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.
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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 Talmud is certainly ancient, complex and capable of rousing passion. When we are called the people of the book, it might be fair to say that the “book” is Talmud, as much as it is the Bible. The Bible tells the story of our nomadic ancestors settling in Israel and birthing a nation in the process, a kind of Judaism 1.0. That world was shattered when the Second Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 C.E., sending us into an exile that has defined us since. The Talmud, composed of dozens of tractates of the Mishna and Gemara likely compiled in the third to fifth (or possibly eighth) centuries, documents how the post-Temple rabbis pieced together a new Judaism for this suddenly landless people.

It was a Judaism that would be less nationalistic and more ritualistic. A Judaism that could survive among, yet distinguish itself from, the surrounding theologies it suddenly had to compete with. The Talmud reflects the formation of this new incarnation of our faith and it has since beaten at the heart of our culture. As Jewish scholars engaged with the Talmud down through the centuries, it shaped Jewish scholarship, Jewish law, Jewish society and daily Jewish life.

But I had already arrived at a relationship with this artifact and it was not harmonious. My upbringing had been saturated with the aroma of Talmud and I had received a simplified sense of the text’s contents through fragments embedded in the sermons of my beloved father, a scholar and rabbi. I had adored the texture of Talmud that I experienced, but as a girl, I had never been allowed to directly learn the words, myself and as a woman, I was disturbed by the primacy Talmud and other male-exclusive historical texts held in Jewish culture. But I could not deny that the Talmud had power. Having acknowledged my unease, I found I was now ready to stop at the entrance of the study hall whose sounds had filled the air of my childhood, open the door that had always been barred to me, and stride inside.

I wanted the Talmud that my childhood self had caught glimpses of — one imbued with fathomless love and the rigorous approach that my father possessed — but at the same time, I didn’t want the obsequiousness and misogyny inherent in that yeshivish style. I needed to find a teacher of diametrical extremes, one who was shaped by the ultra-Orthodox passion for Talmud but willing to accommodate my secular response to those texts.

There are few individuals that fit this bill, but I was fortunate enough to know of one of them. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz had been a Satmar rabbi who taught a popular Talmud class in Borough Park before leaving that role to chair the Talmud department at Open Orthodoxy’s flagship rabbinical academy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a place that aims to reconcile Orthodox Judaism with contemporary ethics. I enrolled in an early morning Talmud class that Rabbi Katz taught to students from an array of Jewish backgrounds, in a classroom on the fourth floor of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Arriving on my first day, I clutched a cup of coffee in my hand and found a place at the end of the big wooden table, amongst women in yarmulkes and bareheaded men.

Rabbi Katz arrived, a young bearded man in Orthodox-style dress. He passed out photocopies printed with that distinct talmudic architecture: a center block of words in a bisected frame of commentaries adorned with columns of smaller text. The paper felt illicit in my hands.

Diving in, I was quickly brought to tears as I found myself immersed in a distilled form of the texture of my childhood. We were studying Sotah, the tractate on the ordeal of a woman suspected of adultery. One student deplored the sadism of the legal process, another insisted that the changes the rabbis made to the biblical legal process made them radical reformers, while a third reflected on her own observations of male versus female fidelity. Rabbi Katz pulled examples from a gargantuan repertoire of talmudic knowledge to defend his beloved rabbis and contextualize our contributions, but all voices were heard and considered in our lively conversations.

The classroom felt freed of the cage of dogma, cleansed of servility, and plugged in to unadulterated Talmud: that dialectical approach, that struggling with and against God, that intellectuality, that wryness, those stupid cruelties, those depths, that lyricism, that filth of mundanities intertwined with an ethereal spirit. This was pure Jewish devotion encased in the pungent truths of daily life.

Rabbi Katz’s class inspired additional explorations into Talmud with other progressive and learned teachers, where I had the joy of discovering the pious Reb Eleazer my father had told me of — a progressive visionary, strong enough to treat his wife as his equal and confident enough to fling open the doors of the study hall to allow all people in.

But then there was the disappointment of reencountering Rabbi Meir, husband of the sage Bruriah, a man who, in the text, revealed himself to be a petty misogynist — but oh for the joy of the freedom in being able to name him so! I have not yet delved into truly dense talmudic law, and I don’t know if I would find anything of value there, but thus far, I am enthralled.

The structure of the Talmud enchanted me as much as its content. I learned that talmudic characters rely on three tools to determine their laws and shape their cultural paradigm: ancient texts, lively dialogue amongst themselves, and their own experiences. The textual analysis is a jumping-off point and a way to punctuate their eventual conclusions. The dialogue is where they pull apart the ideas in dialectical conversation so inclusive that Roman women and apostates are prominent participators. And the characters’ real-life experience gives their conclusions heft. This last tool was crystallized for me in a section where the rabbis argue how long a woman must be alone with a man to have enough time to complete a sexual act. “Long enough to drink a cup of wine,” says Reb Yehoshua. “Long enough to roast an egg,” Ben Azzai counters. Reb Yitzchak, the son of Reb Yosef, later explains that each of the sages defined the duration of intercourse from his own experience. That personal knowledge carries weight in their wrangling.

