Talmud as seen by a political scientist

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — For something like 15 years, I’ve been studying Talmud Shabbat mornings for an hour or so with a religious (i.e., Orthodox) neighbor. We’ve been friends for more than 40 years, since we were both at the University of Wisconsin.

I’ve commented several times, perhaps not to his delight, and to other religious friends, also not to their delight, that the experience has made me more Jewish but less religious.

The short explanation is that I perceive what is trivial and even ridiculous in the holy text, along with considerable wisdom and much to admire intellectually.

Over the course of my long life, I’ve had periods of synagogue attendance and synagogue avoidance. Currently I’m at the latter extreme, and Talmud study has not altered my practice.

Israel provides opportunities for enjoying the richness of the Jewish experience, without participating in long and repetitious prayer, much of it praising a God who has abandoned us at crucial moments.

My course of study began with the Tractate Sanhedrin (named after the ancient Rabbinical parliament and court), which deals with issues of law and punishment, and is as close to “governmental” as the Rabbis could be during the period 200 BCE to several hundred years CE, usually under non-Judaic rulers in Judea and Babylon,.

Then we proceeded to the Tractate Berachot, whose prominent lessons are on the details and timing of prayer. And for the most recent few years we’ve been working through the “Bavot,” a series of three lengthy Tractates dealing with damages, equivalent to the modern conception of tort law.

A Talmud discussion begins with a passage from the Mishnah, which is an earlier rendering of law as derived from the Torah.

The overwhelming majority of the text consists of argument between Rabbis seeking to push one another toward a more complete understanding of the Mishnah and Torah.

Reference backward begins the puzzle. Language of the Torah is often as general or vague as passages of the US Constitution. There is also a great deal of what appears to be precise and detailed law in the Torah, but Jewish minds have found reasons to interpret, evade, and create.

Prominent examples appear in the treatment of the Torah’s death penalties. They were softened considerably by the Rabbis’ insistence that the perpetrator be aware of the penalty, had been warned prior to the action, was seen by at least two credible witnesses, and had an opportunity to appeal a death sentence.

Among the Rabbis who finagled with the Torah, was one who said that if the Sanhedrin sentenced one person to death in a period of 70 years, it would be considered a “murderous” court.

What fascinates, and continues to attract me in the Talmud, is its concern for precision. “The devil is in the details” is close to the essence of law and administration, and is prominent in the Talmud. Often there is too much detail. “Pilpul” is the expression for Rabbinical adversaries challenging one another through layers of ever more fine and–to the advocates–precise rendering of elements in what must be decided.

The practice often wanders into what appears trivial in the extreme, and has become one of the charges included in classic renderings of anti-Semitism. We’re accused of never being satisfied by something clear to others. We continue to argue about the smallest and least significant issues, to the point of evading responsibility and antagonizing those who want to agree and get on with whatever is causing a dispute.

Frustration, and “what’s the point” frequently passes through my mind when preparing for, or participating in a Talmud lesson. The Rabbis wandered far from the original language of the Torah, and in some discussions the holy sources have been entirely replaced by convoluted discussions of cases brought to court, or the possibility that certain details could be brought by a plaintiff. Who did what, under what conditions, with what intentions, and what penalties are appropriate is a series of questions that can go on interminably.

The base of argument may be nothing more precise than the language in Deuteronomy that “you shall do what is right and good.”

Often the discussion ends without a resolution. Sometimes with a comment that there is no solution. Sometimes the discussion simply turns to something else, without any apparent resolution of what had been bothering the Rabbis and their readers for several passages.

The Rabbis recognized traditional practices as well as laws perceived in the Torah. Frequently they indicate that the details of practice ought to reflect the way things are done in a particular kingdom or locality.

The entire Talmud is something from another culture and age.

For the most part, the discussions are not marked by whole sentences, but are snippets remembered and reported from court cases or discussions in rabbinical academies.

“Oral law” is its label, reflecting that for several hundred years the material was passed down by gifted individuals charged with remembering who said what, and passing it on to younger men charged with remembering.

Among the results is that there are different versions of the Talmud. The oldest extant written Talmud dates from the 13th century, perhaps 900 years after the full material was being passed around orally.

Language is also an issue. The Tractates are a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, often moving from one language to another in the course of a discussion. Translations vary from one version to another..

On account of all that is unclear, the original language of the Talmud is a small portion of what is studied. A typical page has a portion of original text in the center, surrounded by a collection of explanations and commentaries assembled from scholars of the early Middle Ages to whatever modern Rabbi finalized the publication of the Talmud being used. What’s called Talmud study includes a coverage of the commentaries as well as the basic text, plus what additional interpretations participants have heard from their teachers.

In other words, the sum total is not only what’s written, but explanations passed on by earlier generations. It’s in this sense that the process involves participation in an ongoing conversation. The process explains why Talmud study is done with a partner, or as part of a group. Argument about what is meant by the basic text or the commentaries is part of the process. It’s not for individual study by oneself, even assuming familiarity with both Hebrew and Aramaic.

There are passages that lighten the burdens. The Rabbis occasionally insulted colleagues who didn’t understand things in what they viewed as the proper way, and there is even a bit more suited to a bawdy session of story telling than a synagogue’s study hall.

Page 27a of Bava Kama tells the unlikely story of a man pushed by a high wind from a roof, who lands upon a woman in a way that he penetrates her sexually.

The episode appears in the context of penalties required to be paid for damages.

One conclusion is that the man is obligated to pay the woman for pain, the cost of healing, and loss of employment, but not for humiliation, insofar as his action was caused by a high wind and not by his intention.

Over the years, I’ve wondered what is sacred in these detailed discussions of penalties, the specifications of when and how one should say the daily or seasonal round of prayers under a variety of circumstances, or the minute specification of family members’ responsibilities to one another.

It adds to my opposition toward military exemptions for young men who devote their time to the study of material that prepares them only for further study of the same material, and nothing that will help them support their overly large families.

I’ve gained insight, as well as a sense of pleasure in participating as an outsider in Rabbinical arguments with traditions of at least 2,200 years. I’ll stand apart from my religious friends who see everything in the Talmud as coming from, or inspired by the perfect logic of the Almighty. With all this, the study has contributed to my appreciation of what is Judaic in culture if not clearly apparent in Holy Text. That is, the pursuit of what’s important in details, and a willingness to argue while trying to decide, if not necessarily to the extent shown by the Rabbis.

Defining Judaism or Judaic culture is beyond anyone incapable of taking account of more than two millennia of active (some would say overly active) discussion and writing. Those who argue for Jewish unity miss an essential point. Jews’ uncertainty, and immersion in dispute as a way of learning and coping with problems is somewhere at the heart of the enterprise, and has contributed not only to our creativity, but to our survival.

What’s religious and what’s cultural?

One entry in a blog is not the place to settle something that has bothered devout, secular, and anti-devout Jews, including those who are agnostics and atheists, apparently since there were Jews.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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