Zachary Braiterman on Sergey Dolgopolski’s The Open Past
As a “religious” document, the Babylonian Talmud is as strange as it gets. A web of intersecting teachings, it was assembled more or less in its final redacted form in late Sassanian Persia in modern-day Iraq, prior to the Islamic conquest. The Babylonian sages are, of course, famous for hair-splitting acumen. But what exactly are they up to? Is it simply to decide normative law and religious practice, or is something else at work, a more original form of thinking? Styled as a commentary to the Mishnah, an earlier stratum of Jewish law from around 200 CE Palestine, the Bavli, as it is affectionately called in traditional Jewish circles, is itself more fantastical than apodictic.
The work of the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud would only appear to be straightforward and dull, demanding as it does the tedious drawing of distinctions between “pure” and “impure” persons, places, substances, and objects, while determining which actions are obligated, which permitted, and which forbidden. In the process, an entire world will have opened up — architectural and agricultural configurations, urban streets and alleyways, foodstuff and wine, women’s apparel, domestic livestock and wild animals, images and idols, latrines and septic pits, the Temple service, menstrual and other vaginal fluids, knives and scissors, vessel and tent impurities, corpse defilement, orders of blessings and prayer — peppered with fanciful stories about God, biblical heroes and heroines, the rabbis themselves, their students, and sometimes even their wives.
Inside and outside traditional and academic circles, admirers of Talmud have always known that the object of attention in Talmud is not so much the strict letter of the law — as one might have otherwise concluded on the basis of reading the long and sad history of Christian anti-Jewish polemics. Like modern-day Conceptualist artists, talmudic sages are more attuned to intellectual process than about the law itself as a determinate content. That so-called law and those who are preoccupied by it are pushed and push themselves to its outermost possibilities, committed to a kind of thinking that is constantly conditioned and parsed, no matter how implausibly or impractically. A Seinfeldian universe, the Babylonian Talmud turns out to be a Torah about very small things, if not exactly nothing; “virtual” in character, none of its objects are real in the strict sense of the word.
The Babylonian Talmud becomes the foundation stone for a normative Jewish universe of religious practice sometime after the flourishing of Babylonian rabbinic Jewry, which came to a close around the late tenth century; and it remained so up until the dawn of the modern period in Europe. Assuming great normative freight, its aura permeated Jewish life in the Spanish academies and across North Africa, the medieval Rhineland communities, and the great yeshivas of Lithuania and Poland. In the nineteenth century, however, that aura suddenly tarnished. In eastern Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century, a new sect of Hasidic Jews abandoned Talmud study per se for the charisma of wonder-working rabbis who claimed mystical powers, while under the influence of the Enlightenment and Emancipation, religious reformers in central and western Europe and secular writers and ideologues in eastern Europe utterly rejected Talmudic pilpul, or casuistry.
Insofar as self-professed modern Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries turned to traditional texts for a combination of religious or moral guidance, aesthetic pleasure, and philosophical rumination, it was to the Bible and Hebrew poetry, then adding to that corpus mystical Kabbalah and Hasidism in the twentieth century. Even the founder of modern Orthodox Judaism in the nineteenth century, a German rabbi named Samson Raphael Hirsch, anchored Jewish observance not on the Talmud and its assiduous study, but on models of authority drawn from the Bible, primarily its account of the Sinai event. Across the entire spectrum of so-called modern Jewry, the Bible and especially its poetry were judged to be beautiful and sublime, in contrast to the petty and prosaic concerns of the Talmud.
Among scholars trained in secular universities and in liberal Jewish seminaries, the Babylonian Talmud was flipped from being an object of religious reverence into an object of historical study. With its eye on the Talmud as a textual document, the first wave of university-based research focused attention on points of philological, historical, and redaction interest. Scholars labored intensively, sifting through the layers of the text to identify as historical figures in Sasanian Babylonia and Roman-Byzantine Palestine the various generations of amoraim, as the rabbis after the Mishnah are called.
What the first generation of university professors discovered immediately was that the Talmud did not fit together in a neat chronological way. Individual rabbis from different generations and dispersed geographical places are placed in conversation with each other, their teachings pieced together and reconstructed by anonymous redactors, or editors. Working through the source material, academic scholars from 1930s through the 1970s sought to extrapolate historical information out of the literary sources, while placing literary sources in historical context. The fundamental question at hand was to identify who “wrote” the Talmud and when?
Reflecting trends in academic politics, scholars at work today in the field of Talmud and rabbinic literature have added a cultural turn to historicist research. These inquiries into who wrote what for whom, when and why have since the 1990s been transformed by questions regarding power, gender, and the construction of Jewish identity in relation to Greco-Roman and Sasanian Persian empire. Under the influence of post-structuralism and feminism, these contemporary scholars have worked to destabilize the Talmud as a discrete object by asking political questions concerning the culture of the rabbis, building new dimension into the historicist scholarly edifice.
