The Politics of the Talmud in Iran Today

Jason Sion Mokhtarian

Cover of Adin Steinsaltz. Sayri dar Talmud [The Essential Talmud], Persian translation by Bagher Talebi Darabi (Qom: Markaz-i Mutala at va Tahqiqat-i Adyan va Mazahib, 2004).
Cover of Adin Steinsaltz. Sayri dar Talmud [The Essential Talmud], Persian translation by Bagher Talebi Darabi (Qom: Markaz-i Mutala at va Tahqiqat-i Adyan va Mazahib, 2004).
In the past decade, the study of the Babylonian Talmud has taken an intriguing new orientation that emphasizes the impact of the ancient Iranian world on Jewish culture. This promising course of research has garnered so much attention that panels on the topic at recent national conferences, such as at the AJS, have at times attracted standing-room-only audiences. Indeed, this type of attention to talmudic studies— typically a tedious and specialized field of study—is certainly a rare occurrence.

With so much going on in Jewish Studies, why has the subject of the Talmud in its Iranian context become such a hot topic of discussion in the academy today?

On the one hand, talmudists are taking advantage of the lack of interdisciplinary research that avails itself of the resources in Iranian Studies. The two fields have never been appropriately synthesized. And, given that few scholars in any field would dispute the value of understanding texts in context, the topic of the Iranian setting of the Talmud has become understood a pivotal, yet understudied, topic.

And yet, on the other hand, there appears to be another reason for the emergence of interest—namely, our present context, where the United States, Israel, and Iran are in daily headlines because of political disputes. This possibility has left me wondering: Is it impossible, taboo, or too self-absorbed to contemplate whether current academic research is influenced by modern politics?

Naturally, it is sometimes true that the interests of scholars in Jewish Studies— including in ancient studies such as the Talmud—are drawn toward lesser-studied questions that are on the minds of the public at large. This relationship between academic trends and public consciousness is illustrated by the surge in interest in Islam after the events of 9/11. In the case of the Talmud in Iran, it is thought provoking to note the ways in which scholarly arguments align and conflict with the ideologies of state governments. For example, one conclusion that talmudists have reached is that the rabbis were a marginal group that the Persian imperial government allowed to make legal decisions for Jews in their own local courts of law. In a sense, the implications of this thesis promote a perspective that is probably appealing to at least some parties in the Iranian government—that is, the Jews were a legally empowered community in a vast Persian empire with ultimate political authority over much of the Middle East. If interpreted in a presentist context, the implicit message behind these types of academic arguments can be easily manipulated to demonstrate the validity of a particular worldview. For the Iranian government today, these connections between contextual studies on the Talmud and modern politics are why the Iranian Ministry of Culture gave the award of "Best Book of the Year on Ancient Iran" to Richard Kalmin's Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine, which the author discussed in a past AJS Perspectives essay. The use of the Talmud for political purposes by people with an anti-Jewish agenda is of course nothing new, dating back to the Middle Ages.

In June 2012, in Tehran, the Talmud was mentioned in an inflammatory speech made by Mohammad Reza Rahimi, vice president to former controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to media reports, at an event for the United Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking, Rahimi stirred up emotions by declaring that the Talmud was responsible for the proliferation of narcotics in the world, a business run by the Jews. Later in the speech, Rahimi clarified that there is a difference between Jews and Zionists, and that it was the Zionists who were responsible for the world drug trade. In his comments, which were subsequently denounced by United Nations and Jewish officials, Rahimi challenged the audience to prove him wrong, stating that "the Islamic Republic of Iran will pay for anybody who can research and find one single Zionist who is an addict. They do not exist. This is the proof of their involvement in drugs trade." Rahimi blamed the Talmud for the Jewish-Zionist desire to destroy the world, saying that it teaches Jews to believe they are a superior race and to amass wealth illegally. Obviously, the ex-vice president of Iran—who is currently serving a five-year sentence for embezzlement— needs a few lessons in Talmud.

