Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Thank God for the Talmud

[a set of the Talmud]

I was watching a movie a few days ago, and one of the characters in the movie was a member of a Christian sect which prohibits blood transfusions. The character died because of her refusal to accept a transfusion. The Torah says "And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people." Leviticus 17:10 These people believe that this prohibits any consumption of blood, even intravenously and even on pain of death.

It reminded me: who knows what type of impractical and cruel rules a person could fabricate by reading the Torah literally without the benefit of the Oral Law in the Talmud.

I recall myself as a teenager, before my conversion, puzzling over verses about tying a fringe on the four corners of your garment. Where are the corners and what are these fringes?

Groups which have attempted to practice the Torah without the Talmud have failed. The Sadducees disappeared about 1900 years ago. The Karaites and the Samaritans are virtually dead. Neither community, to the best of my knowledge, has an independent school system raising children to practice their beliefs. I would therefore seriously question whether anyone today is actually fully practicing either system. Rabbinical Judaism however numbers in the millions and always has.


Philo said...

I'm sorry to say to this JP but those who think halacha evolves (conservatives) and those who don't take halacha at all, who are correct of course, (Reform) out number those who do not think at almost 4 to 1.

jewish philosopher said...

To the best of my knowledge, the only people attempting to observe the Torah at this time are Orthodox Jews. Reform, conservative, christians, Muslims, messianic Jews, etc, etc are not trying. The may choose a few bits and pieces, but that's all.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Philo, there is an essential difference between Conservatives, Reform and Orthodox. To be a Conservative or Reform, all you have to do is take out a membership in one of their synagogues. There's no actual demands other than that and a belief in some kind of godhead, preferably the benign kind that lets you eat bacon and eggs before you go to the mall on Saturdays because He wants you to be happy and that makes you happy. Anything else they observe is by choice, not out of a sense of obligation.
On the other hand, to call oneself Orthodox means accepting a certain set of laws as legally binding, specifically those found in the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch. Membership in a synagogue is irrelevant in this case, it's all about how you live your life.
So while there may be lots of Conservatives and Reformers, there are virtually no practising ones (I think one survey showed that 5% of Conservatives keep some standard of kashrut both at home and out).

Mahla said...

Okay, I'm not too well-versed in this, but am I right in thinking that the Karaites are to Judaism what the Protestants are to the Catholic faith (that is, claiming 'sola scriptura')?

jewish philosopher said...

Yes, sort of.

NC said...

Althought 'rabbinic Jews' number in the millions, as you say, the population of the world has increased exponentially, and Jews of all types have become an ever increasing tiny fraction of the world population.

Talmudic Judaism was an innovation in its day that insured the survival of Judaism. The previously practiced Hebrew religion (priests, temples, prophets and sacrifices) died out. Jews surely would have disappeared has it not been for the Talmudic innovations. Do not forget that not until the Talmudic times was it clear that one could violate the Sabbath to save lives!

As for today, you can write off non-orthodox Jews if you wish, but then you are making an argument by prediction--and we humans are notoriously bad at predicting anything beyond a few days.

Today, modern orthodoxy is the best adapted to survive, with relatively good reproduction rates and full adaptation to modern realities.

Anonymous said...

I understand that the core beliefs system of Reform Judaism keeps on changing. And that the is a whole continuum of belief systems that fall under the category of Conservative Judaism.

Mahla said...

Thank you for answering, JP. :^) I used to think of Judaism as pretty monolithic, before I actively learned anything about it. It's really a pretty diverse mosaic.

NoLiveGod said...


Oh, I see. True Judaism is identical to your personal interpretation of its "actual demands."

I say no.

jewish philosopher said...

"modern orthodoxy is the best adapted to survive"

That's not true; modern Orthodoxy is really dying out as I've pointed out here.

Mahla, there is a famous story about two Jew shipwrecked on an island. When they are rescued a few years later the rescuers find three synagogues. The Jews explain "I go to one. He goes to the other. The third synagogue is the one we both refuse to attend."

It's not so far from the truth.

not at all convinced said...

