"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Three

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers.

CHAPTER THREE of his exploration appears just below. You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here. Read "CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself" by clicking here.

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What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Three: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.

In order to fully understand the difference between the written and the oral in Jewish texts, we need to look at the story of creation.

The cosmology that we receive at the beginning of the Torah is difficult. We know from the first verse that certain "things" already exist at the moment of creation – these precursors are darkness, the deep, God, and God's intention to create. The ambiguity inherent in the existence of these "things" creates a philosophical conundrum that medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides above all others, address but are unable to resolve: out of what source is the material of creation derived? If God is all, then how can God be changeable? Can a changeable God be perfect? If God is not all and creation is separate from the Divine, how can God be limitless and all powerful? These are rankling questions. The sword that Maimonides wields to cut this Gordian knot is the idea that the natural laws that apply to our physical existence do not also apply to God.

Maimonides places the understanding of this essential dilemma beyond the realm of human cognition and beyond words, but the Torah itself goes another way - "God said, 'let there be light; and there was light.'" God speaks, and through speech alone the physical world manifests.

How are we to understand this act of speech? It is presented in the Torah in words that are easily understandable to us because they are presented in a human rendering of a divine language. But who hears these words and who records them for posterity? The next verse, "God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness," shows that speed and intellection are not identical. "Let there be light" truly is a verbal utterance. The text continues, "God called the light day, and the darkness Night." This shows us that discernment and naming are related, and that both are consequences of separation (division).

The story of creation is a story of speech, of distinction, of judgement, and of naming. Out of speech comes life and activity. The first act of creation echoes through the whole work of creation. It is both foundation and model.

What begins in speech is also accomplished through naming, the means of distinction. Judgement can only be rendered on what has been made distinct. The Written Law begins with spoken words. In the process of discernment (seeing things as distinct from one another), things become separated from each other in name and in the physical world. God makes these separations through speech and thought. But we know that human will does not translate into reality without physical action.

God models this translation for us in the way that convenants between God and Abraham are accomplished. A covenant is made through acts of physical separation – cutting. While all of these cuttings are marks in flesh, it is important to remember cutting (carving, incision, and gouging) was also the action required to produce writing in Abraham's time. One carved into stone, incised into metal and wood, and gouged or traced in clay or even sand.

The first of these covenantal moments is the very odd covenant of the pieces. Abraham (Abram at the time) is told by God that he will come to possess the land and he asks for a divine sign. God calls for Abram to bring a three-year heifer, a three year she-goat, a three-year ram, a turtle dove, and a young bird. Abram does this and cuts all of the animals in half (except, without explanation, the young bird) and lays the two halves of each opposite one other in two symmetrical rows. Abram then falls asleep in the heat of the day and sinks into a feverish dream. In the dream, he is told of the long road his descendants will have to take before they take possession of the covenant-promised land. When he awakes, it is already the darkest of dark nights and "there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces."

Abram is brought to a moment that reenacts creation (with a hint of the fourth day in the presence of two different lights). The torch that passes between the pieces reiterates and sanctifies through fire the sacrifice through separation that Abram has made. Abram has made his inscription in the flesh of his offerings, a symmetrical division which mirrors the symmetrical separations made by God in the creation – day/night, heaven/earth, water/land, etc.

This divine sanctification of a human act of physical separation is not yet the equivalent of a full transition to written record, but it is the initiation of the use of signs as abstractions for words and ideas. The Covenant of the pieces is a sign that Abram/Abraham would keep in memory. The next step in this process is brit milah. Brit is the inscription of the covenant onto the living human body. It is the first permanent mark. The technology of covenant is converging with the technology of writing.

This relationship to permanent marking is clarified in the Akedah (the "Binding of Isaac"). Abraham is told to offer up his son as a sacrifice. God’s motivation is a classic conundrum. Whether or not God intends this as a test of Abraham, it becomes exactly that. The usual interpretation is that the Akedah is a test of Abraham’s faith, but it can also be interpreted as a test of Abraham’s understanding of the mechanics of the written aspect of covenant. Isaac already bears the covenantal text on his body. A sign has been inscribed. We are being told that written signs are made to create clarity and for permanence. The misunderstanding on Abraham’s part that needs to be corrected is his belief that a covenant that ends life can overwrite a covenant in life. This second sign would negate the first and is prevented. Subsequent prohibitions on tattoos, scarification, and even beard cutting reinforce this understanding.

