Posts Tagged ‘Talmud’

**In red are more extraneous thoughts safe to skip — for those who prefer a shorter read . . .

Like most modern Jews who even know what it is, I have a fairly meh attitude when it comes to the Talmud.*

[For a definition, skip to the end. Cliff Notes version: The Bible is maybe 10% of what has created the Judaism we have today. The Talmud has had vastly more influence than the Torah on Jewish life, yet it is a text so complex, even adults struggle to study it. Hence literacy among lay American Jewry about the Talmud remains nearly nonexistent.]

daf yomi sampleI had the — let’s say — requirement to study Talmud for two semesters, one at an American rabbinical college and another at an Israeli co-ed yeshiva that was, relative to all the other options in Israel in 1998, about as progressive as a person could hope to get. And it was the ONLY one, first in the world in fact, to be co-ed! (Separate is never equal; sorry folks. Especially when it comes to women’s yeshivas, at least at that time … .)

But no matter which continent I was on, I found the entire process suffocating.

Before I share my story, I’d like to state my appeal upfront:

I’m looking any online teacher of Daf Yomi who approach it from a modern, progressive, humanist, secular, and scientific, scholarship-based approach. In other words, the exact opposite way it has pretty much ever been taught!

Does such an online learning opportunity exist out there? In English? That is what this blog post is hoping to uncover!

What is “Daf Yomi” you might ask? Why thank you for asking! Daf Yomi is a practice that began, for the first time ever, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5684 (11 September 1923), when tens of thousands of Jews in Europe, America, and Israel decided they would all study one page of Talmud one day. If you stick with it, the entire cycle takes 7.5 years.

Up until now, it is a practice done faithfully by Orthodox men, and outside of that, largely only by non-Orthodox rabbis, doctoral candidates, or uber-Jews who have a lot more time on their hands than I ever have …

Now, in case you’d care to read more of the story, I’ll continue …

Both of these study halls where I studied Talmud were always abuzz at certain times each day with the murmuring sounds of students studying in chevruta (pairs of 2, sometimes 3) — as they struggled to merely decipher the byzantine words of a text that is 35 volumes long, 2,000 years old in thought and ideology, and which alternates between Aramaic and rabbinic Hebrew without any warning at all (including punctuation that is surprising helpful. Thing like, say, quotation marks and periods!)

The only significant difference between my two study experiences was the study hall in Jerusalem had no heat. You’d be amazed how cold that gorgeous white Jerusalem stone can get by November. I’d wear a down coat, a hat, and gloves with the fingertips cut out, and I’d spend those 3 tortured hours each morning downing hot cup of tea after hot cup of tea, which conveniently gave me an excuse to go to the bathroom every 35 minutes, no doubt lingering in there longer and longer as the months went by …

In each place I studied — and neither were Orthodox keep in mind — there were those handful of odd birds who just LIVED for these classes. I’ll admit, an alien would have been less peculiar to me.

To what felt like the majority of others, my sense was that my fellow students’ curiosity for what all this historical hubbub has been about for all these millennia — the sheer POWER they have held over Jewish life, action, and thought for literally 2,000 years — it was a curiosity that appeared to make the pain of the process somehow less painful. Or, at least enough less painful they were able to keep it themselves.

I’ve never been so great at keeping my thoughts to myself.

[I’ve also, by the way, also heard about this mysterious thing called a “runner’s high”. I have run fruitlessly for years in search of this elusive high. My most serious attempt was at age 18, when I ran 5 miles a day (okay I admit, mostly downhill) 4 or 5 days a week. After four months, I threw in the sweaty towel.

I had to admit it, I just didn’t have enough rage left in me about the boyfriend who had cheated on me to power my legs through the agony, and there’s only so long you can listen to raging tracks from the Indigo Girls. That was an honest attempt, wouldn’t you say readers out there? Shouldn’t I have experienced something of this supposed “high” ?!? 

It is now firmly in the category of the Yetti and the Lochnesss Monster at this point in my life …]

But I digress…

Alas, when it came to Talmud study, I fell in that third disgraceful camp that you don’t DARE admit to any of your classmates: That one where, in all I honestly, all I REALLY wanted to do was to study the Talmud in English and have tons of notations by some rabbinic-era scholars telling me off in the marginalia:

“Okay, this is what they were really saying:

  • The rabbi who wrote this one sentence inserted it about 300 years AFTER the sentence that followed it because the community had changed their mind about X;

  • This discussion at Y was about the larger historical problem they were grappling with at the time — the way the Russian Army kept forcibly conscripting Jewish boys as young as 14 into the army for 25 years, never letting them visit home even once, and not even informing their parents when they died, in an effort to effectively force all religious and cultural allegance out of them. Kind of like what Europeans did to American Indians; and it largely worked.** OK this example is totally out of the timeline. That historical reality didn’t happen until 1500 years later. But I don’t even know enough about the historical reality of 400 CE Jews in Babylonia to even come up with an example appropriate to that time period.