In his latest study, The Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud, Sergey Dolgopolski turns away from all that, and against historicist research and cultural studies he considers philosophical questions. These questions have less to do with “the Talmud” as an historical object or cultural performance, more to do with “Talmud” as a form of thinking. Drawing primarily on anti-Cartesian, phenomenological, and Heideggerian philosophical perspectives, Dolgopolski asks foundational questions that are simultaneously simple and confusing: Who speaks in the Talmud? Who thinks in the Talmud? Who remembers? Bracketing the phenomena of history and culture, the answers to these question make no prima facie sense. In short, they turn out to be “The Virtual Author,” “The Virtual Subject,” and “The Virtual Itself!”
In Dolgopolski’s view, Talmud is less an object of historical study produced at this and that historical juncture by “subjects” such as authors and then pieced together by redactors at some later historical juncture. At the very least, considerations regarding the historical or cultural life world of Talmud have been peeled off and bracketed in ways that will remind philosophical readers of the school of phenomenology pioneered by Edmund Husserl some one hundred years ago. Dolgopolski swerves with and away from the historicist or formal-literary tradition of Talmud research, represented primarily in The Open Past by two towering figures in the field of Talmud studies, David Halivni and Shamma Friedman. In doing so, Dolgopolski invites the reader to step into a brave new world that looks past the historical life-world of the rabbis to resemble something more like a cinematic-photographic apparatus, cyberspace, or a virtual reality system.
The argument is, in fact, simpler than the technical jargon that will surely discomfit many of Dolgopolski’s readers. To conceive Talmud as virtual, the first step would be to note that there is no subject ready at hand to identify. What justifies calling Talmud virtual has largely to do with the significant inconvenience that, despite the best scholarly efforts, there is practically no firm purview onto the historical Sassanian contexts in the third through seventh centuries with which to make sense of the Talmud as a discrete textual production or its “authorship.” Even those scholars most invested in the study of the Bavli in its Iranian contexts can only work by of inference from Zoroastrian texts condensed some four to five hundred years after the redaction of the Talmud. Can Talmud then serve as a source of historical information about Sasanian Persia? Is there even enough information about Sasanian Persia to shed light on the Talmud? In both cases, not really. In part, to call Talmud “virtual” is only to indicate that we can only imagine the historical reality of the Babylonian rabbis based on fragments that do not piece together.
As given or available to us, the actuality of the Talmud is largely imaginary. The rabbis appear more like ciphers, while their nameless editors stand out as disembodied and invisible actors external to the main action they create inside the text. A spectral form of presence, there is no firm reality available beyond the virtual layers of the text, and the opportunity to participate in a form of thinking peculiar to them. No one actually owns Talmud in the absence of a historical subject conceived along the lines of a romantic or modern author who could be said to control the meaning of its literary production (58).
What happens when we bracket out the subject modelled on a modern or single controlling Cartesian subject in full control of his rational faculties, the subject who, after a rigorous performance of methodological doubting, can at least be confident that “I think, therefore I am”? What remains after the Cartesian subject is the pure act of thinking itself, as disconnected and distinct from real subjects as from real objects given to hand. The virtual author of Talmud claims no thought as his own. He can barely be said even to exist.
Again, what that actually means is not as strange as it first sounds. Dolgopolski suggests that this is actually an orthodox idea, comparing the idea of a virtual author to the second century church father Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who would claim no thought as his own, instead ascribing it to God’s authority. Or consider Hegel who defined himself not as an author but as a thinker who simply follows a thought whose speculative logic is not entirely his own. Or consider Moses who, in a famous Talmudic legend, cannot comprehend the very Torah that he himself brought down from Mount Sinai, while Rabbi Akiva, who has mastered Torah, can only refer the authority of his teaching back to Moses. In this refracted light, not even God can said to be “subject,” much less an author.
The subject so conceived is but an empty vessel for the communication of a truth that transcends any single, historical subject-position. Following trends in contemporary continental philosophy, in Doglopolski’s conception, thinking is radically depersonalized. Thinking is looked upon as an “event,” rather than as a property ascribed to thinking-subjects like “authors.” Indeed, the power of the so-called stammaim, the late editors of the Talmudic corpus, lies precisely in their very invisibility, in being absent and therefore subject to no image, name, or visible presence. In this, they resemble God whose activity is subsumed in the apparatus of thinking that they establish. The only genuine subject would be the student, who is compared to a viewer situated outside the text and gazing in at it.
