Introduction to Talmud: Who Says?
There is circularity that underlies nearly all of rabbinic law. Open up the first page of Talmud and it already assumes that you read the rest of the book. As frustrating as that can be, the circularity of rabbinic law is even more vexing. At the heart of the Talmud is the question of rabbinic authority. Let’s assume for a moment that the Bible was delivered directly from Moshe (Moses) on Mount Sinai. But who invested the rabbis with the authority to interpret and develop the laws that line the pages of the Talmud?
There are two typical forms of answers and both rely on some seemingly circular reasoning. The first approach minimizes the rabbinic contribution and emphasizes that the core of rabbinic law derived from God at Sinai. The rabbis are merely putting to paper what God said to Moshe. There are plenty of texts in the Talmud that emphasize this point of view. Moshe received everything (see Talmud Brachos 5a). Even contemporary ideas of Torah were first given to Moshe at Sinai (Talmud Megilah 19b). This approach can be deeply unsatisfying, and more importantly, not necessarily correct. You’re left with the question as to why so little reference to any oral tradition exists in the written Torah. Some consider the very ambiguity of the written law as a proof for the existence of an oral tradition. Surely, all of the contradiction and ambiguity in the Torah point to some secondary more explanatory tradition. Personally, I never found that quite satisfying. It seems like it is more of a question about the composition of the written Torah, than an indication of the existence of an oral tradition. If I read an ambiguous passage in a book, would I immediately assume that there is a reader’s companion?
There is a second approach. The second approach begins with the premise that much of the oral law was in fact developed by rabbis. This approach also leaves the reader with questions. If rabbis contributed so significantly to the interpretation of the Torah, why should I listen to them? And who gave them such power? Such questions also lead to a different circulatory of sorts. While the Torah does give express authority to the High Court, known as the Sanhedrin, it is only later rabbinic texts that invest such power in later rabbinic authorities. A skeptic is certainly not going to rely on rabbis to interpret their own rabbinic authority. When a child asks a parent who made them the boss, should we listen to them when they say themselves?
These are difficult questions that are hard to express without a measure of irreverence. The question in most ways is easier to articulate than the answer. “Who gave you the right,” is easier to express than the long-storied history of the rabbinic contribution to Jewish law. Proceeding without acknowledging the dissonance between the ease of the question and the complexity of the answer would be disingenuous at best.
There are whole books and countless articles written to address this question, which isn’t surprising considering the question of the authority of rabbinic law is not a new one. It was articulated by the Karaites, it appears in the Talmud, and it later became common during the Enlightenment. Some approach the question historically by documenting the different strands and schools of interpretation that have existed throughout time. Others approach the question more legally, focusing instead on the legal philosophy underpinning the development of the Oral Law. Both are included in the further readings.
It is nearly impossible to extricate oneself from the circularity of the issue. It may be impossible to find a satisfying verse in the Torah to pin the corpus of written law. The question is magnified since rabbis instituted a blessing on rabbinic enactments that include the language “Blessed are you God who commanded us…” How can one say God commanded us to follow commandments that were instituted by Rabbis? The Talmud provides two verses:
מאי מברך מברך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר של חנוכה והיכן צונו רב אויא אמר מלא תסור רב נחמיה אמר שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך
And what blessing does one recite? He recites: Who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to light the Hanukkah light. The Gemara asks: And where did He command us? The mitzva of Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, so how is it possible to say that it was commanded to us by God? The Gemara answers that Rav Avya said: The obligation to recite this blessing is derived from the verse: “You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right, nor to the left” (Deuteronomy 17:11). From this verse, the mitzva incumbent upon all of Israel to heed the statements and decrees of the Sages is derived. Therefore, one who fulfills their directives fulfills a divine commandment. Rav Neḥemya said that the mitzva to heed the voice of the Elders of Israel is derived from the verse: “Ask your father, and he will declare unto you, your Elders, and they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7).
If that’s not enough to convince, it is hard to lay blame. In many ways, you will always be left with the same circularity: relying on rabbinic texts to bolster the authority of rabbinic law.
Instead, we may be asking the wrong question. Instead of trying to point to a verse that underlies all of rabbinic law, it may be more sensible to ask why such a system was set up in the first place. Meaning, why do we have a system with an ambiguous written Torah and a rabbinic law that emerges from their analysis? Why wasn’t the Torah written more clearly? And why is the system of Jewish law and the Talmud set up in such a way that we have to rely so much on rabbinic interpretation?
