Wednesday, June 24, 2015
[Links to my books on the historical, Jewish Jesus are at the right.]
At the beginning and end of her review of Harold Bloom’s The Daemon Knows (in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, May 24, 2015), Cynthia Ozick makes slightly disparaging references to the Talmud and the rabbis, antagonists, as she puts it, to Bloom’s poetic vision. I don’t think she gave it a lot of thought. They are the typical remarks people make about the Talmud and ancient Jewish culture. Her brief comments reinforce the image of the Talmud as stodgy in spirituality, stingy in poetic inspiration. Other literature supposedly rises to greater heights, while the Talmud is stuck in stifling minutiae.
This prejudice against the Talmud came from Christian theology. Theologians made Talmudic an adjective for narrow-minded, spiritless exegesis. But why choose that way to read the Talmud when there is so much else there?
In the first pages of the tractate Berakoth, we are told of Rabbi Yochanan’s visit to Rabbi Eleazar who was ill. The room was dark and Yochanan had to bare his arm from which a light emanated in order to see Eleazar. Eleazar was weeping.Why do you weep?, he asks him. Because you did not study enough Torah? But it does not matter whether it was a lot or a little. Because you don’t have enough food? Not everybody is rich. Because you did not have children? Well, I have just buried my tenth child. Why do you weep? Finally, Eleazar responds, I weep for this beauty that will rot in the earth. (Yochanan was famous for his good looks, so Eleazar might have been referring to that.) Oh for that you really should weep, says Yochanan. And they sat together in the dark and wept.
There are thousands of stories like this, some much more complex, some more dramatic, in the Talmud. This is the far better way to read it. In a more honest world, Talmudic would be essentially synonymous with Shakespearian. It would be considered a great epic poem or a collection of sometimes inspiring, sometimes puzzling folktales. It digs deep.
Someone might object that this is a very biased way to read the Talmud. But reading it for pedantic debates over how to follow rituals is equally, if not more, biased. We make choices. The history of writing about the Talmud has largely taken place with only one choice in mind. We will never understand anything in history if we remain so locked into one way of seeing. The evidence for reading the Talmud, and all of rabbinic literature, in far richer ways is there. All you have to do is open your eyes—the hardest thing in the world to do.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer