An Intro to Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz

[from Limmud NY, January 17, 2010, with contributions from Saul Kaiserman]

Books, most of them don't begin at the beginning - but he will try to start there.

In the way that Eskimos have 100 words for snow, and Arabs have 100 words for camel, the Talmud has about 40 synonyms for "question" - showing that Jews live in the country of questions.

The Talmud was heavily censored - they cut things that they thought weren't good for us. A Catholic monk censored out this phrase - "a man without a wife is not a man" - made it "a Jew without..."

Jews should read the Bible. You can still be a Jew if you haven't read the Book of Chronicles but, Jews should study Bible.

For a taste of the Mishnah, read Pirkei Avot, to get a sense of the ideas of Judaism from the Second Century CE,

The ancient thriving Jewish Egyptian community could be compared to the Jewish community in US today – they ceased speaking Hebrew and became assimilated. Their disappearance cautions us about our own culture’s potential longevity.

Talmud scholars self-referred as "interpreters" ("amoraim") – they viewed themselves as repeaters and aimed for humility. As scholars they referred to themselves as “disciples of the wise” and “lovers of wisdom” – they admitted that the “wise man” was in the distance, either in the past or in a Great Academy to which they might be privileged to only get a glance. When a scholar is not humble, we should be suspicious - not of his or her morality, but his or her ability. Frogs blow themselves full of air when threatened; elephants don't have to – and arrogant scholar might just be a frog – which is OK, there is nothing wrong with frogs.

The Talmud asks "What is the source? What's it like? What's the result? What use is it?" These questions are not the bricks that make the Talmud, they are the levers that move it. The Talmud is the source of all Jewish Law, but it strangely enough contains very few legal decisions. Most of the Talmud is made up of unresolved questions.

Jewish literature abhors abstractions. It can be beautiful, colorful, and figurative - but Hebrew is very concrete. Jewish law is like Common Law – based on cases. Napoleonic law is far more abstract.

The Bible is a monologue. The Talmud is a discussion. The Bible often gets quoted out of context – many rabbis agree to play fair and not quote the Bible at each other for just such a reason. If the Bible can be quoted by the devil, the Talmud can be quoted by 6 or 7 devils.

American students are urged to be original. When a Jewish scholar finds out that they have arrived at the same conclusion as an earlier scholar they are proud, since originality is suspect. If someone hadn’t previously thought of the idea, then the idea may be on the wrong line of thinking. So if you are new to Talmud study and ask an unoriginal question, it is a sign you are on the right track!