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The new section, Daily Pilpil, challenges the image of the Talmud

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Question: Publication date: 23-04-2007
Title:   The new section, Daily Pilpil, challenges the image of the Talmud
Content:   I am disappointed by your new section PilPul.

Any legal system who wishes to gauge the limits of the law deals theoretically (and the Talmud is theoretical study, which has to be translated into practical Halacha) with extreme, improbable and impossible cases. Only this way you can find the full extent and limits of the law. To quote these discussions out of context and without any explanation is making fun of them and of the tradition of the Jewish people, which is also your tradition. The Rabbis who had these discussions and the Talmudic commentators over centuries were really not fools, which is implicitly suggested by PilPul.

YL, whom I knew very well, would have never approved such a section.

Dr. Joshua Sternbuch


Answer: Publication date: 26-04-2007
Title:   The new section, Daily Pilpil, challenges the image of the Talmud
Content:   Dear Joshua,

The new section, Daily Pilpul, is meant to challenge the view many people, including you, have of the Talmudic text as a legal system worthy of contemporary consideration.
First I will preface my remarks to define the boundaries of the topic under discussion, and then I will answer your arguments one by one.

When we approach the Talmudic text critically in its legalistic aspect, we deal with the Talmudic text as is. One cannot draw analogies from the Talmud to the rest of Judaic literature -- Maimonides' Mishnah Torah, Ibn Ezra, and other books of Halacha written over the past thousand years.

Another very important thing which the Daily Pilpul section does is present the Talmud as it is, without trying to enter the emotional, social, or cultural world of Chazal. It is presented as is so that the reader may look at it through contemporary eyes, through the lens of enlightened norms and modern outlooks. There are two reasons why we are not trying to recreate the feel of Chazal's times, to probe into the obscurity of their souls and their economic, social, and political distress:

1. We cannot put ourselves in their place because we are too far distant from them -- in terms of time, place, culture, and particularly the unbridgeable gap formed by the strange preoccupations of Chazal as have been presented and will continue to be presented in this section.
2. The Talmud is studied by the religious public as a living text, as a current and relevant legal system. The secular public, even law court judges, also try to understand the Talmudic text as though it served as relevant legal precedent which ought to be taken into account in our era. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to examine whether the Talmud does indeed deserve such treatment. The Written Torah -- its laws and regulations -- has lost its authority and now is naught but a dead text which has lost its legal vitality. Who now judges laws of rape, adultery, and murder based on Torah laws? Would anyone dare judge accidental manslaughter according to the laws of the Torah? To permit "blood vengeance" by the family of the murdered man, allowing them to kill the murderer? Thus, too, has the Talmud lost its practical significance and been relegated to the shelves of Jewish legal history.

Now, to your arguments:

You argued: "Any legal system who wishes to gauge the limits of the law deals theoretically (and the Talmud is theoretical study, which has to be translated into practical Halacha) with extreme, improbable and impossible cases."

Answer: Were the Talmud as you say, you would be right. But you must examine whether Chazal really did want to gauge the limits of the law in a reasonable manner. Let us take an example, as typical of the whole, their attempts to gauge the "limits" of the law of sending away the mother bird. The Talmudic sages ask if the law applies to a nest in the ocean, in the skies, or on a person's head, or if one is exempt. What limits did Chazal gauge in discussing a nest on a person's head? Every additional instance would need to be judged separately, and their discussion has taught us no rules or principles, and certainly no limits. Thus, for example, I do not know whether a nest on a horse's head requires sending away the mother bird (see how far the absurdity goes).
Another example is their discussion about raising a black cat whose sire was white and whose grandsire was black. There, too, there is not gauging of the limits. A normal person who wants to determine rules and principles for dangerous animals would find it sufficient to say that one is forbidden to raise animals which present a danger to the public (as Maimonides phrased it in his rulings). The Talmudic sages indulged in sophistry (that is the appropriate word, for they did not examine reality) in discussing whether a white cat or a black one is dangerous, and what the rule is if its sire was white. This important discussion, which touches on literally saving lives, is conducted with inconceivable levity ; they compare statements by sages and doubts of sages as though they are discussing the laws of hand washing instead of factually clarifying which animal is dangerous and which is friendly. (Look at this issue carefully and you tell me what the Talmudic sages were thinking of in this nonsensical discussion which teaches me nothing but the shallowness of their sophistry.)
What I mean to say is that if you honestly think that their explorations were relevant, you must bring three examples (I don't ask you to bring a number equal to the number of examples we present in detail) and prove the "theory" you have attributed to the Talmudic sages.

You also argued: "To quote these discussions out of context and without any explanation is making fun of them and of the tradition of the Jewish people, which is also your tradition."

