Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals
Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities by Mira Beth Wasserman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017)
The most controversial tractate of the Talmud is undoubtedly Avodah Zarah, which discusses non-Jews and their religious practices. Most of the Talmudic passages in Justinas Bonaventura Pranaitis’s 1898 anti-Talmudic screed, Christianus in Talmud Iudaeorum (The Christian in the Talmud of the Jews) are drawn from this tractate. A surface reading of Avodah Zarah can be a demoralizing experience for modern Jews. Even though the Talmud is replete with more broadly humanistic statements, most of us would be scandalized by the provincial and xenophobic attitude toward non-Jews that one could take away from a rapid read through Avodah Zarah.
It is precisely for this reason that Mira Beth Wasserman’s new book is so important and liberating. With a deep grounding in traditional and academic Talmud study, she brings the text into conversation with the humanities. Her engagement with the burgeoning field of animal studies is particularly enlightening. Her book begins with an interpretation of the discussion of animals under Jewish and non-Jewish ownership in Avodah Zarah as a way into larger questions that the Talmud seems to pose about being human.
The Talmud is a resistant text, one that does not give up its secrets easily. Wasserman shows how what appears to be a digression can be central to the questions that the Talmud is really asking. The Talmud can focus on an odd detail as a way into a larger topic, one that might be too difficult (or perhaps too emotionally challenging) to confront directly. Wasserman does an admirable job making this tractate relevant in the twenty-first century, and to present it as attempting to answer broader questions about the relationship of human beings to animals and to each other. It is also a compellingly well-written work, one of the most accessible academic books I have read in a while. I urge you all to read it as soon as you can.