For Dr. Richard Kalmin, it was already a good day when he sat down at his computer and read a note from the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award Committee of the Association of Jewish Studies (AJS), informing him that his most recent book, Jewish Babylonia Between Persia and Roman Palestine (Oxford University Press, 2006), had been designated a "Notable Selection" in the category of Biblical Studies, Rabbinics, and Archaeology. The committee stated that Professor Kalmin had "provided his readers with sophisticated, wide-ranging, and careful literary analyses of rabbinic texts not often cited in the contexts in which [Kalmin] uses them, nor are they . . . even familiar to other specialists in his field. A crowning achievement of a lifetime devoted to the vast sea of rabbinic literature." It turned out to be not simply a good day, but a particularly exciting day for this esteemed teacher and scholar.
Dr. Kalmin holds the Theodore R. Racoosin Chair of Rabbinic Literature and has taught at JTS since 1982. He is the author or editor of several other books, including Jewish Culture and Society Under the Christian Roman Empire (coedited with Dr. Seth Schwartz, JTS. Leuven: Peeters Press, 2003), and numerous articles on the interpretation of rabbinic stories, ancient Jewish history, and the development of rabbinic literature. He has lectured on these topics throughout Europe, Israel, and the United States. A visiting professor at Yale University, Hebrew Union College, and Union Theological Seminary, and a faculty fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Hebrew University, in 2011 Dr. Kalmin will also be a faculty fellow and visiting professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Frankel Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan.
Congratulations again, Dr. Kalmin, on your Notable Selection award for Jewish Babylonia. We hear that you've also written an article in relationship to the book.
Yes, the article came about at the AJS awards ceremony. I gave a little talk when I accepted the award, and pointed out that if you look at the Oxford University Press website on the Jewish Babylonia page, you will see the following award listing: "Named 'Best Book of the Year' on Ancient Iran by the Ministry of Culture in Tehran." At first, I thought it was a joke. But after I talked to several experts on ancient and modern Iran, including one prominent Iranologist who recommended my book for the award, it seemed as though there was a great possibility that the book had indeed received the award from Iran's Ministry of Culture.
The award was handed out before the current trouble in Iran. To have a Jewish theme honored in Iran is much less likely nowadays, and that's not to say that there's no political motive behind this. People who know what's going on in Iran pointed out to me that nothing happens in Iran without a political reason.
Now why would the Iranians be interested in a book about ancient Judaism? Because the aspect of Jewish culture that I am interested in takes place in ancient Babylonia, which was part of the Iranian empire, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and many Iranians view that as part of their cultural patrimony. They're ambivalent about pre-Islamic Iran and that is what we are talking about here. Up until the seventh century CE—that is the period I am interested in—the dominant religion in Iran was Zoroastrianism. That whole period, on the one hand, was when the Iranians were in a certain sense at a very high point in their power; they had an empire that rivaled Rome, or certainly, I would say, the equal of Rome, even though it is not on the radar screen of most westerners. Still, it was something that they feel very proud of. On the other hand, however, they feel a distance from it because it is not Islamic, and, anyway, the Jewish experience there was a very important part of the cultural melting pot that comprised the Iranian empire back then.
So your publisher has not been able to verify the award?
The short answer to your question is: it's up there on the publisher's website. Beyond that, there's no final confirmation.
What an interesting situation: if you had been presented an award by a country where you could just go, pick it up, and say thank you, it would not be the story it is now.
Yes. In this case, there were other considerations.
The matter of being used politically. In and of itself, it is a great story. Can you talk a bit about the other books that you have written?
I have written a book on the editing of the Talmud, trying to strip aside the original layers from what accumulated later on so that I could examine how the religion has changed, how the practice of Judaism has changed. That book is called The Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud. Another book, Sages, Stories, Authors, and Editors in Rabbinic Babylonia, is about how to use the Talmud as a source for history, trying to take account of things like the different political perspectives that might be behind a tradition, how different stories report the same event from opposing perspectives, what the polemical issues involved might be. I try to bring us back to the streets of ancient Babylonia to see what mattered to Jews back then. Often, it turns out to be the things that we are still fighting about now. The Sage in Jewish Society was where I first developed the idea of basic cultural differences between rabbis in Iranian culture versus rabbis in Roman culture.
So Babylonia and the Babylonian Talmud are topics about which you have written a great deal. What are you working on now?
Right now, I am dealing with the traditions that come into the Babylonian Talmud from unusual and unexpected places. For example, a lot of things come into the Babylonian Talmud from Christian sources, from the Roman Empire. One of the things that I am looking at is the extent to which Babylonia was not just a part of the Persian world, but was also part of the Roman world and the Christian culture that was flourishing in Mesopotamia along with Jewish culture.
How does your work at JTS influence your other activities and schedule?
I am going to be at the University of Michigan in the spring (2011) as part of a research group at the Frankel Center. The subject is Jewish languages and it ties into a particular research project that I am working on right now, which is Targum. Targumim are Jewish, primarily Aramaic, translations of the Bible. And the reason why this fits into my current project and why it fits into the project that they are doing in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan is because Targumim contain a form of Aramaic which is different than the Aramaic that we find either in the Palestinian Talmud or the Babylonian Talmud. So one of the questions is where does it come from? The predominant view, right now, seems to be that it originated in the Land of Israel and made its way into Babylonia at some point, which is why it is interesting to me. I want to compare these traditions in the Talmud with Aramaic translations that are quoted as part of the contemporary Christian literature that was also being produced in Mesopotamia. What happened to make Babylonia, along with its continuing to be a part of the Iranian cultural orbit, fairly suddenly start to look more eastern provincial Roman?
And how does that tie into your teaching at JTS?
I'm dealing with reception history. Say we study Josephus, who wrote in Rome in the first century CE, but was born in Palestine. Born in the land of Israel, he tells this sweeping panoramic history of the Jewish people, but in the course of doing so he quotes a lot of traditions, and these traditions show up in the Babylonian Talmud as well. So first we will read Josephus in the class and then we will read the same tradition, but with important differences, in the Babylonian Talmud. Interestingly enough, the Babylonian Talmud is perhaps the major Jewish source where these traditions get taken up; they're much less frequently found in Palestinian rabbinic sources even though they're much, much closer geographically, which is another conundrum that I'm trying to work on: why does the Bavli pick up on these things, but the Palestinian Talmud doesn't?
You connect the dots, so to speak.
Exactly. There is the story of the miracle of the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Bible, and that story gets told in Christian sources all over the Roman Empire and with details that are also not quoted in the Palestinian Talmud, but are quoted in the Babylonian Talmud. But, once again, the Babylonian Rabbis put an interesting twist on these sources, on this story, that isn't in the Christian materials, so it tells us some interesting things about Christian culture on the one hand and Babylonian rabbinic culture on the other.
And you have researched Babylonian culture as well?
I have. For example, I have done a study of astrology that is going to be published as a couple of articles in the near future, before they make it into my next book. I am trying to situate the Babylonian Talmud within its cultural, historical context. So as Babylonia was the birthplace of astrology, so the Babylonian Rabbis inherited and put their own original stamp on this rich culture. There is also a very rich Babylonian tradition of medicine and magic.
Have you shared your personal relationship with the Talmud?
I wrote a piece in a book that was published last year called Why Study Talmud in the Twenty First Century? My chapter is called "Why I Study Talmud," and it is about how I moved from being a fiction writer with little Jewish background to discovering the wonder of the Talmud. Today, I enjoy its richness and tolerance for diversity, and hope that I can pass along that appreciation to my students.