Rabbi Yisroel Chait
Judaism is a religion which satisfies man in
many ways and on different levels. It is the purpose of these
essays to show how Judaism appeals to the intellectual and
creative part of mans nature. If I have over-emphasized the
rational element in Judaism it is because I have found this
element so often overlooked. It is my intent to bring into sharp
relief the unique character of Judaism in this regard.
Jewish religious and cultural life has through
the centuries been rooted in the Talmud. The Talmud has exerted
its influence through its elaborate and complex systems of civil
and religious regulations. This influence has extended beyond the
practical religious sphere and has engendered a particular
intellectual attitude among the people. It has further been
responsible for establishing among its close adherents an
appreciation of a very special type of religious thought. But
what exactly is Talmud? To begin with, the Talmud is described as
the Oral Law. The sages of the Talmud maintained that together
with the Bible, Moses received a very elaborate body of knowledge
whose purpose was to render the Biblical injunctions
intelligible. This latter work was not permitted to be committed
to writing. Only one consideration could override this
prohibition, and that is the danger of losing the body of
knowledge itself. Accordingly, Talmudic scholars have convened at
different times to issue permits for committing to writing
various parts of the Oral Law that were considered endangered. It
is interesting to note, however, that while its substance has
been put into writing, the Talmuds unique methodology has
remained "oral", being transmitted verbally from one
group of scholars to another. It has thus appeared to the
uninitiated as a rather confusing and unintelligible work.
It is the purpose of this paper to shed some
light on the basic tenets of Talmudic reasoning so that its
integral role in the scheme of Judaic thought be appreciated even
by those who are not necessarily Talmudic scholars.
The most prominent difficulty one encounters in
approaching Talmud, and by far the greatest obstacle to its
comprehension stems from a failure to grasp the basic nature of
its analysis. This failure is a natural result of attempting to
construe Talmud through the framework of common religious
notions, rather than searching to discover its own specific
principles. Contemporary religious ideas are wholly
irreconcilable with the basic method of Talmudic investigation.
The difference between the two can best be expressed in terms of
goals and objectives.
From time immemorial the value of a religious
performance has rested in its ability to endow the faithful with
a certain religio-emotional experience. Let us take Christianity
for example. To the Christian the overriding concern is to
engender certain religio-emotional states and experiences.
Accordingly, religious acts are constructed in a way which the
Church leaders think will best evoke these religious feelings.
When approaching Talmud one expects to find the same criterion at
work. Rather than realize that his expectations are not to be
fulfilled, the would-be investigator tries to make the Talmud
conform to his own preconceived notions. A typical example of
this approach can be taken from Max I. Dimonts book, Jews,
God, and history. In it Dimont attempts to give a
demonstration of what a Talmudic Responsa is:
"Let us illustrate how the
Responsa worked with an example from life today. Let us
suppose that the yeshivas of Babylon still exist and that
a Jewish community in suburban St. Louis has asked one of
them to solve the vexing problem of the automobile,
the suburb, and the synagogue. This is the dilemma.
The Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. In 1900 AD a
yeshiva court ruled that driving a car is work. Now, many
years later, the suburbs have developed. The synagogue no
longer is a few blocks away, but miles out in the
country, and the distance is too formidable to walk. The
congregation is faced with the prospect of an empty
synagogue or committing the sin of driving to the place
of worship. What should be done?
The question is turned over to the
yeshiva and the problem placed on the docket. When the
case comes up, the yeshiva court will begin a hearing
much as the Supreme Court reviews a case. The argument
might go something like this: Certainly God did not
intend to have empty synagogues, nor to have His
commandments broken. But who said that driving to the
synagogue was work? Certainly not God or Moses. To force
the aged to walk for miles in the hot sun or in the cold
of winter is a peril to health. Attending services should
be contemplated with joy, not with fear and trembling.
Did not the sages say that he who takes upon
himself a duty that is not specifically required is an
ignoramus? And furthermore, did not Rabbi Judah ben
Ezekiel, back in the third century, say that he who
would order his entire life according to strict and
literal interpretation of Scripture is a fool?
The yeshiva court would then begin a
search for precedents, just as lawyers arguing a brief
before the Supreme Court would search for precedents
favorable to their case. After due deliberation, the
court might decide that in their opinion the court back
in 1900 had erred, and that driving a car to the
synagogue is not work but pleasure, much in the same way
that the United States Supreme Court in the 1890s held
that equal but separate facilities for Negroes was
constitutional, but in the 1950s reversed itself, holding
that it was unconstitutional. Once a verdict is reached,
it is sent to the other yeshivas, where similar hearings
are held and a joint agreement disseminated through the
Responsa to every Jewish community."