In our next installment, we will talk about Jeremiah and the transition from the inscribed to the scribed.

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Vayakhel -- Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

Facebook_CoverDesign_VayakhelWhile participating on the Rabin Community Building Mission to Israel, I came to realize just how much community is founded upon shared values and built upon shared practice. On this mission, I learned from Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman from Oranim College in Eretz Yisrael, who taught that there are five lenses for measuring community building:

(a) Meaningfulness: "My uniqueness is an important resource and influence for the group" – establishing an existential connection through the journey of the spirit;

(b) Belonging: "This is mine" – feeling a sense of ownership of the community over space and time, whereby this emerging community becomes part of the definition of my personal identity;

(c) Commitment: "I feel responsible for the general good of the group" – feeling a sense of responsibility for the spiritual and emotional well-being of the community;

(d) Mutual trust: willingness to join and help others without deep personal familiarity nor with any expectation, just the conviction that here this is what members of a community are doing, so will I;

(e) Devotion: determining the spiritual practice that galvanizes each of these aforementioned levels of engagement – feeling an embodied relationship to the Torah as a regular way of life.

Let us consider just how the team of wise-hearted artisans who create the Tabernacle and its furnishings were able to embody each of these lenses of community building. The co-operative nature of these instructions Moses conveys regarding the construction of the Tabernacle requires many precious materials. Once asked, the community's response is immediate; the materials arrive in abundance: from gold, silver and copper, to blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool, as well as goat hair, spun linen, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs and precious stones. It is likely one of the only capital campaigns in Jewish history where its leader had to ask the members to stop giving!

How might we elevate our spiritual practice as a highest agenda, bringing together our boundless passions and talents so we can truly recommit ourselves to ensuring that all five lenses of community building remain on our radar, both in America and Israel – this is our ever-present challenge.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: Parashat Vayakhel includes a detailed description of the menorah Bezalel crafts for the Mishkan. "And he made the menorah of pure gold; of hammered work he made the menorah, its base and its stem, its goblets, its knobs, and its flowers were [all one piece] with it." (Exodus 37:17) Many generations later, Maimonides (the Rambam) drew a picture of the menorah based on the Torah's description; he used only basic geometric shapes: circles, triangles, and half-circles. This week’s illustration is modeled on Maimonides’ unusual (and curiously contemporary) imagining. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Beshalach -- Exodus 13:17–17:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_BeshalachAre miracles possible?

While the renowned medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides downplayed miracles as momentary exceptions when supernaturalism erupts into the dominant naturalism scripted by the Creator, one of our great modern thinkers, Abraham Joshua Heschel, sought to reclaim miracles as daily moments of radical amazement.

However we define miracles, we must confront them this week as Moses receives the divine command to raise his staff over the water so that the Reed Sea then splits, relieving the Israelites of their predicament, trapped as they are "between a rock and a hard place," and allowing them safe passage. This opening quickly turns into a dead end for the Egyptian armies pursuing the Israelites. Once they are safe on the far side of the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel erupt into redemption songs.

Now in the desert, however the challenges mount. The Israelites suffer from thirst and hunger, and complain to their new leaders, Moses and Aaron. Their thirst is slaked only when the bitter waters of Marah are sweetened. Moses also brings forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, and causes nourishing manna to rain down on his people each morning and quails each evening. The Israelites gather a double portion of manna on Fridays, since none will fall from the sky on the divinely decreed day of rest known as the Sabbath. Aaron even jars a morsel of manna as testimony for future generations.

The trials continue as the Israelites are attacked by the tribe of Amalek, who is ultimately defeated by Moses and Joshua. It is noteworthy that Moses uses the spiritual power of prayer, while Joshua uses the political power of armed forces.

Where then do miracles and the traces of the miraculous resonate for us in our lives today?

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the Song Of The Sea, the victory song sung by the Israelites after their safe crossing of the Reed/Red Sea. "Your right hand, O Lord, is most powerful; Your right hand, O Lord, crushes the foe." (Exodus 15:6) This is just one example of the Torah's favoring the right hand (or eye) over the left. This preference is shared by many other cultures, and neurologists believe it may be socially as well as biologically enforced. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.