It is the first study to take seriously the philosophical ligaments of Babylonian Talmud from the perspectives drawn from film theory, Heideggerian post-phenomenology, and virtual reality. A thick bit of a rough read, I tried to make basic sense of the text by simplifying what I identified as its main lines of argument. My advice is to read first the last chapter on “The Talmud as Film” and then jump back to the start of the book. Appearing in LA Marginalia Review, here’s my review of Sergey Dolgopolski’s The Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud. It’s a complex book whose thesis I won’t repeat; you can read the whole thing here. Thank you to SS and EC for trusting me with this review. Sergey, I hope I got it at least in part right.
Here’s a quick digest from the review:
“The work of the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud would only appear to be straightforward and dull, demanding as it does the tedious drawing of distinctions between “pure” and “impure” persons, places, substances, and objects, while determining which actions are obligated, which permitted, and which forbidden. In the process, an entire world will have opened up—architectural and agricultural configurations, urban streets and alleyways, foodstuff and wine, women’s apparel, domestic livestock and wild animals, images and idols, latrines and septic pits, the Temple service, menstrual and other vaginal fluids, knives and scissors, vessel and tent impurities, corpse defilement, orders of blessings and prayer—peppered with fanciful stories about God, biblical heroes and heroines, the rabbis themselves, their students, and sometimes even their wives.
In his latest study, The Open Past: Subjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud, Sergey Dolgopolski turns away from all that, and against historicist research and cultural studies he considers philosophical questions. These questions have less to do with “the Talmud” as an historical object or cultural performance, more to do with “Talmud” as a form of thinking. Drawing primarily on anti-Cartesian, phenomenological, and Heideggerian philosophical perspectives, Dolgopolski asks foundational questions that are simultaneously simple and confusing: Who speaks in the Talmud? Who thinks in the Talmud? Who remembers? Bracketing the phenomena of history and culture, the answers to these question make no prima facie sense. In short, they turn out to be “The Virtual Author,” “The Virtual Subject,” and “The Virtual Itself!”
In Dolgopolski’s view, Talmud is less an object of historical study produced at this and that historical juncture by “subjects” such as authors and then pieced together by redactors at some later historical juncture. At the very least, considerations regarding the historical or cultural life world of Talmud have been peeled off and bracketed in ways that will remind philosophical readers of the school of phenomenology pioneered by Edmund Husserl some one hundred years ago. Dolgopolski swerves with and away from the historicist or formal-literary tradition of Talmud research, represented primarily in The Open Past by two towering figures in the field of Talmud studies, David Halivni and Shamma Friedman. In doing so, Dolgopolski invites the reader to step into a brave new world that looks past the historical life-world of the rabbis to resemble something more like a cinematic-photographic apparatus, cyberspace, or a virtual reality system.”