The Talmud: Part 1

 •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 11
If the writer of a recent article in the “Quarterly” meant to catch men by a sudden surprise, his friends have reason to congratulate him. High-churchmen have paid homage; low-churchmen, and no-churchmen, down to the most cynical of skeptics, have lavished no ordinary praise. Protests have not been wanting; and these have about them this character damaging to the Review, that they come from persons who know somewhat more of the portentous sea of Jewish tradition than those who have been equally precipitate and lavish with their eulogy. No doubt the mind of man is readily excited by a plausible apology, where evil is skillfully hidden, and what panders to the spirit of man in general, and particularly of the present age, is set forth with no small cleverness. Into this trap people fall the more readily where ignorance has strangely imagined that a vast body of writings, the storehouse of ages on all subjects from the veriest common-place to the most momentous and awful, by men, some of them of mind and feeling, could be without glowing thoughts and bright coruscations of fancy and counsels not wanting in wisdom and prudence. It was also forgotten that these active spirits were seeking to refine on and supplement such materials as no men or ages could have who knew not the scriptures of truth. What then accounts for an acceptance so ready and general among partisans who are usually arrayed in deadly strife?
Doubtless, a variety of causes may operate. First there is the great amount of interest which the writer, by dint of a lively style and allusions to poetry, history, biography, antiquities, jurisprudence, and philology, contrives to cast over a theme insufferably dull in dull hands, but which he knows well enough how to set forth in the best colors and to adorn with worldly taste and judgment from without. Next, there is the national characteristic, this country's love of fair play, especially for that which has been popularly thought good for nothing, which too often disposes the crowd to applaud an able defense of what is really indefensible. Thirdly, the seeming indifferentism1 but real unbelief of the day disposes a vast number of men, who discuss religion as a science without any renewal of heart or conscience toward God, to hail anything which tends to weaken the uncompromising authority of revealed truth. Witness the avidity with which a pretended pre-Adamite man is caught at, or transmutation of species, or a blank in an old sacred codex, or a faulty reading (provided it differs from what is the received text). But lastly, there is another and if possible graver consideration for those who believe the inspired prophecies. Scripture is plain and positive that the end of this age will see, first, the apostasy, and, then, the manifestation of the man of sin. Christendom will be betrayed far and wide, and the main active agents of this spiritual but infidel declension will be Jewish. Whatever, then, tends, like this article, to bridge over the yawning cavern which severs Christianity (and even yet Christendom) from Judaism, whatever lowers the unutterable value of the New Testament by an illusive exaltation of Rabbinism, prepares the direct way for the lawlessness and lawless one of the latter day—for the amalgam of west and east, of Christendom and Judaism in a universal brotherhood, bound together by the lie to which God will retributively consign those who refused the love of the truth that they might be saved.
It is hardly worth while pointing out the exaggeration of the writer. He puts antithetically against each other the frequent allusions to the Talmud in discussions doctrinal, philological, archaeological, classical, scientific, legal, &c., and contrasts this universal talk with the universal neglect of the Talmud. But is this fair or fact? There may be, for all that, a sufficient and sure knowledge of the character of the Talmud from those who judge of it chiefly—through Selden or Buxtorf, through Lightfoot or McCaul, through Gratz or Jost, through Frankel or Gfrörer. Prideaux is popular enough, Stehelin and Steinschneider not unknown; and periodicals too have diffused their information. Have all these sympathy with controversialists such as Wagenseil or Eisenmonger? There are perhaps a thousand Greek scholars for one competently versed in Rabbinical literature; yet among the mass of educated men who are tolerably familiar with the Aristotelian syllogistic system, how few have even read the Organon! What would be thought of parading some parish priest who mistook this famous logical collection for an instrument of music? Page 419 breathes more of a scribe's contempt for the unlearned than of good sense, to say no more.
