Last month, I re-watched Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, first screened on BBC 2 in 2013. In the fifth and last episode, ‘The Return’, focusing on Israel as the centre of the revival of Jewish life after the Sho’ah, Schama draws attention to the republication of the Talmud seventy years ago by the United States Army, following an agreement in 1946 between the commander-in-chief of the US occupying forces in Germany and the Jewish American relief organisation, the Joint Distribution Committee. This special edition of the Talmud was printed in 1948 in Heidelberg at the Carl Winter Printing Plant that had previously published Nazi propaganda.
With a title page depicting the Land of Israel above an image of barbed wire surrounding a camp, what became known as the ‘Survivors’ Talmud’ includes a special dedication to the United States Army by Rabbi Samuel A. Sneig, Chairman and Chief Rabbi of the U.S. zone ‘in the name of the Rabbinical Organisation’, which concludes with these words:
This special edition of the Talmud published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah. The Jewish DPs will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American forces, to whom they owe so much.
Only 100 copies of the ‘Survivors’ Talmud’ were printed. Nevertheless, it is a potent reminder that Jewish survival is not simply a matter of physical existence. Study and an engagement with Jewish teaching has always been the wellspring of Jewish life. Two other Talmud stories, mentioned by Jewish historian Cecil Roth in A Jewish Book of Days (Edward Goldston, London, 1931), bring this point home. Rabbeinu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, who was the leader of the Tosaphists – the ‘supplementers’ who continued Rashi’s work – died on 9th June 1171 (pp.140-141). To this day, the commentary of the Tosaphists appears in every edition of the Talmud – including, the ‘Survivors’ Talmud’ – opposite that of Rashi. The Talmud itself is also a ‘survivor’. On another June date seventy-one years later, a disputation in Paris with the Christian authorities resulted in the burning of the Talmud by the tribunal of Church dignitaries. Roth writes (p. 147):
On Friday, June 17, 1242, twenty-four cartloads of priceless Hebrew manuscripts were publicly burnt in Paris. This disaster was mourned by the Jews hardly less bitterly than the martyrdom of their brethren. Meir of Rothenburg, who was studying in Paris at the time and witnessed the holocaust, commemorated it in a heartbroken elegy (‘Ask, is it well, O thou consumed in fire’). This was the first episode in the long-drawn attack upon Hebrew literature, which, though it failed of its purpose, explains the extreme scarcity of manuscripts of the Talmud preserved at the present time.
Roth’s ‘present time’ was 1931 – before the Sho’ah. Let us give thanks this June for the life and work of Rabbeinu Tam and the Tosaphists – and for the ‘Survivors’ Talmud’ of 1948. And just as important, let us acknowledge the contribution made to the revival of Jewish study in recent years by the development of Limmud, the cross-denominational Jewish educational project (that like ‘Talmud’ means ‘learning’), which has now become a regular feature of the Jewish landscape in this country, reconnecting Jews of all ages and backgrounds to our sacred inheritance