There’s something remarkable about choosing to end this volume of Talmud with such a serious meditation upon peace. After 64 pages of dispute and argumentation, encompassing excommunications and numerous altercations, the following claim might seem a little bit hopeful:
Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ĥanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world.
Really? Don’t they just increase strife and fractiousness?
I remember Rav Yehuda Amital citing Rav Kook as explaining this idea in the following way. Torah Scholars are indeed a combative lot, and we are right to be concerned that sometimes they may get carried away with themselves, that their aggression might become overheated and excessive. But that notwithstanding, when people are engaged in the study of Torah, when people are ‘breaking themselves’ to understand the meaning and spirit of the Divine word, and when they are truly arguing for the sake of Heaven – l’shem Shamayim –then the powerful energy they bring to it serves an important purpose.
When opposing scholars lock horns in this way, they force each other to question and clarify the truth that they lay claim to, the heat of their argument acts to refine and purify their ideas. What emerges from this cauldron of debate is a higher form of Truth, an expression of ideals which was much greater than either of the participants could have arrived at on their own. It is a Truth which is richer, more multi-faceted and more illuminating. And, claims Rav Kook, it is only with such a Truth that genuine peace is established.
There is always the possibility of a partial peace, of an apparent peace, of a peace which is brought about through the suppression and denial of difference. But it is a weak peace, its roots are not sufficiently deep, the slightest inflammation of the underlying tension will cause a new eruption of acrimony.
Real peace, lasting peace, must come about through the resolution of difference, through a serious and thorough engagement with the issues which divide. Rav Kook is expressing a tremendous optimism here both in the power of dialogue and in the power of ideas. He is asserting that underlying the most apparently intractable disagreements there is a harmonious synthesis which can emerge under the right conditions.
And he is making the perhaps even bolder claim that this deeper and larger Truth will almost of necessity change the ways in which people interact and conduct themselves. He is asserting that Truth really is the beacon by which people live their lives, that even the most hard minded of thinkers take their lead from the suffused subtleties of the Divine Light.
Bringing this idea to the therapeutic arena, anyone who has experienced half decent therapy knows that a good therapist draws something out of a person, that they act as a catalyst for an individual to give voice to the conflicts and confusions which have been unsettling them. And through facilitating this expression of the unconscious, through enabling a new level of articulation to be reached, they help a person attain a new level of clarity, they foster greater insight into the troubles which have been distressing us.
The therapist will often do this through the gentlest of touches, through the smoothest of gestures, though sometimes the more combative approach will also have its place, as we’ve touched on lately.
There is another aspect of peace which I would like to consider, the sense in which it is connected to completeness, to wholeness. In the Hebrew language, peace – shalom – is rooted in the idea of being complete – shalem.
A sense of fullness, of completeness, of profound satiety; these are the benefits I have been granted through this demanding engagement with the Talmud, through immersing myself in the currents of history which flow through its pages. It is not, on the surface, an easy read, and yet, in a very surprising way, it brings peace to my mind in a manner that other reading material does not. It is different from losing oneself in the narrative of a novel, nor is it the same as being assaulted by a heavy tract of theory. It is more like becoming part of a conversation, one which stretches across hundreds of generations. It feels like one is taking a seat on a bench in the study hall of Hillel and Shammai, of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva, of Rav and Shmuel. The text has an almost musical quality, one’s concentration isn’t linear, it’s more dynamic than that, more wave like, more rhythmical.
There is something alive in it, it is not one voice, with the harmonious and integrated drive that would follow from that. It is more like a symphony, a wide range of voices, and on every page we are in suspense as we wait to see who we will stumble across, who will cross our path and how long they will stay for.
This experience is described by the following verse, one of the last words of the Tractate:
A great peace awaits those who love your Torah, they will no longer stumble and fall. (Ps. 119.165)
To love the Torah, to engage in it with an open heart, is to have the possibility of this peace, of a rooted completeness which will prevent one from stumbling, from becoming lost.
May we blessed to experience more of this as we continue our voyage through the Talmud, may the spirit of a well earned peace permeate the whole of our being and all of our relationships.