University libraries in Israel and across the Jewish world have recently been
abuzz over word that a group of Arab and Muslim scholars have published the
first ever translation into Arabic of the entire Babylonian Talmud – a
1,500-year-old collection of ancient rabbinic discussions of Jewish law,
theology and folklore. The huge project was organized by the Middle East Studies
Center in Amman, Jordan, and involved almost 100 scholars working for six
News reports state that many libraries in the Arab world are
What are we to make of this effort? Unfortunately, the
center’s director, Jawad Ahmad, refuses to talk to the Israeli press, so all we
have to go on is the printed introduction and the posts on the center’s
That is where the trouble begins. The project features a very
lengthy introduction to the Talmud by Dr. Amir al Hafi, a professor of religious
studies at the University of Al al-Bayt, Jordan. Dr. Al Hafi’s introduction
draws heavily on the writings of three notorious anti-Semites: Rev. I.B.
Pranaitis, Israel Shahak and Hasan Zaza; and repeats many classic anti-Semitic
allegations made in connection with the Talmud and other Jewish texts.
HIS essay is characteristic of the mindset of the Arabic Talmud’s translators or
intended users, as I believe it is, this new translation can only harm Jews and
set back any efforts to promote interfaith understanding.
Although Dr. Al
Hafi cites a handful of humanistic passages in the Talmud, the vast majority of
his introduction describes the Talmud as a racist document that encapsulates a
Jewish spirit of ethnic supremacism. He claims that Jews desire “superiority and
domination of all peoples”; that modern Jews have a Talmudic mindset of racism
and contempt toward non-Jews; and that the Talmud encourages Jews to lie to and
steal from others.
He explicitly links these Talmudic attitudes to the
State of Israel.
In his view, the Talmud has created Jewish hatred toward
Palestinians, and has led Jews to violate Palestinians’ rights and dispossess
them of their property. Dr. Al Hafi alleges that when Jews in the Diaspora give
support to Israel, they do so as a result of these same Talmudic influences. He
also alleges that the Talmud issues a “clear prohibition on withdrawing from the
West Bank,” and prohibits Jews from adhering to peace agreements.
concludes his essay with the hope that this newly translated Talmud will allow
students in Arab and Muslim universities to begin their studies and understand
the “Jewish spirit” and Jewish national identity.
How important is Dr. Al
Hafi’s essay? Even if it does not achieve broad distribution or a significant
number of readers, it tells you about the cultural environment in which this new
field of academic Talmud studies in the Muslim world will take place: one in
which a Professor of Religious Studies in Jordan accepts the claims of avowed
anti-Semites about Jewish civilization, and feels no shame in citing them in his
writing; in which Jews are believed to be racist, supremacist, deceitful and
hateful people; and in which the actions of the Israeli government are thought
to be motivated by an ideological or religious hatred of Arabs rather than
geopolitical and security concerns.
I am concerned that as more people
study the Talmud in that cultural environment, more of them will be convinced
that their own misconceptions about Jews are actually confirmed by Jewish
religious texts. Emboldened by their own “mastery” of Jews’ actual religious
documents, they will confidently assert that Jews’ efforts at reconciliation or
peacemaking cannot be trusted as a result of their “Talmudic” mindset.
am concerned that as more Arabs and Muslims come to believe that Judaism as a
religion teaches hatred of non-Jews and is the ideological foundation for
Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, more Jewish schools, synagogues and
individuals will be targeted for harassment and violence.
It is not as if
Arab scholars suddenly discovered the Talmud a few years ago and set out to
explore this strange, new text. Arab polemicists have cited the Talmud in their
attacks on Jews for a thousand years. Partly on the basis of passages in the
Talmud, the 11th-century theologian Ibn Hazm described Jews as “the most
imbecilic, impious, lying people in the world.” A steady stream of anti-Jewish
propaganda based on Jewish texts has circulated through the Arab world ever
Trying to understand contemporary Jews by studying an ancient
religious text that is prone to misinterpretation and which has been the locus
of much anti-Semitism in the past (a fact that Dr. Al Hafi clearly knows), is
either extremely naive or chillingly disingenuous.
Studying the Talmud to
understand the mindset of modern Jews, let alone irreligious modern Jews, let
alone the government of Israel, is like trying to understand the mindset of
modern Catholics by studying Augustine.
If Muslim scholars are interested
in learning about and understanding modern Jews, let them start by talking to
us. We may be able to attain rapprochement if we can carry on a direct dialogue
and sustain an environment of mutual respect and humility. Only then will we be
able to guide each other through our evolving literary traditions.
writer is a PhD student in Jewish history at Yeshiva University. He was director
of the Library and Research Center at the Anti-Defamation League from 2006-2011.
He blogs about anti-Semitism at jhate.wordpress.com.