Saturday, May 4, 2019

Why Study Talmud?

5/4/2019—I’m reading a book at the suggestion of a friend, if all the seas were ink, by Ilana Kurshan. I’m only on page 42, but it is a kind of life affirming memoir of recovering from a bad divorce through a spiritual practice. (Think Eat, Pray, Study Talmud).

The thing not addressed, at least not yet, is, why study Talmud? I mean, why Talmud—that great compendium of Jewish learning. Kurshan notes the practice of daf yomi—learning a page of Talmud a day—as a kind of communal discipline. Jews everywhere are doing the same thing.

But nothing she tells us about what she is learning seems intrinsically enlightening. So, of all things she could do, why study Talmud?

I believe there is an answer to that question. But let’s set a few things straight. One does not study Talmud to learn Jewish law, that is, to learn what to do in terms of keeping the law. First of all, the Talmud is not just about legal issues. (One debate that creates a set piece in the book is the dispute over whether the line in the Bible about the Israelites missing free fish in Egypt referred to food or sex). The Little Talmud was created hundreds of years later, when the authorities decided that the Talmud should have been about law. So, they took out everything else.

Second, even the disputes that are about law—that is, what to do to fulfill the commandments—are often not resolved. As any lawyer knows, you don’t leave legal disputes unresolved.

Nor is Talmud study about keeping the Jewish people together. That is not what the rabbis were doing.

So, what were they doing? They were drawing closer to God. So, you study Talmud in order to draw closer to God—at least if you are being faithful to the rabbis who wrote the Talmud.

What in the Talmud allows one to draw closer to God? Not the content of the rules, which are never clarified, but the disputes themselves. The Talmud is about disputation.

How could disputes draw people closer to God? Jesus would say the opposite would be the case.

The Talmud is a celebration of rationality itself. A celebration of giving reasons and making arguments. God delights in these arguments.

On one level, that sounds like a celebration of cleverness and Jesus would be right that this leads to conflict and anger. But now imagine that reality is rational—think Hegel. The effort to think clearly then mirrors reality—the Talmud is a human imitation of ontology. The rational is the real.

It is the lifestyle of the academies, not their “results” that form a holy life. This means, ironically, that study of Talmud is not the main thing. Study is the main thing. A rational life.

Law school itself could be Talmudic life. Should be Talmudic life. The difference is the lack of holiness in law school. It used to be thought that the common law reflected God’s blueprint for humanity. That is the Talmudic spirit. A law school could be a new academy.

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