Thursday, November 25, 2010
[the first page of a lifelong journey]
The essense of Judaism is the Talmud. The basis of all Jewish law is the Talmud and these laws govern every aspect of a Jew's life. An Orthodox Jew's greatest aspiration is to be an expert in the Talmud and most adult Orthodox Jews study the Talmud daily. An Orthodox Jewish woman's highest aspiration is to marry a Talmudic scholar and to encourage her husband's study.
Studying the Talmud can however be daunting to modern students.
First of all, I believe that the Talmud is not a complete book. What happened is that the rabbinical law was originally passed down orally from generation to generation. Jews would spend every spare moment reviewing and repeating the laws of the Torah as it is stated "thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Deut. 6:7).
Eventually, however, a brief summary of the rabbinical law had to be recorded in order to prevent the loss of legal details. This was the Talmud, compiled in what is now Iraq about 500 CE. The Talmud is therefore not an encyclopedia of Jewish law - it is a memory aid for people who are already fluent in Jewish law. Even after mastering the languages (a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic) the modern reader is often lost and hopelessly confused when attempting to study the Talmud. The commentaries of Rashi and Tosofos help to some degree, however they were also written for an audience which already had a high level of Talmudic knowledge.
Thank God, a new edition of the Talmud has now been published which solves this problem - the Schottenstein edition from Artscroll publishers. This edition includes a translation with a commentary embedded in it and lengthy footnotes, which makes the Talmud intelligable to the modern English speaking reader. With 72 volumes, it dwarfs the Encyclopedia Brittanica at 32 volumes.
Nevertheless, the style of the Talmud is unique. The earlier Talmudic sages were experts in finding meaning in tiny nuances of Scripture, an art which was afterwards lost. The later Talmudic sages were experts in finding meaning in tiny nuances of the comments of the earlier sages. Today we no longer have the insight and expertise to understand the criteria used by the Talmudic sages for their analysis and therefore we must simply accept their conclusions as facts, even if the reasoning behind their conclusions may be obscure. The validity of the Talmud rests upon the assumption that earlier generations, being closer to the revelation at Mount Sinai, were on a proportionally higher level of spirituality and scholarship.
For the sincere Orthodox Jew, the Talmud is his lifelong love, his mobile holy sanctuary, his refuge from all sadness and persecution, his source of all inspiration. Other religions have their huge cathedrals, mosques or temples. For the Jew, exiled and persecuted, with everything physical taken from him, the Talmud is his monument to spirituality.
Posted by jewish philosopher at 11:23 AM