Printing Makes a Difference

When a gentile reads the Talmud or Talmud-related writings, he necessarily enters into Talmud-forbidden ground. If study by gentiles of the written Torah itself is forbidden by Talmudic law, then surely the once-secret Jewish oral tradition of the Torah is prohibited. But when the Talmud is made available in vernacular languages by those who are still believers in its sacred character, as has been done in this century, the traditional criticisms against gentiles who read it necessarily fade. Perhaps even more obviously to those who have struggled through as few as three consecutive pages of the Talmud, by making available a comprehensive index, its defenders in principle thereby "opened the book." Its English-translators, editors, and publisher have moved the Talmud from the world of religion exclusively to the world of open scholarship. This has clearly modified the ancient rules.

Of course, this has always been the dilemma of Talmudic Judaism. Maimonides faced it when he wrote A Guide of the Perplexed (1190). Leo Strauss is correct: the Guide is devoted to "the difficulties of the Law" or to "the secrets of the law": "Yet the Law whose secrets Maimonides intends to explain forbids that they be explained in public, or to the public; they may only be explained in private and only to such individuals as possess both theoretical and political wisdom as well as the capacity of both understanding and using allusive speech; for only 'the chapter headings' of the secret teaching may be transmitted even to those who belong to the natural elite. Since every explanation given in writing, at any rate in a book, is a public explanation, Maimonides seems to be compelled by his intention to transgress the Law."31 Maimonides was quite forthright about this need for secrecy:

31. Leo Strauss, "How to Read The Guide of the Perplexed," in Moses Maimonides, The Gwde of the Perplexed, 2 vols., trans. Shlomo Pines (University of Chicago Press, 1963), I, p. xiv. Strauss argues that Maimonides overcame this restriction by

For my purpose is that the truths be glimpsed and then again be concealed, so as not to oppose that divine purpose which one cannot possibly oppose and which has concealed from the vulgar among the people those truths especially requisite for His apprehension. As He has said: The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him [Ps. 25:14]. Know that with regard to natural matters as well, it is impossible to give a clear exposition when teaching some of their principles as they are. For you know the saying of [the Sages], may their memory be blessed: The Account of the Beginning ought not to be taught in the presence of two men [Babylonian Talmud, Hagigak 1 lb]. Now if someone explained all those matters in a book, he in effect would be teaching them to thousands of men. Hence these matters too occur in parables in the books of prophecy. The Sages, may their memory beblessed, following the train of these books, likewise have spoken of them in riddles and parables, for there is a close connection between these matters and the divine science, and they too are secrets of that divine science .32

In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, whereas in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one. In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.33

There may be Orthodox Jews who will criticize me for going to the Talmud and extracting these embarrassing passages for the adopting literary techniques that made the Guide itself a secret writing p. vx. It was Maimonides' emphasis on secrecy and rigorous writing that influenced the Jewish political theorist Strauss and his followers, of whom Pines is one. Political philosopher and former U.S. Senator John P. East insisted that Strauss "cast himself in the role of a modem Maimonides"; this can be seen in Strauss' book, Persecution in the Art of Writing (Westport, Connecticut Greenwood, [1952] 1973). Cf. John P. East, "Leo Strauss and American Conservatism," Modem Age, XXI (Winter 1977), p. 7; Archie P. Jones, "Apologists of Classical Tyranny An Introductory Critique of Straussian-ism," Journal of Christian Reconstruction, V (Summer 1978), pp. 112-14.

purpose of public disclosure and debate. They may say that I am misinterpreting these passages because I am not familiar with another oral teaching tradition that somehow explains away these passages. This would imply that there is a still more secret tradition. Even if this criticism is correct - that a consistent, universally agreed-upon secondary secret oral teaching does exist which explains the primary oral (now translated and printed) once-secret tradition - and even if this additional secret oral teaching does offer interpretations that somehow make these passages in the Talmud appear morally acceptable, all of which I sincerely doubt, Orthodox Jews must then face the reality of any appeal to yet another oral tradition. A tradition of secondary oral explanations and glosses on a 1500-year-old written version (the Talmud) of an authoritative ancient oral tradition is not going to be regarded by outsiders (or even Orthodox Jewish insiders, I suspect) as equally authoritative. What is printed eventually becomes authoritative, especially in the field of civil and criminal law. Lawyers and casuists appeal to known written sources. The Talmud stands as written.

Orthodox Judaism by 1952 had at long last provided the English-speaking public with an officially sanctioned, expensively published version of the Talmud: seemingly unexpurgated, fully annotated, and professionally edited. Until the era of the Industrial Revolution, the Talmud was regarded by all Jews except a handful of Karaites as the sacred oral tradition of Judaism. Orthodox Jews should therefore not object when a gentile reads the Talmud, cites it verbatim, and criticizes it whenever he can demonstrate that it is obviously at odds with non-Talmudic morality. What else did they expect when they published it? They should refrain from criticizing gentiles who are critical of the Talmud's ethics unless they are prepared to discuss these issues in public without appealing to the escape hatch of an even more authoritative secret oral tradition which cannot lawfully be revealed.

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