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There's a humorous story that has been passed down in my family for a couple of generations: some company came over to my family's house, where all of my great-Uncles were out on the porch, arguing about some arcane matter. Over an hour later, one of the guests stuck his head out and came back with a look of disbelief on his face. "Are they still at it?," someone from my family asked, laughing. "Yes," replied the guest, "but that's not the strange part--they've all changed sides in the argument and are still going strong!" That dialectical spirit is alive and well in this elegantly produced and beautifully shot and scored documentary about the Talmud, the written exegeses on scripture's more perplexing issues (e.g., did Adam, the first man, have a belly button?) as well as discussions about more mundane everyday laws that ostensibly attempt to answer deep questions, but just as often as not end up posing even more perplexing questions in the wake of their purported solutions.
The Talmud is in a way the history of the Jews writ small: it was written down to begin with due to persecution, when the ability to pass down purely oral tradition was threatened at the beginning of the Christian era. Centuries of nomadic wandering followed, as Talmudic scholars attempted to evade rampant anti-Semitism, resulting in two major branches of Talmud, the Babylonian and Jerusalem. Pockets of Talmudic scholarship flourished (for moments, anyway) in such farflung places as France (where the noted Rashi worked) and Spain and Morocco (where Maimonides, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of all time, lived). Despite the wandering and outright bans of the Talmud by the Catholic church, it, like its people, has managed to survive and even thrive despite the considerable odds against it.
The documentary gives a solid background in the history of Talmud, as well as its major players, and wisely stays completely away from "talking head syndrome"--there are no experts on display pontificating on Talmud. Instead we get a nice voiceover complementing both archival images and stunningly shot contemporary images, including everything from modern schools of Talmud to gorgeous vistas of the lands where Talmud grew.
For those who might think this might be an awfully dry subject, Talmud manages to capture some of the surprising humor of its subject with a recurring gag of two Jews debating the conundrum of whether a clean or dirty chimney sweep would bathe after a day's work. As their argument devolves increasingly into minutiae (a Talmudic tradition of its own called pilpul), it becomes increasingly hilarious. Suffice it to say, by the time they are debating whether either of them has heard two chimney sweeps play Beethoven on the piano, you know you've arrived in Monty Python territory, or something awfully close.
This is an excellent generalist documentary that provides abundant information while being heartfelt and succinct.
The enhanced 1.78:1 image is crisp and clear. As is to be expected, some of the archival film is badly degraded.
A nice standard Dolby soundtrack is the only option. The voiceovers are clear and the nice score, featuring source music by such artists as Philip Glass and Andy Statman, has excellent fidelity.
No extras aside from alternate language tracks (French and German).
This is a beautiful piece of filmmaking and should be of interest not only to Jews but anyone interested in religious history and philosophy. As is well explored in this piece, Talmud's reach into modern thought is unparalleled (everything from psychoanalysis to quantum physics), and this exploration is an A+ effort all the way.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet