The Meteorologist-Turned-Professor Who Discovered the Parallels between Talmudic and Zoroastrian Law

Aug. 22 2018

For the first century-and-a-half of academic Jewish studies, scholars approached the Talmud armed primarily with knowledge of Judaism and of Greco-Roman antiquity. Such knowledge is undoubtedly necessary for studying the Mishnah (the older stratum of the Talmud) and the Jerusalem Talmud, both of which were produced in Roman-ruled Palestine. But the far more significant Babylonian Talmud reflects the teaching of rabbis who lived in Persian-ruled Mesopotamia during the 3rd through 6th centuries, a place where the dominant religion was Zoroastrianism and the literary language Persian. The late Yaakov Elman, an Orthodox Jew who had been a meteorologist, bookseller, and publisher before turning to fulltime scholarship, rought knowledge of this period in Iranian history to the study of Talmud. Shai Secunda reminisces about Elman, who died last month at the age of seventy-four:

While [Elman’s] early work was strictly philological and focused on topics such as the relationship between the early rabbinic compilation known as the Tosefta and the Babylonian Talmud, he moved on ingeniously to combine Iranian and talmudic studies in a hybrid that became known as Irano-Talmudica. Elman was the not the first scholar to realize that studying Babylonian Jewry’s Persian context could illuminate the Babylonian Talmud, but he is the one who built it into a real movement of flesh-and-blood people from different fields. . . .

Yaakov began this Irano-Talmudic stage of his career at age fifty, on a fellowship at Harvard. There he befriended professor Oktor Skjærvø, a tall, wry Norwegian master of Indo-Iranian languages. Oktor and Yaakov . . . soon became inseparable, spending many hours each day studying Middle Persian in Skjærvø’s large, book-lined office. Occasionally attending faculty parties in the evening, they appeared as the ultimate odd couple. . . .

Traveling the world for Jewish and Iranian studies conferences, Yaakov became a tireless evangelist for reading the Talmud alongside Middle Persian texts, regularly launching into detailed discussions of Zoroastrian law and describing it, to the astonishment of many, as “halakhic,” “rabbinic,” and “strikingly parallel” to Jewish law. . . . The tiny field of Old Iranian studies, which had been languishing due to lack of interest, gained tremendously from the sudden, unexpected infusion of these Talmud scholars.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Ancient Persia, Babylonian Jewry, History & Ideas, Jewish studies, Talmud

How China Equips the Islamic Republic to Repress Its People

In its dedication to bringing totalitarianism into the 21st century, the Chinese Communist party has developed high-tech forms of surveillance using facial-recognition software, a vast system of “social credit,” and careful control over its subjects’ cellular phones. Even stricter and more invasive measures are applied to the Uyghurs of the northwestern part of the country. Beijing is also happy to export its innovations in tyranny to allies like Iran and Russia. Playing a key role in these advances is a nominally private company called Tiandy Technologies. Craig Singleton describes its activities:

Both Tiandy testimonials and Chinese-government press releases advertise the use of the company’s products by Chinese officials to track and interrogate Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province. According to human-rights groups, Chinese authorities also employ Tiandy products, such as “tiger chairs,” to torture Uyghurs and other minorities.

Iran has long relied on China to augment its digital surveillance capabilities, and Tehran was an early adopter of Beijing’s “social-credit” system, which it wields to assess citizens’ behavior and trustworthiness. . . . Iranian government representatives have publicized plans to leverage smart technologies, including AI-powered face recognition, to maintain regime stability and neutralize dissent. Enhanced cooperation with China is central to those efforts.

At present, Tiandy is not subject to U.S. sanctions or export controls. In light of Tiandy’s operations in both Xinjiang and Iran, policymakers should consider removing the company, its owner, and stakeholders from the international financial system and global supply chains.

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Read more at FDD

More about: China, Human Rights, Iran, Totalitarianism, U.S. Foreign policy