Although I’m drawn to the abstract/mystical side of our tradition, I’ve been engaged in a passionate love-affair with Gemara since I began sixth grade more than 50 years ago. Over most of these years I’ve spent a significant part of every day engaged in studying it.
As I’ve written and taught extensively, while the Talmud does present us with a treasure trove of facts and information, of a practical/halachic nature as well as an historical/anthropological/sociological nature as well as a literary/mystical nature, preserving and presenting this information is really secondary (I’m not saying unimportant, just not primary). At least for those of us intimately engaged with her, the purpose is not to “generate the rule book”, although most halacha is certainly derived from it, nor is it to provide an ethnic heritage, although it certainly does that as well.
Rather, Gemara provides a Jewish mind an infinitely challenging and engaging “gym” for the mind. And like a gym for the body, it offers endless opportunities to exercise in very precise ways in order to sharpen our minds along multiple specific parameters. It covers so many subjects and embraces so many different facets both to attract our entire people, no matter our specific interests or inclinations, and also to give us practice using and sharpening our analytical and synthesizing skills over the entire range of human experience.
We’re systematically taught, and then repeatedly exercised in order to age and deepen our skills to think both empirically and intuitively, analytically and imaginatively, generally and specifically, systematically and inspirationally, as well as other parameters, all at the same time. The Talmud is also cyclic so we can repeat it over and over again, much as a musician, no matter what their skill level, can practice scales and exercises and compositions over and over and over, striving for virtuosity.
Sounds great, but a major drawback of becoming a good thinker is impatience with bad thinking. Bad thinking, of course, is not defined within a Talmudic context as disagreeing with my opinion. The entire Talmud is based on disagreements and proceeds under the assumption that almost all of the opinions, even those rejected for halacha (i.e. the “all things being equal” consensus decision (and, of course, all things are never equal in the real world)) are correct. Rather, Gemara study teaches us to engage with and appreciate other approaches, but only when they are equally well thought out.
Impatience with bad thinking and weak reasoning is almost impossible to avoid, but intolerance is no virtue even if it seems, at times, a superhuman challenge to resist it. Confidence in the thinking ability you’ve earned through hard work is not arrogance and it also, as part of this same thinking ability, does not imply the assumption that your opinion is always best. Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretations of Bach’s Cello Suites do not in any way invalidate Pablo Casal’s interpretations of the very same facts (notes). But when one has spent years refining a performance of music it’s hard to take a mistake-laden performance very seriously.
The prevalence of a 24-hour news cycle, the ascendency of social media and the politicizing of every damn thing in this world tends to grant a legitimacy to every opinion, thought-out or no. There is a great leveling which might be valuable for self-esteem (I’m not so sure that’s a very good goal–it’s impossible to grow if one finds no deficiencies in oneself) but seems to make most problems impossible to solve because it’s impossible to choose between a good policy and a bad one.
As I said, the downside to Talmud-study is impatience. Perhaps that’s just to inspire me to work harder on tolerance.