The seductive appeal of the Talmud

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer on what he learned from making a radio documentary about the Talmud


Secular yeshivah teacher Ruth Calderon (centre: photo Flash90)

Secular yeshivah teacher Ruth Calderon (centre: photo Flash90)

I was first introduced to Talmud at around the age of 10 and by the time I was barmitzvah I was able to study it unaided, which I did assiduously during my teenage years.

I was not remarkable in this sense. Many of my friends were equally adept at Talmud study. It was the culture we had been raised in and it was expected of us. I love the Talmud and my love for it is like that of a child for a parent; unconditional, uncritical, inviolable. Children don’t choose their parents and I didn’t choose the Talmud, it was chosen for me.

Long before my critical abilities were fully developed, the Talmud held my attention and moulded my mind. Of course I challenged particular passages in the Talmud — that is, after all, what any decent talmudist is taught to do — but the challenges were always from within a discernible and predictable framework. I never questioned the framework itself. A child challenges a parent from within a secure relationship. It never occurs to the child to challenge the essence of that relationship.

Lovers are different. They choose each other and, in the process of choosing, they approach each other from the outside, without any preconceived notions or expectations. They critically observe each other and eventually seduce one another. Such relationships, at least in their early stages, involve the element of risk and uncertainty which is responsible for frisson and excitement. It can also be the cause of insecurity. They are two sides of the same coin.

Studying at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshivah (Flash90)

Studying at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshivah (Flash90)

One of the most remarkable insights I came away with from working on a BBC programme on the Talmud, which I am presenting later this month (details below), is that for some people the Talmud is not like a parent but rather like a lover.

These are individuals who have come to Talmud study relatively late in life. I met some of them while visiting Pardes in Jerusalem, an institute that pioneers talmudic study for men and women with little or no background in this rigorous discipline. For these students, the Talmud is not a familiar presence but rather something exotic, dazzling and unpredictable. It fascinates them but they are not uncritical.

They approach it from the outside, as it were, with fresh eyes and mature intellectual tools developed elsewhere; through the study of science, history, literature or just life experience. The Talmud does not just seduce such individuals, they also seduce the Talmud, so that it yields to them wisdom and inspiration that is just not available to those like myself with a more familiar perspective and predictable expectations. The Talmud constantly surprises them in delightful ways and, despite my advantages of early study and familiarity with the Talmud, I was more than a little envious of them.

Is it possible for me to renew my relationship with the Talmud? Can I see in this familiar, almost maternal presence, a new dimension? After all these years of Talmud study, is it capable of seducing me? More importantly, do I have the ability to seduce it?

I would like to think so and in fact there is a precedent for this in the Talmud itself. The Talmud relates that when Rav Zeira emigrated from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael, he fasted one hundred fasts in order that he might merit to forget all the learning he accumulated in Babylonia (Baba Metzia 85a).
Rashi explains that the method and style of learning in the Land of Israel was distinctly different from the academies of Babylonia and Rav Zeira wanted to absorb this new learning unencumbered by his former intellectual training and way of thinking.

I always thought Rav Zeira courageous for taking such a risk. What if could not master the new methodology? By erasing all his previously accumulated wisdom he made certain that there was nothing to fall back on should he fail. Yet it was this single-minded drive to approach his study in a new way that ensured his success.

While Rav Zeira inspires me, I am more of a coward. I am not prepared to erase all the Talmud I have learned; it is too valuable to me and I fear that I might never get it back. Yet I do very much want to approach the Talmud at this point in my life with fresh eyes and a new perspective.

I hope the Almighty grants me success. Even if I don’t undertake one hundred fasts.

THE STORY OF THE TALMUD

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer presents “The Story of the Talmud” on BBC Radio 4 as a two-part series July 17 and July 24 at 11am.

His interviewees range from the prestigious Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem to Ruth Calderon, pioneer of secular yeshivah study, whose maiden Knesset speech quoting the Talmud was widely admired across the Jewish world.

Last updated: 12:45pm, July 7 2013