Saturday, April 22, 2006

What is the Talmud? (2)

In reviewing the first entry in on What is the Talmud?, I thought that I might use some more of my own reflections, along with links and citations as needed, to give a sense of what the Talmud is, and what it is to me.

If I try to find one word to describe the Talmud, it would be "conversation" -- an incredibly wide-ranging and timeless conversation in which the Chazal (the Sages from the Talmud), plus the various commentators Rashi, Rashbam, Rambam, the Gra, etc., plus the current melamed (teachers of Talmud) and the students (each of us) all sit together and have an unbelievably lively discusion, debate -- conversation.

The topics for those conversations can be about anything from what time one can say the evening Shema, to how to keep the Sabbath, to what you should do if you find money in a store, to what happens if your property damages another's property, etc. The topics are seemingly infinite and the conversation that has gone on for over 2,000 years will clearly continue without end into the future.

One of the basic distinctions within the Talmud is between halachah (laws) and aggadah (stories). While I clearly find the aggadah, on the surface, more interesting, Rav Soloveitchik has proven there is an enormous reservoir of creative and interesting insights that one can find or create from the halachahs as well.

To end this post, I will share one of the Talmud's most famous and most beloved stories. It is story that does much to prove that the Talmud and the Jewish tradition itself is one rich with creativity!
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: When Moses ascended to the Heavenly Heights, he found the Holy One, Blessed is He, as He was sitting and attaching crowns to some of the letters. That is, although the Torah was completely written, He was still adding tagin to certain letters. [Moses] said to Him, "Master of the Universe, who is holding You back from giving the Torah as it is?" [God] said to him, "There is one man who is destined to exist at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Yosef is his name, and it is he who will expound upon each and every point heaps and heaps of halachos." [Moses] said before [God] , "Master of the Universe, show him to me!" [God] said to him, "Turn around and see what is behind you." He found himself in R' Akiva's class. Moses went and sat at the end of eight rows of students, but as he listened to the give-and-take between R' Akiva and his students, he did not understand what they were saying. Disheartened [Moses'] strength ebbed. However, once they reached a certain matter that required a source. [R' Akiva's] students asked him, "Teacher, from where do you know this?" and [R' Akiva] replied to them, "It is a halachah transmitted orally to Moses at Sinai."

Upon hearing this,
[Moses'] mind was relieved. He returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed is He. [Moses] said before Him, "Master of the Universe, You have someone like this and You give the Torah through me?! Give it through R' Akiva!" [God] said to him, "Quiet! Thus has it arisen in the thoughts before Me; this is part of My greater plan to which you are not privy." [Moses] said before Him, "Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward." [God] said to him, "Turn around and see what is behind you." [Moses] turned around and saw that people were weighing the flesh from [R' Akiva's body] in the butcher's meat market in order to sell it. [Moses] said before Him, "Master of the Universe! This is Torah and this is its reward?!" [God] said to him, "Quiet! This is part of My greater plan to which you are not privy."
This translation comes from the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud Bavli from Artscroll.


R. Shai Gluskin said...

I enjoyed the post. The distinctions between halachah and aggadah are valid in a way. But one of the powerful things to me about Talmud is that the two are held in tension without one being considered right or wrong. Talmud then is ultimately about helping people to think in order to figure out how to behave. It certainly is not a code which gives us answers. This very much fits in with your philosophy.

Jeff Wild said...

Dear Rabbi Gluskin,

Thanks so much for your comment. I couldn’t agree with you more that both the halachah and aggadah must be embraced jointly and “held in tension” without focusing on only one or another. I also took a look at your webring (– it is very lovely and challenging and makes me want to learn more about Reconstructionism.