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Review of Dolgopolski, The Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud

May 9th, 2013

Review of Sergey Dolgopolski, The Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. 392 pages. $65.00

By Lynn Kaye

Assistant Professor of Rabbinics

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

 

Sergey Dolgopolski’s The Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud offers a sustained philosophical description and critique of modern critical Talmud scholarship. It is an ambitious and challenging piece of work. Because he presents a description of the methods of modern critical Talmud scholarship (especially as they address the Talmud’s redaction) in light of theoretical models as disparate as Greek philosophy , Heidegger and modern filmmaking, there is a lot happening in the book. Dolgopolski offers the language, themes and texts of contemporary critical theory as portals through which to grasp the distinctiveness of Talmudic thinking and presentation of material. This approach is refreshing, but might also be challenging for readers who have less philosophical background.

The book is especially intriguing to me since Dolgopolski’s discussion of memory involves an approach to Talmudic temporality, the subject of my doctoral dissertation. According to Dolgopolski, memory is the primary conduit for thinking in the Talmud. Its associative connections evoke film montage, a metaphor he uses to describe the temporality of Talmudic redaction. “The time line of the Talmudic montage is in no way a time of linear progression from one point of presence to the next, not even in the sense of going from a present in the past to what ‘now’ stands for as the present in the present…Hiddush or invention, the intellectual event of the Talmud is the discovery of something that has always been there, but that does not belong to any present whatsoever” (244). Memory’s rupture of conventional temporal structures mirrors Dolgopolski’s methodology in the book. Talmudic practice is compared with classical and contemporary philosophical understandings of memory, thinking and who thinks, as a corrective to the prevailing historical Talmudic scholarship.

Critical Talmudic scholarship has centered on the way the Talmud came to be. When were traditions gathered, and by whom? Was this done gradually, with a center of preserved material growing layer by layer, or did formal compilation occur mostly later? What is the source of the anonymous debates and discussions that weave together sayings attributed to Amoraim in Palestine and Babylon? Why are they anonymous while the originators of other material are cited by name? Dolgopolski examines the philosophical assumptions underlying theories about the identity and functions of Talmudic editors, focusing primarily on the work of David Weiss Halivni and Shamma Friedman.

These scholars have observed textual phenomena and sought to project a history of how these phenomena came to be, while Dolgopolski seeks to reframe the project. “The question … should be asked differently, in terms of what Talmud those functions produce, not only and not primarily in terms of the historical chronology in which this production took place” (246).

His book explores notions of authorship in the Talmud and the mode of being or existence suggested by the role of remembering. Dolgopolski seeks to untangle assumptions about the personhood of the thinker and its relation to thought and memory. He highlights “the inapplicability of the modern concept of ‘thinking subject’ to the period of late antiquity”(3). In his view, intellectual practices in the Talmud do not logically presume an empirical author or thinker either standing outside the production, or even within it. “Understanding memory in the Talmud involves the question of personal being as such, or a performed existence…the remembering being who is performed in the Talmud” (40). What makes the Talmud’s understanding of memory, thought and subjectivity distinct from other classical and modern traditions is that, “in the Talmud, an individual…exists first of all as one who remembers the traditions…of the past…His or her remembering may include and in many cases requires the critical analysis of the data of memory but thinking remains an added feature, and remembering stands at the core of what it takes to exist as a talmid hakham” (42). In other words, remembering is the primary mode of intellectual engagement, critical analysis is a secondary tool, and these processes constitute the existence of the individual.

Dolgopolski frequently includes references to modern literature to illustrate his points, such as the figures of Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens in his discussion of authorship. In the course of the book he retraces the classic critical Talmudic questions, formulating them in fresh terms, couched within ideas from both the analytic and the phenomenological philosophical traditions. In this way, the book makes the intellectual categories and processes of Talmud accessible to scholars of the humanities, especially of literature and critical theory. For Talmudists, the book is an unusual critical companion to the discipline, not only to the Talmud. In a way, this book is like certain works of Jewish historiography such as Y.H. Yerushalmi’s Zakhor, which simultaneously describe, contribute to and question the assumptions and practices of a discipline. In this book, Talmud scholars have something like literary criticism of their own discipline, as well as a new way to look at the Talmud itself.

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