Despite all the recent talk of the Hebrew Bible being the “Book of Books,” it is well known to anyone who has studied Judaism that the Bible has been taking a back seat to the Talmud for well over a thousand years. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose numerous popular introductory books to the subject are bestsellers, calls the Talmud “the central pillar supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice of Jewish life.” To the uninitiated, the Talmud (and here, I mean the Babylonian Talmud) is a strange book. Firstly, it is not one book but a set of 37 books (called “tractates”) containing over 2.5 million words spread across 6000+ folio pages. Secondly, unlike most contemporaneous literature from other religious traditions (e.g., the writings of the Church Fathers, the Qur'an) the Talmud is not a theological tractate or revealed prophecy or even a law code written by a single person. Rather it is an anthology of statements, sayings, aphorisms, legal opinions, and stories attributed to a plethora sages who lived over a 500 year period. It is eclectic, given to wild tangents and wonderfully free within a fixed structure. Mostly it is a running conversation, and much has been written about how this genre gave rise to a democratic impulse in Judaism.
The problem is that the conversation is not real. Open any page of the Babylonian Talmud and you will quickly see that this is not at all a natural dialogue which actually took place in a bet midrash some 1700 years ago. This is not a direct transcription of the oral proceedings that took place in the celebrated Babylonian yeshivot. How can it be that sages who lived hundreds of years apart can talk to each other? How is it that someone always happens to have a baraita on hand that precisely controverts the dominant view in the room? This sense of an “imagined conversation” reminds me of a screenplay which tries to go for realism but where the dialogue is a bit too good to be real. People don't talk like that in real life. You enjoy the story on the screen, but at no point do you forget that this is fantasy. Part of what makes the Babylonian Talmud fascinating is this element of fantasy. The fantastic Talmudic conversation flows smoothly by means of editorial additions and interpolations made by the redactor of the text. The Jerusalem Talmud did not undergo the same careful scripting and therefore is much choppier. The anonymous editorial voice in the Babylonian Talmud is thought to date to the 6th century CE and is known by scholars as the Stamma d’Gemara, or simply the Stam (which means something like the passive, neutral one). This is a term coined by David Weiss-Halivni in the 1980s and has become widely accepted in the academic study of the Talmud.
A few months ago, while watching Comedy Central, it occurred to me that there is something very Talmudic about the style of the Daily Show. Jon Stewart is neither a traditional stand-up comedian nor is he a mere parody of a newscaster. He is a comedic redactor of the official news. What makes the show brilliant is that Stewart knows how to play the role of the Stam masterfully. Note that his jokes always begin with a clip from one of the cable news channels (usually Fox), and he basically referees an imagined conversation between these clips. He carefully sews these clips together with editorial introductions: “…of course, that did not prevent her from saying the following...” The humor comes about through the skillful arrangement of these clips as well as Stewart’s cunning interpolations between them: a grimace, an impersonation, a flippant comment. For example, the devilish smile he flashes when he asks really?... akin to the Talmudic איני?.
The importance of this Stam-Stewart comparison goes beyond the mere fact that it demonstrates Jon Stewart's Jewish roots. It shows how much Talmudic discourse is intended to be entertaining. My friend Yoni Moss calls this a “show-like aesthetic.” When the Stam begins a sentence with the phrase סלקא דעתך אמינא, you know that this position will be soon rejected. But the reader plays along just to enjoy the mental exercise of imagining what could be. Stewart does this all the time when he shows clips of Republican ideologues saying typically reactionary things. This is followed by Stewart's straight-face commentary, "Got it. So what you are saying is..." You know full well that Stewart is temporarily agreeing with the conservative position in order to take it to an extreme that eventually reveals its stupidity. Or another example is when he shows the first half of a clip of a speech made by someone who is known to be radical. With a look of surprise on his face he says, "Oh well, you know, that actually sounds pretty reasonable..." Then he shows you the second half of the clip which contains an outrageously inflammatory remark. This of course is followed by Stewart's humbled expression of shock. This is sort of similar to the Talmud’s stock phrase כולי עלמא לא פליגי כי פליגי ב...
I especially love the comic device that Stewart often uses where he supposedly receives a message from his producer through a hidden earpiece: “Excuse me one second. What? Oh, I am being told that…” These intrusions almost always serve the same purpose: to undo an erroneous editorial assertion made by Stewart himself. When he goes too far to agree with a radical position, the earpiece informs him that he needs to swing back to the center. It works because it is invisible and unheard. This is almost like the Talmud’s bat kol that announces the truth from on high.
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.