In fact, no such Talmudic Responsa worthy of
the name has ever been written.
What are the Talmudists criteria for
decision-making and how does his approach differ from the
foregoing? An illustration from the world of physics may help
clarify this point. Let us take the problem of falling bodies and
compare two approaches. We notice that when we release an object
from our hands it falls to the ground. What is the explanation of
this phenomenon? There are two distinct paths we may follow. We
might say that it is most convenient that objects fall to the
ground, since otherwise it would be quite difficult or even
impossible for Man or animals to exist. Floating objects would
get in our way and Man would have to invent methods of securing
the objects he desired and preventing those he didnt from
invading his premises. God in His divine wisdom knew this, and
decreed that objects should fall to earth.
We might, however, give a different analysis of
the situation. We might say that we observe bodies fall to earth.
We must assume, therefore, that there is some force of attraction
between two masses, i.e., gravity. The reason why we dont
notice the earth move towards the body is that there is so much
more earth than body.
The first approach is concerned with
understanding the "why" of the situation, i.e., why
bodies fall to earth. The second, on the other hand, is concerned
only with the "what" of the situation, i.e., what is it
that is responsible for the falling of bodies. The first approach
is philosophical or teleological; the second we recognize as
Now while modern Man recognizes the validity of
the what" approach when it comes to understanding the
physical world, when it comes to religion he thinks only in terms
of the "why". Here at last, he feels his curiosity of
the "why" of things should be satisfied. It is
precisely on this point that the Talmudist differs. The farthest
thing from the Talmudists mind is an attempt to ascertain
Gods will. Such an attempt would be considered presumptuous
and as absurd to him, as it would be to the physicist to explain
gravity by introducing Gods will. Such considerations are
philosophical and not within the realm of Talmudic analysis.
How does the Talmudist resolve his problems if
he cannot base his decisions on any inner divine intuition? He
uses the same faculty the physicist uses in understanding the
universe - his intellect. Just as the scientist studies nature,
makes observations, and then proceeds to draw universal laws from
these observations; so the Talmudist studies the data of the
written and Oral Law, draws his universals from them, and then
proceeds to utilize these principles in the resolution of his
problems. Just as a scientist tests his theories against
experimental data so too, the Talmudist tests his theories by
checking their results against Talmudic data from other areas
that may be effected directly or indirectly*.
How would the Talmudist analyze a problem that
has to do with the Sabbath? He would survey carefully all the
facts he has before him. First he would examine the Biblical
injunction which states that one shall do no work on the Sabbath.
The term "work", however is vague and ambiguous, so he
would have to search for its precise meaning in the Oral Law. He
would note that there are 39 categories of creative activities
listed in the Oral Law as comprising "work". He would
discover that "work" has nothing to do with physical
exertion. A person could exercise vigorously all Sabbath, lifting
weights for hours on end, without violating the Biblical
injunction regarding the Sabbath, while throwing a splinter of
wood into a fire would involve a major violation.
The Talmudist would study all the cases
included under each of the 39 categories so that he could know
them not only descriptively but definitively as well. Plowing,
for instance, is one of the 39 forms of work. But the definition
of plowing is not the same as the description. Raking leaves also
come under plowing. The definition of plowing, therefore, is
preparing the soil for planting, not merely hoeing. Fertilizing
the ground would also come under plowing. Again, we have planting
as one of the 39 categories of work. Pruning a tree, according to
the Oral Law, is also prohibited under the category of planting.
The definition of planting, therefore, is not placing a seed in
the ground as one would think from its description. but rather
the stimulation of growth. As pruning stimulates plant growth, it
comes under the category of planting. Watering the lawn,
therefore, would involve a double violation as the watering
process softens the soil making it more conducive for growing and
it also stimulates plant growths It can be seen, therefore, that
the definition may be far removed from the description since it
is based on finding a universal that includes all cases of a
particular prohibition. Each of the 39 categories must be known
by their universals in order that the Talmudist may decide as to
whether a particular action is to be classified under one of
them. Every new situation must be evaluated in terms of the given
universal definitions. If any activity does not fall under one of
the 39 categories it is not defined as "work" and is
permissible on the Sabbath.
Dimonts case wouldnt even warrant a
serious Responsa since operating an automobile involves
combustion and combustion is clearly one of the 39 categories of
prohibited work on the Sabbath. What is worse about Dimonts
presentation, however, is that he presents a totally distorted
view of the process of Talmudic analysis. The Talmudist cannot be
guided by his personal feelings about the matter. He never thinks
in terms of how God would view a situation. He has at his
disposal only the authorized Talmudic data and pure logical
analysis; through deduction and induction he arrives at his
conclusions. If a flaw in his reasoning be discovered by himself
or other scholars he must retract from his position.
