Barry Scott Wimpfheimer deeply understands the value of both the traditional Talmud study he experienced in his youth and the academic study of rabbinic literature that came later. His new book, “The Talmud: A Biography” (2018), brings those two worlds together.
He will discuss the book in a talk at The Jewish Center in Princeton on Tuesday evening, March 26.
The associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. His family, he said, “is very proudly German-Jewish” and religiously “falls between Modern and ultra-Orthodox.” They “wore hats on Shabbat, but they were gray, not black,” and as a youth, he memorized lots of Mishna.
After graduating high school from The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA), Wimpfheimer spent two years in an Israeli yeshiva where, he said, he became “intellectually interested in and fascinated by Talmud.”
After graduating Columbia University in 1995, with a double major in mathematics and history, he enrolled in Yeshiva University, where he received ordination in 2000 and earned a master’s degree in Talmudic studies. Back at Columbia, Wimpfheimer studied under David Weiss Halivni (a Holocaust survivor who has been working on his life’s project of producing a critical commentary on the Talmud) and earned a doctorate in religion in 2005. His doctoral thesis, which explores Talmudic stories that appear in a legal context, eventually became his first book, “Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories” (2011).
Wimpfheimer, who lives in Chicago, spoke to NJJN by phone.
NJJN: What happened during your two years in Israel that changed your understanding of Talmud?
Wimpfheimer: I like to say I was trained in Talmud before then: I was able to translate and understand what I read, but I didn’t find it intellectually satisfying. [In yeshiva study I discovered] the kind of deeper conversation that happens in Talmud. Talmud, like any intellectual discourse, has real depth to it, and if you study in a yeshiva you spend hours and hours on a few lines of text, trying to sort through the conceptual realities caught in the text. In many ways it made it more deeply meaningful. I wanted to write a book to give readers who don’t have access to that a taste of what it is like.
NJJN: Why did you study mathematics at Columbia?
Wimpfheimer: I’ve always loved math and find math to be intellectually satisfying in ways similar to Talmud. The process of trying to come up with a theoretical proof in math is very similar to the kinds of depths I found in figuring out or resolving some contradictions in Talmud.
NJJN: How did you benefit from your gap year after receiving your bachelor’s degree?
Wimpfheimer: My experience in Israel in my gap year was very transformative: It sent me on the path of this intense relationship with Talmud that I’ve had ever since. But I wasn’t sure what to do with my intellectual passion for Talmud, and the natural thing seemed to be to go to rabbinical school. It was only after being in rabbinical school and getting some internships as a rabbi that I came to realize that my passion was more intellectual than pastoral.
NJJN: What led to your writing “The Talmud: A Biography”?
Wimpfheimer: I saw an announcement in a conference journal of a
[Princeton University Press] series, the “Lives of Great Religious Books,” and I said to myself, I would like to write the one on Talmud.
For a while I had felt that one of the gaps between traditional readers and academic readers was the way they read Talmud. Traditional readers don’t pay attention to the difference between the Talmud and its 1,000-year commentarial history. Academics try to read the Talmud in light of its late ancient context, as a late ancient text; to do that, they largely sever Talmud from its commentary — commentaries are distracting from getting to the original meaning of the text. [Academics should recognize that the history of Talmudic commentary] is very important for understanding not only what the Talmud means but what it has meant to Jews and Judaism for 1,000 years.
NJJN: Who are the audiences for your book?
Wimpfheimer: I do think academics have been appreciating some of the things I’ve done in the book to shift attention away from the Talmud’s ancient context into its reception history. [Another audience is] people who have never opened the Talmud before or never even heard of the Talmud. [Others are] people who have studied Talmud or have something of a traditional education, but are often short of some of the background … in where it is from historically, what is going on in terms of a literature, and how it has been interpreted over time. A lot of traditional readers will now have a scaffolding, and some of the things they studied immersively will start to make sense in a new way.
If you go
Who: Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
What: Book talk: “The Talmud: A Biography”
Where: The Jewish Center, Princeton
When: Tuesday, March 26, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $10, free for members
Contact: 609-921-0100, ext. 200, or firstname.lastname@example.org