The Talmud among Victorian Christians: Polemics and Humanism in Interfaith Encounters

A Victorian intellectual or socialite could have learned about the Talmud from two types of literature: exposés of the depraved Jewish culture, such as the work of Alexander McCaul, and apologetic writings laying out the beauty of rabbinic thought, exemplified by an influential essay by Emanuel Deutsch. The talk will discuss some of the tactics used in each of these types of literature, and the reasons that each – in its own way – was so popular in Victorian England. In the academy, things took a different turn with the appointment of Solomon Marcus Schiller-Szinessy to be the first instructor of Rabbinics at Cambridge. This colorful figure’s legacy includes lasting contributions to scholarship; less well known is his theology. In sermons and writings spanning three decades, he laid out a worldview that included God’s involvement in the world, particularly in the corporate history of the Jews, while also embracing a profound pluralism. Schiller-Szinessy believed strongly in his own Jewish faith and simultaneously in the divine significance of Christianity. Remarkably – and perhaps not coincidentally – Schiller-Szinessy was also highly successful as a pedagogue in Cambridge, gathering a fluid circle of non-Jewish colleagues and students who were devoted to Rabbinics. The study of Talmud was seen as part of the broader humanities. Finally, the talk will conclude with some reflections on the implications of these models for the function and role of Rabbinics in the contemporary academy.