Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

From Tanach To Talmud

One of the biggest maiden speeches in the Knesset ever was Prof. Ruth Calderon's speech as a newly elected MK.  Outside of the Chareidi community people both religious and secular were excited.  Here was a non-religious but proudly Jewish woman give a relevant lecture in Talmud to the nation's elected representatives.  It was hailed as a new era and a chance for Israelis to reconnect to the Talmud. One would have to be a spoilsport of epic proportions to challenge that assumption, the kind of guy never invited to parties because the negative gloom he brings cancels out any joy the others are feeling.
Hi guys.  Here I am.
Let me being by pointing out the obvious.  I mean absolutely no disrespect to Prof. Calderon.  I also want to give no impression that her learning and knowledge base are in any way defective.  From her background it is quite clear that she can run circles around many experienced Talmidei Chachamim when it comes to knowledge of the Talmud.  She has dedicated her life to its study in a way many religious folks would do well to emulate.
Furthermore I don't begrudge her the right to learn Talmud at all and if she serves as an inspiration for more secular Jews to pick up a volume of Gemara and go through it, kol hakavod.  For too long a small portion of the Jewish nation has treated the Talmud as its private property.  According to them you are only learning if you learn like they do, using the formatted text they use and understand it using their methodology.  If the learning of Torah is meant to be a universal Jewish practice then the method one learns with and comes closer to God's truth is valid.
I also don't dismiss Prof. Calderon because she is a woman.  One of the most important books on understanding the parshiyos of the Torah is written by a woman, Nechama Leibowitz, zt"l.  Years ago I was sitting in shul and reading one of her books when the Rosh Kollel of the day (long since moved away) came over and asked what I was learning.  When I showed him the book he rolled his eyes dismissively.  His response only served to reinforce the idea that his version of learning was limited.  It avoided truth when that truth didn't come in the expected pre-packaged form he recognized.  I don't doubt, therefore, that Prof. Calderon has a lot to teach about Talmud.
Here's where I don't get excited: this isn't the first time an important Jewish book has been touted by someone in a position of secular leadership.  We've seen this all before with the Bible.
Do not forget that early Secular Zionism, seeking to create a connection with the Land of Israel amongst the early chalutzim, used the Bible to create that tie.  For them the Bible was Jewish history and a prequel to the great Zionist enterprise.  For many decades, until Shulamit Aloni came along with her hatred of Judaism and Jewish education, Bible education was standard in the secular school system in Israel.  Talk with any Israeli over a certain age and they can still quote various parts from memory in ways that make religious Jews feel embarrassed.  Now an unacceptably high proportion of average Israelis can't even recite Shema Yisrael from memory.
But something was missing in all that.  These non-religious Jews may have read the Bible but they didn't connect to it religiously.  For them it was a history book, not a guide to moral instruction and if you don't read the Bible as a guide to moral instruction then you aren't really learning it in a uniquely Jewish way.  That's why after decades of having it in the school system it could be quickly expunged, to be replaced with revisionist textbooks blaming Israel for the so-called occupation.
Prof. Calderon's approach to Talmud reminds me of this.  Once upon a time David Ben Gurion, a"h, could stand up with a Bible and lecture people on it.  Now Prof. Calderon invokes the Talmud.  But both have the same approach: it's a book. It's a field of knowledge.  It might be inspiring and fascinating, a great exercise in learning and analysis but it's a book.  It's external.  If a secular Israeli gets into the car on Shabbos and drives to the beach and on the way he thinks about the Talmud sugya he learned the day before, did he really learn Talmud?
Try this exercise: go through at least the first half of Prof. Calderon's speech and do a word switch. Instead of references to being Jewish and Israeli change them to English and British.  Change Talmud to Shakespeare and the story from the Gemara to a particularly moving scene from Julius Caeser or Romeo and Juliet.  Here, I'll help you along:

By telling you this I'm trying to say that I grew up in a very English home, a very British home, secular, traditional and normal, that combined both being English and Scottish, Labour and Conservative, in the accepted English surroundings, the main-stream of the 60s and 70s, and was educated like all of my generation in the government education system, in the spirit of the "English Literature for the People". And I encounter neither Shakespeare and the Sonnets, nor Bacon and Milton. By the time I was a teenager I felt something was missing, something about the new, liberal British identity,... was all well and good but something was missing. It lacked depth, for me more words were needed in the vocabulary, it lacked a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories. The "New English", educated by the founders of the nation, fulfilled their dreams, and he became a citizen of the word, brave, practical and civilized. But for me, he (me) had a void, I didn't know how to fill this void, but when I encountered Shakespear for the first time, and fell in love with it, its language, its humor, its profound wisdom, its methods of debate, its practicality, its humanity, its maturity, which comes through with every line, I felt that I had found peace of mind and what I was missing.
Since then I have studied, at Oxford and at Canterbury, academic studies, and I have earned a Doctorate in English Liberature, from Cambridge, in Shakespeare and Medieval English Poetry for my own personal enrichment and for years I've been lucky enough to study the Sonnets which have helped me become who I am.

Do you see my point?  Prof. Calderon loves the Talmud.  She's passionate about it and does want to learn from it to enrich herself and her culture but how different is it from a professor of English literature with a love of Shakespeare and Bacon?
Is it so far-fetched to wonder if the new secular love of the Talmud will wind up like the former love of Tanach?  That for a few years or maybe even decades the Talmud will infiltrate the secular school system producing students who can quote various sugyas and engage in a form of pilpul only to be followed by an abandonment of a book that didn't enter the souls of its learners because it was never presented in that way?
Prof. Calderon's love of Talmud is a start but for the same reason Prof. Marc Shapiro, a brilliant man with an extensive knowledge of Torah, isn't a posek, it is not the path back to religious study that many believe it is.  for that the religious leadership in Israel now has to take up the banner and show people how to learn Talmud in such a way as to connect them back to Judaism and the Creator.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

If one combines the last two posts from Garnel, one perhaps encounters the real problem that we now face -- the challenge from two sides against the center. Look at Garnel's own words:
"One of the biggest maiden speeches in the Knesset ever was Prof. Ruth Calderon's speech as a newly elected MK. Outside of the Chareidi community people both religious and secular were excited."
Given that he, it would seem, is not excited about Prof. Calderon's speech does that make Garnel a spokesman for the charedi world? His last post clearly shows, though, that he is not. The real truth is that we are face a challenge from both sides -- from the secular perspective and from the insular, narrow charedi perspective and the demanded Torah answer must emerge from the shvil hazahav of the centre that balances IN A GESTALT MANNER THAT IS GREATER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS the best of these two worlds. The answer, I would venture, is not in a simplistic perspective of dati leumi but in the recognition of the need of this new perspective.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Anonymous said...

Garnel, You know I wouldn't have agreed with you a few years ago, but I do now.