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Jewish Culture Was Not Always a Response to Non-Jewish Culture

Why read the Talmud as a secular Jew? In part, for its expression of an independent Jewish creativity and spirituality.

Adam Kirsch
March 11, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo NASA)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo NASA)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

More than once, in the course of reading Daf Yomi and writing about the experience, I have been asked why I would spend so much time immersing myself in the Talmud. Sometimes the question is asked in a curious spirit, other times impatiently. After all, I am not an Orthodox Jew, and I don’t live my life as if the laws of the rabbis were binding on me. Absent that kind of commitment, why should anyone engage with the difficulties and minutiae of the Talmud? What kind of nourishment does this challenging text offer to a secular Jewish reader?

I’ve thought a lot about this question, and there are several answers I could give. Reading the Talmud is a unique intellectual challenge: It requires escaping one’s usual ways of thinking and adopting the very different worldview and logical procedures of the rabbis. Spiritually, too, the Talmud offers a surprising way of thinking about God and what intimacy with God might mean, one that is very different from the standard Protestant model that informs mainstream American religion, including Jewish religion. And historically, reading the Talmud offers some insight into the lives of our ancestors, for whom it was the centerpiece of religious and intellectual life.

But perhaps the most important thing I am getting out of reading the Talmud is the experience of a time when Jewish culture was not primarily a response to non-Jewish culture. Modern Jewish life, which started with the emancipation of Western European Jews around the time of the French Revolution, is a complicated negotiation between Jewishness and the wider gentile world. How do Jews fit into societies and cultures whose history and assumptions are not Jewish, and sometimes even anti-Jewish? Modern Jewish culture and politics, with all their complicated glories, are all deeply involved with this problem; and while it is much less urgent for American Jews today than it was for our ancestors in Europe, it remains hard to escape.

The Talmud, on the other hand, is not reactive, not a negotiation. It is an expression of an independent Jewish creativity and spirituality—informed by surrounding cultures, as everything human must be (just look at all the loanwords from Persian and Greek), but not primarily addressed to those neighbors. It is remarkable, for instance, how little the Talmud has to say about Christianity, which was starting to dominate the world of the rabbis just at the time the text was being compiled. Reading the Talmud is a reminder that Judaism is not historically a mere guest or victim of other religions, the way we tend to learn about it in school and in history books, but an autonomous tradition, with its own values and achievements. You don’t have to “believe” in the Talmud, in a religious sense, to draw strength from the sense that Judaism rests on its solid foundation.

Every once in a while, however, the Talmud does offer a glimpse of the way the rabbis thought about the non-Jewish world and their relationship with it; and the prospect is usually a grim one. In Tractate Eruvin, we heard the rabbis’ advice that a Jew should never live alone in a gentile neighborhood, because the chances were good that he would end up getting murdered. Earlier in Tractate Sukka, we heard about how in times of danger Jews would disguise their sukkot in order not to draw the attention of their enemies.

And this week’s Daf Yomi reading offered an even more striking example of this pessimism. Eclipses, to the rabbis as to most people of their era, were scary things: “When the sun is eclipsed it is a bad omen for the entire world,” the Gemara says in Sukka 29a. It is a sign of divine disfavor, as the Gemara explains in a little parable: “To what is this matter comparable? A king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and placed a lantern before them. He became angry at them and said to his servant: Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.”

But according to Rabbi Meir, what is a bad sign for the world in general is an especially bad sign for the Jews. “When the heavenly lights are eclipsed it is a bad omen for the enemies of the Jewish people,” he explains—and as always in the Talmud, “the enemies of the Jewish people” here is a euphemism for the Jewish people themselves. There is something very touching about this phrasing: The rabbis are so reluctant to say anything bad about the Jewish people that, when they do predict calamity, they turn it aside in language from the Jews to the Jews’ enemies.

