You cannot begin to imagine the surprise and excitement that overtook me in May 2011 when I first heard about the Israeli film “Footnote” that was awarded the Best Screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Who could have envisaged an acclaimed dramatic production set in the arcane world of the Hebrew University’s Department of Talmud, where I spent a dozen years earning my graduate degrees! It took almost a year before I would actually get to view the Oscar-nominated film—a year in which I impatiently tried to fill in the details based on whatever descriptions, interviews and trailers I was able to get hold of.
Author/director Joseph Cedar stated that his choice of the film’s setting was a very deliberate one. The Hebrew University Talmud Department has always been notorious for its obsessive focus on the minutiae of textual study, as well as for a viciously competitive scholarly culture that often deterred people from publishing their research for fear that a colleague might find an error or omission and use it as a pretext for a savage review. “Footnote”’s chief protagonist Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik was described as just such a personality who was greatly admired by his colleagues for his painstaking research, but had produced no published output to show for it, and refused to pander to a lay readership.
Since the film’s release, just about every conversation I have with Israeli colleagues quickly turns to the question of which real-life professors served as the models for the movie’s main characters. Everyone has their own candidate about whom they are absolutely certain.
Initially I had my own indisputable candidate for the role. My graduate supervisor, though his publication record was not quite as sparse as Prof. Shkolnik’s, was legendary for his reluctance to make his discoveries publicly accessible. He went so far as to have his own doctoral dissertation, a brilliant study of a dozen leaves from the Babylonian Talmud, removed from the stacks at the Jewish National and University Library. Of the few articles he published during his lifetime, several appeared in obscure collections and their significance was hidden under vague titles like “Contributions to the Talmudic Lexicon.” Ultimately, most of his scholarly output was published posthumously.
After finally viewing “Footnote” and pondering the matter at length, I have resigned myself to the fact that its fictional anti-hero was not based on any single person, but is a composite creation incorporating traits found in several academic Talmud scholars.
Indeed, the values and priorities that came to characterize the Department of Talmud were implanted in the earliest phases of the Hebrew University’s inception, as far back as the 1920s when the institution’s founders chose to hire Professor J. N. Epstein, a textual scholar who was then attached to Berlin’s renowned “Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums.” Epstein’s contributions to Semitic and rabbinic philology were greatly admired by academic specialists, but he was little known outside narrow professional circles.
Epstein fought obstinately to uphold his vision of an exemplary university where Humanities research would be conducted with scientific objectivity, untainted by religious or political agendas. This ideal was a particularly difficult one to uphold in a nascent institution that was intended to promote the Jewish national revival, and in a discipline that was normally studied under religious auspices.
It made little difference that Epstein himself was both religiously observant and a committed Zionist. He was horrified by the prospects of a respectable academic department being turned into either a rabbinical seminary or an American-style Liberal Arts college (as advocated by the University’s founding president Judah Magnes). He insisted that his discipline be officially designated as “Talmudic Philology”—as distinct from just “Talmud” or “Semitic Philology.”
In an incident reminiscent of Prof. Shkolnik in the movie, Epstein showed up late to the university’s gala opening ceremony on Mount Scopus in 1925, probably because of his conviction that true scholars should avoid the glare of publicity. In the film, Epstein is very thinly disguised as a “Prof. J. N. Feinstein,” the author of the volume where Shkolnik achieved his brush with immortality by being cited in the eponymous footnote
In the movie, Shkolnik’s life work focuses on his reconstruction of a text of the Jerusalem Talmud based on quotations from medieval authors. His efforts are ultimately frustrated when a rival has the good fortune to discover and publish the actual manuscript.
This episode is based on an actual exploit in the annals of rabbinic scholarship: It had long been noticed that several medieval rabbis were citing passages from the Jerusalem Talmud that are not found in the standard versions, and were unlikely to have been authentic. The eminent Viktor Aptowitzer of Vienna propounded a theory that those scholars were making use of a compendium—which he dubbed the Sefer Yerushalmi—in which the text of the Jerusalem Talmud was supplemented by an assortment of other texts and commentaries. Aptowitzer proposed his own plausible reconstruction of the Sefer Yerushalmi, but his thesis could never be more than speculative as long as no actual manuscripts were known
By the 1980s, several manuscript pages came to light that fit the description of Aptowitzer’s hypothetical compendium. In addition to corroborating his theory, these pages contributed greatly to our knowledge of rabbinic studies in medieval Europe. The pages were recovered from bookbindings into which they had been embedded after being confiscated from their original Jewish owners in the early fifteenth century. Unlike the film plot, that discovery involved (to the best of my knowledge) no overt academic acrimonies.
As it happens, I was personally involved in a very similar scenario. For purposes of my Masters thesis I consulted (via microfilm copy) a manuscript containing sections the Babylonian Talmud, housed in a Spanish monastery. In the thesis I reported that the margins of that manuscript appeared to contain numerous quotations from the Jerusalem Talmud that warranted separate investigation. Shortly afterwards, my supervisor called me to a meeting at which he appeared very agitated; and he grilled me enigmatically about whether any of my other teachers might be using that manuscript in their research.
Within a few days, an article appeared in the Israeli press proclaiming with great fanfare his discovery of an important new Spanish manuscript containing a large chunk of the Jerusalem Talmud. Owing to the extreme scarcity of such manuscripts, his eventual (posthumous) publication of the edition and commentary was a major scholarly coup. The volume included a vague reference to the previous scholars who had made use of the manuscript but failed to appreciate its importance.
Come to think of it, my name did make it into one of Prof. Epstein’s books. In the preface to a posthumous collection of his articles, his son acknowledged my role in preparing the index. It’s not quite top billing, but I suppose that scholars must be content with such modest forms of immortality.
I will wait patiently for an enterprising producer to turn it into an award-winning movie.
|This article and many others are now included in the book|