An Atheist’s Case for Talmud

Sating a New Hunger With an Ancient Book

Not Her Father’s Talmud: Leah Vincent is collaborating with two artists to create illustrated Talmud stories for children.
Courtesy of Leah Vincent
Not Her Father’s Talmud: Leah Vincent is collaborating with two artists to create illustrated Talmud stories for children.

By Leah Vincent

Published July 02, 2014, issue of July 04, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When I recently wrote my memoir of leaving ultra-Orthodoxy, I spent days ravaged by sobbing fits, debilitating chest pain, and migraines as I reencountered the trauma my 17-year-old self had experienced after I was pushed out of my yeshivish family for my rebellion.

Shaken, I was fearful that when I went even further back to confront my fervent 11-year-old yeshivish self, the experience would be far worse. For years, I had struggled to keep that powerful incarnation of myself at bay, afraid of her rage, afraid that she would demand, with all the fury of an abandoned child, that I return to yeshivish life.

To my surprise, when I finally immersed myself in recording the memories of that girl, there was none of that. Instead, the sweet love that girl had channeled toward her faith flowed, without judgment, into my battered heart. This gentle reconnection with the neglected religious piece of myself inspired me to try and reclaim the Judaism that had once defined me in a way that could please both my childish devotion and my adult atheistic and progressive values. The solution was clear: I would become a cultural Jew. The problem was, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

Every phenomenon is defined by what it is not, the contours of its negative space, and by what it is, the texture of its positive space. As Jews, we are not the gentile majority, a distinction that has had catastrophic consequences. I quickly embraced the way progressive Judaism taught me to approach this aspect of my Jewish identity: commemorating the Holocaust, empathizing with the suffering of other peoples, and championing a country that might help us stave off future tragedy (in stark contrast, within ultra-Orthodoxy this negative space seemed to have been poorly processed, paralyzing aspects of that community).

But although I enjoyed my explorations of Reconstructionist and Modern Orthodox services, a lecture given by a Conservative rabbi, and essays by Reform rabbis, I was left unsatisfied by these approaches to defining our positive space as Jews.

Perhaps my nostalgia was getting in the way. In my yeshivish childhood, I had experienced a Judaism that would be hard to match in vibrancy. I wondered if the vitality of yeshivish culture was due to its fundamentalism, or if my community of origin had a different secret of substance that might be worth examining in my current life.

It seemed to me that yeshivish culture rested on four pillars: historical trauma, fundamentalism, God and Talmud. Progressive Judaism offered a healthier approach to the first, I disavowed the second, the third was irrelevant to me, and the fourth — well, there was the fourth. Talmud.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.