Talmudic Judaism

Talmudic Analysis

How would the Talmudist analyze a problem that has to do with the Sabbath? He would survey carefully all the facts he has before him. First he would examine the Biblical injunction which states that one shall do no work on the Sabbath. The term work, however. is vague and ambiguous, so he would have to search for its precise meaning in the Oral Law. He would note that there are 39 categories of creative activities listed in the Oral Law as comprising work. He would discover that work. has nothing to do with physical exertion. A person could exercise vigorously all Sabbath, lifting weights for hours on end, without violating the Biblical injunction regarding the Sabbath, while throwing a splinter of wood into a fire would involve a major violation.

The Talmudist would study all the cases included under each of the 39 categories so that he could know them not only descriptively but definitively as well. Plowing, for instance, is one of the 39 forms of work. But the definition of plowing is not the same as the description. Raking leaves also come. under plowing. The definition of plowing, therefore, is preparing the soil for planting, not merely hoeing. Fertilizing the ground would also come under plowing. Again, we have planting as one of the 39 categories of work. Pruning a tree, according to the Oral Law, is also prohibited under the category of planting. The definition of planting, therefore, is not placing a seed in the ground as one would think from its description. but rather the stimulation of growth. As pruning stimulates plant growth, it comes under the category of planting. Watering the lawn, therefore, would involve a double violation as the watering process softens the soil making it more conducive for growing and it also stimulates plant growths It can be seen, therefore, that the definition may be far removed from the description since it is based on finding a universal that includes all cases of a particular prohibition. Each of the 39 categories must be known by their universals in order that the Talmudist may decide as to whether a particular action is to be classified under one of them. Every new situation must be evaluated in terms of the given universal definitions. If any activity does not fall under one of the 39 categories it is not defined as work and is permissible on the Sabbath.

Dimonts case wouldnt even warrant a serious responsa since operating an automobile involves combustion and combustion is clearly one of the 39 categories of prohibited work on the Sabbath. What is worse about Dimonts presentation, however, is that he presents a totally distorted view of the process of Talmudic analysis. The Talmudist cannot be guided by his personal feelings about the matter. He never thinks in terms of how God would view a situation. He has at his disposal only the authorized Talmudic data and pure logical analysis; through deduction and induction he arrives at his conclusions. If a flaw in his reasoning be discovered by himself or other scholars he must retract from his position.

Not only the negative but also the positive commandments are arrived at in the same fashion. We have, for instance, a commandment to eat the Pascal Lamb on the Eve of Passover together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This commandment was prescribed for a time when the Holy Temple is in existence. Do we have to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs today when there is no Temple and no Pascal Lamb? This question is dealt with in the Talmud. The theoretical analysis of the problem is as follows. Do we consider the eating of the unleavened bread and herbs as a separate commandment in its own right or merely as an accident or attribute of the Pascal Lamb, i.e.. the Pascal Lamb is to be eaten with the accompaniment of unleavened bread and herbs? If the first formulation is correct, then even today when there is no Pascal Lamb the unleavened bread and herbs would be obligatory. Whereas, if the second is correct then there would be no purpose in eating the herbs and unleavened bread as there is no Pascal Lamb.

The Talmud adduces evidence to support the different possibilities. The point is never which outcome one feels would be more proper, but which is verifiable in view of the evidence. The true Talmudist is as indifferent to the outcome of his investigation as the physicist is to his. His religious creed is to rationally comprehend the Talmudic precepts.

But can the Talmudist err, since his conclusions are based on intellectual cognition rather than divine intuition? The answer is that insofar as he employs the faculty of human reason he is as subject to error as any other investigator. Insofar as his religious goal is concerned, however, he cannot fail since he is not committed to any particular outcome, but rather, to the results of his investigation; be they correct or incorrect in actuality, he is obligated to follow the most knowledgeable position that human reason can ascertain at the time. This to the Talmudist is Gods willto rely on his reason in interpreting the given data he has received. As a matter of fact, only reason may be used in Talmudic arbitration. Even if a great Prophet should inform a court of Talmudists discussing a particular matter that he knows through prophecy which view is correct. his statements would not be admissible as evidence. The Talmud illustrates this idea with a story in which God himself declares a decision made by the human court to be incorrect in actuality yet accepts it since it was arrived at in complete compliance with the human system of Talmudic investigation.

