Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Talmud. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Talmud, a major text of rabbinical Judaism.


    I felt more than usual trepidation about this morning’s programme.  Of course, I trepidate every time.  Who wouldn’t, when faced with some of the world’s best scholars on such a range of subjects?  But their generosity usually dissipates my anxiety, which would only get in the way if it were revealed and became part of the programme.

    But there’s something very special for me about religious programmes.  As I may have said before, I was brought up as a Christian, a very eager Christian, until I was about sixteen and began a falling away which, having completed its course, has returned as a powerful nostalgia and interest in thinking about the meaning of the impact that religion has had for so long, the scope it gave to people, as well as the well-documented (especially recently) horrors that it helped inflict, although I think it was more used than using.  But that’s another matter.  I must have heard extracts from the Old Testament three or four times a week from the age of six until I went to university, when I was in the chapel choir for a very short time (I lasted about a couple of months and that was the end of that chapter).  And there was a familiarity about the names, not only from hearing them at school and in church, but the fact was that I lived in a town of five thousand people which had twelve churches in it.  Twelve.  Each one of which I remember being busy and controlling and, in effect, running most social as well as religious aspects of the town.

    So we had people called Solomon and Sarah and Esther and Jacob and Ruth of course, and so it was rather like moving through the Torah.

    The Talmud, of which I had the merest knowledge, proved to be a revelation in many ways.  Just to take one.  In my late teens and early twenties I began to read American fiction massively.  Soon I came across that great run of Jewish writers, from Isaac Bashevis Singer, Malamud, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, right through to Philip Roth, and revelled in them.  Also, when I went to Oxford and then came to London, I met for the first time Jewish men and women and have retained strong friendships with some of them and even made new friendships in London.

    What the Talmud revealed to me was that the extraordinary argumentativeness, one-to-one, could well be rooted in the way that the Talmud is constructed; indeed in the way that yeshivas are constructed: two students together all the time, two sides of an argument, dissecting, diverging, almost ad infinitum.  The excerpts from the Talmud I read in preparation for the programme could have been in those novels.  In fact, I felt that I almost recognised sentences which could have come out of the books of those writers I admire.  My friend Howard Jacobson rang up after the programme.  He is carrying on that tradition in this country and I realised that one of my reasons for trepidation was that I didn’t want to let myself down in front of him as well as others.

    So, skimming the surface as far as they (the contributors) were concerned, but a serious toe in serious waters as far as I was concerned.

    Then back to the office and now I’m dictating this from the Paul Hamlyn Hall in the Royal Opera House, where I’ve just done some links to camera for a series to be called South Bank Show Originals.  The ones I did today were about Mama Lou Parks, Merce Cunningham, Sylvie Guillem and Michael Flatley.

    Covent Garden has totally, totally changed since first I came to London, when the great thing was to hang around, if you could keep your eyes open and money in your pockets, as long after midnight as you could and see the lorries crowd into crowded streets, manoeuvre down narrow lanes, fruit piled up, goods everywhere, Dickens stalking the land, echoes of opera and raunchy London sexual excitements at every turn.  Or so it seemed.  Memory is deliciously treacherous sometimes.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

    PS: I think I didn’t explain the trepidation well enough, partly because here in the Royal Opera House they seem to be moving every piece of furniture in sight.  The fact is that the notion of the Word of God being given to Moses and him bringing it down to the people of Israel, the continuation of that story in the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament, whichever way you want to refer to it, and the sheer roll and might of it through the centuries, the horrors, the triumphs, the literature, the learning, is formidable.  It is a mighty fact and you feel, or rather I feel, daunted in the face of it.  So I was more than ever in need of the generosity of strangers this morning.


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    • Comment number 5. Posted by speers

      on 12 Jun 2014 16:08

      Mr Thompson, you must have skipped the pages about secret smuggling.

      It wasn't one of the best programmes, the guests didn't seem up to it. I'd have liked the conversation about not having a Temple to have gone on and not stopped at the mention of a Messiah.

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    • Comment number 4. Posted by All for All

      on 8 Jun 2014 19:55

      In New York's 'YIVO', originally the Polish 'yidisher' institute, now renamed the Institute for Jewish Research, there rests an old book saved from the ashes of Nazi Europe, the property - by its stamp - of a society For the Study of Mishna.

      Now in the New World, where the spirit is sought and found and proclaimed of democracy, this old book is taken to reveal the pervasiveness of Mishna study (of law codified from the oral Torah; with subsequent learned commentaries - Palestinian then Babylonian - going to make-up successive Talmuds), in even a small Jewish Community.

