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!
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • 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.