even for insiders. It also enables the author to illuminate the ways haggadic material both supplements and at times subverts halakhah.

This extended examination assists a reader in appreciating the way in which apparently trivial situations give rise to the most serious questions concerning human responsibility in matters great and small. I found myself engaged from start to finish by the subtle minds of those sages. For anyone wondering what all the fuss was about for pious Jews from the days of Hillel to Potok’s streets of Brooklyn, from the raffish charm of Tevye to the sober post-Shoah witness of Primo Levi, this biography of the Talmud serves as an altogether admirable introduction. 

The Talmud: A Biography
Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
Princeton University Press, $26.95, 320 pp.

 

In the current political climate, the task of introducing the body of Islamic law called shariah in a fair-handed way is not only difficult but perilous, for the very term serves fanatics on all sides of highly charged controversies relating to Islam. Professors Esposito and DeLong-Bas (Georgetown and Boston College, respectively) possess both the requisite knowledge and dispositions to write such an introduction. Their effort appears in an Oxford University Press series called “What Everyone Needs to Know,” and is organized in Q&A format. This arrangement creates a “just the facts” style that tiptoes between enthusiastic endorsement and cautious defensiveness; it also creates more than a little repetitiveness. Thus, the very first chapter, “Shariah and Islamic Law: Myths and Realities,” lays out points that reappear—at greater depth, to be sure—in the next ten chapters. The less one knows about the subject, the more valuable such repetition can be; those already familiar with Islam may find themselves reaching in mid-chapter for an Ian Rankin mystery.

The authors do a fine job of showing the sources and functions of Islamic law through the ages, as well as its status in global Islam today. Especially helpful is their emphasis on the distinction between shariah as a body of texts (beginning with the Qur’an and the verified hadith of the Prophet), and the actual application of Islamic law—first by the classical schools of interpretation, then by teachers today. Readers are helped to see that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide do not share the hegemonic impulses of a handful of Islamic states, and the authors stress that by far the greater part of Muslims in America, much like Catholics of a century ago, are eager to live out shariah in a manner compatible with the American tradition of religious freedom.

Even readers with some knowledge of Islam can find deeper understanding in chapters dealing with such specific issues as “Women, Gender, and the Family,” “Freedom and Human Rights,” “Islamic Finance in a Global World,” and “Science, Bioethics, and Human Life.” The answers to questions posed in these sections reveal both how the interpretation of shariah among Muslims, like the interpretation of the Talmud among Orthodox Jews, remains a living and flexible guide to life, and how dramatically such interpretation can vary among distinct Islamic communities throughout the world.   

Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know
John L. Esposito and Natana J. DeLong-Bas
Oxford University Press, $16.95, 352 pp.

 

“Latino” is an expansive, indeed elastic, category for the various artists and writers included in this set of critical studies by Michael Candelaria, lecturer in the Religious Studies Program and Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico. Candelaria wants to fill a gap concerning Christ in history left by classic treatments such as that by Jaroslav Pelikan. He is not interested in the conventional or typical; the reader should not look for folk art or piety. Instead, he has gathered figures he considers “outliers”—including a number defined much more by European than Latin American intellectual contexts—in an attempt to describe and critique the Christ depicted by their painting or sculpture, or in their fiction, philosophy, or theology.

Protestant proselytism enjoyed the benefits of neither imperial will nor Jesuitical sweat. It tended to be sporadic, freelance, and undersupported.

Candelaria devotes a chapter each to Salvador Dalí, Fray Angélico Chávez, José Clemente Orozco, Miguel de Unamuno, Jorge Luis Borges, and Richard Rojas. Subsequent chapters take up contemporary tendencies in “Liberation Theology” and “The Mestizo Christ” (which includes a bit on the Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa). A coda emphasizes the diversity of the images of Christ. The diversity is obvious when the hyper-sophistication of Dalí’s The Madonna of Port Lligat and Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) is set side by side with the raw muscularity of Orozco’s The Trinity of the Revolution, or when the passionately personal witness of de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life is compared with the playfully polysemic Three Versions of Judas. But it isn’t fully clear how such figures all fall within the category “Latino.”

