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.


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