    Now that I think about it, I DO remember spending a tortured month trying to dissect some mysterious text about kings’ armies taking by force Jews’ donkeys on their warring campaigns and then if it was a hill donkey taken to the mountain and it died, was that different as far as damages than if it was a mountain donkey taken to the countryside and it died? That’s honestly the most memorable passage I can relay from an entire year of this stuff.

    But hey, this is actually a beautiful illustration of my point! If the right scholars could annotate the Talmud, for example, I no doubt WOULD know a whole lot more about the everyday lives of Babylonian Jews in 400 CE and have much more compelling stories to relay — and also be able to answer why the kings kept taking everyone’s donkeys …

  • As for that debate in section Z — it was probably inspired by a terrifying plague that we know from Akkadian/Assyrian/Egyptian sources swept through the Levant around that time. These reflect a group of people living in a world, which, it’s so EASY to forget how tenuous and terrifying simply being alive truly was! These statistics are NOT made up: In most of the world in this time, 25% of all people born died before age 5; 50% died by age 15; and the “average” lifespan of those who survived all of that was around 40. We know this from a cemetery excavation done in Jerusalem dated to around the year 0.

    Later on, by the Middle Ages, the statistics for Jews were undoubtedly far lower, especially Ashkenazi Jews living in the Christian-dominated lands of Europe vs. the Sephardim living in Muslim-dominated Middle Eastern/north African lands. The Muslims were, historically, far less oppressive as oppressive overlords to their minority populations than the Christians were, when you look at it through the broader span of history at least …;

  • And as for that mortifying sentence or two you just ran into at the end of the page — let’s just try to remember all that we know today is the accumulation of 2,000 years of human insight, study, and research — insights these people did not have. Like everyone of all ages, they were imperfect; and their views reflected the eras they came from … 

Then, wrapped up nicely in a bow, this dream, imaginary Talmud of mine would be wrapped in a simple: “So in a nutshell, maybe this one little nugget buried in all this page of minutiae is worth remembering — and might even make a nice quote someday in a sermon!” 

Ahhhh, a rabbi can dream  …

* * *

And just in the highly OFF chance you were left wondering why it would possibly matter what rabbi wrote his thoughts when matters — well, it didn’t matter at all in the “progressive” Conservative yeshiva where I studied Talmud. And it continues not to matter in the circles that are the only places that continue to treat the Talmudic legacy with real devotion — in orthodoxy. But this, to me, is a grave mistake because it is so patently, historically dishonest.

Fortunately, in my later Talmud study at the seminary, we paid lots of attention to who said what and when because more than anything, the one principle that bound this seminary (and the Reconstructionist movement together in general together) is THE TRUTH. How close to the REAL ACTUAL TRUTH can we get, even thousands of years later? And that commitment was 100% why I went there to study. If you’ve been a journalist 25 years, how can one choose any differently?

But I digress … so in the seminary, we all owned a very thin but very expensive book that had as much biography historians have been able to piece together about every rabbinic author quoted in the Talmud’s volumes. For the most part, and at a minimum, we usually know their lineages: who was son of whom, which century the person was writing in, etc.

Don’t forget, all 35 volumes of the Babylonian Talmud really were written by the elitest of the elite, which largely ran like expanded family trees. And knowing that something was a later insert by several hundred years, rather than reading the Talmud straight through, acting as if it were all put down in direct chronological order — well there is nothing that will more quickly lead a serious learner astray than that!

An insertion made several generations later is clearly meant to rectify a previous line of thinking or clarify something that was leading to confusion, or …. the list is endless for why redactions happen.

But anyone who wants to REALLY understand the true history of the Talmud, how it came to be, what it was trying to do, it’s nothing more than a fool’s errand to ignore the crucial reality that it was a hodgepodge of ideas pasted, recopied, remastered god-knows how many times and by how many hands, so it can hardly be read like this chronical masterpiece of unwavering coherence…

Scientific_Method_Trans1[One thing I try to remind folks when talking about content from the Talmud is that you must remember one thing: These words, these ideas, were written by people who lived 0 to 500 CE. These were folks who still thought the world was flat, the sun revolved around the Earth, and bloodletting sounded like a totally reasonable form of medical care!

