How the Tal­mud’s idea of equal­ity got lost

The no­tion that sav­ing a sin­gle life is like sav­ing the whole world may be fa­mil­iar but that’s not what most edi­tions of the Tal­mud say

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism - BY BENE­DICT ROTH Bene­dict Roth stud­ied Tal­mud at Is­rael’s Pardes In­sti­tute

IS­RAEL’S DEC­LA­RA­TION of In­de­pen­dence pledged “ab­so­lute equal­ity of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal rights to all its in­hab­i­tants, ir­re­spec­tive of re­li­gion, race or sex”. This pledge was surely de­rived from the age-old Jewish idea that all hu­man be­ings are cre­ated equal. But, to this day, it has never been en­shrined in Is­raeli law. A scribal er­ror in the Tal­mud sheds new light on this anom­aly and high­lights the gap be­tween au­then­tic Jewish thought, mod­ern Jewish prac­tice and to­day’s hu­man rights agen­das. The text in ques­tion re-ex­am­ines the bib­li­cal ac­count of the cre­ation of mankind and asks, “Why was the hu­man race formed from the off­spring of a sin­gle per­son?”

It gives three an­swers. First, to teach that some­one who saves a sin­gle life earns the merit of sav­ing an en­tire world, ie the value of a sin­gle life is in­fi­nite.

Sec­ond, for the sake of peace, so that no-one should be able to say, “My fa­ther was more im­por­tant than your fa­ther”.

Fi­nally, so that ev­ery in­di­vid­ual should be able to think, “For my sake the world was cre­ated”.

Although these words pre-date mod­ern cam­paign­ers by nearly 2,000 years, they pro­vide a more com­pelling man­i­festo for univer­sal rights than any cur­rent po­lit­i­cal agenda. Ev­ery ac­tivist should know them.

But most ac­tivists, and most mem­bers of mod­ern Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, will never see them. For the quo­ta­tion above is miss­ing from my edi­tion (Mish­nah San­hedrin, 4:5). It ap­pears in al­most all the re­li­able early manuscripts. It is quoted ver­ba­tim by Mai­monides and by the Meiri, the me­dieval Tal­mud com­men­ta­tor. It is quoted in the Ko­ran.

How­ever, it does not ap­pear in mod­ern printed edi­tions of the Tal­mud. In­stead, to­day’s edi­tions say “some­one who saves a sin­gle Jewish life earns the merit of sav­ing an en­tire world”.

The word “Jewish” turns the vi­sion and mean­ing of the Mish­nah up­side-down. If only a Jewish life is worth an en­tire world, then per­haps a non-jewish life has dif­fer­ent value. Per­haps, to mis­quote Thomas Jef­fer­son, “not all men are cre­ated equal”.

Most mod­ern edi­tions do not ac­knowl­edge the ex­is­tence of the orig­i­nal text even in a foot­note. Ka­hati, the most widely-read mod­ern com­men­ta­tor, is silent. So is Art scroll, the pub­lisher of a ma­jor new com­men­tary on the Tal­mud. Albeck, who prints the word “Jewish”, agrees that manuscripts which leave out this word are “cor­rect”. But he places this ad­mis­sion in an ob­scure ap­pen­dix where few will see it. With the ex­cep­tion of Stein­salz, who also prints the word “Jewish” but men­tions the orig­i­nal text in a note at the side of the page, the au­then­tic read­ing has been lost.

How did this hap­pen? The first dated oc­cur­rence of the word “Jewish” in the text is in the Firenze man­u­script of the Tal­mud, from the end of the 12th cen­tury. Then it is a mi­nor­ity read­ing: none of the con­tem­po­rary manuscripts of the Mish­nah in­clude it and it is un­known to the con­tem­po­rary com­men­ta­tors. The con­text in which the Mish­nah is writ­ing — that of Adam and Eve — refers to mankind in gen­eral rather than to the Jewish peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar.

Nei­ther does the word “Jewish” ap­pear in the first two printed edi­tions of the Mish­nah. Only in the third edi­tion, Bomberg’s Baby­lo­nian Tal­mud, the first-ever print­ing of the en­tire Tal­mud, does the word “Jewish” ap­pear. And af­ter that point it never van­ishes, copied from one printed edi­tion to an­other in a con­tin­u­ous line to the present day.

Could Bomberg have se­lected the read­ing of the Firenze man­u­script de­lib­er­ately when he printed his Baby­lo­nian Tal­mud? Prob­a­bly not. His print­ing of the Jerusalem Tal­mud (based on the Lei­den man­u­script) re­tains a dif­fer­ent read­ing of the Mish­nah with­out the word “Jewish”. Most likely, he fol­lowed what­ever manuscripts hap­pened to come to his hand.

Of course, there could have been an el­e­ment of choice, if not by Bomberg, then by oth­ers. The first five cen­turies of the last mil­len­nium were cen­turies that be­gan with the Cru­sades and ended with the ex­pul­sion of Jews from Spain and Por­tu­gal. Jews were per­se­cuted and slaugh­tered across Europe. It is no sur­prise that some manuscripts voted against the idea that Jewish and non-jewish life holds equal value.

But now? Across al­most all the Western world Jews en­joy equal rights with non-jews. Nearly 2,000 years af­ter the Mish­nah’s com­po­si­tion, Western coun­tries ap­pear fi­nally to have learned its au­then­tic teach­ing.

Shall the Jewish com­mu­nity, the com­mu­nity that in­vented the idea that “all peo­ple are cre­ated equal” be the only com­mu­nity to teach its chil­dren and grand­chil­dren that some are more equal than oth­ers? And shall the pledges of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence wait un­ful­filled an­other year?


Is­rael’s Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence prom­ises equal­ity to all its cit­i­zens

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