What follows are three conversations—each connected to different aspects of the Talmud. Taken separately, they are certainly all interesting, but cumulatively, they begin to piece together a picture of the uniqueness of the Talmud.
More important than any one conversation, or even their collective conversations, is the totality of their work. I’ve highlighted some key works and questions that they each discuss on this subject as some further readings for those interested.
Hope you enjoy and keep the conversation going!
Talmud As an Agent of Chaos: A Conversation with Ari Bergmann
My love of Talmud did not begin with Talmud—it began with Hasidut. Specifically, the thought of Rav Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900). I’ve written about the thought of Rav Tzadok and his influence on me in other contexts. There is an appreciation for the pain and power of exile that informs all of his work. He was not interested in the sequentially of religious life. He was instead concerned with the chaos. In that sense, Rav Tzadok emphasizes how the Talmud reflects both the exilic experience and the union and forum where the Jewish people and God connect in exile. For Rav Tzadok the Talmud was not purely a Divine product like the Torah and it certainly was not just a human construct like a legal document. The Talmud was how God spoke and continues to speak to the Jewish people in exile.
I always found it especially fascinating that both of my teachers in the works of Rav Tzadok went on–independently of one another—to complete PhDs in Talmud. First, my departed teacher, Dr. Yaakov Elman was the first person to translate the works of Rav Tzadok to an English speaking audience Jewish Observer 1988. As he became more involved with the academic world, his work on Rav Tzadok evolved, as well. He wrote an article on Rav Tzadok’s approach to the development of Halacha. Talmud is not just a book—it is a process. In a world absent of prophecy, Talmudic thinking is the iterative process that each subsequent generation contends with and integrates Divinity into our lives. Normally, the trajectory of Jewish history is seen as a decline. For Rav Tzadok, the trajectory of Talmud is long and it bends towards building meaning in exile:
The process did not end here. Each successive effort of codification of Oral Law added to the Written Torah, and each code, as it became part of Written Torah, generated still more layers of innovation in Oral Torah. In practical terms, each portion of Oral Torah as it was reduced to writing generated new commentaries whose authors had approached the original Written Torah. Thus, if we may be permitted to draw out the line of reasoning a step further, the Amoraim applied to Mishnah methods similar to their creative interpretation (derasha) of Written Torah, the Rishonim, continued the process on Talmud as a whole, and the Aharonim used the works of the Rishonim as a point of departure and treated them the same way. And the process continues apace. Progressive revelation continues through the medium of sage and text.
This article laid the foundation for other important discussions of Talmud based on the work of Rav Tzadok, namely the role of prophecy in the history of Halacha and the role of Gentile wisdom in the development of the Talmud. The latter is what eventually brought Dr. Elman to academic Talmud study. If, as Rav Tzadok suggests, the development of the Oral Law was the mechanism through which the general zeitgeist of secular wisdom are incorporated into the body of Jewish thought, then it was worth studying the general context in which the Talmud was written as well. He also explored other scholar, notably Rabbi Samuel Glasner, who developed novel theories about the underlying nature of rabbinic interpretation. Dr. Elman’s later work on academic Talmud never interested me much, but the reason why this question interested him has always fascinated me.
Perhaps more than anything else, the contribution of Dr. Elman on Talmudic scholarship was his emphasis on the concept of omnisignificance (also see here), Omnisignificance, a term first proposed by James Kugel is “the basic assumption underlying all of rabbinic exegesis that the slightest details of the biblical text have a meaning that is both comprehensible and significant.” In his articles on omnisignificance, Elman reframes the Talmudic process as the ultimate search to construct meaning. While never fully realized, the search for omnisignifiance is predicated on the conviction that the Torah has meaning—even when it is not fully apparent.
Ultimately, this conviction is larger than just an approach to text—it is an approach to life. The quotidian and extraneous moments in our life can either be dismissed or we can insist that meaning can emerge. Talmudic thinking is training to approach a world seemingly devoid of meaning and full of contradiction. Instead of resigning from a world of meaning, Talmudic thinking teaches one to find it, construct it, and insist upon it.
I first met Dr. Ari Bergmann many years before meeting Dr. Elman. He was and remains the primary influence on my approach to Jewish thought. Our conversation hardly does justice to his breadth of knowledge and areas of accomplishment. Ari is a world-class academic and traditional Talmudist as well as a successful trader who runs his own fund. The joy of Rav Tzadok, which is manifest in both Ari’s academic approach and life, is the interdisciplinary methodology. Rav Zadok’s works seamlessly integrate mysticism, legal theory, and historiography in a sophisticated and passionate way I had not found with other Jewish thinkers. Ari does the same. To this day, interdisciplinary studies have informed my approach to Jewish education and my personal Jewish identity. I look for challenges that require reconciling contradictions and opposites—whether in the people I interact with or their ideas.