Not only the negative but also the positive
commandments are arrived at in the same fashion. We have, for
instance, a commandment to eat the Pascal Lamb on the Eve of
Passover together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This
commandment was prescribed for a time when the Holy Temple is in
existence. Do we have to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs
today when there is no Temple and no Pascal Lamb? This question
is dealt with in the Talmud. The theoretical analysis of the
problem is as follows. Do we consider the eating of the
unleavened bread and herbs as a separate commandment in its own
right or merely as an accident or attribute of the Pascal Lamb,
i.e. the Pascal Lamb is to be eaten with the accompaniment of
unleavened bread and herbs? If the first formulation is correct,
then even today when there is no Pascal Lamb the unleavened bread
and herbs would be obligatory. Whereas, if the second is correct
then there would be no purpose in eating the herbs and unleavened
bread as there is no Pascal Lamb.
The Talmud adduces evidence to support the
different possibilities. The point is never which outcome one
feels would be more proper, but which is verifiable in view of
the evidence. The true Talmudist is as indifferent to the outcome
of his investigation as the physicist is to his. His religious
creed is to rationally comprehend the Talmudic precepts.
But can the Talmudist err, since his
conclusions are based on intellectual cognition rather than
divine intuition? The answer is that insofar as he employs the
faculty of human reason he is as subject to error as any other
investigator. Insofar as his religious goal is concerned,
however, he cannot fail since he is not committed to any
particular outcome, but rather, to the results of his
investigation; be they correct or incorrect in actuality, he is
obligated to follow the most knowledgeable position that human
reason can ascertain at the time. This to the Talmudist is
Gods willto rely on his reason in interpreting the
given data he has received. As a matter of fact, only reason may
be used in Talmudic arbitration. Even if a great Prophet should
inform a court of Talmudists discussing a particular matter that
he knows through prophecy which view is correct. his statements
would not be admissible as evidence. The Talmud illustrates this
idea with a story in which God himself declares a decision made
by the human court to be incorrect in actuality yet accepts it
since it was arrived at in complete compliance with the human
system of Talmudic investigation.
Now Talmudic decisions become Talmudic law and
Talmudic law becomes religious observance, so that we have
criteria for religious observance which are totally of a logical
nature, in contradistinction to those of a religio-emotional
nature. Let me give an example. There is a commandment to hear
the sound of the shofar on the New Year. But the sound of the
shofar is a very specific sound. The length and character of each
sound and the number of sounds has been determined by lengthy
Talmudic discussion. Now a person may be filled with religious
fervor and emotion while listening to the shofar on the High Holy
Days and yet not fulfill the commandment if the sounds produced
were lacking in one minute technical detail. On the other hand,
one may listen to the proper sounds in an uninspired manner and
yet fulfill the commandment.
Philosophy of Talmudic Judaism
It is only natural for one to wonder about the
philosophy of such a system. What kind of religious system is it,
that has as its center technical performances which are dictated
by theoretical and logical considerations? Why must each
commandment be constructed with the precision of an abstract
formula? Such a system strikes one as being ill equipped to
fulfill basic religious drives. The emphasis here seems
misplaced. The answer actually derives naturally from the
phenomenon itself. The sages of the Talmud conceived of Judaism
in a very unique way. To them it was a religion of the mind. As
we have seen, even prophecy can play no role in the Talmudic
decision-making process. Only the dictates of reason must be
followed. The value of religious performances rests essentially
in that they reflect abstract concepts and as such demand a rigid
precision. Ignorant performances no matter how well intentioned
are of no value Halachically, in the event that one is not a
scholar himself, he must base his performances upon the
scholarship of others.
The all encompassing nature of Talmudic Law
makes it impossible for man to avoid coming in contact with it
constantly. The thinking individual thus always encounters
questions, ideas and Halachic concepts in his daily activities.
His milieu becomes one of thought and in the appreciation of the
beauty of that thought Man comes close to God.
To the uninitiated onlookers the life of
Halachah seems controlled and tedious. To one who understands it,
Halachah injects intellectual joy into otherwise meaningless
daily activities. The perfected Jew eats and drinks like everyone
else but Halachah raises questions and brings forth ideas which
can make a meal an intellectual adventure.
It is impossible to describe what it is like to
experience the joy of Talmudic thought. Only those who have
partaken of it can know what the Psalmist meant when he said,
"Your laws have been as music to me; "If it
wasnt for your law, my plaything..."; "They are
more desirous than gold... and are sweeter than honey and the
finest nectar." The love of Talmudic thought leads one to a
desire to commune with the source of the beautiful world of
ideas, as Maimonides quotes in the name of King David, "My
soul thirsts for the Almighty, the living God."
