Talmud | June 19, 2020
It’s hard to make sense and order within the Talmud. But maybe that’s the point. Listen to some brief closing thoughts on the value of building meaning specifically when it is not apparent.
There are two books that had a big influence on my thinking, particularly about the uniqueness of the Talmud. If you watch the video that we began the Talmud series with, it began with a passage of Talmud itself, and the passage of Talmud appears in Sanhedrin on page 24 a, and it derives from a verse in Eicha, Lamentations, which says, “Bamachashakim hoshivani kmeysey olam,” “you placed me in darkness among the dead,” which is this really dreary verse that is describing what the world was like following the destruction of the temple. The Talmud, on this very passage, talking about the darkness and death of the world, says, “Hey, talmudah shel Bavel, this is the Babylonian Talmud.” And it always struck me as really strange about, why, of all verses, is the Talmud pointing here to find its meaning? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have an allusion for the Talmud in a more uplifting, optimistic place? And this is really the only place in the Talmud where it references its own underlying value.
It’s a strange place to find value in such, in exilic dark place following the destruction of the temple, describing the world as darkness and dead. And I think the idea in some ways comes back to these two books. One’s a book, one’s a short story. There’s a book by Jorge Borges, who’s this really fascinating writer. And he has the short story called Funes the Memorious, which is about somebody who, I think if I remember correctly, he has this riding accident, and he wakes up and realizes that he can’t forget anything, his memory is now perfect. And there’s a similar book, which is based on actual psychological experiments, called The Mind of the Mnemonist, and “mnemonist” means somebody who has a perfect memory, and both books describe a world where you can’t forget, where everything is perfect and laid out and sequential in front of you.
It describes, in such a world where you can’t forget anything, and everything is quite obvious and quite apparent in such a world conceptualization, the creativity of building categories and finding underlying commonalities is actually far harder and more difficult. Funes discovers that in a world where he cannot forget, he also cannot build conceptual patterns and ideas. His creativity is lost. And I think in many ways, this is the underlying value of the Talmud, and why the Talmud specifically references itself in this very dark world. That part of the opportunity of living in a world that doesn’t have that apparent meaning, that very obvious sequential structure where you’re given a very clear direction of what you’re supposed to do with your life and what you’re supposed to be when you grow up and what you’re supposed to become, the opportunity in that is that the meaning and the patterns and the conceptual creativity really has to come from you, which is why the Talmud, I think, is at the heart of preserving Jewish ideas.
It’s not really the Bible, and we’ll talk more about the Bible when we do a deep dive into biblical criticism, but what’s preserved Jewish ideas is the collective experience of the Talmud itself, where you have all of these different minds coming together on a page from different geographies, from different generations, all grappling with the same experiential darkness of being alive in a world where there’s no obvious meaning, where it feels like you’re surrounded by this death of a parent, meaning that we once had, during the times of the temple, and what the Talmud is trying to do, and everybody is doing together, and what we really discussed in many ways, is how these diversity of ideas come together to try to build a path, a strategy for how to construct meaning in this world. And it’s a meaning that needs to be constructed specifically through the human experience.
We’re not given the gift of prophecy, or that clear path and that clear passageway where we know exactly what we’re supposed to do with our lives, that’s a struggle that everybody has. And in a larger sense, what the Talmud is dealing with is when that darkness began, it began in a post-prophetic world in that axial age, as Karl Jaspers describes, it in a world where you didn’t have apparent direction and apparent meaning coming from profits and temples, we had to turn inward and find, so to speak, a path forward within ourselves. And the Talmud is a collection of all of those great rabbinic leaders throughout generations, and the ideas of not just rabbis, there are plenty of people who are mentioned in the Talmud, Jews and non-Jews alike, whose ideas have been concretized on the page as a pathway of sorts for how to turn inwardly, using your own logic and ideas, and wed them to biblical texts, to construct a creative conceptual path for how to build meaning in your life. And whether that’s apparent in the Talmud, it’s obviously not, that’s part of the magic of the Talmud: that, in a world where meaning is not apparent, the Talmud itself parallels the structure of the world that we live in right now, which is why it’s so chaotic, it’s so filled with contradictions, but it is through the diversity of ideas and geographies where we’re able to build through the generations and through each other, the meaning that will take us forward.
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