Answer: The discussions are quoted in full context, and are accurate in their translations, contexts, and conclusions. (You must give an example of a discussion we presented and explain what the correct context is.) Since, in my opinion, they are presented in their true reflection, I am not making fun of them, as you claimed; it is the discussions themselves which are making you uncomfortable, and rightly so.
As to the Jewish tradition you claim: if I understood you correctly, you mean that it is inappropriate for a person to mock his people's ancient traditions. I do not agree with your supposition. In my opinion, every society must criticize its tradition, and even more so its legal system, and if there is room to mock it in order to change and improve it, we are obligated to do so. What is this comparable to? To an Israeli citizen who whole-heartedly loves his country, with all his might and all his wealth. Is it not his responsibility to criticize its laws? Is it not appropriate and desirable that he mock its government when that government is negligent? Is a citizen's aspirations to improve the society in which he lives not praiseworthy?
Therefore, as citizens of this country, we see it as our duty and our obligation to improve Israeli society and to expel from our hearts dead weight (the Talmud), even if it is based in tradition, to achieve equality, freedom, and peace.

Finally, you argued: "The Rabbis who had these discussions and the Talmudic commentators over centuries were really not fools, which is implicitly suggested by PilPul."

Answer: I don't know what you mean by "fools." A person can be a genius at math or in any other scientific field yet still engage in nonsensical discussions. (I have known more than a few such people.) The sages of the Talmud, by dealing with the Talmudic discourse, mainly dealt with nonsense; they built and torn down world, asked and answered about unimportant matters. Worst of all, they handed down rulings and set laws for the ages from within the study hall walls, without examining factual reality. The rabbis who came after them had to study these pieces of sophistry, for this was their entire religious-cultural world. That doesn't mean they were fools, just that they dealt with foolishness.
It can be said of the Halachic issues presented in the Talmud what Talmudic researchers have said of the "historical" matters in the Talmud. Dr. Mordechai Buerer defended the imaginary history of Chazal: "Chazal did not intend to give future generations historic information, they meant to teach us a world view…Chazal did not study history and chronology, and their words were didactic, stemming from a specific view of historic events" (Shematin volume 9 [5736] issue 36-37). Thus, it can be said that their Halachic "discussions" were not meant to teach us law, order, and regulations; they were didactic, teaching the observance of religion and obedience to the rabbis. This, apparently, is the reason that you will find strange and delusional decisions, like the rule of one who digs a hole in the public domain, a donkey and tools fall in, and the man who dug the hole must pay for the donkey, but not for the tools (Bava Kamma 52a). This distinction is also made by R' Natan Sternholtz, a student of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in his book Machniya Zaydim. He wrote:
We believe that even the interpersonal laws are also between man and G-d. The main prohibition against oppressing and stealing is because the holy One, blessed be He warned us against it, not for human manners and the proper functioning of the state…especially since most commandments, even the interpersonal ones, cannot be understood logically, like half-damages for bundles which is tradition from Moses at Sinai, the question of an owner who is exempt from everything -- which is quite amazing -- for if one loaned him only a tool, he is liable even if he had no choice, and when one did him a favor and one goes to help him he is exempt, and other such laws. All Jews must believe that all the commandments, even the interpersonal ones, have many hidden meanings for each and every detail.

A religious Jewish rabbi agrees that even torts are not logical and he finds himself forced to elevate the nonsense of the Talmud to the realm of secrets and mysteries.
Support for this claim can be found in the great author, Shai Agnon. In his story "There were two scholars in our city" he writes: "And if there were people in the marketplace discussing inheritances and collecting loans and dividing partnerships and torts and the like, they were not discussing business matters, they were discussing these matters as they appeared in Choshen Mishpat." The scholars do not deal with laws of damages and of money as real legal issues, they deal with the "laws of Choshen Mishpat." This phenomenon, in which a text discussing monetary laws turns into "great secrets" and the laws of Choshen Mishpat, explains well how intelligent people hang on to this delusional text. Don’t be amazed at this phenomenon; it is often seen. It is sufficient to watch those who visit the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, stones laid upon each other by Herod; see how they (I'm certain that you'll also find "intelligent" people there) act like crazy people, willing to travel large distances, to risk their lives and their money for these stones. And draw an analogy: what are stones that people will risk death for them? How much more so will they be willing to risk their lives for a text whose silent letters present a message -- they will subordinate their reason and subjugate their logic for these delusions.
In other words: Just as Chazal did not mean to teach history when they spoke about events of the past, to teach zoology when they spoke about the behavior of animals, so they did not mean to write a book of laws when they discussed monetary laws or personal law; their words were all from within the religious world of the Babylonian sages as they understood the contemporary needs of their religion. (This is the reason why the Talmud often does not reach a Halachic decision, leaving an open question. What legal text would leave a question of law open?)

See also our answer to Yeshiva students deal with empty Talmudic sophistry where we have brought as example the issue of "and egg which is born on a holiday." See also our answer The Talmud exhausts the strength of yeshiva students for naught where we present the issue of minimal height of a sukkah.

Sincerely,

Daat Emet


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