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Haym Soloveitchik’s Demolition of Talya Fishman’s Thesis

December 14, 2012 3:03 am 13 comments

A Talmud page.

I have to go back 50 years to when I first met Haym Soloveitchik, the brilliant son of the magisterial and phenomenal late Rabbi JB Soloveitchik. We were young men in Jerusalem in the early sixties and were both made very welcome on Friday evenings at the home of Dr. Yaacov Herzog and his wife, Dr. Pnina Herzog.

Yaacov Herzog, if I may digress for a moment, was the second son of the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Herzog. Born in Ireland, and still speaking with an Irish brogue, he had been Israel’s ambassador to Canada, where he gained worldwide fame for a brilliant public debate with the English historian Arnold Toynbee, who had notoriously described the Jews as a fossil with no place in history and compared Israel to the Nazis. Intellectual anti-Semitism has a long record. He returned to Israel to head the Office of the Prime Minister until his premature death in 1972. Such was the range of his knowledge that he was actually appointed Chief Rabbi of the UK in 1966 to succeed Israel Brodie. Sadly for Anglo Jewry, but fortunate for him, he resigned before taking up the job. Isaiah Berlin described him as “one of the best and wisest, most attractive and morally most impressive human beings I have ever known.”

Haym was one of a circle of brilliant minds that gathered round the Herzogs (I was only admitted through my late father’s connection with the Herzog family). He was beginning a career in academic life and I was drawn to him not just for his intellect, but also his strong sense of honesty, morality and indeed his eccentricity, for want of a better word. This incidentally is a quality much valued in British intellectual circles and one I find sadly lacking in too many nowadays. He was one of the reasons I decided against an academic career, because I realized I just did not have his qualities of memory, analysis, perseverance, appreciation of detail and, frankly, intellectual fearlessness. I was not cut out for the ivory tower. I have followed his career over the years and occasionally bumped into him in Jerusalem when our visits coincided, but alas I was drawn too deeply into my more pastoral, interpersonal activities to have had as much contact as I would have loved.

This winter edition of the Jewish Review of Books reminded me of what a brilliant and forthright man he is. He wrote one of the most scathing reviews of another academic’s work I have ever come across. And believe me the academic world is a hotbed of rivalry, vicious infighting, and cruel nastiness. Still, this review is all the more remarkable because most reviewers pull their punches, offer sycophantic plaudits, and at most damn with faint praise, usually with a view to being asked to contribute again. Publishers and their running dogs do not take kindly to having their stars demolished.

The object of Haym’s scorn is a book written by Talya Fishman, professor of Religious Studies and Modern Intellectual History at the University of Pennsylvania. It is entitled Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures. Her thesis is that, unlike conventional wisdom, neither the text nor the authority of the Talmud we have today were fixed until the Tosaphists, the generations succeeding Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040 – 1105) who wrote analytical and legal commentaries to supplement Rashi’s more textual work. They benefited from the change in European intellectual life from an oral to a written authority around the 12th century. The work is contentious from both sides.

Haym builds his rebuttal on Fishman’s own confession that she is neither a medievalist nor a Talmud scholar and relies almost entirely on secondary scholarship. Had she been able to study the primary texts, she could have avoided the catalogue of basic errors she made that completely undermine her theory. The texts themselves refute her assertions. You have to read the article to get a sense of how comprehensively he demolishes her position.

He also reveals that, having seen an early draft of a crucial chapter, he wrote to Dr. Fishman urging her not to publish the work as it would simply mislead English speaking readers about the historical and textual facts. He goes on to express his amazement that the book won the Nahum M. Sarna Memorial National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship. He concludes that the panel of judges simply could not have read the work, or if they had then they themselves were so ignorant of Jewish texts that they lacked the wit or expertise to judge its merit.

The review reflects the genius and the courage of the man, his detailed knowledge of the vast subject of rabbinic scholarship, his penetrating analysis of the subject, his withering rebuttal, and his refusal to water down or compromise his firmly held position. I have not enjoyed such an honest piece of writing in a very long time and it made me appreciate once again what a remarkable man he is.

We are swamped nowadays with exaggerations, overloaded with excessive praise of people for being “brilliant scholars, philosophers, experts and writers” when they are rarely, in reality, anything of the sort. Compliments and praise can be bought or you can pay a public relations person or website to do it for you. It is therefore all the more refreshing to read someone who is unafraid to tell the truth and willing to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Long may he continue to live, write, and represent the most noble of qualities. If only Judaism had more like him.


