Book Reviews

The Talmud, Re-Imagined

In the past week, I have been blown away by the amazing brainpower of two remarkable women scholars.

I first encountered Dr. Ruth Calderon when she made her inaugural speech as a member of the Israeli Parliament in February 2013 in which she championed the ownership of traditional Jewish texts as the heritage of all Jews. Calderon displayed extraordinary knowledge as she wove Talmudic teachings and anecdotes through her lesson, showcasing her expertise and passion for the subject. Her quest to make these texts accessible to the entire Jewish community is also apparent in her work as founder of the Elul Beit Midrash (elul.org.il) and ALMA (alma.org.il).

Calderon’s innovative approach to studying and teaching Talmud reaches new heights in her recent book A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales. The book takes the reader through seventeen Talmudic stories, as they appear in the original ancient text, with Calderon’s embellished retelling of the narrative, and her notes as to what she believes the message(s) of the stories may be and why she chose her particular interpretation. With this three-pronged approach, Calderon illustrates the possibility and process of making a personal connection with these sacred texts. The spare language of the Talmudic text, generally only a few lines long, is a stark contrast to the pages in which Calderon brings the action and characters to life, drawing out new details and questions. Her explanations are thoughtful, clear, and demonstrate the validity of multiple theoretical frameworks. Although Calderon didn’t pioneer the idea of using creative writing as a method for studying Talmud (Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf may be the most well-known precedent), her focus on short pieces of text makes it particularly accessible. Her explanations and end-notes provide a necessary foundation for understanding her work. Calderon excels at challenging her readers while simultaneously giving them the tools they need to approach the text with confidence.

Because of the sheer size and density of the Babylonian Talmud, one traditional way to approach all that material is to study one page per day, completing the whole text over the course of seven years. I have never found the discipline to do this myself, and I have a huge amount of respect for those who can stick with it. So I was super-impressed when I discovered the blog drawyomi.blogspot.com where writer and artist Jacqueline Nicholls posts her original drawings reflecting the daily text. I love this because of how closely she ties the visual sketch to the written word, and because she stares the difficult texts straight in the face. Her drawings are bold proclamations, demanding both an intellectual and emotional response. Because they are posted about each page, some will inevitable resonate more than others. But the idea that the Talmud, which is fundamentally about the written word, may be shared and taught through pictures makes my brain and my heart happy. While drawyomi is definitely intended for an adult audience and may not be for the squeamish, its raw beauty cut to the essence of reading and studying the Talmud as a spiritual practice.

If you missed Dr. Ruth Calderon’s presentation to the Knesset, it’s well worth the fifteen minute investment on YouTube. Also take a look at drawyomi.blogspot.com  and let me know what you think!

Do you know of other incredible arts-based Talmud projects? Do you have original Jewish writing and art to share? Don’t be shy, connect with us so that we can spread the word about your work!

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