MO, using the broad definition, is the largest Jewish group in Israel. That traditional sefardim vote for shas doesn't mean that they are heredi.

The non-heredi orthodox comprise a disproportionately large number of IDF officers, high tech and professional workers, and university students.

Hardly dying out.

On the other hand, the Heredim, while reproducing more rapidly, are the most impoverished, unemployed and unskilled work sectors of society.

Not exactly a bright future, in this world, at least....

Maybe you should stop basing your arguments on unfounded predictions.

If you wish to follow the "wisdom" of the Talmud, fine. But you won't get very far convincing people that it isn't just a completely human endeavor.

jewish philosopher said...

Modern orthodox have become a shrinking fringe group. Their kids mostly either become either non- or ultra-.

NC said...

You are basing that on anecdotal stories and perhaps wishful thinking. There are plenty of people who abandon Heredi Judaism and Islam as well, but I don't have any allusions that Heredis or Muslims are disappearing.

There is also a big difference between Heredi in Israel and heredi in the diaspora, and among the various heredi groups. But in general, they remain a relatively disempowered and poor segment of society. (As opposed to non-heredi orthodox)

Returning to the subject of your post--

let's agree to disagree. The method of acquiring knowledge, deducing facts and determining morality is different for a traditional religionist such as yourself, in comparison to a secular rationalist, such as myself. If you agree to keep your nose out of science, I'll agree to keep my nose out of religion.

You should realize that you can't use your talmudic mode of thinking in scientific questions, as I cannot use modern scientific thinking to analyze to talmud, the soul or other religious questions.

(I know that the new atheists dispute this, and say that religion SHOULD be accessible to scientific scrutiny. I say that this is tru only if religion makes scientific claims)

Mahla said...

JP, there is a spectrum in between totally non-Jewish and Modern Orthodox, also.

Maybe some of the M.O. kids are becoming Conservative or Reform Jews.

jewish philosopher said...

"You are basing that on anecdotal stories and perhaps wishful thinking."

The consistently diminishing numbers of modern Orthodox Israeli Parliament members I think indicates a diminishing community. I don't know of any indication that the community is growing.

"Maybe some of the M.O. kids are becoming Conservative or Reform Jews."

Probably. Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform are all a continuous bridge between the old religion, Judaism, and the new, atheism.

This is similar to liberal Christian churches.

Anonymous said...


How can science be used to determine morality?

NC said...

"The consistently diminishing numbers of modern Orthodox Israeli Parliament..."

I already addressed that in my earlier comment.

"How can science be used to determine morality?"

I mean reason (as opposed to revealed moral imperatives).

Although--Sam Harris argues that science can be used to deduce morality (via studying what decreases human suffering and increases happiness).

NoLiveGod said...


Where does NC say that science can or should be used to determine morality?

For that matter, how can Talmud be used to determine morality? How can Torah? How can the Koran? How can Moby Dick? How can Star Trek?

These last questions are not jokes or ridicule. I think they all can be used to determine morality; they all ARE used to determine morality.

Anonymous said...

But how do you know what is moral? How do you know what that morality even exists?

Hitler tried to base a morality on science. That didn't work very well.

Alex said...

> "The Karaites and the Samaritans are virtually dead. Neither community, to the best of my knowledge, has an independent school system raising children to practice their beliefs."

Here's a Karaite school from the 1920's:

jewish philosopher said...

I doubt that school is still functioning.

Rebeljew said...

Yet you only selectively believe in the Talmud. Interesting.

jewish philosopher said...

I accept entirely the legal portion of the Talmud as binding.

Alex said...

Found on a Jewish forum:

I checked the Judaica and found that indeed in World War II three
Rabbanim - in order to save the Karaites - stated that they were not of
Jewish origin. The Germans themselves claimed that the Karites' "racial
psychology" was not Jewish.

I find one sentence in the Judaica article extremely disturbing: "The
behavior of the Karaites during the Holocaust period vacillated between
indifference to the Jewish cause and some cases of actual collaboration
with the Germans." This would hardly seem to fit in their feeling
themselves part of the same people.

Shmuel Himelstein: