- Why do Jews need the Talmud? What information does it have that is not found in the Torah?
- Why do you think the Talmud records lively conversations about Jewish laws and ethics, rather than just listing the halakha one needs to follow? What’s the purpose of preserving opinions that no one is expected to follow today?
- The codifying of the majority of the oral law Moshe received at Sinai in the Babylonian Talmud interestingly coincided with the fall of the Roman empire, the very entity that necessitated its creation in 476 CE. What do you think we can learn from the fact that these two historic events happened at the same time?
- Should we teach ethically troubling rabbinic texts to students whose commitment to Jewish tradition is limited or shaky? If yes, how should we teach them, especially when those texts plausibly represent the mainstream of our tradition? What do you think of the answers Aryeh Klapper provides to these question?
- Why do you think many traditional religious schools and yeshivot spend more time teaching their students the Talmud than the Tanakh to this day?
- In 1236 a Jewish apostate, Nicholas Donin, submitted a memorandum to Pope Gregory IX listing 35 charges against the Talmud. These included allegations that it contained blasphemies of Jesus and Mary, attacks on the Church, pronouncements hostile to non-Jews, and foolish and revolting tales. Pope Gregory thereupon ordered a preliminary investigation after which he ordered the Talmud be burned at the stake. Similar instructions were conveyed to the kings of France, England, Spain and Portugal. Although the orders of the popes were not effectively upheld by the secular authorities, copying of the Talmud and its study could not be carried out openly and proceeded with difficulty. To this day, out of context quotations from Talmud proliferate throughout antisemitic websites across the internet. How do you feel about the way Judeophobes cherry-pick statements from one of our most important texts to justify their hatred against the Jewish people?
- In the Babylonian Talmud (M’nachot 29b) there is a wonderful midrash in which Moshe is depicted as watching God sitting and writing crowns (embellishments that look a bit like crowns) on some of the letters in the Torah. Moshe asked God why the Holy One was doing this. God responded “There is a man who will appear at the end of several generations and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. And he will need these crowns, because from each and every mark he will derive scores and scores of laws.” (In a sense, Akiva will create midrash to explain the presence of these marks, and anything else unusual in the text of Torah.)
Moshe retorted, “Ruler of the Universe, show this man to me.” The Holy One said, “Turn around!”
Moshe found himself sitting in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash (classroom) and he did not understand a word that was being said. He felt faint and frustrated. When the class reacted a certain point in the discussion, a student asked Rabbi Akiva, “Rabbi, what is the source for this ruling?” He said, “It is a law given unto Moshe at Sinai.”
One reading of why this time tunnel story was written suggested that it is in the Talmud to teach us that “Torah study is not the automatic emulation of what previous generations have thought; instead, each of us has the opportunity to offer a new explanation of the crowns adorning the letters in the Torah’s text. In other words, an internal, original spring flows from the Torah, and this fact fully legitimizes Akiva’s introduction of new laws that were not transmitted to Moshe at Mount Sinai.” Do you agree?