Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Sanity of the Talmud

An interview from The Times of Israel

Never mind the Bible, it’s the sanity of the Talmud
you need to understand the world and yourself

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the Jewish world’s leading scholars, says Israel would be a less fanatical place if schools were to focus on teaching the Gemara

Which book should be at the core of Jewish education? Most educators would probably point to the Bible without thinking twice, but Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz happens to disagree. While not doubting the importance of Bible study, he would prefer that the Talmud, or
Gemara, stand at the center of the Israeli school system.

“It’s a central pillar for understanding anything about Judaism, more than the Bible,” says Steinsaltz, one of the world’s best known Talmudical scholars. “The Talmud is not a divine gift given to people. The Jewish people created it. But on the other hand, it created the Jewish people. In so many ways, we’re Talmudic Jews, whether we believe in it or not.”

Does one have to believe in God to appreciate Talmud study?
Steinsaltz doesn’t think so. “Do you have to believe in Shakespeare?”

No other book has shaped the Jewish people as much as the Babylonian Talmud, asserts Steinsaltz, 75. He should know. He spent nearly five decades writing a comprehensive commentary on all of the Gemara’s 63 tractates, which deal with everything from civil, criminal and ritual law to Jewish history, ethics and mythology.

“Dealing with Talmud is like doing psychoanalysis. At least you’re beginning to understand what you are,” he said. “No part of Jewish culture, on any level, is without some sort of connection to the Talmud.”

The Talmud records the legal and religious discussions thousands of rabbis had over centuries until it was compiled in about 500 CE.

It constitutes the foundation of Jewish law, practice and customs to this very day and forms the core curriculum of Orthodox yeshivas.

But Talmud study would be helpful even outside the yeshiva world, Steinsaltz believes. Replacing the Bible as the key book taught in Israel’s schools could help the Jewish state become a more balanced and stable society, he asserts. “The Talmud as a book has the enormous quality that the world needs now more than anything else: sanity,” he told The Times of Israel recently in his study, situated in a serene street of Jerusalem’s Nahlaot quarter.

“The Talmud is the book of sanity. And when you study it, it confers a certain amount of sanity,” posits Steinsaltz, suggesting that the most fanatical rabbis are rarely great Talmudists. After all, the Gemara consists mainly of logical and rational back-and-forth discussions about legal issues, aimed at arriving at a factual truth, he points out. What could be more sane than that?

“It was a big mistake to make the education in Israel based so much on the Bible,” Steinsaltz says, in between puffs of his pipe.

“Because the Bible was written by prophets. If you read the Bible, you somehow become in your mind a little prophet. That’s the way in which Israelis speak to each other — they don’t have conversations, they all have complete and unlimited knowledge.

Learning Talmud would bring a big change to the Israeli mind, because it deals with and is connected to dialectic.”

Talmudic discussions are indeed often methodological attempts to arrive at a just conclusion on the basis of scrutinizing a legal problem. But the Gemara is not always “rational.” Sometimes it delves into the supernatural. Certain segments speak, quite literally, of the power of demons or magic amulets. One particularly baffling segment describes how several sages created vegetables and other food items for their own consumption pretty much ex nihilo, by merely uttering some magical formulas.

Steinsaltz, a white-bearded all-round scholar who has published more than 60 books on subjects ranging from Jewish mysticism to zoology, has many responses to such challenges. One of them is referring to “The Screwtape Letters” by Christian writer C.S. Lewis, a novel describing the correspondence between a senior demon and his apprentice. One of the first lessons the senior demon teaches his student is to make the humans believe demons have horns and a tail.

“Because if the humans see you they will never recognize who you are,” Steinsaltz quotes with a smile.

“I don’t know why we shouldn’t believe in demons,” he says. “We see enough of them walking around in human form, don’t we?”

Witty stories aside, Steinsaltz, is well-versed enough in modern science to confidently posit that whoever believes in the latest physical theories should not be bewildered by Jewish mysticism.

“If you study the physics of today, you are no longer astonished about anything,” he says. To give an example he mentions String Theory, which — grossly simplified — speaks of at least twice as many dimensions as the classical model of Einstein’s relativity and which physicists predict will replace the world’s current understanding of the universe.

“The cucumbers in the Gemara will sound to you nice, sane and pretty much real-life after you read it.”

Steinsaltz’s first name “Adin” means gentle or tender in Hebrew, which characterizes him well: he is smiley and friendly and speaks so quietly that it almost sounds like he’s whispering. During our interview, he patiently answered every question — often interjecting personal anecdotes and quotes from Plato to Pushkin into his responses — until his aides intervened and (politely) threw me out.

Born in Jerusalem to secular parents, Steinsaltz studied mathematics, physics and chemistry before embarking on a rabbinical career. At 23, he became Israel’s youngest school principal. His claim to fame, however, is his groundbreaking commentary to the almost 6,000 pages of the Babylonian Talmud, a labor of 45 years. He completed the monumental project two years ago, providing a commentary that helps Hebrew speakers decipher the complicated text of the Gemara, which was written in ancient Aramaic and without punctuation.

In what has come to be known as “the Steinsaltz edition,” the classical medieval commentary of Rashi was given a different place on the page, which was one of the reasons parts of the Haredi world deemed Steinsaltz’s commentary unacceptable. Some hardliners shunned Steinsaltz and his text: the late Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, for example, called him a “heretic” and forbade students to consult his commentary or even debate him.

But the ban did not hold. Many prominent Orthodox rabbis had plenty of good things to say about the Steinsaltz Talmud and today it can be found on countless bookshelves around the world.

According to the website of Shefa, the organization publishing and promoting Steinsaltz’s works, students include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, US Senator Joe Lieberman, celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. In 1988, Steinsaltz received the Israel Prize and earlier this year was among the first recipients of Israel’s Presidential Award of Distinction.

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