      The old book's ownership was of the Society of Woodchoppers, thus in the YIVO's presumption of people whose work 'required no literacy'. However, recovery of the book was from (transliterative) Berditchev, a Ukrainian town with a history such as might suggest the 'Society of Woodchoppers' akin more probably to the learned societies founded by towns and guilds in Western Europe, or even to the Skull and Bones high amongst US 'upper echelon fraternities'.

      Berdychev, situated in Northern Ukraine to the west of Kiev, today has a population of around 80,000. It was first made a settlement in 1430 (re-founded after its destruction in 1483 by Crimean Tatars), originally under Lithuanian authority and so under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth formalised in 1569 by the Union of Lublin (from 1386 only a personal union of thrones). From the 17th to the 19th centuries Berdychev was the site of a Carmelite monastery, but in the 18th century its fame became in finance.

      The monastery was plundered in 1647 by Cossacks under Bohdan Khmelnytsky, aligned in wrath against oppressive Polish magnates and the Jewish traders who ran their estates for them. Unable to rely on Crimean Tatars holding the balance of power, Khmelnytsky's overtures to the Ottoman sultan won him - with a reluctance mutual - a protective overlordship of eastern Ukraine from his less democratic co-religionist, the anti-Catholic (Orthodox) Tsar of Russia. The Tatars then aligned with the Polish, their raids depopulating 'whole areas of Ukraine'.

      A century was to follow of great confusion and hardship from complex diplomatic struggles and war-making, eventually to see partition of Poland between Russia, Prussia and Austria, with complete incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian Empire. Berdychev in western Ukraine survived to become under first the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth then the Russian Empire, for a while a centre of great importance in trade and banking, and of a dominant Jewish culture eroded then destroyed by the long sequence of persecutions and 1919 pogrom, 1920 city bombardment by Russia, more persecutions then murder of all under Nazi Germany in 1941.

      Having in 1764 been the last refuge before exile of Kazimierz Pulaski (a Bar Confederation rebel who - with Benjamin Franklin's letter of commendation - went
      on to reform the cavalry of America and to save the life of George Washington), the town was promoted by the powerful Radziwil family, of the royal party, to gain the privilege of holding 'ten fairs a year'. Berdychev would return to poverty with - after 1850 - the transfer of banking to Odessa on the Black Sea.

      The moral and intellectual strengths, and also the weaknesses, of all of Judaism along with all of the rest of 'our' accumulated culture, are reflected: constructs not yet tested against the ethical yield of equal partnership democracy.


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    • Comment number 3. Posted by Elisheva

      on 8 Jun 2014 16:31

      I would agree with Mr. Thompson, as a Jew I was hoping that there had been something about the content of the Talmud, and Its importance in Jewish practice and how it constructs the ethics and laws of the lives of observant Jews today. How in Judaism dogma is not as important as practice and how being a Jew impacts on all your actions and choices, from how you tie your shoes to how you treat "the stranger in your midst". The various "books" of the Talmud were mentioned and it would have been of interest to point out how and why the text treats human society, as an example, why the book on agriculture includes the laws on charity.

      As was mentioned, the Talmud goes back to Moses (what modern secular scholars think is really neither here nor there in the world of the Talmud), what is important is how the laws of the Torah are interpreted in modern day, that it is important to not change the laws but to see how the laws impact on our actions in a world of today and how that is done by studying the Talmud.

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    • Comment number 2. Posted by MongMongMong

      on 31 May 2014 07:16

      I'm afraid this episode was a rare miss.

      I didn't learn anything that was actually *in* the Talmud either from the episode or this blog. Your guests often said the Mishnah is a compilation of legal opinions and debates, and they often discussed the scholarship of those debaters.

      Nobody ever said what the legal opinions are! I am not Jewish and I do not know what these ruling could be, even after listening to the programme. Is it about shellfish and pork and circumcision? I am none the wiser after listening.

      I have looked it up, seeing as I got no answers in the episode. Here are a couple at random:

      Bava Batra - this deals with property law. Did none of your guests think this - which is obviously a cornerstone of any legal framework (and the longest tractate in the Talmud) - was worth mentioning? Mentioning something like this might have informed ignorant Gentiles like me why the book has such authority in Judaism.

      'Niddah' refers to the laws about women during menstruation and her impurity. I've heard of this before, as many listeners might have. Again, why was it not worth mentioning?

      Normally each episode is very good in that there is an assumption that the listener is ignorant but interested and has some knowledge of the world. For instance, in a discussion of the Talmud, assuming the listeners knows what the Torah is is fine.

