On The Value of Talmud

Reading the title of this article would cause even moderately observant Jews to scoff. For anyone living in (or seeking to relocate to) the more observant precincts of our tribe, the value of Talmud is axiomatic. But for many of us, particularly those raised in the traditions that emerged out of Haskalah, the Talmud is a mystery, largely because one of the core tenets of the Jewish Enlightenment was the effort to remove Talmud study from Jewish education, beginning with the Free School in Berlin in 1778.

Today, millions of Jews have grown up with only a vague understanding of what Talmud is, and have no idea of its continuing relevance to Judaism. For these Jews – and I am one of them – we cannot take as axiomatic the value of Talmud. We must, instead, begin to articulate it so that its study returns to its rightful place in the education of every Jewish child.

I see Talmud as a kind of “Congressional Record” of Judaism, a scholarly proceedings that not only list the conclusions that were reached on a topic, but the exigetical process to reach those conclusions, and the debates over different interpretations. In so doing, Talmud reminds us that in Judaism, the ultimate decision has importance, but that this does not take away from the innate value of the losing argument and the debate itself.

In so doing, the redactors of the Talmud were handing us an invaluable gift, the blueprint to keeping Judaism relevant even as we remain rooted in tradition. No other work in the vast library of our faith can weave such a powerful, uniting fabric.

I was raised a Reform Jew, and my formal Jewish education, which I continued until I was 18, never delved into what Talmud was. It took the beginning of my Teshuvah at age 31 and Adin Steinsaltz’s superb The Essential Talmud to begin addressing my ignorance. There is no reason that this should happen to another generation. Talmud helps us cleave to Torah because it is a major part of what makes Torah a living thing, not just an ancient scroll. If we cut Talmud away, we remove the most important handhold for ourselves and our children to Jewish tradition.

Let’s bring Talmud back to liberal Judaism, and let us recognize that this is not part of an effort to turn the Reform movement into some kind of unbearded Orthodoxy, but to emplace in our heritage one more post in the fence that keeps us from apostasy or assimilation.


Updated: Anti-Semitism and the Fool’s Errand of the European Left

The Anti-Zionism of Fools”
Richard Seymour

August 8, 2014

Jacobin, the Marxist quarterly that is far more likely to publish anti-Israel screeds than to say anything positive about Judaism, has held its nose and published an article acknowledging that France has an anti-Semitism problem.

I say “holds its nose” because while the article offers a reluctant acknowledgement that, yes, antisemitism is wrong and should be expunged from the anti-Israel dialogue, the author prefaces all of that with an overlong screed against Israel, as if anyone on the Left in Europe who dares speak against anti-Semitism must first establish beyond a doubt their Israel-hating chops.

The result is that the first half of the article is a fairly tedious display of what happens to Hamas propaganda when it is pushed through the gut of a radical Irish writer. But if you can manage to restrain your bile long enough, the last half of the article offers some interesting fodder on the anti-Semitism of the French far-right.

On the other hand, you may not want to. Richard Seymour is complicit in the kind of unquestioning support of Palestine, and the unequivocal condemnation of Israel as “a state which is, at its core, an institutionalized form of colonial ethnic cleansing,” that is aught less than demagoguery served hot. It also proves that he is on a fool’s errand.

Leave aside for the moment the fact that the past several years have provided an ample body of evidence that there are herds of anti-Semitic pond scum within the European Left, and that recent weeks have seen them scurrying for cover under the banner of protest against Israel. There is a fundamental linkage between Israel and the global body of Jews that must be considered before we spend our energies trying to weed out the “good” anti-Zionists from the “bad” anti-Zionists.

Because while there are those who can and do disaggregate a disapproval of Israeli government policy from their feelings about Jews in general, they are generally the kinds of people who would grant that Israel has a right to exist. But those who insist that Israel has no right to exist are ipso facto anti-Semites. By de-legitimizing Israel as a state, they are imposing a brutal sentence on every Jew: you, Jews, have no right to a homeland, and despite a long history of oppression and persecution in nearly every other land in which you have lived, I condemn you to an existence in which you will be forever a stranger in a strange land.

Is that not, at its essence, a profoundly anti-Semitic sentiment? Is it possible to argue for the destruction (or deconstruction) of Israel, the end of a land where any Jew has the right of abode, without being fundamentally anti-Semitic?

I commend Seymour for his call to the French left to disaggregate antisemitism with anti-Zionism. I castigate him for putting to print language that delegitimizes Israel and thus calls into question its right to exist. And I pity him for the belief that, in Europe especially, he will ever be able to divide those who hate Israel and those who simply hate Judaism.

It is sad to me when apparently otherwise intelligent people cannot get it through their heads that Israel is in a war for its existence. The fact that Israel’s enemies are using different, asymmetric means to try to achieve that goal does not change the end game: it merely alters the weapons and tactics.

Anti-Semitism never died in America. We all scoffed at Irv Rubin and lightened our donations to the ADL, but G-d bless them, they never went off-watch, even when we did. It is time we all wake up and realize that what we are seeing on the streets of Europe’s capitals has now come to America in a way that is much bigger and much more mainstream than what we faced with neo-Nazis and the KKK in the 1970s. This will be politically uncomfortable for many of us, but we have to see that the interests of our people and our faith must rise above the dividing lines of American politics. For if it does not, we will be divided, conquered, and sent again to wander when our home no longer welcomes us.