So seriously, how much can we really ask of them, expect of them, when it comes to answering the ‘Big Questions’ in life now that we have the scientific method, and not just superstitions, fears, and fairytales, to try to answer such questions for us?

Don’t go to the Talmud to find those answers. Go to the Talmud because you love (or are at least curious) about our history. How our traditions, rituals, and ideologies evolved the way they did after the catastrophic end to the 2nd Temple. Study it because you are curious — and try to give them a little slack for the many, many cringe-worthy missteps a Daf Yomi experience will inevitably reveal to you.  The only reason you and I even know to cringe was the sheer dumb luck of being born NOW, not THEN, so keeping some humility in this enterprise is a good idea …]


The reason I’m inviting you to begin studying the Talmud now — you will need to do a wee bit of catchup at this point, to be honest — is because as Jewish-Nerds-In-The-Know know, NOW is the start of the next 7-year-cycle known as “Daf Yomi”, or the practice of reading one page of Talmud per day.

Up until now, I’ve never considered it, because the practice has been dominated by the Ultra Orthodox. Even if I could follow their online lectures (which I can’t, because they use so many Yiddish-isms and insider references I can barely make out what they are even talking about — despite it being in English — their refusal to look at any of it from anything remotely approximating an approach worthy of the post-Enlightenment era frankly makes their teachings irrelevant in my mind.)

How can I learn about any passage from the Talmud if the person teaching it believes:

a) it comes from the literal word of God;

b) it is infallible and the people who wrote it are superior to us because they lived closer in time to a person, Moses, who in most likelihood is a fictional, literary character; and

c) it fails to accept ANY of the insights we might glean from the science of modern scholarship — everything from archaeology, to linguistics, to comparative literary research of the ancient Mesopotamian world?

WRJ - Torah - TWC - 1 col_0It is for this same reason the Jewish Study Bible — now that it has finally come out — is the ONLY book I would never leave behind for a Torah study. It provides exactly this kind of “dream Talmud” I am talking about, but for the Hebrew Bible: A total translation filled in the marginalia with everything that theologians and top scholars who teach theology at the top universities in the world can add to the text based on this beautiful, wonderful gift brought to us by the Enlightenment and Haskalah: scientific discovery!!

(The Jewish Study Bible‘s only shortfall is the absence of the original Hebrew text. I bring UHC’s A Women’s Torah Commentary for those times seeing the original words in Hebrew are key to digging deeper into the stories …).

Alas, to my knowledge, this “dream Talmud” does not yet exist, and given how vast the text is, I can’t imagine it ever being made in my lifetime. BUT, to my delight this year, as I see my rabbinic friends contemplate whether THIS is the year to take on the 7-year commitment of doing the Daf Yomi tradition — of studying ONE page of Talmud each day — I have learned for the first time that there ARE folks out there now who have strived to take on the endeavor from a modern and secular perspective.

A Humanist Jew, Adam Hirsch, took on this challenge during the last 7-year cycle and wrote about his journey in The Tablet.

He did it the way I would — in translation. Often cramming a whole week’s worth in one day when he got behind.

In other words, he did it the way any person who actually has a life to live would do it: reasonably, and by according it the proper priority such a challenging endeavor should take in one’s life. As in: If the wife or kids are sick, or the bills need paid, or the poison ivy is about to overtake your backyard, sometimes other things just need to take priority.

That’s an approach strategy I can accept.

[Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle in August 2012. To read the complete archive, click here. Adam is a poet and literary critic whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.]

I didn’t read Adam’s articles over the past 7 years, but as he has just published a siyum, a conclusion, to the experience, I have now learned that they exist, and I am going to endeavor to go back and read them.

Technically, this isn’t really ME doing Daf Yomi. This is me reading about another person doing Daf Yomi. But unless and until I can learn about an online teacher who is offering a secular, humanist, scholarly approach to Daf Yomi on Youtube (and yes, of course I would be willing to subscribe and pay for the teacher. I believe more than anyone that teachers should be PAID for their knowledge), Adam’s articles are probably the best I can do right now.

So, my question to you loyal readers is this: Do you know of any humanist, progressive, scholarship-oriented teachers offering Daf Yomi lessons anywhere online that I can subscribe to and join?

* * *

The symbolism of finding such a teacher in existence out there in the stratosphere would be hugely exciting to me because it would mean that this literary world is no longer tied up in a community whose values are simply too contrary to my own to participate. (Which does not mean I don’t embrace the people of these communities of course — they are my tribe, my people — but I cannot embrace too many of their ideas, their values.)

