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.