Thomas Friedman Understands What is at Stake

Revelations in the Gaza War
Thomas L. Friedman
August 5, 2014

Whatever his other faults (we disagree constantly on China), Tom Friedman knows the Mideast and its conflicts from many sides, and has won two Pulitzer Prizes bringing clarity to those conflicts to those of us here in the US. It is in no small part because of this reporting that America’s friendship with Israel is no longer unconditional.

For these reasons, this story is of particular interest. It is the first of what I expect will be a growing number of reports from respected journalists who have found gaping holes in the Hamas narrative.

Friedman offers both context and content. He lays out, simply and clearly, the Hamas strategy to isolate and then destroy Israel. That it is not working is less credit to the Obama administration or western media than to a willingness by Israel to risk international censure to ensure its survival.

A very good read.

Slate.com Disses Dinner

The first thing I thought when I read this article by Amanda Marcotte was that either she – or Slate – are on the payroll of the American Restaurant Association. Let us abandon that line, and simply stipulate that Slate.com is in the business of purveying linkbait, and that is all this is.

There is nothing easy or quick about a home-cooked dinner. It can be a huge pain, especially if you are cooking for less than three or more than four. But if we are going to assess the costs, we also must weigh the benefits. Home cooked dinners are generally not only more nutritious than comparably-priced restaurant food, they also serve to deepen the connection among family members, as they often represent the only time of the day when everyone is together and not getting ready to rush off elsewhere. Getting kids and adults together is miserably difficult, and in the case of teenagers, a decent feed is often the only way to yank them out of their electronically isolated mind-caverns.

The family meal is also a time when you train your kids how to act like ladies and gentlemen, how to hold a civilized conversation, how to treat others (including the siblings they hate with a passion) with a modicum of decency and respect, and a hundred other behaviors and traits that will form them in life. Are those things not priceless? Are they not at the very heart of what it means to be a parent.

Yes, there are things we could do to make it easier for low-income and two-working-parent families to cook at home. But let’s talk about those things, and not about abandoning the home-cooked dinner to the Merchants of Fat simply because it is easier. No, cooking is not convenient. Nor is pregnancy, changing a diaper, doctor’s visits, braces, driving a carpool, giving up your evenings and weekends to school nights, homework, sports, scouts, or any of dozens of activities that you only take on as a parent.

But as much as taking the kids to soccer or being a little league coach, the family dinner is an indispensible part of being a parent. If you don’t want to cook because it is messy, inconvenient, and nobody is grateful, the problem is not the family meal. The problem lies elsewhere.



“Both Shevi‘it and Kil’ayim (Mixtures) contain material that has been cited in discussion of environmental issues. The prohibition of agricultural work in the sabbatical and Jubilee years teaches responsibility for the conservation of soil resources, while the prohibition of mixed species can be read as a warning against unwarranted manipulation of the natural order.”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

“Whoever has no need but takes will not depart this world until he becomes dependent on others. Whoever is in need but does not take will not depart this world until he is in a position to support others, and … Whoever is not blind or lame but pretends to be [in order to get charity] will not die of old age until he has become so, as it is said, JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALL YOU PURSUE (Deuteronomy 16:20).”

The Talmud (Pe’ah, 8:9)

Sinatra, Atheist

There is an article making the rounds in social media quoting heavily from a 1963 Playboy interview with Frank Sinatra where the crooner/actor/showman takes on organized religion in a scathing diatribe.

Frank Sinatra was a great singer, and probably the best non-operatic male crooner of the twentieth century. He was a man of great decency and of great moral lapse, like most of us. And he says some things with which I agree. He is correct when he states that there is much evil done in the name of religion, and I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment that:

“I’ve got no quarrel with men of decency at any level. But I can’t believe that decency stems only from religion. And I can’t help wondering how many public figures make avowals of religious faith to maintain an aura of respectability.”

But for all of his opinions, Old Blue Eyes came up short on theology. To give a single example, in the intervew he states that “over 25,000 organized religions flourish on this planet, but the followers of each think all the others are miserably misguided and probably evil as well.”

This statement is ought more than demagogic hogwash. Judaism, as most Jews and many non-Jews know, does NOT think the followers of other religions to be horribly misguided, but as legitimate faiths for their followers. That Sinatra should miss that point about a mainstream US faith underscores that he knew far too little about organized religion (outside, perhaps, the Roman Catholic Church) to pass broad judgement on all faiths with a single sweeping statement.

I won’t go into his refusal to recognize the positive contributions made by religions and their followers to the world and its culture. The Chairman was on a roll, and he was speaking to a captive audience of men who were tired of being told that their desires to drink and smoke to excess and copulate with anything with a pulse were, in fact, harmful in ways to go far deeper than the purely physical.

One last thought. It is ironic that atheists and anti-theists would hold up Sinatra’s remarks as being “ahead of their time.” This is true. Sinatra was ahead of his time in paiting all faiths and religions with the same broad tar brush without bothering to learn the facts. It was simply easier to condemn with a the prose of a true provocateur than to bother with the truth.


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