Born in Los Angeles in 1978, Jesse Kellerman is an award-winning playwright and the author of three novels: Sunstroke, Trouble and The Brutal Art (US title: The Genius). His next book will be out in spring 2010. Both Jesse's parents are also novelists, and he shares a birthday with Rocky Marciano. Here he writes about the Babylonian Talmud. He dedicates the piece to his mother- and father-in-law, whose love and support have made possible the course of study described below.
Jesse Kellerman on the Babylonian Talmud
Every day for the last five years, I have read one page of the Babylonian Talmud, as part of a worldwide program of study known in the Jewish community as Daf Yomi - 'The Daily Page'.
One page a day might seem a remarkably sluggardly pace, but when one considers that the Talmud is 2,711 pages long; that each of its numbered pages is in fact a folio page, consisting of a front and back side (commonly cited as a and b, as in: Tractate Berachot, 4b); that it is written in a dialect of a dead language, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic; that it treats subjects so technical, so alien to the modern mind, as to be incomprehensible without the extensive use of charts, diagrams, sidebars, commentaries, metacommentaries, footnotes, marginalia, indices, grammars, glossaries, atlases, and dictionaries of a highly specialized sort; and that, even at its most lucid, it is written in a kind of code, what's truly remarkable is that I've managed to keep up. The Daf Yomi programme runs on a seven-and-a-half-year cycle, and since its inception, in 1923, 11 cycles have been completed. I'm roughly in sync with cycle number 12, which will conclude in August 2012. Roughly - because I'm actually a little ahead of schedule, having started three months early in order to build in time for slippage.
The Talmud is an extraordinary and extraordinarily strange document. Although often described as a book of law, the term fails to capture its quirks, its heterogeneity, its allusiveness and self-referentiality. Stylistically, it could readily be described as 'postmodern'. (H.L. Mencken wrote, with predictably less charity, that 'save for a few bright spots... [it is] quite indistinguishable from rubbish'.) This is in part due to its origins: its two editions, the Yerushalmi ('Jerusalemite', ca. 400 CE) and the more commonly-studied Bavli ('Babylonian', ca. 500 CE), are essentially redacted lecture notes, explicating and expanding at length upon an earlier compendium of Jewish law, the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE). The Mishnah itself is an explication and expansion of the laws and customs of the Jewish community living in the land of Israel during the Second Temple period (516 BCE-70 CE). And these laws and customs are themselves an e.&e. of the Old Testament, which - as anyone who has read it will attest - can be repetitive, obscure and confusing. (For greater depth, I refer the reader to Shaye J. D. Cohen's excellent and informative introductory book, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd Ed.) As Professor Cohen notes, 'The Talmudim [pl. of Talmud] comment on the Mishnah and treat it as a canonical source of law, but because the Talmudim are so discursive, so prone to expansion, and so ready to follow their own agenda, they are not really "commentaries" at all' (Cohen 221).
One may envision the Talmud as a sort of textual aspic, the bulk of which consists of halacha - law, both religious and civil, cited according to a standard format, in which a rabbi repeats a statement made by his teacher, his teacher's teacher, and so forth, the implication being that the received chain of tradition stretches back to Moses and thence to God. Dissenting opinions are then cited, and the ensuing discussion attempts to reconcile the various views, or else to interrogate each view in order to prove or disprove it. More often than not, these discussions conclude without a clear indication of which law is to prevail in practice; among the Talmud's many curious qualities are its syncretism, its comfort with contradiction, and its willingness to accept that a single, capital-T Truth is illusory, at least when those seeking that truth are mortals, whose faculties are by definition limited. It once famously declares that two mutually exclusive rulings are both 'the words of the living God'.
Present alongside the halacha is aggadah - loosely, 'tales', a broad term for a mishmash of homiletic teachings; Scriptural exegesis; narrative passages describing Jewish life under Roman imperialism; snippets of financial or otherwise practical advice; mini-almanacs of astronomical and astrological calculations; lists of homeopathic procedures and elixirs; and a bizarre fan-lit rendering of Old Testament stories, in which one finds entirely new dialogue, characters and scenes. Aggadah, then, is itself an assemblage within the larger assemblage - an aspic set inside the aspic.
All this comes courtesy of an enormous cast of characters, made up largely of rabbinical scholars. (Although by no means exclusively. One also finds, in guest-starring roles, politicians, Roman centurions, Arabic traders, shopkeepers, moneychangers, farmers, slaves, angels, demons, and Elijah the Prophet, returned from the dead. As one would expect for a book from the sixth century, men predominate.) Most rabbis are cited sporadically, but a few turn up again and again to register their opinions on a wide variety of subjects. We are given the merest fragments of their biographies, but that which we do get, coupled with thousands of aphorisms and legal rulings, has the cumulative effect of describing people of immense complexity. There is Rabbi Akiva, illiterate until the age of 40 but eventually rising to become the greatest sage of his generation. There is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who, along with his son, spends 13 years on the run from the Roman authorities, hiding in a cave, engaged in meditation and study, emerging with such contempt for the everyday world that every living thing he casts his gaze upon bursts into flames. There is the infamous Elisha ben Avuya, a savant-turned-heretic whose apostasy earns him the title Acher - The Other. There are the ba'alei plugta - 'masters of argument' - perpetual disputants whose names almost always appear yoked together: the pre-eminent Rabbi Yochanan, renowned for his physical beauty, and Reish Lakish, a reformed gangster who becomes Rabbi Yochanan's friend, then student, then peer. Or Abaye and Rava, deans of competing rabbinic academies, the former an orphan whose fiery talent for dialectic provides the yang to the latter's more accommodationist yin.