To read the Talmud as a legal handbook is to use an original Mondrian as blotting paper. Talmud is engaging and enduring because it is not a code of law but a description of process, one that gave individuals throughout the course of our history the opportunity to pull up a chair and join the conversation. The characteristics of that process are the thing that has endured in our genes, that has produced the archetype of the Jewish questioner, the Jewish intellectual, the Jewish lawyer. If you are too reverent to push apart the lines of Talmud to introduce yourself to these men and women and add your own voice to their examination of life’s challenges in love, friendship, learning, money, family, hope, fear, mourning, community — you miss the point. To learn Talmud is to do Talmud — to do as the characters do, to examine text, to have a conversation, to allow your personal experiences to weigh in. This is the mistake of yeshivish Talmud study, which ignores diversity and personal experience to engage with Talmud in just the single dimension of textual analysis. But even pressed down, Talmud study has been rich enough to help nourish the yeshivish community, strong enough to ignite an inextinguishable flame of love in my heart. What would the power of Talmud be, I wondered, if a community engaged in it with the same passion, but in 3-D?

Amidst these talmudic explorations, I was perusing Facebook one evening when I came across a video a friend had posted. Curious, I pressed play and saw a woman with uncovered hair and an open-necked blouse speaking at a lectern. It was Dr. Ruth Calderon, a recently elected member of the Knesset, teaching Talmud in her first speech in the Israeli parliament.

I discovered that Calderon was a wise, learned scholar who both embodied and described a renaissance of secular Israelis studying Talmud in secular settings, without the constraints of Orthodox assumptions. This new Israeli movement has been sped along by the advantage its members have over most American cultural Jews (including me): they can flip open a book of the Talmud and enter, without needing gatekeepers to translate the language, gatekeepers who, in our country, are often Orthodox men.

I wondered what American Judaism would look like if we extracted the Talmud from its current position as a source of religious law monopolized by Orthodoxy and inserted it as a central pillar of universal Jewish culture. If Talmud wasn’t a Jewish thing, but the defining Jewish thing. If every Jewish leader was as fluent in Talmud as she was in Israeli politics. If every Holocaust book had a talmudic counterpart, if every Holocaust museum was matched by a progressive, secular, rigorous talmudic yeshiva.

I know some of my fellow former ultra-Orthodox Jews who were forced to spend 15-hour days with their nose in a Talmud might blanch at this idea. While I’d argue the Talmud experience I’m championing is an entirely difference species than the one they’ve encountered, one of the beauties of culture is that it is an offering, not a mandate.

And although my feminist concerns still bother me, I can now see that the Talmud is a great deal more amenable to my voice than I would have ever guessed. It may contain lines as abhorrent as, “He who follows his wife’s counsel will descend into Gehenna,” but the more important creative process that the Talmud helps facilitate gives recourse to address such statements. Some may feel that the impact of this patriarchal text has already been too great, but because the Talmud is a living fossil of extraordinary and relevant design, there might be more to be gained from throwing open the study hall doors, inviting everyone inside, and utilizing it for the good of all, than from abandoning it.

For me, embracing the Talmud as the heartbeat of my Jewish cultural identity over these past few months has been deeply fulfilling, allowing me to revive my full complexity as I begin the process of stitching together my devotional childhood self and my current atheistic, feminist, progressive self. It’s a miraculous and terrifying quilting process that keeps me wondering about these forces on a larger scale. In contemporary Jewish culture, some have ignored the present to cleave to the past, and others have turned their backs on the past to live in the present. I am curious about the experience of existing in the exquisite tension of tangoing with both.

Open Orthodoxy seems to be the community operating most successfully in this tension between talmudic devotion and contemporary ethical integrity, and although it is constrained by a commitment to Orthodox law, I’m excited to see how this young movement develops.

I don’t know what is waiting next for me, in my ever-evolving identity, other than that I will definitely change. Maybe it is the Talmud in my DNA that leaves me forever grappling, forever questioning, forever trying to peel apart the things of life in new ways. Wherever I travel in the future, I do hope that I am fortunate enough to participate in a new embodiment of Judaism that could sweep up those who share a hunger for passion and a hunger for truth in equal parts, uncompromising measures, and create a lush and nourishing landscape of contemporary Jewish culture, that just might have Talmud at its core.

Leah Vincent, author of the memoir “Cut Me Loose,” is teaming up with illustrator Aya Rosen and co-writer Samuel Katz to create “Legends of the Talmud,” a collection of illustrated Talmud stories for children, which will launch with a Kickstarter campaign this summer.

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