  • I wonder what Haym Soloveitchik fears to have given such a strong slur of an otherwise coherent book. There are a couple of mistakes in the historical examinations – Notably there were two (2) Academies in Qairouan – one aligned with the Palestinian Geonim of Ramleh, and the other being aligned with the Geonim of the Babylonian Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In other words, not all of Qairouan was errant.

    I enjoyed the book and found it worthy of purchase for both its conclusions and references.

    • The issue that I commented on was essentially the nature of Talmudic authority in Medieval and post Medieval European Judaism which i still believe the author got wrong. And the issue of the use of an academic paradigm that was relevent in other situations and circumstances but not really applicable to the Tosafists.
      Whether other parts of the book might or might not be interesting was not relevant to my argument.

  • James Redfield

    As this debate continues, I have sought, in vain, for third-party contributions from scholars who try to objectively evaluate, not the validity of Fishman’s book in general, but rather Soloveitchik’s specific rebuttals. I would be grateful for any further info.

    • James
      I dont think you will find any objective evaluation in Academia. I recall in my youth the famous controversy between CP Snow and Leavis that rocked Cambridge University and the English intelligentsia of the day. Supporters lined up on either side and no one gave a quarter.Its not unlike Decomcrats and Republicans!!!

      But the facts of the sources do speak for themselves here. Have a look at this and I can assure you having checked, his sources are indisputable.


  • Will you please tell us whether or not you read the Dr. Fishman’s book? You have been asked this question several times in this thread and have yet to answer.

  • He He looks like you are on the “right” on this one – whats up? Thoughts of repentance? Lol

  • Out of curiosity: did you yourself read Fishman’s book? Your (inaccurate) description of her thesis seems to have been taken almost verbatim from Soloveitchik’s review. Are you, too, perhaps guilty of depending only on secondary sources (i.e. Solovetichik’s slanted and mean spirited review) without independently checking the primary sources (i.e. Fishman’s own book)? How can you possibly praise his critical stance without any independent sense of whether it is accurate, much less “noble” and “courageous”?

    • My motivations in supporting Hyam were these:
      I really value Jewish Academia despite its intellectual rivalry with Yeshivish attitudes. It is only in academia nowadays that Jewish intellectual scholarship can thrive without social and religious pressure. But there is so much other pressure within Academia to produce and publish that a tremendous amount that comes out is half baked and unreliable and is given too much credibility precisely because of its academic provenance. In addition there are in academia rivalries, prejudices and biases that often undermine genuine objectivity. It is only when a fierce challenge is mounted that any establishment, be it religious or academic is challenged to look at itself critically.

      Hyam has done this and in return has been vilified. People talk about how acerbic he is and about his lack of interpersonal skills etc etc You may recall the response to his review of Twersky’s book on the Raavad where although he did not make derogatory remarks of a personal nature he himself was attacked and accused of fomenting rivalry between dynasties etc etc

      No one to my knowledge has challenged his amazing depth of knowledge and expertise in this field. And if he is too much of Litvak I suggest this is precisely what is needed in an era in which impressionism and dare I say it amateurism has come to dominate our thinking almost to the exclusion of all else and in the battle between Academe and Yeshivah both sides are guilty of superficiality. Everyone is a scholar, a philosopher and an expert and Isaiah Berlin was right ( another Litvak) we are confusing foxes with hedgehogs.


      • Just read part one of TF’s defense. You can read it here

        and it changes nothing in my view that she has taken academically fashionable theories such as “textualization” which essentilly comes to explain developments in the evolution of the Christian world of Europe and tried to apply it to a very different Jewish cultural/religious process. Its like Cinderellas slipper. It does not fit.
        Equally her mis-characterization of the Talmud as if it were essentially a book of practical law also illustrates the dangers of the current fad for interdisciplinary studies that might work in certain contexts but do not here.



    Have you actually read Fishman’s book? If not, I suggest that you read her response to Soloveitchik’s review. He ascribes many claims to her that she did not actually make, and saying that she does not know how to read primary texts is a gross inaccuracy. Any scholar endeavoring to write a groundbreaking research must take into account prior secondary research, which Fishman accomplished beautifully. Although Soloveitchik has been on the mark in the past with his scathing reviews, this one was uncalled for.

    • Thank you both for your e mails.

      I have not yet read Fishman’s riposte and I assure you if what she writes undermines Hyam’s review I will be the first to acknowledge it.


    • That is really, really funny. She actually accomplished nothing of the sort–she totally misconstrued the secondary sources. And saying she is not familiar with the primary texts is not inaccurate, it’s spot-on. Sorry, Doctor T., a bit of brain-dusting is in order for you. Read everything relevant to the discussion. Fishman is a one-woman circus.

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