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The Talmud
Rosh HaShanah 1, 5771/2010
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end!...Jack Moline

Rosh HaShanah 1, 5771/2010 * * * The Talmud * * * ©Rabbi Jack Moline

Here is the opening story, courtesy of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin:

A young man in his mid-twenties knocks on the door of the noted scholar Rabbi Schwartz.

"My name is Jamison Goldstein," he says. "I've come to you because I wish to study Talmud."

"Do you know Aramaic?" the rabbi asks.




"Have you studied Torah?"

"No, Rabbi. But don't worry. I graduated Berkeley summa cum laude in philosophy, and just finished my doctoral dissertation at Harvard on Socratic logic. So now, I would just like to round out my education with a little study of the Talmud."

"I seriously doubt," the rabbi says, "that you are ready to study Talmud. It is the deepest book of our people. If you wish, however, I am willing to examine you in logic, and if you pass the test I will teach you Talmud."

The young man agrees.

Rabbi Schwartz holds up two fingers. "Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face; the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?"

The young man stares at the rabbi. "Is that the test in logic?"

The rabbi nods.

"The one with the dirty face washes his face," he answers wearily.

"Wrong. The one with the clean face washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. So the one with the clean face washes his face."

"Very clever," Goldstein says. "Give me another test."

The rabbi again holds up two fingers. "Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other come out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?"

"The one with the clean face," says Goldstein.

"Wrong. Each one washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. So the one with the clean face washes his face. When the one with the dirty face sees the one with the clean face wash his face, he also washes his face. So each one washes his face."

"I didn't think of that," says Goldstein. "It's shocking to me that I could make an error in logic. Test me again."

The rabbi again holds up two fingers. "Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other come out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?"

"Each one washes his face."

"Wrong. Neither one washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. But when the one with the clean face sees that the one with the dirty face doesn't wash his face, he also doesn't wash his face. So neither washes his face."

Goldstein is desperate. "I am qualified to study Talmud. Please give me one more test."

He groans, though, when the rabbi lifts two fingers. "Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other come out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?"

"Neither washes his face."

"Wrong. Do you now see, Jamison, why Socratic logic is an insufficient basis for studying Talmud? Tell me, how is it possible for two men to come down the same chimney, and for one to come out with a clean face and the other with a dirty face? Don't you see? The whole question is narishkeit, foolishness, and if you spend your life trying to answer foolish questions, all your answers will also be foolish."

On November 7 this coming fall, the monumental work of a lifetime will be completed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. His translation of the entirety of the Talmud will be, as they say in Hebrew, tam v'nishlam, done and made whole. R. Steinsaltz's work has made the Talmud accessible for modern times in a way no other translation has, because he has provide both a literal translation and an explanatory translation, as well as wrap-around commentary and history.

Unfortunately for most of us, his translation is into contemporary Hebrew from the original Hebrew and Aramaic of 1500 to 2000 years ago. While this is great news for modern Israelis and other Hebrew speakers, it still leaves most of us in the lurch.

So the Talmud remains inscrutable for most of us in spite of the fact that we have educations that enable us to deal with the most complicated tasks. Not everyone went to UC Berkley and Harvard, but even those of us who went to local high school are able to make our way through assembling IKEA furniture, programming a DVR and renewing our driver's licenses. We manage to process competing ideas about foreign and domestic policy, personal identity and orientation and managing our money, but when it comes to the foundational document of the religious tradition we are here to celebrate today, we look at it like a pomegranate – we know there's something worthwhile and delicious inside, but we can't figure out how to get it without making a mess.

It is not my purpose to give you just an historical overview of the Talmud, or even to talk extensively about how one goes about learning Talmud. Instead, I want to try to introduce you to Talmud as if you were being fixed up on a date with it by a loving and protective father. You, of course, will politely hear me out and if I offer to pay for dinner maybe even consider spending the evening. Talmud will be humiliated that I would think to do such a thing, roll its eyes and say to me, from between clenched teeth, "I am NOT going out with someone my FATHER picked out for me."

All I can say to both of you that if you go into this with that kind of attitude, you will be missing out on a wonderful experience. I want to talk to you about why that is, and then, in all seriousness, invite you to encounter the texts that have defined 2000 years of Judaism. And, in the interest of full disclosure, you can support the synagogue a little in the process – but more about that later.

