Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Talmudic "Chaucerian verve"

DAF YOMI COLUMN: This week Adam Kirsch writes on Talmudic Pride and Prejudice in The Tablet.
For me, one of the powerful lessons of reading Berachot, the tractate on prayers, has been to see just how ancient and continuous the Jewish tradition really is. The Shema, the Amidah, the Birkat—we still recite all these prayers today, in almost or exactly the same form as the Tannaim, the rabbis of the Mishna, did 2,000 years ago. What has changed, as suggested by this week’s reading—which is largely focused on the prayer after meals, the Birkat Hamazon—is our attitude toward precedence and rank.

For the rabbis of the Talmud, as for the elite of any premodern society, gradations of prestige and authority were part of the nature of things. At many moments in this week’s Daf Yomi, we see that they could be as touchy about these distinctions as any courtier at Versailles. The difference is that, in post-Temple Judaism, the lack of traditional power structures—a royal court, an army, a functioning priesthood—meant that new forms of hierarchy had to be created; and they were based, in a way that came to seem essentially Jewish, less on birth or wealth than on learning.

Includes some interesting discussion of the am haaretz—the "people of the land."