As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “If there is one lesson Jews today should learn from the Talmud, what is it?” Here are their responses:
Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: The idea of a Talmud itself is the greatest lesson Jews may learn from its vast text. We live in a time where we often speak only within our echo chambers of shared backgrounds and perspectives. We often do not encounter those with whom we passionately disagree. The Talmud records a plethora of dissenting voices, conversations and practices. This is because the Sages understood there was a value to respectful discourse and exchange of ideas. We have lost the capability to engage with the other and when we do it often resorts to antagonistic language especially on the blogosphere where the human being is removed from the conversation. Judaism reminds us that our words have the power to create and destroy and the Talmud teaches us this with every page.
Sharon Brous, Conservative, IKAR: Resh Lakish was Rabbi Yohanan’s hevruta, his sparring partner, and they were perfectly matched. Every time Rabbi Yohanan argued a point, Resh Lakish challenged him twenty-four times. Rabbi Yohanan answered each challenge with his own, until the matter became clear to both of them. After Resh Lakish’s death, Rabbi Yohanan was inconsolable, realizing that he could not find truth without someone willing to challenge him, to sharpen his thinking (Bava Metzia 84a). Our greatness depends upon our willingness to engage with narratives and perspectives that make us profoundly uncomfortable. As a community, when we silence the voices we don’t like and marginalize the people asking the difficult questions, we all lose. The Talmud calls us to hear the challenge. It seems to me that the vitality of our community rests on that proposition.
Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: The Talmud teaches us that argument, discussion, disagreement and diverse viewpoints are critical if Torah is to take root and grow in our lives. The Talmud has confidence that Torah is resilient and can stand up to questioning. In fact, the Talmud demonstrates that the only way to figure out what Torah asks of us may be to argue it out. No one is immune to being questioned; the most honored and knowledgeable rabbis of the Talmud are pushed to justify their positions, and those who want to limit the conversation are rebuked.
Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities:O havruta o mituta: “give me fellowship, or give me death” (BT Ta’anit 23a). Usually, “havruta” refers to how Jews study in pairs; without another’s perspective, our ability to grow, refine, and evolve our thinking atrophies, and along with it our intellectual and spiritual vitality. From the root h-v-r for “friend,” this also teaches how vital fellowship and empathy are to the refinement of our social and moral lives. Jews need strong bonds to unite us as a people without which we’ll disappear. But we also need to live in deep communion with all of humanity and with the planet, without which everyone will disappear.
Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: This feels like wishing for a million wishes, but learn the story of the gentile who came to Rabbi Hillel and said, “Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot” — an ancient version of “Tweet me the Torah.” Hillel converts him and responds: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary; go and learn it.” Two lessons here. The first: “Be ethical.” The second: “You should be learning more than one lesson from the Talmud.” Now go and learn.
Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: Today, when Nazis and white supremacists are on the march, immigrants and Muslims threatened, people with disabilities mocked, Sanhedrin 37a calls out to us urgently: “Adam was created alone….so one person will not say to another, ‘My father was greater than your father’ …And to tell of the greatness of the Holy One blessed be He, who stamped all people with the stamp of Adam, the first [human] and not one of them is similar to another. Therefore, each and every person is obligated to say, ‘The world was created for me.’”
Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: There’s a passage in Sanhedrin that describes how all humanity is descended from a single person in order that no one should be able to say “my ancestry is better than yours.” It goes on to teach that while our coins are minted from a single mold and all look alike, each human coin was minted from a single mold but looks different. This is a reminder that every human being who ever was and ever will be, across every spectrum of nationality and race and identity, is made in the image and the likeness of God — and is equally precious, holy and deserving of care.
Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”: Jews disagree! Every page of the Talmud is filled with thoughtful rabbinic opinions which are challenged and critiqued by esteemed colleagues. Yet, the foundation of such disagreements is mutual respect. In today’s climate, however, we often confuse disagreeing with fighting. The Talmud demonstrates that just like a precious gem, “there are 70 facets to the Torah” and no single perspective is definitive. So too, as a broad Jewish community, we are empowered to have a multiplicity of opinions and perspectives. If, like the Talmud, we can maintain respect for one another, we can celebrate the diversity of our opinions without it turning into a fight.
Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: My favorite rabbinic teaching comes from Midrash Rabbah 34:10 and not from the Talmud. Harasha hein birshut liban aval tsaddikim liban birshutan: “the evil doer is controlled by his heart, but the righteous are in control of their heart.” This ancient text cries out across the centuries with exquisite wisdom that if we are driven only by feelings, not reason, only by emotion, not logic, only by the heart and not the head, then we bring iniquity into the world. From politics to parenting and beyond, there is no arena in life that does not benefit from this prescription. Too often we get caught up in feeling good but not in doing good. The consequences of deeds motivated by the heart are all too often damaging. We must be motivated more by thought and less by feelings. My father, alav hashalom, would frequently remind me as a child that ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. It is a cliché, but it is sage advice if we wish authentic tikkun olam.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice: Perhaps the most important lesson we learn from the Talmud is that everything matters — how we speak, what we eat, how we spend our money, and even our thoughts. It is easy to fall into a mindset that the ends justify the means, or to listen to only one opinion about matters of importance. But the Talmud’s expansiveness reminds us over and over again that the thinking process matters. Indeed, the sages don’t recite dogmas. They constantly engage in argumentation to agitate for new understandings, which in turn brings new opportunities for light and truth in every moment and encounter.
Sari Laufer, Reform, Stephen Wise Temple:Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim — “these and these are words of a living God.” While I would never reduce Talmud to one phrase or aphorism, the single most important lesson I’ve learned from Talmud study is listening to complicated and even conflicting voices. Talmud is, after all, a record of conversation — with sacred texts, across generations, in significant and deep dialogues. Talmud brings us into conversations beyond our comfort zones, conversations of conflict, conversations that matter. As inheritors of this tradition, I hope we also inherit the ability to have tough conversations and honor the people within them.
Scott Perlo, Conservative, Sixth & I Congregation: That being a good, decent person requires a lot of thought. We’re American, and we’re influenced by the strain of American Protestantism that claims that goodness comes from the heart and that a person has to follow their conscience in order to do what’s right. But it’s not that easy! The Talmud is full of examples where what’s right isn’t clear at all. A perfect example is the the story of why Rav Huna used the merchant’s leftover vegetables before Shabbat. (Ta’anit 20b). The Talmud believes that the moral intuition has to be trained, and it’s right!
Ayelet Cohen, Conservative, New Israel Fund, NY: Embrace complexity. The Talmud is an incredible literary record of debate; it includes accounts of Jews behaving terribly to one another as well as profound friendship; it reaches incredible intellectual and spiritual heights,and descends to deep despair. Above all, the Talmud focuses on ideas and inquiry and multiple voices, not shortcuts and easy answers. These values are essential for us today, in a moment of intersectional identities and defining who is inside and outside of the tent. The Talmud invites us to notice whose voices are missing and whose are present, to seek out unlikely allies while creating boundaries around respectful discourse. We can honor the richness of our inherited tradition while ceasing to tolerate language and behavior that promotes sexual violence, homophobia and racism. It can spur us to action, help guide us when someone’s actions are beyond the pale, instruct us on how to do real Teshuvah. And in its oceanic dimensions, it manifests this teaching from Pirkei Avot: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: The lesson of the Talmud is that life isn’t linear. Life is messy and there are twists and turns. In the Talmud, when we study a suggyah, we find that there are fits and starts, laws and stories, multiple opinions, students and teachers and discussion that happen when you least expect it. The stories of our rabbis and sages are not presented from beginning to end. But there are snippets of insights here and there. And it is up to us to make it into a whole. The same is true with life. We have to weave and make sense of each day, each interaction and create our own story with meaning.
Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: Studying the Talmud teaches that there is complexity and nuance lurking behind everything that seems simple — that you don’t understand any position, therefore, without a commanding grasp of the opposing position. There is more disagreement in the Talmud than agreement. Yet, the Talmud recognizes that there must be a way to turn that disagreement into a practical course of action — which is what halacha is all about — even while respecting contrary opinions. There is the lesson: There can be competing claims to truth – and still a way forward from conflict.
Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: There are many good lines in a 7000 page anthology; I am partial to “do not say one thing in the mouth and another in the heart” (Bava Metzia 49a) as a call for personal integrity. The most inspiring Talmud lesson is its very form: the importance of argument and reason, recording and teaching minority opinions, dialogue across time and space. On one page, we find rabbinic discussion over 1500 years, from Israel (Mishnah) to Babylon (Gemara) to France (Rashi) to Egypt (Maimonides). The most important Talmud lesson is: there is space for your voice on the Jewish page. What will you say?