Not nearly enough was covered in this conversation—I hope we have the opportunity to have another one. For more on Ari’s approach to Talmud, I strongly recommend listening to his series on the development of the Talmud, where he distills the core thesis of his PhD with Jewish thought. I am not going to distill the details of his PhD here—listen to the series or read it. I’ll just highlight two things.
(1) There is a fascinating discussion on the relationship of Rav Kook to academic Talmud and historiography (pp. 69-73). Rav Kook and Rav Tzadok thought quite similarly on many issues. A few books and articles have even been written about it. It is not surprising to see Rav Kook’s reaction here. It is actually quite inspiring.
(2) The emphasis on orality is a preservation of creativity. He writes as follows, based on the work of Jan Assman’s Religion and Cultural Memory:
Jan Assmann explains, the most important distinction between an oral and a literary culture is manifested in the elements of creativity and innovation. He writes:
In reality, all the versions of a text handed down orally differ from one another. But these variations only become manifest once they have been recorded—taped, for example. They remain undetectable in the inner experience of listeners to an oral performance. . . . Conscious variation in the sense of a controlled deviation can only be found in a written culture, where a text can be compared to an original version.
This dual mode of oral transmission employed in the transmission of the Talmud addressed this issue. The amoraic rulings were transmitted in an attributed fixed format in order to avoid any deliberate changes; these rulings were transmitted through the official reciters. The interpretations and deliberations, which included the dialectical argumentation, were transmitted by the head of the academy in a verbose and fluid format, anonymously, in order to allow for the interpretation to develop and remain open.
As Ari concludes, “The Talmud represents the collective voice of generations of the most diverse rabbis and sages and it came to create a collective authority which encompasses the sum total of the many diverse views.”
I hope you enjoy the conversation and find time to add your voice as well.
Is Talmud the Jewish Constitution? A Conversation with Chaim Saiman
Explaining any element of Jewish law to someone else can be difficult. I’m not sure what’s the most difficult practice to translate and present. I certainly don’t envy anyone who has to explain Sukkot to a colleague. But more than any specific Jewish law, the concept of law itself in Judaism can be deceivingly difficult to transmit. In Hebrew, Jewish law is called Halacha, which derives from the Hebrew word to walk (הלך holeich). Colloquially we may say “Jewish law,” but the actual Hebrew word means something closer to “travels.” A lot of misconceptions derive from this. Most look at Talmud as a collection of Jewish laws—“oh, so this is your constitution.” But that is far from correct. The structure of process of Jewish law differs greatly from its secular counterparts.
In fact, instead of using American law to understand Talmud, some have suggested that Talmud should be used as a paradigm for American law. In 1983, Robert Cover opened Harvard Law Review with a now famous article called “Nomos and Narrative.” Most law review articles can be dense and hard to decipher—this is worse. Cover presents the introduction of Rabbi Yosef Karo to Choshen Mishpat, the collection of Jewish civil law, as a model for how to preserve a legal society. He writes, “No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture.” In Cover’s view, Judaism was able to create a legal society because its laws (nomos) and narrative were integrated. This can be seen on nearly any page of Talmud. In the Talmud, the laws (Halacha) and stories (Aggada) are interwoven. In Samuel Levine’s brilliant collection, Jewish Law and American Law: A Comparative Study, he has an essay applying Cover more directly to Talmud. There, he cites Hayim Nahman Bialik’s essay “Halacha and Aggadah,” “halacha and aggada are two things which are really one—two sides of a single shield.”
A while back I wrote an essay called The Forgotten Talmud: On Teaching Aggadah in High Schools. It always bothered me that when I was in school we would skip the story passages. There was a feeling that serious Talmud study was specifically associated with the legal passages. In many ways, I think that is a reflection of a general societal reflection. Lawyers are serious; storytelling is for children. The Talmud rejects this mutually exclusive binary. In order to preserve a society, you need both. Without laws, society would not cohere unless that all simultaneously felt mutually inspired—a nearly impossible occurrence. With Aggadah, society would simply become rote and legalistic. A religious society needs both. Robert Cover suggests that secular society would benefit from integrating both as well.