A number of years ago, Les Bergen came to me and offered to donate quietly the entire set of the Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud. In 1989, Random House announced that it would publish an English edition of the half-finished Hebrew translation, supervised by Rabbi Steinsaltz himself. The publisher said it was in it for the long haul – but I am certain that they did not understand that the quality edition they initiated might well have run to 200 or more volumes and take thirty years to complete. So while Les generously purchased two copies of each volume as they came out – one for him, one for us – it became pretty apparent that the set would never come to full fruition.

Now, without getting into the politics of orthodox Jewish scholarship, let's just say that the publishers of popular Jewish texts at Artscroll knew a good idea when they saw it. In pretty short order, they commissioned and produced a new explicated edition of the Talmud – the traditional page that is familiar to anyone who has cracked a volume with a facing page in English that fully explained the text. In fact, it takes four or five pages in English to explain each page in Aramaic and Hebrew, and the theology reflects certain contemporary orthodox sensibilities, and the scholarship does not allow for certain modern critical methodologies, BUT when all was said and done, a comprehensible translation of the entirety of the Talmud was available in just 72 volumes.

In an exceptional act of generosity, Les Bergen and Don Melman donated the Artscroll edition in full. It lines the top shelf in the Flax Family Chapel, and it gets a pretty good workout from me – honestly, it takes me less time with the English close at hand than when I have to translate as I go along – and some attention from a few others. But mostly, it just presides silently over daily minyan, pre-school activities and Kabbalat Shabbat.

That's not what the Talmud is for. It is not a coffee-table book or a decoration to complement cherry-wood shelves. It is not something to have just to say you have it. The Talmud is nothing less than the platform constructed on the bedrock of Torah on which the whole of Judaism rests. And when I say the whole of Judaism, I do not mean just Orthodoxy, nor just a particular kind of scholarship, nor just a rabbinic education. I mean Conservative Judaism and Reform and Reconstructionist. I mean Humanistic Judaism, Zionism, Ethical Culture. I mean the philanthropic constellation of Jewish life, the fraternal organizations and the defense agencies that have proliferated in this country and elsewhere. I mean that offshoot sect of Rabbinic Judaism that went on to become a religious juggernaut – Christianity. I mean Islam, whose believers insist that every one of their sacred words is a unique revelation to their prophet, but who are hard-pressed to explain how much of their material appears in the Talmud before Islam was the spark of an idea.

Even people who read the Bible and think it is all they need mostly read through the lens of the Talmud.

To come back to my clumsy metaphor, nobody asks the Talmud on a date because everyone thinks it's just a braniac who sits in a corner wearing old clothes and amusing itself. But if you'll just step out of your prejudices for a second, you will find the beauty and brilliance that just needed to be drawn out a little bit.

So what is the purpose of Talmud?

Rabbi Steinsaltz will tell you, correctly, that it all begins with the Torah. The Torah contains the revelation of God's laws and commandments to the Jews, but it is not always so clear in what it means to convey. The Talmud, which has two component parts – the Mishnah, mostly in Hebrew and mostly concise statements of practical law, and the Gemara, an Aramaic word that means "teaching" in English and "Talmud" in Hebrew – expands on the Mishnah. You might say that the Talmud is therefore a practical guide to the Torah, but only from a distance does that appear to be correct. For while the Talmud indeed expands on the Torah, in and of itself you cannot figure out what God requires of us by looking it up in the Talmud. If the idea is only to make Torah more understandable and less confusing, then Talmud mostly fails miserably at the task.

Instead, the Talmud is a celebration and elevation of the study of Torah. Rabbi Steinsaltz calls it a veneration, and he suggests this text, among others, that illustrates the point:

"These are the things, the fruits of which a person enjoys in this world, while the reward accumulates in the World to Come: honoring one's father and mother, performing deeds of kindness, making peace between two people. And the study of Torah (Talmud Torah) is equal to all of them." (M. Peah 1:1)

I can't think of a better three categories of admirable commandments than honoring parents, acting kindly and making peace. Yet Talmud torah is considered equal to them all, which means that the study of Torah is greater than any individual mitzvah. So logically, if the study of Torah is greater than the performing of the commandments of Torah, then study cannot play a subservient role to the commandments. There is inherent sacred value in the study of Torah itself. And it is the Talmud that bears perpetual witness to it.