Jill Jacobs , Conservative, T’ruah: The Talmud is often thought of as a law book — and it’s true that it does include a lot of laws, as well as stories, folk wisdom, and more. But it’s also a record of the rabbis trying to figure out how to reconfigure Judaism following the major crisis of the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from Jerusalem, which could easily have led to the end of Jews and Judaism. As part of this reconfiguration, the rabbis debate how to create the most just society possible. This includes a criminal justice system aimed at ensuring the rights and the dignity of both perpetrator and victim, a tzedakah system that prevents extreme poverty, and business ethics that protect against exploitation. And, of course, there’s a lot of discussion about Shabbat, kashrut, life cycles, and other areas of ritual law. This integration of the ritual with the ethical, along with the commitment to rebuild even in the face of destruction, offers a model for creating a vibrant Judaism that guides us through today’s world.
Nina H. Mandel, Reconstructionist, Congregation Beth El-Sunbury, PA: The most profound lesson of the Talmud is its gestalt. Unlike the medieval era codes offered by Moses, Maimonides or Joseph Caro, the Talmud doesn’t just give us a quick, final answer. By recording both minority and majority opinions, we have in it a complex document that offers many sides of passionate discussions and arguments. The Talmud can be a model for values-based decision making that encourages hearing and considering the opinions of as many stakeholders as possible. This brings together disparate voices from the past and the present to make informed and holistic choices.
Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: It may sound cliche, but Rabbi Akiva’s dictum that “loving your fellow as yourself” is a “great principle of the Torah” is perennially important — perhaps even more so in these days of social and political division. There are many mitzvot that are relatively easy to do from candle lighting to eating matzah or shaking the lulav. How many of us can truly say that we are actively engaged in learning how to love others and putting it into practice? That’s tough and requires sustained effort and life-altering levels of insight. It also has the potential to actually change people’s lives and improve the world.
Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of TorahMusings.com: The first rule of finding a genie in a bottle is that when he asks you for your wish, respond that you want a thousand wishes. Similarly, the one lesson Jews today should learn from the Talmud is that a thousand of our lessons should come from the Talmud. Yes, wisdom abounds in every culture and field of study. We should learn from everyone and everything. But our primary lessons, our ways of living and thinking, our values about family, identity, gender, autonomy and more, should come from a deep and honest study of our own culture and sacred literature. Socrates and Aristotle were wise men, but Moshe and his successors were our wise men.
Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” Hillel — Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El: Hillel’s dictum continues to inform and guide us as a community. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” If there is one great lesson to be learned from our tragic history, it is that Jews must be fiercely self-reliant. Although I do believe that we have friends, still we must never depend on others to come to our defense. Yet, if we turn a blind eye to the needs of others, whether here in the U.S. or in many other parts of the world, we betray the core values of Judaism. Should we conclude from our history that we must only look after ourselves, our hearts would become as hardened as Pharaoh’s.
Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: What we should learn from the Talmud is how every human being is created in the image of G-d and how it is our obligation to bestow dignity on all whom we meet.
Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: Although it is technically from an extra-Talmudic source, today’s Jews should know our teaching that the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come. One lesson that comes from this is that one can believe in the Jewish people as God’s am segulah, treasured nation, with no implication that we think we are better than other people. It teaches that God does judge us, and not by our belief systems, but by our actions. Finally, it makes clear that although we do not overemphasize it, Judaism does embrace and teach the idea that there is something beyond this life. There is a World to Come.
Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: There are three lessons in the Talmud that are really one; each refers to “judging” and each the Jewish people desperately need to live by in our time: 1) Do not judge your fellow man until you stand in his place [Avot 2:5]. 2) Judge every person favorably [ibid 1:6]. 3) He who gives his fellow man the benefit of the doubt, God will give the benefit of the doubt [Shabbos 127b]. Collective society and most certainly the Jewish world is bitterly divided. A major part of the problem is our reluctance — or inability — to see where the other person is coming from. In order to disagree without being disagreeable, we’ve got to develop “double vision”: our own ability to see and the ability to see how others see.
Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: To study the Talmud. The Talmud is one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world. It shouldn’t merely be quoted from, it shouldn’t be perused, and its greatest wisdom is found when studying its intricate complexities. A Jew can’t fully appreciate their great heritage and culture without studying the Talmud. The Talmud itself stresses the need to study its lessons. A Jew must study twice a day, once in the daytime and once at night. Talmud is one of the greatest levels of study a Jew can partake of.
Joe Kolakowski, Orthodox, Koblentz-Richmonder Rov: Although some of my friends may disagree with me on this one, I feel there is a great lesson in the fact that when the Talmud, in the last chapter of Sanhedrin, addresses what types of Jews lose their share in the World to Come, it almost totally focuses on matters of faith, as opposed to practice. Most people would assume that Judaism is focused more on practice than it is on faith, yet this certainly indicates that faith and belief carry some importance in Judaism, and should not be pushed aside in the way most Jews (including many Orthoprax Jews) would believe.