An Introduction to the Talmud - Part 2 - What Is In the Talmud?

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This is part two in a series: An Introduction to the Talmud.  For part 1 click here
What is the earliest time in the evening to say the nightly prayer of Shema?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why did Abraham merit to have God call out specifically to him in Genesis?
How should Jewish thinkers react to the findings of astrologists (the scientists at the time) when their findings go against Jewish belief?
These are all questions discussed extensively throughout the 5000 plus pages of Judaism’s magnum opus, the Talmud. Each of these questions, like thousands of others like them, spark pages of intergenerational debate between Jewish thinkers spanning the first half millennium of the Common Era. Questions that continue to be discussed and debated throughout Jewish communities until today.
But let’s take a step back for a moment. Since the Talmud is fundamentally multidisciplinary how can we summarize its content? What are some general strands that run through the Talmud, that will allow us to obtain a clearer picture and appreciation for this corpus of work?
In the archetypal story of the Talmud a group of Rabbis are debating whether or not a certain oven was pure or impure (an important matter in Jewish law). Famously, Rabbi Eliezer disagreed with the majority consensus on the matter and a debate occurred in the study hall. As the debate went back and forth, neither side able to convince the other, Rabbi Elizer decided to take the argument in a different direction.
“If I am correct,” Rabbi Eliezer proclaimed, “then let the carob tree outside be uprooted from the ground!” A miracle occured and the tree flew up hundreds of feet, but the other Rabbis weren’t convinced. “We do not decide Jewish laws based off of trees,” they said.
“If I am correct,” Rabbi Eliezer continued, “let the river begin to flow in the opposite direction.” Another miracle occured and it did but the Rabbis had the same response.
Suddenly a divine voice emanated from heaven. “Why do you disagree with Eliezer as he is certainly correct!” God said. But responding to God the Rabbis confidently quipped: “God, you have already given us the Torah, which writes that “the Torah is not in heaven” (Deut 30:12), it is no longer up to you to determine Jewish law, rather it is up to us, the Jewish people!”
The Rabbis understood the magnitude and radical nature of the task that they believed God had given them. They took the Torah, a legal, historical, and philosophical book with a near infinite amount of potential teachings, and subsequently attempted to flesh out all reasonable interpretations from this primary source - even when they were inherently self-contradictory. Using the Torah as their springboard, the Rabbis were able to cover a multiplicity of innovative issues and topics, while still demanding that scripture be their epistemological backbone.
The bulk of the Talmud is made up of cases regarding Jewish law. While the Torah certainly delineates hundreds of commandments, these verses are generally cursory with no explanation of context, parameters, or even applications of the law. Along with attempting to create and fill in all necessary details of these commandments, the Talmud also contains hundreds of other rabbinic laws - new commandments that the Rabbis, for a variety of reasons, deemed necessary to create and impose on the community.
Generally the Mishna (see my last article if you don’t know what this is), will bring up a legal topic along with a handful of opinions and then the Gemera will subsequently attempt to clarify, discuss, challenge, and give background to the case in the Mishna. Given that Jewish law is relevant to every aspect of one’s life, these cases discuss a wide array of topics and often get oddly specific. An example of a talmudic discussion of when one must return a found object as opposed to keeping it can be found here.
Aside from Jewish law the Talmud also covers issues of biblical interpretation. The Torah is often extremely austere, leaving an ample amount of room for interpretation within every narrative. Many stories in the Torah have inherent questions, gaps, or seemingly contradictory details and it is in these cases that the Rabbis attempt to come and fill in the necessary information. Often times the Rabbis weren’t even necessarily interested in the “objective” interpretation of biblical narratives, rather, within their semi-postmodernist thinking, the Rabbis viewed these stories as a way to elucidate fundamental ethical, social, or philosophical lessons that they deemed important in their own worldview. This type of literature is called Midrash (lit: to expound) and is one of the pinnacles of rabbinic literature, found both in the Talmud and other contemporaneous sources. For a number of examples of this genre click here.
Finally, and as alluded to before, the Talmud was the mechanism by which the Rabbis ensured that Judaism remained innovative enough to survive both political changes (such as decentralization) and social changes (such as progressed morals, interaction with new communities, and evolved ways of viewing the world). Often times the Talmud presents a radical moral and philosophical departure from the Torah’s worldview, while still attempting to remain as connected to the Torah as possible. The result of this is rhetorical gymnastics that truly attest to the inner struggle of the Rabbis in their attempt to be both faithful to the Torah while at the same time remaining intellectually and morally honest. I discuss a fascinating case of this, where the Rabbis dissect and interpret away the biblical edict allowing parents to stone a rebellious teenager (Deut 21:18), in the second half of my article here.
This short article barely scratches the surface of summarizing the Talmud’s content. The truth is that the only way one can really understand the Talmud is to read it yourself. In my next article in this series I will delineate some of the potential difficulties in, and what I feel are some helpful tips in beginning your journey of Talmud study.
 Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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