      Spending the time discussing when it was written and not discussing what's in the document or how the contents are relevant is not fine.

      So it's a miss, I'm afraid. A rare one.

      You still have a lot of goodwill after the superb Photosynthesis episode recently. Keep up the good work.

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    • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

      on 30 May 2014 21:57

      The essence of the development of the Talmud started after the Romans tore downthe Temple of the Jews in 70 AD,when groups of sages resisted the assimilation of the Jews by initiating the elaboration of the Talmud,their guide,Rabbi Judah Ha-Nassi (Judah the Prince),a revered leader of the Jewish community.Until then generations of wise men had learned orally the sayings of the wise masters,adding commentary as they went.This collective history was in danger of being lost.Rabbi Judah wanted 2 centuries of oral history to be compiled as a document.He dictated the framework, form and boundaries of this 1st sum of knowledge-named it Mishnah(repeated moral precepts for memory).This tells how to understand the Torah(the Jewish term for the Pentateuch,which contains the Mosaic Law,the revealed will of God).The Mishnahwas given 6 parts: 1)agriculture,2) Sabbaths,fasts and festivals,3) marriage and divorce,4)civil and penal laws,5) sacrifices,and 6)ritual purity,holy things.Stops 425 AD.This was the distilled knowledge of the human mind.A user’s manual of life.

      Gemara was the commentaries on the Mishnah(Hebrew) completed in Aramaic.This now makes up 90% of the Talmud.The Mishnah is the codification of the oral law;the Gemara a supplementary commentary.Following the Roman invasion,most of the Jewish scholars settled in Babylon(explaining why the Talmud evolved in 2 places).The difference in them resides in their method:the older Jerusalem Talmud is incomplete,poorly edited,thought of as deeper, effected by the take up of Christianity by the Roman Empire and the suppression of Jews.In the Babylonian Talmud,the method of questioning prevailed,expanded discourses(chosen by later Talmud scholars).The Talmud forges a dialectical attitude,develops students’ analytical skills,
      sharpens critical sense,broadens conjecture and scholarly debate.The Biblical text is perceived as metaphor,because the Hebrew language has multiple meanings,many levels ofinterpretation. The Talmud tell the story of the Jews,their survival through the diaspora, a repository of Jewish memory,away from Babylon to France and Spain and Italy.The study of the Talmud replaced the suffering of exile to a rootless people,unattached to the soil.

      The next great scholar was Rashi the French Jew. By far the best known commentary on the Babylonian Talmud is that of Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040–1105). The commentary is comprehensive, covering almost the entire Talmud. Written as a running commentary, it provides a full explanation of the words, and explains the logical structure of each Talmudic passage. It is considered indispensable to students of the Talmud.His text is printed in the margins of the Mishnah and Gemara(in the centre of each page).He clarified what had become difficult to follow after rewritings.He made a new school of Talmudic questioning universal.If Torah was the reflection of the divine light;the Talmud channelled and tamed it.Gregory IX called the Talmud,Jewish perfidy,the work of the devil,bringing the burning of Talmudic manuscripts, wiping out the French school,driving the scholars to Spain in to Jewish communities.Moses Maimonides(1135).The Mishnah Torah influenced all philosophers.” He who reads my book will know everything of the Torah and its commentaries.” He wanted to take the wisdom of the Talmud out of the confines of the synagogue and like Rashi make it available to all.He ignored the method and emphasised the conclusions of the sages instead.He imparted the universal nature of the knowledge in the Talmud by clarifying it.To him God was the world.To be a true believer you had to know logic,to think and know reality as it is.Maimonides uses contradiction to elicit the essence of truth.There are ‘true’ beliefs and ‘necessary’ beliefs.

      Driven out of Spain with the Moslems in 1492,the Jews suffered many more years of persecution,burnings of the Talmud,until they were banned by the Vatican.Their teachings banned as enemies of the Bible,anti-Christian,diabolical,with an Auto-Da-Fe in Rome in 1553. Today the Talmud is the major textbook in Rabbi schools and has spread to Jewish circles where it was not studied before,among non-Orthodox Jews and women.During the war years of the 20th century there was debate between Talmudic schools if mankind would have been best never created e.g the Holocaust.Hope is the foundation of Judaism,the idea of resurrection. Once you start burning books,that’s when you start burning people was a deep belief.The Talmud calls blind men those who see clearly.By the way Melvyn, I think you got Saul Bellow wrong,though he was a Jew,he secretly smuggled the New Testament into his home as he was a fervent believer in Jesus.

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