To be sure there are books of the Bible that comment on the Torah. Psalms is of human origin entirely. Esther doesn't mention God; Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, describe wise behavior and attitudes. Entire sections of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles are historical narratives that seem to interpret God's presence in the world. But they are a series of monographs, some longer, like Chronicles, and some very brief, like the individual sayings in Proverbs.

Talmud is a conversation. It happens in real time and it happens across hundreds of years and a melting pot of languages. It begins with a single question – from what time do we recite the evening Sh'ma? And it offers an answer that is no answer at all – from the time the priests enter to eat their designated portion until the end of the first watch, according to Rabbi Eliezer. The other sages say, until midnight. But Rabban Gamliel says, until the light of dawn.

The question itself begs other questions, and the three separate answers offer three distinct windows of time, one of which is man-made, one of which is fixed and one of which is fluid. And just to make life difficult, by the time the answer was recorded for anyone to study, the Temple had been destroyed and the priests no longer entered it to eat their portion nor did the watchmen change shifts. The conversation goes on for twenty-four densely packed pages, including ideas generated from scholars who lived in the time of Herod and those who wrote when Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States when you include the traditional commentaries.

Rabbi Steinsaltz wonders what makes the effort so important, and he draws the answer from the root of the word Torah -- it means "to instruct," and so Torah is instruction. It teaches us how to live, the path we are to follow to walk in the ways we were created to walk. The study of Torah in general, and Talmud in specific, is the conversation designed to connect the instruction of Torah to every aspect of the world in which we live – a world that changes from moment to moment, which makes study a never-ending process. The person of faith – that certainly includes Rabbi Steinsaltz, I believe it includes me and I hope it includes all of you – believes that there is no subject or situation that Torah does not in some way address. A teaching from Pirkei Avot, a small tractate of inspirational mishnayot, says of Torah hafokh bah v'hafokh ba d'kula bah (5:24), "Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is within it."

Therefore the purpose of Torah study, the purpose of the paradigm-setting example of Torah study, the Talmud, is more than about determining a behavioral infrastructure. It is more than about identifying the mitzvot or defining the halakhah. And if there is anything about which I have the chutzpah to disagree with Rabbi Steinsaltz it is this: he claims that the purpose of Talmud is the search for the truth, and I claim that the purpose of Talmud is the search for truth. It's one little word in English, one little letter in Hebrew, and perhaps not a huge difference in the end, for both he and I would encourage you to learn Talmud for the same reason: you discover not just what is true, but how to pursue what is even truer.

And how do you do that? The answer is by participating in the Talmudic dialectic. The fictional student of our story, Jamison, is familiar with the Socratic Method – a series of questions from the expert designed to continually challenge the student's logic. But in a real sense, there is no such thing as an expert in the Talmud dialectic. Two people – sometimes more, but generally two – sit down with a small piece of text and read it aloud. Then they start asking questions of each other, propose answers, and challenge the answers they have proposed. The conversations are sacred, but do not always deal with sacred subjects. For example, on page 24b of the tractate B'rakhot, there is a brief discussion of what to do if you are in the midst of prayer and your body emits a noxious smell. There's short word for it that you all know, so I don't have to say it. The discussion happens in the larger context of one rabbi avoiding another one, which itself happens in the context of whether one must move to the Holy Land from outside the Land, which itself happens in the larger context of impediments to prayer, which begins with the question of what time to recite the evening Sh'ma.

By the time we find out the answer to this smaller question, multiple generations, dozens of authorities, hundreds of teachings, and many more incidental lessons have been brought forward. I can't say that no stone is left unturned, but every overturned stone seems to contain a relevant detour. And how do we find truth in this roundabout discussion? The answer is not obvious – if I told you that you step back until the odor dissipates, recite a brief meditation on human imperfection, and then step forward to resume your prayers you would know only the behavioral response from within a self-contained system. You find truth by asking a dozen different ways, "what is the truth in this teaching?" or, to put it more colloquially, "so what?"