Finally, there is the 'character' of the Talmud itself, an anonymous but active authorial voice that interjects questions, cites examples, supports, refutes, changes its mind, changes subjects, or merely moves the discussion along. It can be detached, wry, incredulous, condemnatory, panegyrical, caustic, sarcastic, sentimental. À la Perry Mason, it will introduce entirely new evidence that shifts the nature of the discussion, appearing to 'surprise' itself in the process. At other times it displays a kind of omniscience, referring to discussions that take place later on in the text. Its logic is sometimes specious, its style exasperatingly laconic. Unless you are very committed, it will defeat you. Not for nothing is the completion of a tractate celebrated with a party and prayers of thanksgiving.
It is a strange thing to move through a book one page at a time. Such a pace amounts, in fact, to a complete disruption of the act of reading. The modern reader is accustomed to prose of a certain pace and fluidity, designed to keep him turning pages easily. The Talmud makes no such promises. It's so long and so variegated, so endless and yet so staccato, that establishing a normal reading rhythm is impossible. Its tendency to jump from topic to topic keeps you on your toes, but also makes it easy to forget what has come before: as soon as one has become comfortable with one set of concepts and characters, a new set appears to take its place. I estimate that I have retained between one-half and one percent of what I've studied over the years. (Come to think of it, that might be generous.) Such herky-jerky learning means that there is no way to get a firm grip on the Talmud except through stubborn repetition; hence the opening words of the primary thanksgiving prayer: hadran alach, 'we will return to you'. Upon completing a chapter, tractate, or order of the Talmud, one immediately declares one's intention to review it. The work is never truly done.
Which raises the question: why engage in it at all?
To begin with, we Jews are a backward-looking people, relying on the lessons of our forebears to guide us in the present. To the observant Jew, this is more than just good advice: it's a specific set of instructions. Unlike Christianity and other creedal religions, Judaism in its traditional form is heavily ritual. Belief is secondary to action, and that action takes the form of a behavioral code that guides every decision, down to how to tie one's shoes. In large part, this code was first laid out during the time of the Talmud. One cannot fully understand the religion today without understanding it as it was long ago.
Second, despite Mr. Mencken, I find the content not only internally coherent but fascinating, to boot. The Talmud's legal give-and-take presents a worthy intellectual challenge, its stories a vivid glimpse of a tumultuous era in world history, its structure a marvellous aesthetic achievement. Its earthiness is a revelation to those who would assume that the early rabbinate had no sense of humour. In what other book of religious law does one find the expression 'to have someone by the balls'? And yet it is there: look it up: Tractate Bava Metziah, 111b, right in the middle of the page.
Third, the astonishing range of opinions found in the Talmud argues strongly for a more flexible contemporary practice. Ancient Judaism was far more eclectic than the more rigid (some would say calcified) religion we have today. Indeed, as one proceeds through the Talmud, meeting its luminaries, hearing their voices, one gets the sense that these are men very much in the grip of their own ignorance, trying to figure out how to be, not so much establishing law as exploring it. Although they represent the intellectual elite, they strive to root their jurisprudence in the everyday practice of the uneducated masses, and to embrace realpolitik. They do not squelch dissent, but rather cherish it. Unlike so many religious leaders, they never claim infallibility. To the contrary: their imperfections are on display for all to see. Their work is the work of human beings. And the elaborate ritual structure that they establish I see as an attempt to lend dignity to an existence that was, by virtue of its time and place, full of squalor and heartbreak.
Imagine: they huddle before the fire in dank rooms made of earth and stone. They suffer drought and plague. Even the wealthy among them defecate over a pit in the ground. Their wives die in childbirth. Their children die of starvation. Persecuted by foreign rulers, they themselves do not expect to live long. Cast out into Diaspora, they are solitary, mocked, hounded, despised. They are all The Other. And yet they strive; strive to find reasons to praise God; strive to elevate the simple act of breaking bread; strive to make the slaughter of an animal more meaningful than its filth and bloodiness would imply; strive to convince themselves and others that ideas are superior to military might; strive to respect and cultivate the land; strive to make society orderly; strive for autonomy; strive for self-worth; strive, toward holiness.
I am by nature mistrustful of dogma, and resistant to it. To have been born into an orthodox community is for me ironic in the extreme. What a joy it has been for me to meet the men of the Talmud. A joy and a relief. Their uncertainty is mine, and cause enough for sympathy.