From Sermon to Commentary
Expounding the Bible in Talmudic Babylonia
The Bible has always been vital to Jewish religious life, and it has been expounded in diverse ways. Perhaps the most influential body of Jewish biblical interpretation is the Midrash that was produced by expositors during the first five centuries CE. Many such teachings are collected in the Babylonian Talmud, the monumental compendium of Jewish law and lore that was accepted as the definitive statement of Jewish oral tradition for subsequent generations.
However, many of the Talmud’s interpretations of biblical passages appear bizarre or pointless. From Sermon to Commentary: Expounding the Bible in Talmudic Babylonia tries to explain this phenomenon by carefully examining representative passages from a variety of methodological approaches, paying particular attention to comparisons with Midrash composed in the Land of Israel.
Based on this investigation, Eliezer Segal argues that the Babylonian sages were utilizing discourses that had originated in Israel as rhetorical sermons in which biblical interpretation was being employed in an imaginative, literary manner, usually based on the interplay between two or more texts from different books of the Bible. Because they did not possess their own tradition of homiletic preaching, the Babylonian rabbis interpreted these comments without regard for their rhetorical conventions, as if they were exegetical commentaries, resulting in the distinctive, puzzling character of Babylonian Midrash.
- Winner, Nacham Sokol-Chaim Yoel and Mollie Halberstadt Award for Scholarship: Biblical/Rabbinic Category, Helen and Stan Vine Annual Canadian Jewish Book Awards 2006
``Segal's book moves us from his own brief sermonic thought on the material to our more intense personal commentary. We try to solve with him or against him what he sees as the weakness of these Talmudic debates. This is a book that is a study guide and partner--not a book that lays it all out and settles issues. Segal's Introduction is scholarly and masterful, his Conclusion delightfully pensive and informed if not unabashed, editorial journalism. The work is vintage Segal. ''- Herbert Basser, Queen's University, Studies in Religion, Vol 35, no 3-4, 2006
``Still, Segal gives us a fresh perspective on the relations of Babylonian midrash to other rabbinic literature and offers insight into why the Babylonian midrash has a form that now strikes many of us as strange. Segal concludes the monograph by raising a number of interesting issues, including the importance of recognizing the dangers of blurring the borders between exegesis and homiletics. ''- Jay Newman, Canadian Book Review Annual, 2006
``All who would seek to understand the haggadah of the Babylonian Talmud, as well as its relation to Palestinian tradition, would be very well served by reading this book. ''- Joshua Schwartz, Review of Biblical Literature, June 2006
``Eliezer Segal makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on Talmudic literature in From Sermon to Commentary. In thirty compact chapters, he examines selected extracts from the Babylonian Talmud to judge their interpretative value. He compares these extracts with corresponding passages in the Palestinian Talmud, and finds the former wanting in coherency and meaning. ... Segal's book expands appreciably our knowledge of the nature of biblical interpretation in the Babyloninan Talmud and allows us to understand some of the bewildering passages in the aggadic Midrashim. This book is recommended not only to scholars of Talmud but anyone concerned with the exegesis in general. ''- Matthew Lagrone, University of Toronto Quarterly, Letters in Canada 2006, Volume 77, Number 1, Winter 2008