Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Talmud : In Defense Of

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Every so often, in one of the many chatrooms or message boards, the anti-Semites post various controversial passages from the Talmud in order to foster anti-Semitism in others. One would assume that anyone, in these modern times, who knows at least few Jewish people here and there, would think that these quotes are a complete fabrication of a hatred-driven delusional mind. Much like the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and other hatred-inspired anti-Jewish propaganda, these passages are likely considered by most to be outright lies. However, they’d be wrong; at least most of the time.

The majority of these oft quoted passages, carefully culled for their provocative value, are absolutely true in that the Talmud does, in fact, say exactly (well, almost) what it appears to say. The Talmud, a vast and varied body of Jewish knowledge, does at times offer to its readership some very weird and disturbing ideas. Nonetheless, these Talmudic dictums, be they logical, mysterious, practical, or just plain crazy have to be understood within the context and circumstance under which they were conceived. This is not to excuse the import of such statements or rationalize them, rather that we should understand how these ideas developed and what role they played, or didn’t play, in shaping Judaism and the Jewish world outlook.

In assessing these passages, one has to remember that the language of the Talmud is primarily Aramaic, the language of the Persian Empire and therefore, was the spoken language of the Jews under Persian rule and demand. Talmud Aramaic is written utilizing Hebrew characters and is mixed with a great deal of ancient and Biblical Hebrew as well. Even some accepted translations of Talmud, no matter how accurate, become mistranslations when viewed in a narrow context. As is common with any foreign language, especially those of ancient times, the nuances of Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew, which developed and operated from within specific historical and cultural contexts, are lost to the reader whose sole venue for reading the Talmud comes from a simplified and historically distant English translation. The ‘Soncino’ translation, though indeed quite scholarly, still requires some tweaking on the part of the reader, once again requiring the infusion of context and ‘religious’ nuance to understand Talmud clearly.

One should, while reading these passages, also realize that the vast majority of modern age Jews today do NOT read or study the Talmud, let alone adhere faithfully to its rulings and philosophy. Talmud study, at least in any appreciable depth, is the pretty much exclusively the realm of the rabbinical/yeshiva academies and perhaps among a few secular academic scholars here and there. The tenor and tone of the Talmud, though it continues to provide a basis for much of Jewish religious practice, is often not the last word on Jewish belief. In the centuries since those rabbinic discussions occurred and their subsequent compilation into a single legal/religious tome, much has transpired to mitigate much of the nationalistic and paternalistic fervor of ancient Israelite thinking. Living, as we have, as an oft-persecuted and fearful minority, whilst surviving and thriving among sometimes very hostile neighbors, has forced Jews to be more understanding of racism and bigotry. This is why Jews have been, since the Enlightenment, at the forefront of egalitarian and socially conscious movements. Even the most devout of religious Jewish authorities vehemently forbid Jews from engaging in many of the behaviors spoken of in the Talmudic Era.

It is equally important to understand that the Talmud is not exclusively a legal tome or law book, rather a comprehensive record of the rabbinical debates and personal insights that sometimes would lead to a definitive legal decision or merely Biblical exegesis. The anti-Semite pulling quotes from the Talmud perhaps does not realize that the particular statement may be one of a single rabbi, whose minority opinion, upon closer reflection from his colleagues, becomes completely and utterly dismissed as sheer nonsense. As is often the case, these passages merely express the personal observations of a single authority. The reason that the Talmud includes these extraneous and often ridiculous notions is to teach us, reading these debates centuries later, the process by which the legal ends are determined. It is an almost exclusively Jewish method of using absurd arguments en route to proving a crucial point of law. The anti-Semite cherry-picking these statements does not know where in the debate process the passage occurs and therefore makes the mistake of thinking it is at the end, rather than somewhere in an obscure, rejected, and almost forgotten middle.