This, then, is the uniqueness of Talmudic
Judaism. Intellect, usually the adversary of religion is here its
ally and stronghold. Even prayer which is the service of the
heart has strict Halachic formulae as to how exactly it should
take place. A mere outpouring of human emotion is not only
invalid Halachically but may even involve serious infractions.
The preamble to prayer is "Know before whom you stand".
Prayer must be preceded by proper knowledge of God. The Halachah
conveys to man correct notions about the Creator so that when he
prays to God his mind is properly engaged.
It is not the purpose of Halachah to remove
human emotions from the religious experience. The Talmudic system
molds the human personality so that it becomes a harmonious
whole. Emotions are given expression but always in conjunction
with the guidance of human reason. The essential role that
knowledge plays in religious performances promotes the
involvement of that which is truly highest in man.
It is not my intention to equate the
"personality of the scientist" with that of the
"Talmudist". (Neither do I wish to lend credibility to
Talmud via this analogy. Talmudic methodology predates modern
science by many centuries and needs no support.) I use the term
"scientist" in the Maimonidean sense as an illustration
of man using his intellectual abilities to unlock the secrets of
nature. Similarly, the Talmudist uses his investigative powers to
uncover the theoretical structure behind the Law.
An additional word might be in order about this
comparison. The scientist gains knowledge from experience in two
ways: new information questions existing theories and new
theories are then tested by experimentation from reality. For the
Talmudist the situation is not analogous. Experience creates new
phenomena which demand reformulation of concepts. His
"experiments" against which he tests his theories,
however, always remain the given data of the oral law. So while
both bodies of knowledge grow with new experience they do so in
1 According to Maimonides this
prohibition was only on a public level. Scholars had in fact
always kept private notes (see intro. to code).
2 We are concerning ourselves with
the major part of the Talmud which deals with the analysis of
religious law and not the Aggadic section which is philosophic in
nature. Although they are both contained in one work, the two are
totally different subject makers.
3 I am using the Newtonian Model
rather than the Einsteinium as it is better suited for
4 This is what the Nazarene failed
to comprehend when he permitted his disciples to cut corn on the
* see addendum
5 There Is a body of Oral Law
relating to every Biblical Commandments
6 Tractate Moed Koten. 2b
7 As to why these 39 categories are
defined as work we can only say they are the 39 creative
processes involved in the construction of the holy tabernacle.
Why that was chosen to represent work is a "why"
question and is in the realm of philosophy rather than Talmud.
8 Only matters of life and death can
override a Sabbatical injunction.
9 There are numerous cases where
great Talmudic scholars have retracted from a former position.
(As examples see Rashi Tractate Chullin 116b, Maimonides
responsa quoted by Migdal Ohz Laws of fringes Chap. 2, also
R"l Abodah Zarah 22A. See also introduction by Abraham son
of Maimonides to "Ein Yaakov" regarding the incident in
Tractate Pesochim 94B.)
10 End of Tractate Pesochim.
11 See introduction by Rabbi M. Feinstein to his first volume on Orach Chaim, Igrot Moshe.
12 End of Tractate Baba Metziah 59b.
13 As Rashi states in Deuteronomy
6:6 in the name of the Siphre "and what is this love (of
God) which is here commanded? The next verse tells us These
words which I commanded thee shall be upon thy heart. for
through these words, i.e. (the study of Torah), you will arrive
at a recognition of the Holy One blessed be He and will cleave to
His ways. (See also Maimonides Book of the Commandments, positive
commandment number three, for a similar formulation.)
14 Psalms 119:54.
15 Ibid. 119:92.
16 Ibid. 19:11.
17 Ibid. 42:3.
18 The term prayer derives from the
verb Pilel which signifies thought. (See Rashi Genesis 48:11,
also Onkelos on same.) Prayer denotes the presentation of a
carefully thought out petition before the Almighty
19 It is not here my intention to
expound upon the philosophy of prayer which would require a
separate paper. I merely wish to point out that the concept of
prayer in Talmudic Judaism is quite different from what is
commonly conceived of as prayer.
20 See the incident with R. Chanina,
Tractate Berachot 33b.
21 It is interesting that according
to Nachmonides there is no Biblical injunction to pray daily,
while the study of Torah is a constant obligation.
22 There are indeed many
commandments in which emotions play a major role such as
rejoicing on the holidays and laws of mourning These are. however
always framed in a logical system of Halachah