The recent kerfuffle around Whoopi Goldberg has once again ignited the perennial debate about whether the Jewish people constitute a race. The problem is that such distinctions are modern social constructs, and were invented long after the Jewish people came into being. Jews are not so much a race or a religion, but a civilization—a culture. As a culture, Judaism has its own laws, folk tales, myths, songs, and several similar—but not necessarily identical—religions. We’re a people, and any attempt to fit us into the little boxes designed for and by Western societies is destined to fail.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz saw his mission as nothing less than bringing the Talmud back to the people. Jewish law is meant to be democratic, but only informed citizens can vote? Then, let’s make sure every citizen is an informed citizen! Or at least, let’s make it possible for any citizen who wants to become informed to do so. This is the basis for his decision to translate the Aramaic portions of the Talmud into ordinary Hebrew (the modern equivalent of Aramaic for Israeli Jews) and then into English. His motto was “Let my people know!”
Does Bible Criticism undermine faith? I would argue that, if understood correctly, it has the potential to strengthen it! We can try to peer back into history to see the stages of the Torah’s development without in any way detracting from its divine origin. The idea that the incredibly meaningful work that we have today may have been the end result of centuries of development only heightens the wonder. Certainly it doesn’t lessen it. If anything, it makes it seem even more miraculous, that out of all the possible things that might have gone in, just the right bits did make it into the mix, in just the right proportions to create the multi-layered text that we have today.
The Jewish youths who killed a mother of nine children are not “the settlers”. They are not “the other”. If only they were! But no, they are part of our own, a warning of what we can become—of what we must not become.
We often internalize Jewish tradition to such an extent that we act on it without conscious awareness, much the way we speak a language without consciously being aware of grammar. Is this a good thing? Is it better to perform an act in full awareness of what we’re doing and why? Or, is it better to internalize right actions to such an extent that we never even consider an alternative?
We in Israel live in a country with wars raging on all sides, with failed states collapsing into a primordial stew of hatred and nihilism all around us, with suicidal regimes seeking nuclear weapons in order to carry out their expressed goals of obliterating us. We know about death and we know about weapons of war, but we don’t fetishize them. How is it that Americans are so willing to arm the enemy within for the sake of security?
The Law of the King, in the Book of Deuteronomy sets out the rules for a constitutional monarchy for the nation of Israel. For over a thousand years, kings were judged by how well they followed its precepts. But in the writings of the later prophets, the Law of the King became a signpost to a political and economic revolution.
The Talmud manages to do what few legal systems even attempt: it integrates psychological and moral issues seamlessly with normative legal guidelines. But to appreciate the full extent of this integration, it’s important to pay attention to something that is too often left out of today’s Gemara classes: the aggadah.
One of the most quoted Talmudic stories is the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, the story of a debate between the famous R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the one side and the rest of the sages of Israel on the other side. This is the story of a dramatic upheaval in the Jewish world, whose echoes continue to reverberate down through the centuries to the present day.
For Diaspora Jews, fluency in the Hebrew language may mean the difference between raising a generation of knowledgeable apikorsim and a generation of ignoramuses, destined for cultural oblivion.