While biographical and professional exposition dominate the treatment of each figure, Candelaria does not spare criticism. Mainly, he seems bothered when his outliers’ appropriation of Scripture does not match the historical certitudes offered by NT100 (see the gratuitous criticism of Fray Angélico Chávez), and even more distressed by what he considers a strain of “Gnosticism” afflicting many of these figures, a fault he seems to equate with traditional Chalcedonian piety (see his treatment of de Unamuno). It is surprising that Candelaria did not treat perhaps the most famous of Dalí’s treatments of Christ, The Sacrament of the Last Supper.

Candelaria’s prose—the standard for the academy these days—is a chore to read. Consider this typical sentence: “With an ancient Greek theme, Orozco expresses a universal ideal, transcending the provincialism of nationalistic art and the particularism of Mexican Catholic religious art, in contrast to the particularity of the revolutionary panels.” Where is an editor when we need one?

The Latino Christ in Art, Literature, and Liberation Theology
Michael R. Candelaria
University of New Mexico Press, $65, 248 pp.

 

In case we thought that North American problems with slavery were homegrown, Katharine Gerbner (a professor of history at the University of Minnesota) shows in great detail how the same problems existed in the colonized islands of the Atlantic as far back as the early seventeenth century—and indeed were imported directly from these islands to Maryland, South Carolina, and other Southern colonies. Gerbner’s analysis deals specifically with the deep ambiguities surrounding the baptism of African slaves. On the one hand, such a missionary effort would seem to be a Christian imperative; on the other, slaves holding Christian status could threaten the planters’ social order. Should not the “freedom of a Christian”—a Protestant ideal if ever there was one—be translated into social and political freedom as well?

Although her main focus is the island colony of Barbados, Gerbner devotes considerable attention to the Danish West Indies; and she gives as much or more attention to the efforts of George Fox and the Quakers, as well as Count von Zinzendorf and the Moravians, as she does to the Anglicans. The term “protestant” in the title is carefully chosen. Gerbner shows that Catholics cheerfully and methodically baptized slaves by the score, abetted by imperial edicts (especially of Portugal and Spain) and the coordinated efforts of religious orders like the Jesuits and Dominicans. No double-mindedness afflicted Catholic conversion activity among slaves, because unlike Protestants, Catholics generally didn’t elevate “freedom” as a distinctive mark of being Christian. 

Protestant proselytism enjoyed the benefits of neither imperial will nor Jesuitical sweat. It tended to be sporadic, freelance, and undersupported. A perfect example is the Oxford-educated Christopher Codrington, whose fervent efforts to Christianize slaves in Barbados remained frustrated, and whose bequest to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel—a bequest he intended for the conversion and education of African slaves—had the paradoxical effect of making the SPG a slaveholding organization. All these good-willed people were caught up in the incompatibility of enforced slavery and the Christian life; none of them could overcome the ideology of a planter establishment so powerful and pervasive that it even made profitability the measure of the keeping of the Sabbath.

Gerbner also carefully examines how slave conversions tended to shift the official Barbadian documents from the language of “Protestant Supremacy,” which distinguished slave and master on the basis of religion, to the language of “White Supremacy,” which distinguished them on the basis of race. This “need to distinguish” in favor of one over another is part of the toxic brew (mixed in part by Christians themselves) from which many still drink today. The book closes by treating George Whitefield’s 1740 “Letter to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina,” which defended the conversion of slaves, as a transition point to a “formal defense of slavery in the Atlantic world” via its argument that becoming Christian made for better (i.e., more obedient) slaves.

“[T]he most self-sacrificing, faithful, and zealous missionaries in the Atlantic world,” Gerbner sums up, “formulated and theorized a powerful and lasting religious ideology for a brutal system of plantation labor.” Her judgment is harsh. But it is a judgment based on impeccable research. Christian Slavery is the sort of well-grounded microhistory that, in the end, proves more valuable than wide-ranging surveys and broad declarations.

Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World
Katharine Gerbner
​University of Pennsylvania Press, $24.95, 296 pp.

Published in the June 2020 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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