How do we read the Talmud?

As we begin to engage with such a vast body of work, we can only be filled with questions.  What is it about? Who wrote it? Why did they write it?  What are we supposed to take from it?

Books nowadays have introductions, prefaces, acknowledgments.  They may also have revised introductions or forewords by a learned friend.  And all with good reason.  We need to orientate ourselves when we encounter a text, to have some sense of the game that’s being played, of the response expected from us.

And yet, in the Talmud, nothing.  Is it too far-fetched to say that the redactors themselves weren’t too sure about the meaning of this text?  Might we suppose that their humility before it, their awe of it made silence the only possible response?

I think there is some truth to that.  The Talmud is much more than just another text.  It is the document of a culture, of a way of life, of a civilisation in grave danger of being forgotten.  In the face of this, and here I believe we can relate, the only response, however unsure, was one of connection, of remembrance, of engagement.

It can certainly feel overwhelming to embrace the Talmud wholesale, to swallow it acceptingly at the cost of our own autonomy and individuality.  And yet, it seems impossible to ignore it, to run away from it, to deny the scale and significance of it.  We honour it through engagement, and it is entirely consistent with its spirit to suppose that that engagement need not be unquestioning.

In the absence of an articulated introduction, can we find a hint of one in the opening passage, an implicit directive as to how to begin?  I think we can.  It begins like this:

From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter their houses in order to eat their Terumah until the end of the first watch.

What does this reveal to us?

There is certainly grounds here for the ‘traditionalist’ assertion that the Talmud is a book of law.  The line would be: it opens with laws because it is about laws and because its purpose is to ensure that we keep the laws.

But this is too simple on two fronts.  As we’ll see in the many pages ahead, law is only a part of the discussion here, and to only look for the law is to miss something – if not the wood then certainly a whole lot of trees.

To ‘only look for the law’ also speaks, psychoanalytically, of a peculiar inner compulsion, a need for certainty and rigidity, a flight from the encounter with chaos.  It’s a strange way to read, to live.

Let us concede that there is a lot of law going on.  Still, this just leads to the bigger question:  What is the meaning of Jewish Law?  What is its texture and sensibility, what is its ethos and logos?

The least appealing conception of the Law, and one that is nonetheless surprisingly popular, is that it is the arbitrary will of a distant and transcendent God.  This God may in some sense be concerned and loving, but we can never really be sure about that or what it means.  We can only know Him through His Law, and all we can be sure of is that He wants us to keep It.

I find such a picture deeply troubling and profoundly incoherent.  And I treat its widespread acceptance as a serious challenge to my faith.

An alternative conception of the Law is that it begins with Love, sustains a community through Love and always aims at the furthering and deepening of Love.

Such a Law is Divine because it reflects what is highest in humanity, what sometimes only exists beyond it.  It is eternal because it continues to reveal itself throughout human history, because at any one time it can only be partially understood.

Now, I certainly know the Talmud well enough to know that this picture of the Law will be challenged.  But, that said, I am also very pleased to see it reflected in its opening lines.

‘From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?’ – we can read this as:

Our evening begins with a discourse on Love – the primary theme of the Shema – and we are keen to know how soon we may begin this.

How early may we re-immerse ourselves in reflection on Love after the difficult and unloving experiences that have challenged us throughout the day?

We receive the following answer:

‘From the time that the priests enter their houses in order to eat their Terumah.’

This is a strange response, one that does not straightforwardly answer the question.  It does, however, set the tone in an important way.

What I notice here is the non-arbitrary nature of this law.  It is not rooted in a distant source of authority, it is not even defined by a naturalistic phenomenon such as the emergence of the stars.  Its source is closer to hand, in something lived, embedded in the rhythm of the culture.

The shape and texture of Jewish legal discourse is being carefully sculpted, the spirit of the law is being taught alongside its content.

And so, the subtle but profound response is this:

You may begin your discourse on Love when you have given thought to the traditions of your community.  Give particular thought to the traditions which are currently disappearing from memory, whose supporting institutions lie in ruin.

Remembering them is an act of Love, and their entire rationale was to place in your heart a Love that is full and genuine.

Giving Terumah was done with Love, and as we move into an era when it may no longer be possible, you must keep its spirit alive by meditating every evening on Love.

The Talmud and Jewish Law thus choose to begin with Love, ushering a person into an intimate matrix of loving thoughtfulness.  Whether this spirit stays prominent throughout is uncertain, but I’m pleased to proceed knowing that we’re right to be looking for it.

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