Dr. Jonathan Milgram

Assistant Professor, Talmud and Rabbinics, JTS

Why I Do What I Do

As rabbinic Jews, much of what we call Judaism today originates with the Talmud and its medieval codification. Understanding the origins of our practice has been the primary factor in driving me to study Talmud and medieval Jewish law. My decision to teach at The Jewish Theological Seminary, from which I earned a BA in the Joint Program with Columbia University, was based on the high esteem in which I hold its faculty in my field. Over the last century, and continuing through our own day, JTS’s Talmud faculty remains at the cutting edge of academic talmudic studies. Another reason I chose JTS is because, unlike most universities in the United States, here faculty members have the privilege of teaching classical texts in the original and at a very high level. Lastly, JTS is the only institution I know that integrates academic Jewish studies with serious conversation about community. Academic Jewish studies are part of the public discourse and religious conversation at JTS in a way I have never experienced at other institutions with which I have been affiliated in the United States, Europe, or Israel.

Current Research

Until recently, my publications have dealt with medieval manuscripts of the Talmud, talmudic redaction, and medieval Jewish interpretation of Talmud. A few years ago, I began shifting my writing and research to the earliest layers of talmudic law in comparative context. I am currently working on a book about tannaitic inheritance law in its ancient legal and social contexts. In it I discuss the development of the first stages of rabbinic inheritance law, and why that system is different from its biblical antecedent. My thesis is that the social and economic context of Roman Palestine served as the engine for the Rabbis’ adaptation of inheritance practices and institutions known from ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman legal material. In particular, the presence of the nuclear family, privatized landholdings, and urbanization in tannaitic Palestine created a social and economic context in which rabbinic inheritance practices were born.

The Importance of Studying Talmud

People often ask what has been the most important thing I’ve learned from the study of Talmud and medieval Jewish law. It is to what degree each generation has taken ownership of Jewish law and custom and made them its own, all the while preserving a meaningful piece of the past. One of my goals is to encourage my students to explore their connection to the classical texts of Judaism and learn how to make themselves part of the larger narrative. This, I hope, helps them personalize their Judaism. To those entering the field of Talmud today, I say that while I embrace the current excitement over the use of Talmud in interdisciplinary studies, our commitment to be interdisciplinary cannot come at the expense of disciplinary work. Talmudists and halakhists need to be trained in the textual, historical, and conceptual development of their materials, and only then look outside of their immediate discipline to other fields so that they can expand the scope of their studies. The Graduate School of JTS remains a great center of higher Jewish learning precisely because it is here that students can get the grounding in the discipline of academic Talmud so necessary for the writing of successful research. In the current academic climate of the United States, therefore, the growth of JTS’s Graduate School—and its Talmud program in particular—is more needed than ever as a training ground for the next generation of Talmud scholars. I consider myself the faithful disciple of three of the greatest scholars of our generation: Shamma Friedman, Benjamin and Minna Reeves Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS and Professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University; Haym Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University; and Menahem Kahana of the Hebrew University. All three scholars taught me essential methodologies for the study of both classical and medieval rabbinic literature, and their influence on me is evident in my scholarly publications as well as my teaching.

On Teaching

I am currently teaching an exciting new course on the methodology, scope, and purpose of Maimonides’ great code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, and a rabbinics section of Context from the Institute of Jewish Learning, one of JTS’s adult education programs. Being part of JTS, I have “built-in” academic and nonacademic “audiences” for my scholarship and teaching. I have traveled all over the country to lecture on academic topics on behalf of JTS, and regularly teach Context courses. I continue to be awestruck by the great interest lay people have in some of the esoteric scholarly matters people like me spend their lives trying to figure out. Prior to joining the JTS faculty, I was coordinator of JTS’s Saul Lieberman Institute for Talmudic Research, which was the first research institute dedicated to the digitization of medieval Talmud manuscripts. I also held a joint appointment at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the London School for Jewish Studies (formerly Jews’ College).

Juggling

As a teacher, author, speaker, husband, and father of five, I have little free time. The time I do have is spent proudly raising and watching our children grow to be the people we admire most in the world. The children are all bright, athletic, kind, compassionate, and beautiful inside and out—each in his or her own way. I would like to think that I have contributed in some meaningful way to their development. My wife, Adina (whom I met at JTS; she is a graduate of the JTS Double Degree Program with Barnard College), and I take pride in the fact that we have raised our children without the assistance of outside help. As difficult as it is to believe and to schedule, one of us is always at home, and we work our professional calendars around each other’s needs. Although every day seems to be a new adventure, I can say with complete confidence that we have the great fortune to continuously see the fruits of our madness.