Oh, the temptations of the Babylonian Talmud! Hundreds of hundreds of pages long, over a thousand years old, written in Aramaic and Hebrew, the Babylonian Talmud is a vast compendium of minutely argued legal discussion, ritual law, exotic speculation, compelling tales, homiletic stories, and superstition. How much do you pay day-workers if they don't finish the job? What is fair medical ... [Show full abstract] compensation for someone you accidentally burned? How long after you've moved to a new town should you see yourself as a member of the community and assume communal obligations? Do good fences make good neighbors? What are the dangers of living in a gated community?
And amidst all that detailed legal discussion are also the speculations of generations of rabbis about how long God stays angry, the size of the original Adam, and why you should never walk between two palm trees. On the pages of the Talmud is the evolution of rituals practiced to this day: centuries of rabbinic discussions related to the laws, ethics, religious and cultural traditions that gave birth to Judaism as we know it, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE—the development of the prayers and of the festivals, for example, or of the rituals of the Passover seder. Want to know why the youngest child asks "the Four Questions?" Read the Talmud. Once kissed by a page of Talmud, it is hard, hard, hard, not to fall in love with it, not to want to spend the rest of your life with at least the opportunity to flirt.
So rich a world is the Talmud, moreover, that scholars of modern Jewish literature who are or have been engrossed in Talmud study may find themselves in a dilemma. For if one finds intellectual excitement in making connections, in building bridges, one may seek to build those bridges between radically disparate Jewish worlds. And that, indeed, is what Ezra Cappell has set out to do; with the Talmud on one hand and Jewish American literature on the other, Mr. Cappell has sought to argue that the "cultural work" of the latter is most richly understood with reference to the former. Jewish-American writers are actually engaged not merely in the process of producing prose, but in forging, Mr. Cappell argues, that most unexpected of all transtemporal hybrids, an "American Talmud."
The Introduction explains how rich, multi-vocal, and open-ended the Talmud is; how, in "reinterpreting Torah anew for its own generation," it is not merely capable of "tolerating dissent," of celebrating "multiple perspectives," but how it also "honors radical rethinking, even about its foundational concepts." And then he takes a fascinating leap, for, as he argues, open-endedness and the "celebration of multiple perspectives" are characteristics not only of the Talmud, but "also a hallmark of twentieth-century and contemporary Jewish American fiction." There is a vital link in their cultural role, moreover, in Mr. Cappell's view: just as the Talmud was a centering force for the Jewish people (and still is, at least for the thousands of Jews studying in yeshivas throughout the world; for the twenty thousand or so laypeople who rallied in Madison Square Garden after seven years of studying a page-of-Talmud a day, along with rabbis and rabbinical students), so Jewish American literature is such a centering force today. The goal of American Talmud becomes supporting that broad thesis by focusing on two major objects of inquiry: the representation of the Holocaust, on the one hand, and what Mr. Cappell regards as the "concomitant return to Orthodoxy and tradition that has transformed the American diaspora in the postwar years" (22).
In the process of the discussions in American Talmud, Mr. Cappell clearly refutes the late Irving Howe's contention that once the rich mother-lode of the Jewish immigrant experience had been fully mined, Jewish American literature would fade into irrelevance. Instead, as Mr. Cappell points out, given the fine, compelling, provocative, sometimes brilliant, contributions of such writers as Steve Stern, Thane Rosenbaum, Gary Shteyngart, Rebecca Goldstein, Myla Goldberg, Melvin Bukiet—among many others, including those Mr. Cappell doesn't mention (for example, one of my own personal favorites, the...