Still, Meir’s meaning is clear when he goes on to offer another parable: “This is similar to a teacher who comes to the school with a strap in his hand. Who worries? The child who is accustomed to be beaten each and every day is the one who worries.” In other words, when an eclipse announces that trouble is coming to the world, who should worry the most but the Jews, who are the usual targets of trouble—the ones “accustomed to be beaten”? Piously, the rabbis finish by reassuring us that “When the Jewish people perform God’s will, they need not fear any of these omens”: Good behavior overrides bad luck. But the hard-won wisdom of Meir’s parable lingers in the mind and renders that assurance a little feeble-looking.

The Talmud is not reactive, not a negotiation.

How did the rabbis get to the subject of eclipses in the first place? As always, it’s fascinating to follow the chain of reasoning to its unlikely conclusion. Toward the end of Chapter 2 of Tractate Sukka, the Mishna explains exactly what it means to “dwell” in a sukkah during the holiday: “All seven days of Sukkot, a person renders his sukkah his permanent residence and his house his temporary residence.” The Gemara explains what this means in practice: “If he has beautiful vessels, he takes them up to the sukkah. If he has beautiful bedding, he takes it up to the sukkah. He eats and drinks and relaxes in the sukkah.” The sukkah is to be made as splendid and comfortable as possible, so it will feel like a real home.

But the rabbis are alert to the practical problems that might arise. What do you do, for instance, if you are in the sukkah and it starts to rain? The same roofing that is designed to let in sunlight will also let in raindrops: Are you allowed to run back into the house to stay dry? The answer depends on how hard it is raining. If there is enough water “that a congealed dish will spoil,” then you can take your food and go inside.” To what is this matter comparable?” the sages ask. “To a servant who comes to pour wine for his master, and he [the master] pours a jug of wine in his [the servant’s] face.” Rain, in this image, is God pouring a jug of water in our faces as we try to serve him; clearly, this is a signal that he wants us to go away. The eclipse is a more cosmic version of such divine rejection.

Later in this week’s reading, at the beginning of Chapter 3, the Talmud moves from the sukkah itself to another crucial element of the holiday: the arba minim or “four species” that the Bible commands us to use in our celebration. Here is another instance where the Bible is fairly vague and its words must be reconciled with actual Jewish practice. Leviticus instructs us to “take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, branches of a date palm, and boughs of a dense-leaved tree, and willows of the brook.” Traditionally, the “dense-leaved tree” used is a myrtle branch; but how do we know, the rabbis ask in the Gemara, that this is the correct plant? To figure it out, they go through a list of possible alternatives and disqualify each one: An olive tree is not “dense-leaved” enough, the oleander is unpleasant and poisonous. Then there is the question of the proper condition of the lulav: It can’t be dried out or leafless, and it must be at least three handbreadths long.

And there is one other condition: The lulav can’t be stolen. This point opens a very interesting perspective on the laws of property and theft, which leads to some surprising conclusions. You might think that, legally, a stolen item can never belong to the person who stole it; it would always formally remain the property of the original owner. This would mean that if you stole some wood and used it to build a sukkah, the sukkah would be invalid, since the wood wasn’t technically yours to begin with.

But it turns out that this is not the case. Property can be transferred by theft, at the point when the original owner stops hoping that he will ever recover it. “The despair of the owner,” as the Talmud calls it, marks the point when the wood stops belonging to the original owner and becomes the property of the thief. This does not mean, of course, that the thief has gotten away with his crime: He remains liable for punishment, and he must still pay back the monetary value of what he stole. But because the wood itself now belongs to him, he can use it to build a valid sukkah. However, if you go into a sukkah that is already built and forcibly throw out the owner, you can’t then use the sukkah yourself. This is because land, unlike wood, can never be stolen; it is considered only temporarily “borrowed,” and a borrowed sukkah isn’t legally valid. The laws of the Talmud are sometimes counterintuitive, but when examined closely they prove to be deeply consistent.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.