In 2018 my friend and legal scholar, Chaim Saiman, wrote a brilliant book entitled Halakha: The Rabbinic Idea of Law. He challenges a lot of the misconceptions about what Jewish law is—and is not. He has always been a bit of an eccentric thinker. He has applied economic theories to describe models of Jewish leadership. He presented the obscure Talmudic world of Brisk in a Law Review article. He is also a friend and someone I’ve gotten lost in conversation with more than once. I tried to stay on topic here—it was a struggle.
We discuss my hometown shul, Christian polemics against Jewish law, the nature of Jewish law and, of course, the Talmud.
Listen to “Is Talmud the Jewish Constitution? A Conversation with Chaim Saiman” on Spreaker.
Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.
A Page is Worth a Thousand Worlds: A Conversation with Michelle Chesner
Perhaps more than a collection of laws, each Talmud page is a gathering of Jewish history. On any given in page of Talmud, there are personalities from different centuries and vastly different geographies all speaking with one another. The Rabbis of the Mishnah, most of whom resided in Israel, lived before the turn of the millennium. The Talmud was compiled several centuries later—many of the rabbis lived in modern-day Iraq. To the left on the standard Talmud page lived Rashi, an eleventh-century rabbi who lived in France. To the right are the Tosafists, a collection of rabbinic commentaries composed by rabbis throughout much of Europe. Transcending time and geography is an essential part of the Talmudic experience. Maybe it is that sort of transcendence that both highlights and helps transcend the exilic experience that the Talmud embodies.
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, famed Talmudist at Yeshiva University, famously described his experience teaching Talmud:
I start the shiur, I don’t know what the conclusion will be. Whenever I start the shiur, the door opens, another old man walks in and sits down. He is older than I am. All the talmidim call me the Rav, he is older than the Rav. He is the grandfather of the Rav; his name is Reb Chaim Brisker. And without whom no shiur can be delivered nowadays. Then, the door opens quietly again and another old man comes in, he is older than Reb Chaim, he lived in the 17th century. What’s his name? Shabsai Kohen- the famous Shach- who must be present when dinei mamonos (i.e. civil law) are being discussed…And then, more visitors show up. Some lived, some of the visitors lived in the 11th century, some in the 12th century, some in the 13th century, some lived in antiquity- Rebbe Akiva, Rashi, Rabbenu Tam, the Ra’avad, the Rashba, more and more come in, come in, come in. Of course, what do I do? I introduce them to my pupils and the dialogue commences. The Rambam says something, the Ra’avad disagrees; and sometimes he’s very nasty….A boy jumps up to defend the Rambam against the Ra’avad. A boy jumps up to defend the Rambam against the Ra’avad and the boy is fresh. You know how young boys are. He uses improper language, so I correct him. And another jumps up with a new idea; the Rashba smiles gently. I try to analyze what the young boy meant, another boy intervenes, we call upon the Rabbenu Tam to express his opinion, and suddenly a symposium of generations comes into existence.
The presentation is rooted in R. Soloveitchik’s ubiquitous message that Jewish time-consciousness conflates past, present and future. It underlies, for example, his discussions of Pesach, Hanukkah, Purim, and Tisha B’Av. (See J. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition, ed. D. Shatz et al., New Jersey 2003; idem, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah, ed. J. Wolowelsky and R. Ziegler, New Jersey 2006; and idem, Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah, ed. E. Clark et al., New Jersey 2007. I discuss this, in extensor (with references) in J. Woolf, ‘Time Awareness as a Source of Spirituality in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,’ Modern Judaism, 32(2012), 54-75)
Talmud as a symposium of generations is not just evident from its study—it is apparent on the page itself. I have always been fascinated by the genesis of the Talmud page. All sorts of stories seem to fester beneath the print. A brilliant volume, Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein gives a detailed story of the Talmud page with gorgeous pictures. (It also costs a small fortune.) Whether it is the story of the innovation of the printing press, Jewish-Christian polemics, censorship, copyright violation, or anti-Hasidic polemic, many wars have been fought over the page itself. Many men and, perhaps more notably women, have ensured that the page of Talmud has remained in print for the past five hundred years.
Michelle Chesner has dedicated her life to the stories of the page. Michele is the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University. I haven’t known her for long, but we developed a friendship of sorts—initially through Twitter. She lives in multiple worlds. While she was raised and lives in the traditional Yeshiva world, she is now a major contributor in the highest echelons of academic scholarship. She is involved in the Footprints project that traces the ownership history of books and has written about the history of the Talmud page.
Speaking with Michele was as joyous and multifaceted as the page of Talmud.
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.
Listen to “Talmud Conclusion” on Spreaker.
Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.