In the process, you and your partner, your chevruta as that partner is called, would get to discuss the human body, the purpose of prayer, the validity of prayer, the various qualities of methane, the relationship between student and teacher, the desirability of leaving a comfortable place for a sacred place, or whatever else you considered important. And as essential or frivolous those initial questions might me, they all lead to a single place – truth. They all ask and try to answer what does the Torah say about our physical beings, our devotional activities, our interpersonal relationships, our creature comforts, our responsibilities to God and the Jewish people and the unpleasant aspects of the physical world. All from a little story about gastric distress.

It may be hard for you to believe that sitting here in this room today, or relinquishing your smart phone on Shabbat, or pursuing social justice and opposing those who denigrate that pursuit, or defending a political state in the Promised Land, or wearing a beanie on your head all emerged from these seemingly wild and unstructured conversations, but the fact is they did. People who have devoted their entirely lives to this learning as well as people who have devoted a scant few minutes a year to it have been the architects of everything we do today. And the process continues.

And my purpose today is to invite you into that process. My purpose is to offer you the chance to prospect for truth, to join me in an expedition to plumb the resources of our heritage. My purpose is to entice you into being a brick maker, a mason, a carpenter, an architect in the edifice of Jewish life – not just Jewish law, but Jewish life, not just Jewish behavior, but Jewish world view, not just Jewish esoteric, but Jewish truth, all of Jewish life grounded in Torah and Talmud torah, the study of Torah, the study of the Talmud.

On the back of your reflections booklet is a reproduction of the papercut that will grace the pillar of learning that will, one day, adorn the Cohen Sanctuary. Contributions toward it have been pledged by the Fisher and Weiner families – we thank them for it, and encourage you to join with them. Even without that pillar on display, learning, that is, the study of Torah and the wrestling with Talmud, is central to the Jewish life we encourage and enable at Agudas Achim.

And to demonstrate that value, you will notice in the program booklets you found on your seats that I will be teaching Talmud this year. I have scheduled six sessions – I expect there will be many more. The goal is to make study available to everyone, to introduce men, women and children to this corpus of learning at no cost to the student. I have challenged myself and the congregation to learn something from every one of the 72 volumes of the edition of the Talmud that sits on the shelf in the chapel. It will take many years, but we'll get there.

I am not a great student of Talmud, and I hope that encourages you to try your hand. You can't be worse than I was when I started, and with a little effort you can surpass me.

Les and Don have generously made each of the volumes and each of the major divisions available to us for another purpose as well. Each one will be available for dedication, a modest contribution that, like Talmud study itself, can mean a great deal in the aggregate. Information will be forthcoming. Most of you will be able to dedicate a volume, but whether or not you can or whether or not you do, the learning will be open to everyone.

In order to whet your appetite, I have been and will be teaching a little bit of Talmud during services this year. Ten of the dozen or so teachings that underpin the "great advice" I have shared with you come from the Talmud. They are all aggada, all stories, rather than halakha, legal material, but if you can handle this material and find it intriguing, if you appreciate that duct tape and anger and stars and stupid questions and hormones can all occupy the same universe of discourse, then you just might be ready to learn Talmud.

I needed a way to conclude this sermon that did not leave you with impression that we have set this program of learning up to be a fundraiser for the shul. So I called to talk to a friend of mine, another rabbi, and I was talking about the sermon and, particularly, how I started it. Rabbi Marc Wolf told me about when he started to study Talmud – he had decided to apply to rabbinical school from the University of Cincinnati, and one of his professors, Benny Kraut, said to him he needed to learn to study Talmud before he got there. At the first meeting, the professor asked Marc what the reason is that we study Talmud. Marc threw out every answer he could think of, until the professor finally told him his answer. Professor Kraut, of blessed memory, said, "We study Talmud because it is the record of generations trying to decipher God's will."

I can't think of a better answer. However you understand God, it is God's will that is the essential truth of this world, and the essential truth of the world that is, by definition, God's will. Our privilege as a people is to have inherited the record of generations who devoted the entirety of their intellectual capacity, unencumbered by millennia of custom and liberated by historical shifts, to deciphering God's will.

Let us, together, continue in that sacred effort.

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