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.
There are many fine outreach organizations that try and feed that need and do so without such disparagement. Chabad, NCSY, Aish HaTorah are just a few on the many. But they can not possibly reach out to every Jew. With intermarriage at an all time high, the time is more than ripe for some out of the box thinking about this.
Ms. Kissiloff found another organization. It is called Elul. They rose to the occasion. One may recall Ruth Calderon. She is a member of Yesh Atid. She is not observant (at least not in the traditional sense) and she loves to study the Talmud. She co-founded Elul.
What makes this organization unique is that it is comprised of both religious and secular educators as well as secular and religious students.
By combining forces I believe outreach is possible at a far greater level than ever before. The temptation towards the kind of ridicule I mentioned earlier is reduced by the presence of a religious element. But even without that I think the deference of the Talmud by secular Jews is amply demonstrated by people like Ms. Calderon… who has publicly expressed her love of Talmud study. You can’t ridicule something you love! True, in her own life she ignores the most important part of it – the Halachic part. That is an unfortunate fact of her upbringing. She did not have the benefit of being raised in an observant home. But she nonetheless appreciates it and wants the same for other secular Jews.
As both she and her political mentor, Yair Lapid have said, the Talmud belongs to all the Jewish people, not just Orthodox Jews. Of course they mean that secular Jews should study it too, without considering the importance of its primary function as the source for Halachic observance.
But Ms. Calderon and this new organization accomplish something very significant. They replace apathy and ignorance of more than a few secular Jews with pride and knowledge. MiToch SheLo Lishmah – Bah Lishma. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these secular Jews actually explored their Judaism a bit more after this experience and became more observant because of it.
Visit Emes Ve-Emunah . / Harry Maryles
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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