The fact really is that, though students in general may be ignorant of a thousand details as to the printed editions and MSS. of the Talmud (as they are of most works, save a few more about the scriptures), they have had a far truer conception, in our opinion, of the Talmud than this new article, with all its charms, is calculated to impart. And if we know less of the Talmud than of the Koran, whose fault is this? How comes it to pass that the Jews have done so little to furnish a critical edition of their boasted oracle? It cannot be for want of means or literary ability, nor, if the reviewer is to be trusted, for lack of value to almost every province, moral and intellectual, of art, science, literature, laws, and religion. Why has no Rab, Rabbi, or Rabban done for this incomparable treasury what the Reviewer allows has been constantly done for the merest trash in Greek or Latin, Sanscrit or Persian? Why was a critical essay two years ago left off? Why have the two distinct versions of the Talmud brought forth no more than a first volume? To shun the light may have influenced. Lack of sufficient encouragement does not often, in this world, hinder the publication of things good, bad, or indifferent. Even had the Jews been altogether unaided, would it not be strange and humiliating indeed, if this were their true and sole reason why recension and translation have hitherto proved abortive? It is a long while since the blame could be laid at the door of the censor (pp. 420-4); and as to papal denunciation (p. 422), the Talmud only shared with its neighbors. What did popes spare of good or bad unless it served themselves?
It is a curious coincidence, but no more, that the first edition of the Talmud appeared in Venice in 1520 A.D., the same year when Luther burnt the pope's bull at Wittenberg.
Has the Reviewer, then, answered his own question, “What is the Talmud?” Wherefore all this marshalling, if not multiplying, of difficulties (pp. 424-430)? Why this mystification of the reader? The desire is evident to fill the imagination with airy notions of its vast depths and wondrous treasures, its ethics, ceremonies, doctrines, physics, metaphysics, medicine, &c. Then he would have us believe that it is fair to compare it with such a work as the Justinian Code! Is this, then, a fair answer to the question which he tells us, “no one has yet satisfactorily answered?2 Is this the excuse for its prurient indecency? “But the Talmud is more than a Book of Laws. It is a microcosm, embracing, as does the Bible, heaven and earth. It is as if all the prose and the poetry, the science, the faith and speculations of the Old World were, though only in faint reflections, bound up in nuce.” Is this an answer to “What is the Talmud?” An advocate, however zealous, ought to be more careful.
We are next told (p. 426) that the origin of the Talmud is coeval with the return from the Babylonish captivity. The Rabbinical theory is, that the oral law was coeval with the written law, and that both, however differently transmitted, date from Moses at Sinai. And so it is allowed in pp, 430, 431. There seems no reason to doubt that from their return the traditional system grew up. But it is not true that the little company of returned captives were “transformed into a band of Puritans.” The notion of “a fierce and passionate love” thenceforth for the scriptures (if “the scanty records of their faith and history” mean them) is a romance, The prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi disclose with unerring distinctness a wholly different state. Our Lord explains it parabolically but with transparent clearness. “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest and finding none.” The unclean spirit of abominations did then disappear; and so they have continued ever since. But as surely as the Jews still continue a Christ-rejecting generation, that spirit of idolatry will overspread and prevail once more, little as they expect such a catastrophe. “Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept and garnished.” Such was its condition after the captivity, such when Jesus was rejected, and such it is still. And therein lies their danger. There is no power of God that has filled the house. There is essentially a negative theology, than which nothing more exposes to Satan. So will it be with Israel. “Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.” (Matt. 12:43-4543When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. 44Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. 45Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation. (Matthew 12:43‑45).)
At any rate, the post-captivity state of the Jews might be more truly called poverty-stricken than Puritan; and it was during this dearth, when the house was “empty” and “swept” that it had the “garnishing” of tradition—the ground-work of the Mishna, which is supposed to have been copied by R. Jehuda about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. This in its turn gave rise to its “complement,” or comment, the Gemara, of which two remain: that formed by the school of Tiberias, called the Jerusalem Talmud (one vol. folio), as the larger compilation founded by the school of Babylon is published as the Babylonian Talmud (12 vols. folio). It is hard to see why so great a mountain should be constructed out of matters so commonly known by all who take interest in the sons of Israel and their history. Dr. Edersheim has given a popular yet sufficiently exact compendium of all that most persons will care to know of the subject in his “History of the Jewish nation since the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus” (Edinburgh: Constable; London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1856). The reader will find information both abundant and trustworthy in his pleasantly written book (already recommended in these pages) which sacrifices neither the glory of Christ, nor the truth of the Bible, but blends them with real love to the Jews.
The traditional system is either ritualistic or rationalistic, and often both together: so it was among the Jews; and so it is more than ever showing itself in Christendom at this very hour. Hence the moral significance of this paper, and the ominous import of its fitting into the taste and feeling of opposite factions just now.
(To be continued.)