"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

Vayeira— Genesis 18:12–2:24

facebook_coverdesign_vayeiraHow many trials must we overcome in life?

Abraham is said to have overcome ten trials. Notice the way language links them: "Go...to the land I shall show" (Genesis 12:1) to "Sacrifice your son on one of the mountains I shall show you" (Genesis 22:2). Clearly then, Lech Lecha last week is linked with Vayeira this week, picking up just three days after Abraham’s circumcision, when his steadfast conviction affords him the ability to see the divine that is revealed in the mundane – a "showing."

At this moment of divine self-revelation (known as a theophany), Abraham encounters three men, wayfarers approaching his tent — because of his special insight, he recognizes them as angels. Amidst the radical hospitality extended to these guests, one of the three announces that Sarah will give birth to a son in exactly one year, to which she can only laugh.

Later in the narrative, as the remaining two angels arrive in the doomed city of Sodom, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city. Finally and most famously, Abraham’s faith is tested when he is commanded to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), where Isaac is bound upon the altar. As Abraham raises his knife to slaughter his son, a heavenly voice intercedes. And so Isaac is unbound only because a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, is rebound and offered in Isaac’s stead.

This story, the Akeida, is a story of binding and unbinding. In a sense, it is the story of all religion — religio means "binding." In obeying the divine command, Abraham takes on religion, binding himself and his son to Judaism; but the moment of unbinding Isaac is the truly religious moment, as each of us in our lives is free to choose anything, and thus we search for the divine beyond convention or expectation. In the unbinding, Isaac becomes a real person.

Our trials of life challenge each of us to live and participate fully in this world, to reach out with deeper empathy and compassion for and to others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract meditation on the morality of punishment. Why nine blue squares in a field of black squares? The illustration references Abraham's dramatic interrogation of G-d's plan to kill all the inhabitants of Sodom for the population's sinful behavior. This famous debate results in G-d pledging to spare the city if just ten righteous men live there. Apparently, Sodom lacked even that small number, and G-d rained fire and brimstone upon the city, killing everyone. Although the story is usually celebrated as a foundational episode – we should, like our patriarch, Abraham, be in dialogue with G-d – it also raises challenging questions about group punishment and culpability. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1-17:27

facebook_coverdesign_lechlechaWe move from the displacement associated with the Tower of Babel at the end of last week’s reading to even deeper displacement this week as the Torah introduces us to the journey of Abram and Sarai.

Their leaving home can be thought of as the setting of a tripwire, a process of setting in motion dramatic change. The challenge of starting out on a new venture — which is not limited to physical relocation — is perennial. We are constantly setting the tripwire of change; nothing in life is permanent.

Little surprise then that the Hebrew Bible has no sense of place permanence – the ancestral house or furniture can not be assumed. Instead of such a legacy, God commands Abram to take leave — "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1).

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. The next covenant, this one of circumcision, is enacted by Abraham upon himself and his son, Isaac, while Hagar is banished with Ishmael. In leaving home and beginning this new venture that comes to be known as Judaism, Abram becomes Abraham ("father of multitudes") and Sarai becomes Sarah ("princess"). And so the journey continues...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the vision Abram had following his defeat of King Chedorlaomer. "After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, 'Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.'" (Genesis 15:1) Here, we see a shield form on a yellow field. The shape of the shield and its markings – at once ocular and solar – are based on designs archaeologists associate with ancient Mesopotamia. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.