One of the things a religious Jew learns early on in their education is to revere the sages of the Talmud. And to treat the Talmud as the basis and discussion of all Torah law: That which is written; that which is derived, that which is oral, and that which is of rabbinic origin.
It is what the Rambam based his magnum opus, the Yad Hachazakah upon. He redacted all the laws discussed in the Talmud, organized them into categories and published them in this Sefer. This was also done in various other forms by other Rishonim as well and ultimately Rabbi Yosef Karo published a final version of Jewish law in what we now call the Shulchan Aruch. (Although the Shulchan Aruch has its own commentaries that in some cases differ with the conclusions of its author, that is beyond the scope of this post.)
The Talmud is not only the repository of Halachic discussion. It serves various other functions. Among them is a glimpse into the historical period of the sages; discussions about ethical behavior; and as a means of exercising the mind with the use of logic and rational thought.
But when a religious Jew studies the Talmud, his primary purpose is to understand it as the source of Halachic practice. The rest, as important as it all may be… is just a fringe benefit.
What about secular Jews? Should they be encouraged to study the Talmud too? Even if they ignore its most important function as the source of Jewish behavior? My answer to that is an unequivocal yes. But doesn’t that run the risk of ridiculing the sages of the Talmud that we are taught to revere? Perhaps. But being religious doesn’t prevent that from happening anyway. There are portions of the Talmud that make it very difficult to do, such as the portions known as the Refuos.
Those sections deal with cures for diseases. When one reads them, it is virtually impossible to give them any credibility as curative. How is one to see these passages? There are many possible explanations that allow us to remain with our respect for the sages. I am not going to list them. But suffice it to say that we can and should still respect the sages despite the fact that we do not understand how these cures could have ever worked.
But when a Jew who was not raised in an observant home and does not have the benefit of being impressed at an early age of the reverence we give to the sages of the Talmud, it would be very easy to ridicule them. With that in mind, how can we risk the ridicule that might result when a secular Jew studies the Talmud without the guidance of religious teachers?
I think the benefits of Torah study outweigh that possibility. In my view the biggest enemy of Jewish continuity is not secularism it is apathy and ignorance. Ideally it would be great if the observant community could reach out to all secular Jews and teach them Torah. I truly believe that there is an innate hunger among many secular Jews with no background to find out who they really are; what their heritage is.
Beth Kissileff is one such person. And she describes her own journey into learning about her heritage. Unfortunately her first attempt at it was quite the turn off for her. From her article in The Tower Magazine:
I tried a class on the weekly Torah portion at a Jerusalem girls’ yeshiva, taught by a rabbi with an Ivy League PhD who was known for his love of modern art. But I was completely alienated when he said that getting a PhD was a waste of time for anyone.
It’s really too bad that her first encounter was with someone who eschewed his own secular education. If there was ever a way to turn educated people off from Yiddshkeit, this is the way to do it! Why did he denigrate his own secular education? Who knows. I can only speculate that he had become a victim of the some of the more right wing Hashkafos in Israel that do just that. Fortunately this is an exception. At least I hope it is.