Now, one might ask at this point, why it is that the compilers of the Talmud chose to include these controversial and crazy ideas, knowing that the Gentiles would eventually have a copy and then, as we have seen so often, misunderstand the import and context? The answer is simple. Those who had to compile the Talmud, which is vast in its scope and coverage, due to time and persecution, had eroded much of the memory of it. The Talmud, referred to as the ‘Oral Law’, was not written down until centuries later and, as history shows us, these type of things are subject to wanton forgetfulness. The compilers, Rav Inu and Rav Ashi, put in every bit if whatever it was they could remember or gather from other sources, be it good, bad, or indifferent. Every bit of information needed preservation if for no other reason than for posterity.

Another very important point is to understand the various layers of Jewish thinking. Talmudic Judaism is quite legalistic. It concerns itself primarily with what is, according to Biblical tradition, the strictly legal guidelines regarding human behavior. It does NOT condone or advocate those seemingly horrible or cruel behaviors that it considers as technically ‘legal’, but simply states that, according to the religious law as written, these acts are not punishable by human courts. Rabbinical responsa penned since the Talmud era firmly and vehemently forbid, and for many reasons, many of the behaviors and attitudes that prevailed during Talmudic times. Actions that would be considered within the ‘letter of the law’ now became proscribed as violating the ‘spirit’ of Jewish practice.

This legalism also has three distinct and often contradicting positions to maintain. First, there is the Biblical law, which forms the basis for all Jewish law and, being of primary concern, must be shielded from any hint of violation. The rabbinical law stands as an extension of the Biblical Canon in that it provides for an enforced buffer zone, much like a behavioral ‘speed limit’, setting reasonable boundaries intended to keep the Jew one or two additional steps away from committing an infraction of Biblical magnitude. These laws sometime also apply to positive commands as well and serve to reinforce Biblical precepts. The Talmud also sorts out some of the ambiguities in Biblical language and law. Yet another layer regards civil law and ethics, which surprising at it may be to some, makes up a substantial portion of the Talmud. The rabbis had many social, economic, and political issues to address and although they fed upon both the Torah and the wisdom of their predecessors, many of their decisions were derived from the here and now, having based their legal on exploitable loopholes in the Talmudic law. It was flexible enough in its scope to allow for looser ‘interpretation’. Even when viewed from our modern perspective, this latter approach, favoring the benefit of the believer over the strict religious dogma, seems very a practical and enlightened way of thinking, much unlike other widely held religious doctrines.

There are times that the highly technical religious viewpoint has conflicted with political concerns. The well known Talmudic dictum of “Dina d’Malchusa Dina”, though never quoted by Jew-haters, provides an underlying principle of Jewish law in the Diaspora, showing that Jews are obligated to recognize and obey the laws of their host countries with the same tenacity and acceptance as they do their own religious teachings. There are many different circumstances and justifications surrounding this particular clause, but that differentiation between legality and social necessity is a common theme in Jewish Law. The Talmud, which was compiled under the dominion of foreign rule, provides some guidelines for maintaining that precarious balance between foreign secular rule and insular religious doctrine. Our national survival from within and our biological survival in the face of outside hostilities depend upon this peculiar ability to satisfy both obligations simultaneously.

Do not consider my defense as exhaustive or even effective. At best, and I am extremely hopeful in saying this, there will come a better understanding of Talmud, how it works, and what it offers in terms of wisdom, insight, insanity, irony, and humor. I remain the strongest and most vocal critic of Talmudic doctrine, rabbinic law, and their philosophy. Yet, even in my apparent heresy, I find no need to misrepresent or lie about that which I have chosen to reject. Telling the truth, the whole truth, is quite enough to provoke anger, thought, and even a profound insight or two.

The Talmud is not without its value. Anti-Semites, in their hurried rushing to quick judgment, are missing out on a golden opportunity to garner some bits of ancient wisdom and also learn something of Jewish history and the Jewish people.

Knowing your enemy can be quite a learning experience.