Talmud is Fun!

Best-selling author Maggie Anton thinks more Jews should wade into the sea of Talmud.

by Beth Kissileff

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“Did my interest in Talmud start with wanting to write about it, or did my interest in writing start with Talmud study?” Maggie Anton ponders the question. The answer, she says, is that it all started with the study of Talmud. Anton is the author of two popular series of historical novels based on characters and scenes about the Talmud and Jewish history. Rashi’s Daughters was the first, while the second novel in the Rav Hisda’s Daughter series, Enchantress, will be published in September. Anton’s books have introduced many readers to Talmudic women, as well as to Talmud itself. They’ve had such an impact that her editor, who started out editing romance novels, is now studying for the rabbinate at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles! CJ Magazine  caught up with Anton recently to discuss what studying Talmud has meant to her, as well as the role Jewish texts can have in the lives of all Jews.

CJ: Why should Jews, particularly Conservative Jews, study Talmud?

Maggie Anton: In the Talmud, when halachah reflects the position of Rabbi A, Rabbi B’s opinion is still in the text, and we can go back and say Rabbi B said to do it this way. Even the losers are recognized and acknowledged and given some validity. On the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, there are often minority, as well as majority, opinions, and rabbis can follow either. Conservative Jews try to be true to how it is in the Talmud, and this very much impressed me, this diversity. This is something more Jews should know about.

CJ: What does the Talmud have to do with today’s Judaism? Does a text that is 1,500 years old really still have relevance?

MA: It is clear when you study Torah that we don’t do much of the stuff that is in there. Most of the 613 mitzvot are not performable since we don’t have a Temple. Talmud is a telescope into the past. But I will come right out and say it: Talmud is fun! It is designed for people to argue over and discuss, it’s very intellectually stimulating, very exciting. Beyond that, when I am studying Talmud, for me that is my path to the Shechinah (the feminine manifestation of God).

CJ: What is the place of Jewish texts in the life of a liberal or secular Jew?

MA: We are the people of the book. The Talmud is one of those books that we are the people of. For baby boomers who need intellectual stimulation, following Talmudic reasoning, arguing with people in the class, is wonderful. It is easy to understand how you can spend the whole two hour class talking about two paragraphs. It gets your brain cells going in a way nothing else does. If you are in the right class with the right teacher and other students, it can be very exciting and challenging. The difficulty with Talmud is that you can’t do it by yourself. You have to study with another person, have different views, see different things.

CJ: Where do you recommend people go to get started learning?

MA: We have good English translations now. Twenty-five years ago, you had to know Hebrew or Aramaic and that was a huge barrier. We don’t have that barrier any more. It is online. The Conservative movement offers in-depth daily Talmud study, called Daf Shevui. (Go to www.conservativeyeshiva.org/category/daf-shevui.)

CJ: Why do you write?

MA: I can’t say I wrote Rashi’s Daughters with the sole purpose of getting more Jews to study Talmud, but to try to intrigue them into studying.

CJ: I’m curious, what do Talmud scholars and professors think of your books?

MA: They like them. Honestly, the Association of Jewish Studies met and I went. All the leading modern scholars were there and they all knew who I was. The Orthodox ones said their wives loved my books. Every single one emailed me, sent PDFs of articles. Who else but a Talmud scholar would recognize the research and appreciate it?

CJ: How is it to write about Talmud as a woman?

MA: I see the Talmud itself as historical fiction. One of the first things I had to do to write about Rav Hisda’s daughter, was to figure out who everyone was, when did they live, when did they die. Some of the dates in the Talmud are impossible; Rav Hisda’s wife would have been 70 when her children were born, another woman was pregnant for 18 months. Women’s voices are not there in history, but historical novelists can help us to see history from women’s eyes. We are not a minority. Who is to say how fictitious any history is?