This article first appeared in the JTNews, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest’s Jewish bi-weekly newspaper.
Judaism has contributed a great deal to world civilization. We introduced the concept of ethical monotheism and were among the first peoples to encourage universal literacy. Our tradition speaks of freedom and liberty for all, not just for an elite, a society based on law rather than power. We have much to be proud of.
But, have we run out of gas? Does our tradition today offer anything more than a private and temporary “shelter in the storm” from an increasingly material-oriented, crisis-torn world? Is there anything in our millennia-long story that makes any difference any more? Is our charge to “be a light unto the nations” now obsolete, part of the distant past or is the best yet to come?
Perhaps our least-appreciated resource (outside, of course, Yeshiva enclaves) is our talmudic tradition. Among the many ways we can describe it is a two-millennia cooperative art project, a living system which continues to develop. It’s also a systematic unfolding of the Infinite into the physical world of boundaries and limits. It serves as the the foundation, source material and methodology for deriving Halacha, defined as “a going” (i.e. a path towards spiritual development), ritual and liturgical law, as well as Jewish civil and communal law. The detailed descriptions and analyses of the written Torah text and of our Temple services have inspired us and fired both our imaginations and our yearning, contributing greatly to our miraculous and unique survival as a homeless people.
But, is that really all it is?
Beyond the various “internal” (limited to religious/ritual/halachic) benefits Talmud study provides, the process itself is unique, powerful and multi-layered. Transcending all specific subjects, it trains our minds to think in very advanced ways. As we zero in on a point, we suddenly find ourselves examining other phenomenon which might share only one non-obvious similarity to our original subject. Some times we’ll return to the main point, other times we’ll continue exploring and examining a chain of associations. We examine everything from multiple points of view, both in isolation and in relation to other ideas and opinions. Some times we’ll solve the puzzle, but other times we’ll just leave the question for the time being, marking it as, indeed, difficult (kushiya (that’s a hard one) or teyko (we’ll wait for Elijah the Prophet (announcing the imminent arrival of Mashiach) to explain).
If we take a step back, something even more curious emerges. Although Talmud is based on questions and answers, it soon becomes apparent that the answers were already well-known before the discussion even begins. For example, the very beginning of Oral Torah, the first perek (chapter) of the first masechet (tractate), Berachot, begins asking from what time can we begin to say the evening Shema. Obviously, the rabbis of the mishna davened every day of their lives, as did their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They knew exactly when to say the Shema.
In fact, this is really our first clue that something much more important is going on–we’re being taught and drilled in an advanced methodology of thinking. Daily Talmud study resembles nothing so closely as daily gym workouts or daily musical scale practice. Intense immersion in Talmud study, in addition to the religious and even the spiritual benefits, develops our minds to work linearly and laterally, empirically and intuitively, serially and associatively, all at the same time!
Although the Gemara (Berachot 6b) defines its actual benefit as learning how to reason, I have no quarrel with those who want to limit their study to questions of halacha, nor with those who study in order to, in indescribable but actual ways, merge their intellect with the Divine Intellect in order to deepen their relationship with God. But I want to propose an entirely additional direction.
Our world is a mess! Between almost universal economic meltdown, endless environmental disasters, continual wars and culture clashes, starvation, resurgent disease and probably more people living under slavery than at any time in the past, we’re all in a heap of trouble! To add even more urgency, our former problem-solving strategies no longer seem effective.
One reason, I propose, for this crisis is our exclusive reliance on science, based entirely on empiricism. Even ever-advancing computing power doesn’t really help since it’s the same binary-only fallacy, just at much higher speed.
I propose applying Talmudic methodology to these challenges. Let’s introduce rigorous Talmud study to our finest science, economics, law and government students, Jewish or not, with or without religious belief, in order to learn and master this powerful tool. By this I mean serious, yeshiva-level, immersion training in Talmud–I’m not talking about a superficial overview nor an academic survey class. The goal is not to be able to talk about “talmudic methods”, but, rather, acquiring an entirely new modality of thinking, a true working knowledge.
Let’s also try to engage our finest Yeshiva scholars, with lifetimes spent already honing these skills, in real-world issues. Not only would that be a significant step in healing divisions within our people, it just might, from an unexpected direction, rekindle the fire that will allow us, once again, to become that “Light unto the Nations”.