Considering the Talmud

You have surely, all your life, heard people of all sorts making stupid statements about the Talmud. Most of them have little or no experience even reading a single page of that extensive resource. For instance, from the early Middle Ages onward, Christian divines have sought to use it in their propaganda efforts against the Jewish people and Jewish faith. Since the late 19th century, various other groups tie it into their standard antisemitic tropes with other ill-judged assertions. Lately, people who imagine they can use the tools of computerized linguistic analysis to “study” the Talmud come up with amazingly ignorant things to say. Learnedly ignorant, but ignorant.

The difficulty all these people run afoul of is that the Talmud isn’t a book of definitive doctrines, history, or lore. Nor is it a small, handy thing: it runs to dozens of huge volumes. It is unique in world literature. It records the methods and controversies explored by vastly learned rabbis; it records the teachings of some and the disagreements about those teachings by others, without pronouncing who is correct! Yes, it explores issues of Jewish folklore, law and interpretation, but it does so much more. Anyone who reads the Tanach closely can see that there are a lot of questions raised in practically every verse that provoke thought. The Talmud is in a sense a record of thousands of years of thought about the Tanach and many other things having to do with Jewish life. And there are two Talmuds, anyway, the Babylonian and the Jerusalem ones.  

To try and say “the Talmud says this” or “the Talmud says that” is like saying “the ocean says this or that.” It is at best a mischaracterization. Many of our religious compatriots who have studied Hebrew and Aramaic deeply, usually in yeshivas, spend their entire lifetimes from that time until their passing studying the Talmud. Some of them are of course learned idiots, one can find those anywhere. But a huge number are thoughtful and brilliant individuals. I defy you to find one of them who will agree to say “the Talmud says such and so” without also following up immediately with: “but it also says these other things.”

We have a few volumes of the Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud with commentary (in English) in our library. I invite you to pull one down and try and make sense of just one page and come away with a summary of what it says that can be characterized as: “this page says this.” I’ll wager at least a good bagel with your favorite schmeer that you won’t be able to!

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