Fortunately, there are resources for Iranians interested in the subject, at least according to Iran's online national library catalog. In research libraries in Iran today there are academic books about the Talmud in Persian and, more so, in English. Although as far as I know there are no translations of the Talmud into Persian, there are books on the Talmud by Neusner and Levinas, as well as the first volume of Shaked and Netzer's Irano-Judaica series, Strack's Introduction to Talmud and Midrash, and the Cambridge Companion to Talmud, among other works. Also available are English and French translations of the Talmud (e.g., Rodkinson, Neusner, and the Soncino edition). Not surprisingly, however, not everything in the library catalog is so enriching: it also lists anti-Semitic works about the Talmud, almost all of which are in Arabic, such as one entitled Secrets of the Talmud, with a subtitle on how Jews control the world. These works are accompanied by the recent translation of the Talmud into Arabic, completed by scholars in a think tank in Amman, which, according to reports by the Anti-Defamation League, accuses Jews of racism, and yet, paradoxically, also includes relatively faithful translations of the original text.

One book that is widely available in libraries in Iran is the Persian translation of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's classic book The Essential Talmud by Bagher Talebi Darabi, a lecturer in Abrahamic religions at the University of Religions and Denominations located in Qom. The book is part of an attempt by this institution to translate English works into Persian, such as Arnold Toynbee's Christianity among the Religions of the World and The Book of Mormon. In general, Darabi's translation of Steinsaltz is essentially verbatim, at least based on the twenty-five or so pages that I examined. The translation includes an appendix of the talmudic tractates, with Persian translations. The book also contains the translator's original glossary of key words in Hebrew and Aramaic, some of which are specific halakhic terms (e.g., teku, "let it stand," and ripui, "medical expenses"), alongside Persian and English transcriptions, with Persian translations. Although there are some errors, the glossary is quite precise. In the book's acknowledgments, the translator thanks several esteemed friends from the Jewish Association of Tehran for helping with the Hebrew glossary.

In the introduction, Darabi correctly characterizes the two Talmuds as works composed in Hebrew and Aramaic from Babylonia and Palestine. He compares the Talmud with ijtihad, kalam, and hadith. The translator declares that scholarship on other religions should not be narrow minded or result in negative viewpoints. The author explains that the study of Judaism can bring one closer to an understanding of Islam, writing: "It is hoped that understanding the past intellectual efforts on the part of the Jewish scholars in responding to the requirements of the observant and keeping alive the teachings of Judaism may also have a valuable contribution to the Islamic and Shia scholarship. The principal focus and topic of this book is one of the primary components of Jewish jurisprudence: a religion which, in this author's view, has more teachings in common with Islam than with any other religion." Darabi emphasizes that Judaism and Islam are comparable in their text-centeredness and oral transmission. In describing the Jews' attachment to Torah, Darabi describes how the Torah's meaning became unfamiliar over time, a fact that prompted the oral tradition: "For this reason, efforts have always been made to maintain, record, and preserve the definitions, description, or interpretation provided by the first readers of the holy texts." The notion of Talmud as a living document is important to Darabi, who also cites Deuteronomy 17:9 in support of the idea.

In stark contrast to these statements, the introduction has several problematic quotations, including from Joseph Barclay (who, in the introduction to a work on the Talmud says that "the rabbis teach hatred of Christians and Gentiles"), and Heinrich Heine, the German poet who converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century. The Barclay quote says that some of the Talmud is valuable and some of it is heretical, a duplicitousness that is common in the Arab and Persian world's engagement with the Talmud. There may be other manipulations in the book that I did not find, as well.

In the end, one hopes that scholars in Iranian universities, like Mr. Darabi, build upon their understanding of the Talmud, through Steinsaltz and the other resources available in English—including, now, the new subfield that is beginning to flourish in American and Israeli universities, which accentuates the significant influence of ancient Iranian civilization on the contents of one of Judaism's most sacred works.