Reprinted with permission from Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, published by Simon & Schuster.
Jews have studied the Talmud for a great variety of reasons. Many of these can be labeled practical. Of these “practical” reasons, one has already been discussed at some length [in the book Back to the Sources]—the Talmud has been studied in order to extract functioning law from its pages. For most of Jewish history, Jews in various communities have constituted self-governing enclaves within the larger society, and from the time rabbis rose to prominence as leaders of Jewry their legal traditions provided the rules by which these enclaves lived.
Thus rabbinic marriage law became Jewish marriage law, rabbinic rules about the Sabbath became rules for all Jews, and so on. The Talmud itself does not always state with precision what these rules are to be, and in the nature of things it could not anticipate new situations in which these rules would have to be applied. Thus study of the Talmud for its law became a chief activity of those in the community who were charged with teaching and enforcing that law.
There were other practical reasons too, however. The Talmud, like the Mishnah before it, has always functioned as a training text for rabbis and their disciples. This “academic” function, as has been noted, may in fact be older than the applied-law function just mentioned. Now, not all rabbis actually served as legal authorities. Some were teachers, or administrators, or political advisors; some, for that matter, were merchants. Anyone, however, who aspired to the title “rabbi,” anyone who wished to be part of an ancient chain of tradition, had to become immersed in the “sea of the Talmud.” The Talmud therefore served the additional practical function of training religious leaders. Not all so trained thereupon took up the authority now available to them. Some used the training in other ways, and some did not use it at all.
In a rather more specialized sense, the Talmud was also of practical use in the study of Scripture. Among their other intellectual enterprises, the rabbis of antiquity spent a great deal of time reading and explaining the Bible. Their explanations are found scattered throughout Talmudic and especially Midrashic literature. Later generations of Jews—even Jews who never achieved the ability to study the Talmud itself—did study Scripture; the Pentateuch in particular was read through, year in and year out, in the synagogues. Jews needed to know what their holy writings meant, and their ancient rabbis could tell them.
The traditional Jew studies Talmud because it communicates ultimate truth—truth about God, truth about the world, and most important, truth about how God wants the holy community of Israel to live. The modern scholar, on the other hand, approaches the text for information, not “truth.” Contemporary academic scholars recognize that the Talmud, like any ancient document, must be studied with critical care: Scribes over the many centuries have permitted error to creep into their copies, and even the ancient rabbis themselves occasionally misremembered or misunderstood the traditions they were teaching their disciples.
Modern scholars approach the Talmud seeking the answers to all sorts of questions— usually questions of their own devising—and they have developed techniques for working out more or less reliable answers to these questions. In earlier ages, the pious Jew normally approached this same text with one unchanging question in mind, a question itself received from the past: How does the God of Israel, the Creator of the Universe, want me to live? Questions of historical reliability, or of outside cultural influence, were in the long run irrelevant to this kind of inquiry.
Modern historical consciousness actually makes the traditional inquiry more difficult than ever. The new types of investigation are not simply “irrelevant” to such a quest; they impede it. How can the Talmud reveal the eternal word of God if it turns out to be the work of third- or fourth-century men living in the fading world of Near Eastern antiquity? How can questions of Jewish law be resolved from a text that may conceal scribal error on every line? These considerations help explain why modern, critical Talmud study was long resisted in traditional yeshivot [religious academies] and is still excluded from many of them. Historical relativity in general and text criticism in particular turn out to raise new religious issues, issues that earlier masters of the rabbinic tradition never had to face.
Nevertheless, Talmudic study has remained entirely unchanged in a very important respect, and will remain unchanged as long as people engage in it. The Talmud is a book put together by people who saw intellectual activity as sanctifying. They found holiness in their effort to bring rational order to their tradition, and as a result problem solving and disciplined logic became important characteristics of rabbinic discourse.
This is one of the reasons that Talmud study for many people in the modern world is not a practical activity at all, but rather an important religious experience. Even in the past, for that matter, the main reason for the Talmud’s preeminence, the chief cause of its central role in Jewish history, was not practical at all. The Talmud was Torah. In a paradox that determined the history of Judaism, the Talmud was Oral Torah in written form, and as such it became the clearest statement the Jew could hear of God’s very word.
This must not be understood too literally. The point is not that God dictated the entire Talmud to later rabbis in the same way some believed the Written Torah had been dictated to Moses, but rather that in the Talmud the Jew could find a clear expression of God’s will. The Talmud provided the means of determining how God wants all Jews to live, in all places, at all times. Even if the details of the law had to be altered to suit newly arisen conditions, the proper way to perform such adaptation could itself be learned from the Talmud and its commentaries. Thus this basic text uncovered the fullness of God’s revelation to the people of the Covenant. The Talmud revealed God speaking to Israel, and so the Talmud became Israel’s way to God. To study Talmud was to converse with the Creator of the Universe.
For this reason, even before the Talmud was complete, ancient rabbis had evolved such a complicated etiquette for Torah study that study became a religious ritual in its own right, indeed, in the opinion of many, the most sacred ritual that Jewish life had to offer. In its most ambitious expression, rabbinic thinking came to see this activity as not only a way to more toward God—it was also a way to be like God, for God too studies Torah, taught Rav Judah, three hours a day (Avodah Zarah 3b). In the end, therefore, the act of Talmud study was holy beyond the holiness to be found in the words of the text. Jews studied Talmud because the act brought them closer to the divine.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.