Our Talmud Shiur Resumes

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study returns next Tuesday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants will begin the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

As the shiur prepares to resume after a brief break, Henry has decided to contribute regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus allowing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions to appreciate a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. The first of these appears below.

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What is Talmud Study?

Chapter One: In which a simple question proves not so simple.

What is Talmud study? Talmud study is distinct from other types of Jewish text study. It is an investigation of the Oral Torah rather than the Written Torah. What does that mean?

Written Torah is the Tanakh – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, also known as The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and The Writings. Tanakh is the combined canonized text of the Jewish Bible (alternatively known as Mikra or the Hebrew Bible, but never the deeply offensive "Old Testament.") When we listen to a rabbi’s sermon or study Parsha HaShavua (the weekly Torah portion) we are studying the Written Torah directly. If we read Rashi, Nachmanides, Nechama Leibowitz, or Aviva Zornberg, we are reading Oral Torah commentaries on the Written Torah.

Every Jewish text that has appeared after the texts canonized in the Written Torah is the Oral Torah. The Written Torah mixes narrative and legal material freely. These types of thought diverged into more specialized discussions in the oral lore that began as soon as the Written Torah was revealed. These separate threads are referred to as aggadah (Rabbinic literature) and halacha (Jewish Law). Aggadah develops into a body of texts referred to broadly as the midrash. Midrash includes Pirek de Rebbe Eliezer, Midrash Rabbah, the Mekhiltas, Sifre, and others. These works comment directly and closely on Tanakh. Midrash is often said to be an effort to fill in the vast open spaces in Biblical narrative left open by the Tanakh’s laconic style, and this is certainly true. Midrash is quirky and explosively imaginative. Over time, the midrash has taken on the role of a canonized text, but its direct origins are in rabbinic sermons of the first and second centuries. As printed books, these works are organized to show how they directly depend on and relate to the structure of Written Torah.

The Zohar, the central mystical text of Judaism and the seed out of which much of subsequent Jewish mysticism grows, is also organized as a commentary on the Five Books of Moses. While the Zohar flies as far as the mind will let it, it always returns to the end of the day to the Written Torah like a homing pigeon.

But the Talmud is not organized around the Written Torah. It is organized as a commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the body of text that emerged out of the oral discussions of the halacha. (Besides the Mishnah, vital but less central early halachic texts are the Tosefta and the various small traditions recorded in Baraitot.) Mishnah is an explication of how one should go about the practical details of observing the halachot (laws) that we find in the Tanakh.

We also refer to these laws at the 613 mitzvot. Some mitzvot seem clear, such as "Thous Shalt Not Kill." Others, such as "A Jealous Husband Must Take His Wife to the Priests and Not Put Oil on Her Meal Offering," are a bit more opaque. Like all rules, Biblical law often seems much more easily understood in theory than in practice.

The Mishnah speaks in its own voice. Even though it derives its subject and meaning from an aspect of the Tanakh it does not quote from Tanakh nor is it organized around the structure of the Tanakh.

Mishnah is the central element of Talmud. Talmud includes the Mishnah and a later, vastly larger, text referred to as the Gemara. The Gemara purports to be a commentary on the Mishnah. (When we open a page of Talmud, we see much more on the page, but that's a subject for another day.) The Mishnah is an organized and thorough effort to make obeying the will of God a practical possibility. It is also an assertion that the human relationship with the Divine functions as a result of the probing human intellect at work.

Where does this come from? How true is the last assertion above? And what is Talmud study?

Next week, I will discuss the origins of the Mishnah and the "writtenness" of the Written Torah.

READ CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself.

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

Tazria -- Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

CoverDesign_TazriaThe renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) once observed:

"Abstract painting seeks to be a pure pictorial language, and thus attempts to escape the essential impurity of all languages: the recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

Nowhere is this "essential impurity of all languages" more evident than when reading about the laws of tumah and taharah — a signature of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Debate still abounds as to how exactly to be best translate these key terms — Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? There remains a real need in communal life to continue to have "recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone." Consider the passionately-committed but critical Orthodox, feminist Jew, Rachel Adler, and her translation of tumah and taharah as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn” and how this resonates with Octavio Paz’s poetic categories.

In grappling with the biblical text and its layers of rabbinic interpretation, a turn to poetics invites us once again to embrace halakhah as we continue to weave the rich tapestry of ritual into our daily lives through "forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is intended to be unsettling, and references the base manner in which our ancestors evaluated an individual's purity (or impurity). Many of the laws and rituals in Leviticus strike contemporary readers as anachronistic or even offensive. When reading Tanakh, we Jews are called upon to take our ancestral name seriously (Yisrael, literally "he who contends or strives with G-d"). We must wrestle with these texts not only because a growing number of our brethren embrace a more literal understanding of these decrees, but because this is our book, the "word" that binds Jews of all stripes, streams, and colors in our special tribal/communal relationship (klal Yisrael) -- even those of us who read our ancestors' purity tests as ethnic or ethnoreligious anthropology do not get a pass. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shemini -- Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

CoverDesign_SheminiPlaywright Harold Pinter (b. 1930) once remarked:

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.

And yet distinctions are critical to making informed choices. Firstly, numbers create distinctions in quantity. Numerology plays a significant role in Judaism, especially for identifying and marking special moments, amounts, or things. This week’s reading, Shemini, is named for a number, specifically the eighth day [b’yom ha’shemini]. In the narrative, the seven-day retreat for inauguration in the sanctuary compound is followed by Aaron and his sons beginning to officiate as priests. A fire then issues forth and consumes the offerings; thus, the divine presence is manifest, dwelling in the sanctuary.

Secondly, offerings are seen in relative distinction to the one making the offering. Following the inauguration, we learn of the strange account of Nadav and Avihu offering “a strange fire” before the divine, which was neither commanded nor requested. The result is clear, but the meaning remains enigmatic — the two young priests are consumed by the fire. Aaron is silent in the face of his sons’ immolation.

Thirdly, following this distressing and enigmatic episode, distinctions in the way food is consumed are conveyed through the dietary laws. The laws of kashrut are commanded, identifying permissible and forbidden animals for consumption, including consumption of: (1) land animals only with a split hoof and that chew their cud; (2) fish with scales and fins; (3) appropriately listed birds and insects.

Finally, distinctions relating to ritual readiness are recounted, including the laws relating to the immersion pool known as the mikveh. All these rituals are based on the ancient wisdom of distinction(s); while they continue to evolve, they still have resonance today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by Aaron's silent response to the consumption of his sons Avihu and Nadav by a holy fire. "And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. ... And Aaron was silent." (Leviticus 10:2-3) Generations of rabbis and commentators have wrestled with these events and invented many compelling drashes...yet the parsha continues to make me incredibly uneasy. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.