While driving to Corvallis, Oregon a couple weeks ago (July, 1999) to teach a Shabbat class in Talmud at the Aleph/Renewal Kallah, I thought about how to present my topic, Talmud, to a group of people who might not be very familiar or necessarily more than merely polite in receptiveness to it. I’d planned to focus on the very beginning of the Talmud, the first Mishna and hopefully the beginning Gemara of Tractate Brachot.
Starting with the presumption that Talmud is perhaps the most misunderstood Jewish text, certainly by those who’ve enshrined and thus fossilized it within the yeshiva world and thus even more so by the rest of Jewish-kind who therefore reject it outright, I first needed a definition. The obvious thought that comes to mind is the simple definition as a central pillar of the Oral Tora. Back-pedaling just a little in order to “legitimize” Talmud as more than “a bunch of smart ancient rabbis’ opinions”, but rather something alive and eternally meaningful, I thought I’d restate the traditional “party line” that both the Written and Oral aspects of the Tora were given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.
That led me to wonder what we really mean by Revelation. Is it merely a vast and sudden transfer of knowledge, of wisdom or is it a different type of knowledge altogether? As Jews, are we the guardians of unique knowledge or do we, instead, have at most a unique presentation and organization of this wisdom. To what degree, if any, is or should Jewish insights be specific to our people versus being openly universal? Does sharing the historical/spiritual experience at Sinai removes us in some way from the rest of humanity or is all this information and understanding widely available if one merely opens one’s eyes and heart to the world, in other words through empirical observation and trial-and-error which is, more or less, the historical process of science?
This leads to a related and perhaps only apparently-tangential concern, defining intuition and insight. Obviously central to scientific progress throughout history, they certainly seem to transcend mere observation and organization. On the other hand, what better modern-day understanding can we bring to the seemingly archaic concept of prophecy other than intuition and insight?
Jewish tradition, in fact, celebrates both paradigms: Moses on Sinai and Abraham observing the natural world and concluding the necessary existence of God. While we’re taught that all Jewish souls, past, contemporary and future were present and received the entire Tora in a single historical moment (this obviously needs much interpretation and insight to even begin to ponder), we also learn that carefully examining and questioning appearances in the visible “natural” world, Abraham was forced to realize a transcendental and imminent presence “behind” it all. Taking into account their unique personalities, would we equate Abraham’s and Moses’ knowledge of God? Are we describing different paths to the same objective or different paths to altogether different goals or, perhaps, different paths to different facets of the same reality?
Ultimately, we wonder if communication at all is possible. Essentially, knowledge of God is the shared goal of all spiritual traditions, so are all forms and styles this knowledge takes equivalent, not only from tradition to tradition but within a single tradition? Not only can we talk to others, can we even speak meaningfully of things spiritual among ourselves without a shared “peak experience”? Not only can the rational speak to the spiritual, but can one intuition speak to another, one spirit to another?
As Rosh HaShana (5760) approaches, my strongest desire is to answer “yes”, so see as real that there is one “mountain”, as it were, with myriad and unique paths all leading to the same peak. We speak on Rosh HaShana as “crowning” God, as recognizing the Divine Oneness of all reality. May all of us open ourselves to this vision and thus focus on what is common to all humanity.
L’Shana Tova Tikatayvu v’Tichataymu