Evolution of Torah: Establishing Rabbinic Culture

Evolution of Torah: Establishing Rabbinic Culture
By :  Marcus Mordecai Schwartz Director, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash, Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics / 5783

In season two, we travel to four regions of the Medieval world to understand the specific Torah cultures that emerged from each place and their approach to Torah learning guided by Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz.





Hosted by: Rabbi Mordecai Marcus Schwartz
Produced by Ellie Gettinger
Edited by Sarah Brown
Cover art: Lee Willet
Theme music: Stock media provided by u19_studios / Pond5



How did geographic diversity and separation impact rabbinic culture? In the season opener, we begin with the story of the four captives, the story that ended season one. This narrative offers an example of how rabbinic learning spread. We introduce the challenges and opportunities that faced Jewish communities which connect our four regions: Muslim Spain and North Africa, France, Germany, and Christian Spain. The season also includes a stand-alone episode about the monumental figure of Maimonides. (Transcript and Show Notes)

2. North Africa and Muslim Spain

The legal culture of Muslim Spain and North Africa from the ninth to the thirteenth century focused on making the Talmud accessible through practical applications of Gaonic interpretations. This episode follows two scholars: Rabenu Hananel ben Hushiel whose approach is one of the earliest known attempt to provide a systematic commentary on the Talmud and that of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (the Rif) whose work superseded Hananel’s within two generations. This period in general and the Rif’s work specifically kicked off the period of the Rishonim, rabbinic commentary after the Talmud and Mishnah. (Transcript and Show Notes)

3. France

This episode focuses on Rashi (1040 – 1105, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac) and his intellectual (and genetic) heirs. We start by exploring the significant differences between French rabbinic culture and that of North Africa and Muslim Spain. As opposed to summarizing the law as presented in the Talmud which was the central aim of scholars like the Rif, Rashi embarked on a broader interpretative process which led his predecessors to the mammoth task of harmonizing conflicting and contradictory Talmudic discussion. (Transcript and Show Notes)

4. Maimonides

For this episode, we focus solely on Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204, Maimonides/Rambam), whose work in diverse disciplines from medicine to philosophy worked to elevate rabbinic legal culture. We examine the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’s companion to the written Torah, which is the oldest in existence and delve into his rigorous work life. Through his letters, we get a sense of Maimonides personal challenges and extensive reach during his lifetime underscoring our desire to dedicate an episode to this transformational figure.  (Transcript and Show Notes)

5. Germany

The German Jewish community was at once highly organized and prosperous. At the same time, they were subject to the potentially violent whims of non-Jewish community around them. These parallels of strength and challenge are at the core of this episode about rabbinic culture in the Germanic provinces in the 13th century. We will focus on the specific struggles of two rabbis, the Maharam (Rabbi Meir ben Barukh) of Rothenberg and Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel while exploring their and others’ contributions to Jewish practice. (Transcript and Show Notes)

6. Christian Spain

All the legal cultures we discussed in this season come together in Christian Spain in the 14th Century. Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (the Rosh) is one of the rabbis leading the integration of the legal culture of Muslim Spain, with the interpretative work of France and the rabbinic authority that was standard in Germany. This episode traces the Rosh’s immigration to Spain and highlights the period until the Spanish Inquisition. We end this season on the precipice of even broader geographic dispersion and as moveable type is about to revolutionize rabbinic and Jewish culture. (Transcript and Show Notes)