Reading the Talmud in Amman

University libraries worldwide are abuzz over an Arab, Muslim edition of Talmud translated into Arabic for first time.

Talmud [illustrative]_370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Talmud [illustrative]_370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
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 years.
News reports state that many libraries in the Arab world are obtaining copies.
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 website.
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.
IF 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.
He 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.
I 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 since.
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.
The 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