Elevate Difference

Why Study Talmud in the Twenty-first Century?: The Relevance of the Ancient Jewish Text to Our World

Lending a somewhat contrarian voice to this collection of essays extolling the virtues of Talmud study, the rabbi Dr. Pinchas Hayman takes umbrage at the question Paul Socken poses in the book’s title: “Why should the indescribable depth, beauty, and challenge of authentic Jewish literature require apologetic essays?” He concludes with his own “more relevant” and “far more difficult” question: “Who needs the twenty-first century if one learns Talmud?”

For Hayman, and several of the contributors to Why Study Talmud in the Twenty-first Century?, the life-long process of learning Talmud provides a safe haven against the threats and anxieties of contemporary life. Talmud study is, as Shaye J.D. Cohen puts it, “what a (male) Jew does.” For Cohen and others, the Talmud is a “feast for the mind,” a “brain teaser” that not only affords intellectual sustenance but also, in the process, constructs one’s Jewish identity. Another contributor, Michael Chernick, echoes Hayman in lamenting a “world focused on ‘now,’” one in which many Jewish people have found Talmud study “old-fashioned” and no longer relevant.

The first (and I believe most compelling) section of the book, though, is written by women who have taught and studied Talmud. As Chernick acknowledges, “patriarchal societies do not tend to preserve women’s thoughts and concerns more than they must,” and he acknowledges that while the view of Talmud as uniformly misogynistic is misguided, much of Talmudic law is problematic for women, to say the least. How do women devote themselves to the study of texts whose rules for women would seem to reverse what many who do live in the twenty-first century would deem desperately needed progress in the areas of women’s rights?

In responding to this question, Devorah Zlochower admits that Talmud study is “a mixed blessing as I find myself engaged in an impossible dance between delight in the tradition and its foundational texts and discomfort with its limitations and exclusions. It is essential for me to understand the texts of our tradition but I cannot do this without wrestling with the tradition simultaneously.” Her description of this uneasy dialog with the past is exciting and unsettling, and it is clearly informed by her twenty-first century feminism. In reading texts on marriage and divorce, and their asymmetric treatment of women, she refuses to ignore the “woman who is chained to a dead marriage by a husband unwilling to grant her a divorce.”

The most universally accessible part of this paean to these foundational texts of Judaism is the joyful and life-affirming process of study, the hard-won, patience-testing, identity-altering commitment to studying the Talmud, page by page, often in study groups and with a partner. The process teaches a tolerance for ambiguity, exercises the intellectual faculties in a way that is transformative, and places participants in a tradition that is thousands of years old. Devora Steinmetz compares the practice of regular study to prayer in a way that all those who interpret texts should be able to appreciate: “But study is different from prayer—or at least from the ways in which most of us experience prayer—in that in study I must open myself to the voice of the other.”

The book is intended primarily for Jewish readers. As Jane Kanarek puts it, “the Talmud gives me a place to be a Jew,” and the collection is a reminder of the “daily Sinai” of Talmudic study, a discipline that leads to revelation and, often, challenge to authority and received opinion. In their polyvocality and contradictoriness, these texts teach the kind of subtlety of interpretation, appreciation for challenge, and an awareness of the “minds of the past” that forged Jewish law and tradition. For non-Jewish readers, the sense of awe and discovery the writers describe as they relate their own experiences with Talmud study, even with brief examples of the kind of exegesis involved, must be taken largely on faith.

The reward for taking up this practice, according to several of the contributors, is a kind of direct access to the divine. While this sort of intense grappling with ancient and very difficult texts is not for the faint of heart, the rewards these writers describe are appealing to all who have felt the allure of textual criticism. Chernick writes, “There is a contemporary sense (malady?) that if a text is very old it must be irrelevant.” An even worse tendency is to view old texts—whether ancient sacred writing, Shakespeare, or the U. S. Constitution, for example—as inviolable, immune to multiple interpretation, subject only to some imagined “literal” meaning. This disciplinary model described here is one that promises to invigorate the study of virtually any challenging text.

As is often the case with such collections, the essays do not speak to each other very successfully, and the order of presentation seems somewhat haphazard. The pieces reflect many of the conflicts that have arisen between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, as well as the broader intellectual divisions of our time. But the book succeeds in making its invitation, and this ancient but vibrant dialectical tradition will surely endure.

Written by: Rick Taylor, January 24th 2011