Why Do Jews Study Talmud?

On the various motivations and interests which brought Jews into a cross-generational conversation called Talmud.

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The traditional Jew studies Talmud because it communicates ultimate truth—truth about God, truth about the world, and most important, truth about how God wants the holy community of Israel to live. The modern scholar, on the other hand, approaches the text for information, not "truth." Contemporary academic scholars recognize that the Talmud, like any ancient document, must be studied with critical care: Scribes over the many centuries have permitted error to creep into their copies, and even the ancient rabbis themselves occasionally misremembered or misunderstood the traditions they were teaching their disciples.Daf of Talmud

Modem scholars approach the Talmud seeking the answers to all sorts of questions— usually questions of their own devising—and they have developed tech­niques for working out more or less reliable answers to these questions. In earlier ages, the pious Jew normally approached this same text with one unchanging question in mind, a question itself received from the past: How does the God of Israel, the Creator of the Universe, want me to live? Questions of historical reliability, or of outside cultural influence, were in the long run irrelevant to this kind of inquiry.

Modern historical consciousness actually makes the traditional inquiry more difficult than ever. The new types of investigation are not simply "irrelevant" to such a quest; they impede it. How can the Tal­mud reveal the eternal word of God if it turns out to be the work of third- or fourth-century men living in the fading world of Near Eastern antiquity? How can questions of Jewish law be resolved from a text that may conceal scribal error on every line? These considerations help ex­plain why modern, critical Talmud study was long resisted in traditional yeshivot [religious academies] and is still excluded from many of them. Historical relativity in general and text criticism in particular turn out to raise new religious issues, issues that earlier masters of the rabbinic tradition never had to face.

Nevertheless, Talmudic study has remained entirely unchanged in a very important respect, and will remain unchanged as long as people engage in it. The Talmud is a book put together by people who saw intellectual activity as sanctifying. They found holiness in their effort to bring rational order to their tradition, and as a result problem solving and disciplined logic became important characteristics of rabbinic dis­course.

This is one of the reasons that Talmud study for many people in the modern world is not a practical activity at all, but rather an important religious experience. Even in the past, for that matter, the main reason for the Talmud's preeminence, the chief cause of its central role in Jewish history, was not practical at all. The Talmud was Torah. In a paradox that determined the history of Judaism, the Talmud was Oral Torah in written form, and as such it became the clearest statement the Jew could hear of God's very word.

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Robert Goldenberg is a professor of history at the State University of New York at Stonybrook.