Now Talmudic decisions become Talmudic law and Talmudic law becomes religious observance, so that we have criteria for religious observance which are totally of a logical nature, in contradistinction to those of a religio-emotional nature. Let me give an example. There is a commandment to hear the sound of the shofar on the New Year. But the sound of the shofar is a very specific sound. The length and character of each sound and the number of sounds has been determined by lengthy Talmudic discussion. Now a person may be filled with religious fervor and emotion while listening to the shofar on the High Holy Days and yet not fulfill the commandment if the sounds produced were lacking in one minute technical detail. On the other hand, one may listen to the proper sounds in an uninspired manner and yet fulfill the commandment.


Philosophy of Talmudic Judaism


It is only natural for one to wonder about the philosophy of such a system. What kind of religious system is it, that has as its center technical performances which are dictated by theoretical and logical considerations? Why must each commandment be constructed with the precision of an abstract formula? Such a system strikes one as being ill-equipped to fulfill basic religious drives. The emphasis here seems misplaced. The answer actually derives naturally from the phenomenon itself. The sages of the Talmud conceived of Judaism in a very unique way. To them it was a religion of the mind. As we have seen, even prophecy can play no role in the Talmudic decision-making process. Only the dictates of reason must be followed. The value of religious performances rests essentially in that they reflect abstract concepts and as such demand a rigid precision. Ignorant performances no matter how well intentioned are of no value halachically, in the event that one is not a scholar himself, he must base his performances upon the scholarship of others.

The all encompassing nature of Talmudic Law makes it impossible for man to avoid coming in contact with it constantly. The thinking individual thus always encounters questions, ideas and Halachic concepts in his daily activities. His milieu becomes one of thought and in the appreciation of the beauty of that thought Man comes close to God.

To the uninitiated onlookers the life of Halachah seems controlled and tedious. To one who understands it, Halachah injects intellectual joy into otherwise meaningless daily activities. The perfected Jew eats and drinks like everyone else but Halachah raises questions and brings forth ideas which can make a meal an intellectual adventure.

It is impossible to describe what it is like to experience the joy of Talmudic thought. Only those who have partaken of it can know what the Psalmist meant when he said, Your laws have been as music to me ; If it wasnt for your law, my plaything... ; They are more desirous than gold... and are sweeter than honey and the finest nectar. The love of Talmudic thought leads one to a desire to commune with the source of the beautiful world of ideas, as Maimonides quotes in the name of King David, My soul thirsts for the Almighty, the living God.

This, then, is the uniqueness of Talmudic Judaism. Intellect, usually the adversary of religion is here its ally and stronghold. Even prayer which is the service of the heart has strict Halachic formulae as to how exactly it should take place. A mere outpouring of human emotion is not only invalid Halachically but may even involve serious infractions. The preamble to prayer is Know before whom you stand. Prayer must be preceded by proper knowledge of God. The Halachah conveys to man correct notions about the Creator so that when he prays to God his mind is properly engaged.

It is not the purpose of Halachah to remove human emotions from the reiigious experience. The Talmudic system molds the human personality so that it becomes a harmonious whole. Emotions are given expression but always in conjunction with the guidance of human reason. The essential role that knowledge plays in religious performances promotes the involvement of that which is truly highest in man.


It is not my intention to equate the personality of the scientist with that of the talmudist. (Neither do I wish to lend credibility to Talmud via this analogy. Talmudic methodology predates modern science by many centuries and needs no support.) I use the term scientist in the Maimonidean sense. as an illustration of man using his intellectual abilities to unlock the secrets of nature. Similarly, the Talmudist uses his investigative powers to uncover the theoretical structure behind the Law.

An additional word might be in order about this comparison. The scientist gains knowledge from experience in two ways: new information questions existing theories and new theories are then tested by experimentation from reality. For the Talmudist the situation is not analogous. Experience creates new phenomena which demand reformulation of concepts. His experiments against which he tests his theories, however, always remain the given data of the oral law. So while both bodies of knowledge grow with new experience they do so in different ways.





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