The two reasons I most love the Talmud are rarely discussed, and rarely understood.
Talmud is the way Rabbinic Judaism carries its past into a changing future. It discusses the areas of Judaism that became obsolete before the birth of Rabbinic Judaism (such as sacrificial service) with the same intense engagement as it discusses the elements of Jewish law that remain. That’s not an ostrich-like refusal to acknowledge that time has moved on, but a belief that the central essence of Judaism can still motivate and shape our lives even as the exterior shell changes. When times change we change, of course we change. But by treasuring, as sacred, the essence of what brought us to today we arrive in our present ready to apply all our wisdom to the challenges of tomorrow. As a carrier of ideas, the Talmud can be blisteringly relevant to the challenges of our time. I read broadly, very broadly, but there are Talmudic encapsulations that articulate tomorrow’s challenges; from the ecological to the nature of life, to socio-economic to ... ah the list is endless, so powerfully I turn to this 1500-year-old work to understand the challenges of the age before any other.
Secondly, Talmud understands the nature of disagreement in a way that gives me hope for this battered time. One online dictionary defines ‘talmudic’ as ‘overly-detailed’ or ‘hairsplitting.’ That sniffy, pejorative connotation fails to realise the true nature of talmudic enquiry. A Mishnah will suggest two points of view, each attributed to a different ancient sage. Then the enquiry begins; how could one sage say such a thing when elsewhere he seemed to say the opposite. No, the difference is explained away. Then another objection is raised, and solved and again, and again and again. Then the other Rabbi’s articulation is tested, tested against the totality of their other articulations over thousands of pages of carefully preserved argument until, finally, the passage is deemed complete. At this point the two opinions remain, each protected in their own terms. Neither Rabbi has been subsumed into the other. Difference has been valued. Alterity - as Levinas put it - is preserved. There is - to borrow the phrase - much dignity in difference. To be talmudic means to know that humans are not supposed to agree, we are supposed to be principled in our disagreement; at odds, while still participating in a broader communal enterprise. Oh! We need more talmudicism in these times.
This Shabbat we will be celebrating the Talmud at New London with JTS Professor Dr Sarah Wolf. She will be speaking on Shabbat morning, and sharing more insight at a special afternoon session at my home (from 4:45pm). All welcome.