Book Review: A Taste Of Text

A Taste Of Text:  An Introduction To The Talmud And Midrash, by Ronald H. Isaacs

I must freely admit in reviewing this book that I am not the book’s ideal audience, not by a long shot.  For one, this book is written as a workbook to help instructors at a synagogue to help train up students in introductory Talmudic studies.  In addition to this, my own feelings about the Talmud are at best mixed, and in many cases somewhat adverse [1].  Basically, I consider the Talmud to be a collection of human wisdom that sometimes is close to the biblical standard but often far short of it.  It is complex, lawyerly, and sometimes interesting, but it is not authoritative.  In that light, therefore, I read this book as somewhat of an outsider in many ways, although even from my perspective there is a great deal of praise to be given to the book for its straightforward approach to its material and for its thoughtful desire for the reader to wrestle with questions about the text provided.  And wrestling with questions is a useful skill to gain regardless of whether one strongly prefers midrashic to mishnaic texts or whether one is looking at the biblical texts themselves.

This particular book is about 100 pages long and contains chapters on a variety of selections from the Talmud, and fewer selections from the Midrash, it must be admitted.  The author gives chapters about Jewish healing and the duty to visit the sick (1), friendship (2), hospitality (3), parent-child relationships (4), repentance (5), saving a life (6), kindness to animals (7), honesty and truth (8), life after death (9), care of the body (10), marriage (11), stealing and returning property (12), ecology (13), old age (14), honoring the dead (15), and speech and language (16).  The selection from the Talmud or midrash is included in a diglot fashion to aid in Hebrew literacy for the reader, the author offers background for the tale as well as commentary upon the subject matter of the story, there are quotations from Jewish sources about the topic of the chapter, and then the author asks questions about the topic for the reader to answer.  Presumably this book is meant to be read in a classroom setting and is designed to be read by several people at a time, because some of the questions and matters clearly are meant to introduce the reader to the give and take that is so common in Jewish discussion.

I enjoyed this book, and felt the desire to respond to some of it.  For example, one of the tales of the book looks down on Job for his generosity, comparing his own generosity to the poor negatively with that of Abraham’s generosity.  I felt that this story was an act of slander, and wondered what sort of conclusions the Talmudic and midrashic writers were prone to leap to.  At times, the stories are quirky in a thoughtful way, such as the person whose cruelty to animals led to a curse of ill health was reversed by an act of kindness towards some weasels.  Throughout many of the stories, though, one sees the sort of attitude of Job’s friends or those who thought that the misfortune of people was their own fault, due to their own moral failures.  This attitude is something that the author does not often bring up in questions, but certainly colors one’s interpretation of the stories and why they are viewed as being so important.  Nevertheless, even though there is much to criticize about the stories and about the traditions themselves, there is still much here to appreciate.  After all, each generation has to wrestle with the truths and traditions that have been handed them, to see the hardness of heart of previous generations and to realize that the truths of the past speak also to our own fashionable sins and follies.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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