For the very Orthodox, the very fact this kind of study actually mall who goakes up the bulk of their study for their entire childhoods is in itself a travesty — for the great disgrace and disadvantage it leaves legions of young adult ultra-Orthodox men.

You can’t make a living being a Talmud scholar, and most of them who grow up in these closeted enclaves graduate with the knowledge and life skills equivalent to a 6th-grade education. And state lawmakers in those regions of New York secure their votes by catering to these Hasidic clusters and looking the other way when their state-funded “schools” produce students who fail year and year in the kinds of standardized competency tests that are supposed to ensure “free, public, excellent education for all” by American jurisprudence.

For a first-hand account of just how damaging this is, I invite you to read the fantastic memoir by Shulem Deen called All Who Go Do Not Return. (Suffice it to say, if you are a woman who dares try to leave the enclave and then survive on such piddling education, their fate is even harsher …)

If you’d like to learn more about this issue, check out the movie Unorthodox, available in its entirety on Youtube. Another excellent option is One of Us, released in 2017 on Netflix.

 Just to reiterate my appeal. If anyone out there knows of some online Daf Yomi learning with a progressive, humanist, scholarship-oriented teacher anywhere online — payments would be made willingly — do please share what you have discovered! And Hazak Hazak v’NitHazek!

May we all go from strength to strength these next 7 years!

* * *

* The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology. Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to “all Jewish thought and aspirations”, serving also as “the guide for the daily life” of Jews.

The term “Talmud” normally refers to the collection of writings named specifically the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), although there is also an earlier collection known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi).

The Talmud has two components; the Mishnah ( c. 200), a written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism’s Oral Torah; and the Gemara ( c. 500), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. The term “Talmud” may refer to either the Gemara alone, or the Mishnah and Gemara together.

The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is 2,711 double-sided folios. It is written in Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through to the fifth century) on a variety of subjects, including halakha, Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, and folklore, and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law, and is widely quoted in rabbinic literature.

Originally, Jewish scholarship was oral and transferred from one generation to the next. Rabbis expounded and debated the Torah (the written Torah expressed in the Hebrew Bible) and discussed it without the benefit of written works (other than the biblical books themselves).

This situation changed drastically as a result of the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE and the Jewish Commonwealth, the subsequent dispersal of Jews into the “diaspora” — the lands outside the Levant.

As the rabbis were required to face a new reality—mainly Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and animal sacrifice) and Judea, the Roman province, without at least partial autonomy—there was a flurry of legal discourse and the old system of oral scholarship could not be maintained. It is during this period that rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing.

The process of “Gemara” proceeded in what were then the two major centers of Jewish scholarship, The Galilee, north of Jerusalem, and Babylonia, which is modern-day Iraq. Correspondingly, two bodies of analysis developed, and two works of Talmud were created. The older compilation is called the Jerusalem Talmud or the Talmud Yerushalmi, compiled c. 4th century. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled c. 500, although it continued to be edited later. The word Talmud, when used without qualification, usually refers to the Babylonian Talmud because it ended up becoming a more complete document that travelled with Jews as they ventured ever-further into the lands of Eastern Europe and the Arabia.

While the editors of Jerusalem Talmud and Babylonian Talmud each mention the other community, most scholars believe these documents were written independently; Louis Jacobs writes, “If the editors of either had had access to an actual text of the other, it is inconceivable that they would not have mentioned this.”

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Recently, doing some research for a curriculum project on Jewish values, I stumbled upon these delightful excerpts from the Talmud (redacted circa 500 CE). They really made me laugh.

Keep in mind, they were written in a culture (Babylonia) where there were no trade schools or formal educational institutions. All skills and knowledge were passed down person to person. So … to refuse to ever teach another person seems like it would be the ultimate “f*#k you” gesture to your neighbors — and the ultimate act of selfness and sabotage against your own community.

What hilarious and vivid images they invoke!

1) From B. Yoma 38b

Hygros ben Levi excelled in the art of singing but would not teach others. It is told of him that when he was about to make a high trill, he would put his thumb into his mouth, place his index finger between the two parts of his mustache, and produce all kinds of sounds at such high intensity that, to a man, his brother priests would be thrown backward.

2) Also from B. Yoma 38b

Our masters taught: Ben Kamtzar would not teach [his art] of writing. It is said of him that he would hold four pens between his five fingers, and if there was a word of four letters, he could write it in one movement. He was asked, “What reason have you for refusing to teach [your art]?” The others mentioned earlier provided an explanation for their refusal, but Ben Kamtzar provided none. To the former apply the words “The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing.” While to Ben Kamtzar and his like apply the words “But the name of the wicked shall rot.”