With his eye fixed on the gaze of Talmud, it should be obvious that cinema lies at the heart of Dolgopolski’s philosophical project as a reader of Talmud. Indeed, the very best and perhaps most carefully articulated chapter of The Open Past is the last one, “The Talmud as Film.” With its cue taken from film theory, Dolgopolski’s project rests on a three-fold temporal scheme with which to understand Talmud as an apparatus for thinking. There is first of all the historical time, the sense of chronological time that interests modern source critic-scholars and cultural studies scholars, but which is of no interest to Dolgopolski, the actual author of The Open Past or to the “virtual author” of Talmud. This first layer time represents those historical moments when the text was conceived, produced, and closed.  Layered over that chronological order of historical time is what Dolgopolski calls “representational time,” what film theorists call its diegesis. This refers to what is going on inside the action of the frame, the storyline, what is being thought or said or experienced on screen as presented by the protagonists inside the work. Diegetic content in film refers, for example, to the music or clatter that the protagonists are depicted as hearing; in Talmud it refers to the back and forth of the amoraim engaged in the twist and tug of the conversation they are presented as having with each other.  But who sets up the scene? For Dolgopolski, the most important dimension of time is the montage in which cuts of film or Talmud are brought together and composed. The film theorists call this “non-diegetic.” The non-diegetic time of the montage-work is not represented in the film or text. Indeed, it stands outside the text like music that permeates a scene for us, the viewer, but which the film or the text’s protagonists themselves do not hear. This is the virtual author, the invisible mind working through the system of Talmud whose human presence has been eviscerated, removed from the internal frame of the shot. No less than film editors, the stammaim add change, extend, and fill in gaps from a privileged position outside the text. We never see them at work as they “[produce] new representations, symbolic visions, or even whole new characters, not only in diegesis but also embedded in the film as the gaze of the viewer.” They are the ones who create the new feelings and thoughts that the diegeis of the film cannot produce on its own, upon whom the diegesis of the film utterly depends for its existence.
The book’s most innovative intervention, Dolgopolski’s turn to film theory explains the photograph of avant-garde Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein on the front jacket-cover intently looking as he edits, frame by frame, a strip of film.
What is given to the gaze to see is what Dolgopolski calls the “open past.” By this he means an originary power and free place of multiple truths. Against platonic metaphysics, Talmud is said to locate truth in the past as opposed to “eternity,” to one single truth, idea, or prototype. Like many “postmodern” readers of Talmud, Dolgopolski regrets the closing of the Talmud sometime around the eighth century as a fixed and authoritative “text.” The role of the villain in this rather conventional meta-narrative is played by the leading rabbis sometime before the tenth century Baghdad during what Jewish historians call the geonic period. They were the ones who fixed the text of the Talmud in order to buttress their own authority as “a fait accompli of a past that can no longer be changed.” Talmud as an open platform of thinking will have thus lost to tradition its living character.
Is the open past a sound theoretical concept or conceit? In either case, it is that tool with which Talmud is idealized by Dolgopolski as an open field of potential possibilities, in which thinking “functioned as potentially and infinitely open, inviting new additions, extensions, and more sophisticated transformations circulating among a potential infinity of rabbis and their students as both addressees and participants of discussion.” The open past no longer belongs to the historical past but from the internal, diegetic and non-diegetic past of Talmud to which only the Talmud stands witness.
Dolgopolski presents Talmud as a peculiar form of memory work, particularly in relation to the Mishnah, that first strata of the Talmud deconstructed by the Babylonian rabbis. It is non-chronological in the sense that the various refuters and defenders in a single given Talmudic passage might be an early tanna from second-century Palestine, or a Babylonian amora from the fifth century. The temporal disjunction not only does not matter; it lies at the very heart of Talmud. Put together into conversation and contest by its editors, there is no need for actual face to face interaction between the rabbis presented in the diegesis of Talmud. The bare being there together of “the rabbis” does not depend upon the limiting frame of chronological-historical time. As a body that remembers, Talmud is no longer an empirical body. It’s a virtual reality in which the action is “no less real even if again not actual.”
In Dolgopolski’s most speculative turn, what is remembered as “open past” is not legal data per se, but being itself, imagined as a more pure and distilled form of image, thing, world, or idea. In this it can be claimed that Talmud remembers “being,” nothing less than a “way to think, be, or live in the world” since occluded by the metaphysical tradition in philosophy and historicist scholarship alike. Reading Heidegger reading Plato, Dolgopolski understands by the act of remembering a “catching-sight-once again, [hence] the revealing, of beings, sc. [that is] in that which they shine-forth.” What stands out, what “shines forth” is the Mishnah itself, that originary stratum of Talmud thinking, which takes on a status something akin to Being in the later philosophy of Heidegger as a force of pure becoming prior to any representation or implicit or explicit sense of personal identity, a pulsing force of transformation.
Stepping back from this swerve into fundamental ontology, a critical reader might ask of Dolgopolski, the author of this text, if a reader of Talmud can ever escape the historicist project with all that this implies? Namely can one escape the turning of Talmud into the Talmud as a thing or object, determined by its own distinct place and time?
In what might be an inconsistent move, Dolgopolski gives too much credit to the authority of Mishna as that open emblem of the past remembered in Talmud. Against that piece of Heideggerian piety, one might counter that the Babylonian rabbis do not remember the past in the form of the Mishnah as a kind of primordial gathering point of open originary thinking. What they do to Mishnah is far crueler. They dis-member and then re-member it, always parsing and segmenting the law that the Mishna otherwise represents as apodictically clear.
While it is true that the Talmudic source critics are right to look at the Talmud as a “text” or artifice as something finite, not ultimately infinite, for all that Dolgopolski is on to something important about a text like the Talmud, whose unidentifiable author- redactors are more like ghosts in a machine-like apparatus than like individual subjects with determinable biographies. In this, Dolgopolski has caught the phenomenological aura of Talmud, the uncanny sense that Talmud is Torah, an order of thinking as truth whose source transcends a controlling, thinking human subject who is present at hand.