… In other words Don’t Be A Jerk!


Where’s a Good Yenta When You Need One!? No need to sulk; The Matchmaker Rabbi is in! To see Joysa’s columns for Jdate, visit here. Her forthcoming book on dating in Jewish suburbia is being represented by Red Sofa Literary Agency.

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A model of the Second Temple, destroyed by Rome in 70 CE.

Imagine if what we had been taught in religious school is that many of the fundamental elements we consider “Jewish” are actually attributable to the Romans. How would that affect what we call “traditional Judaism”? How would that shape our thinking of what defines Reform Judaism versus Orthodox or “traditional” Judaism?

What elements am I referring to? Well, ones like separating meat and dairy as a core element of kashrut. That practice doesn’t come from the Torah. The Torah only lists certain foods as being prohibited (like pork and shellfish) – it says nothing about not mixing meat and dairy. That notion evolved centuries later, out of the rabbinic tradition.

Or how about the Passover seder? That also came about in the rabbinic era, after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE, as a replacement for the animal sacrifices that used to be conducted at the Temple each Pesach.

Or how about the reams and reams of halacha, Jewish law, that govern everything in “traditional” Jewish life today like which days or weeks a couple cannot get married; what violates the biblical rule to not “start a fire” on Shabbat (light switches, ovens, car engines, telephones); how many days a mourner should sit shiva and when shiva is suspended, and from whom a person should sit shiva; etc. etc. etc.

All of it comes from rabbinic Judaism (and, later, medieval Judaism). And rabbinic Judaism owes its very existence, its very ascension to the forefront of Jewish life, to the Romans.

In my Rabbinic Civilizations course, one of our assigned books is From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye J.D. Cohen, which is a concise and fascinating history spanning from the end of the Persian exile to the 4th century CE. The rabbinic era spans the latter part of that time period: from the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE through the writing of the Mishnah and Talmud in the 6th century CE (500s). As Cohen writes in chapter 7, the shift from Second Temple Judaism to rabbinic Judaism was not a mere chronological transition but a substantial change that laid foundational cornerstones still central to the Judaism practiced in our contemporary world.

As Martin Jaffee explains in his equally excellent book, Early Judaism, the Romans continued to control Judea long after the Temple fell. Their method of control was simple: Appoint Jewish institutions to administer over the daily affairs of their people, and allow the Jews to preserve their ancestral customs so long as they don’t lead to unrest or violate Roman law.

Rome named a Jewish appointee to be the “Patriarch” of the country – and this Patriarchate system lasted for more than 400 years. Although a second revolt by the Jews, the Bar Kohkba revolt, in 132-135 CE, represented an interruption of this policy, the interruption was brief. Once quelled, Rome simple renamed Judea “Palestine” (to name the land after the Philistines rather than the Jews), and re-instituted the Patriarchate. 

Rabbi with Torah, 1955

Who was the Patriarchate? It was what would become known as “the Rabbis.” Its first holder, in 90 CE, was the rabbinic master Gamaliel b. Shimon b. Gamaliel and the office remained strictly hereditary for the next 400 years. Why did Rome chose a rabbinic family? We don’t know. Why was Gamaliel chosen from among the possible rabbinic families? We don’t know that either.

What we do know is the net effect of that policy: Slowly, over the course of hundreds of years, the beliefs and practices that represented a small, minority proportion of the Jewish people (the rabbinic class) increasingly dominated all sectors of Judaism and Jewish society, even those far out into the diaspora, until eventually, it became “normative.” What had been, in the time of the Temple, a minority group whose views were opposed by most segments of Jewish society [the wealthy, the priesthood, and the bulk of the masses (am ha’aretz) in both Israel and the diaspora], ultimately triumphed over their opponents and became the mainstream.

“The rabbis triumphed over their opponents among the aristocracy and the priesthood by absorbing them into their midst, or at least coming to terms with them,” Cohen writes. “The rabbis triumphed over the indifference of the masses by gradually gaining control of the schools and the synagogues. The exact date of the triumph is hard to determine, but it was no earlier than the 7th century CE.”

The rabbis didn’t invent the synagogues so much as take them over and use them as a means of advocating their own particular interpretation of Jewish law and practice. It took well over half a millennium for that to happen, and it could only happen because the ruling power of Rome established, sanctioned and supported their power.

How ironic, then, that these rabbinic views and opinions are what we all today, even we liberal Jews, identify as “traditional Judaism”!

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