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Talmud on a Desert Island

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen


Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

One of the longest-running radio program series on the BBC is Desert Island Discs. It began in the year of my birth 1942 and is still running Desert Island Discs – Wikipedia. A very wide range of people is asked to imagine that they are shipwrecked on a Desert Island and have to choose and talk about their eight favorite pieces of music and a favorite book to take with them. It was usually both entertaining and instructive and I often thought about what my choices would be. But I found the process very frustrating. At least in Music, there are so many different genres. And literature? Only one?


My world was and is a multi-track world. Both in literature and music (let alone philosophy) I have very different interests and experiences. Years ago, they used to call it a catholic taste. I would have to switch from one culture to another to accommodate the specific requirements of the program. This wasn’t a challenge for me alone. Many people have been brought up in dual cultures or more and are much richer for it. But wrestling with choice, I developed a profound dislike for the whole issue of having to choose favorites, politicians, leaders, rabbis, colors, sounds, books, movies even sports because there were always so many candidates it became impossible to select only one.


Who was the greatest anything? The greatest Jew? The greatest American? The greatest Briton? The greatest tap dancer, fisherman, clown, or crook? Take music. If classical, would one want to pick just one of the great classical composers? Or at the other end of the spectrum, jazz or pop music? Even when it comes to colors, there are several I like and which one I would choose would depend on mood. And the same goes for artists. And as for books; fact, or fiction? English, French, or Russian? It is a mug’s, game, a party trick but a very frustrating and inaccurate one. I dismiss and disregard all these pathetic lists of “the Best”, “ the Most Famous,” and “the Most Successful”. Who says so? Certainly, when it comes to the Jewish world most such lists either of rabbis or leaders are far removed from reality.


To play the game, I would choose the Talmud. And that might be a brilliant choice for a Desert Island because it is so vast. And I am not sure the researchers would know enough to disallow it on grounds of size. Leaving the BBC program out of it, there is no other book I know of that contains so much. And incidentally, one that has exploded in popularity over the past fifty years. The Talmud is like a sea that one immerses oneself in.


The Talmud written or compiled over 600 years is an amazing encyclopedia of Jewish law and lore, theology and mysticism, history, myth, magic, superstition, intellectual gymnastics, casuistic argument, fantasy, and spirituality. For a thousand years when Jews were excluded from Christian academia the whole of Jewish intellectual endeavor focused on studying, memorizing, explaining, resolving, and living within the intellectual chambers of the Talmud. It stretches one’s imagination and challenges one’s intellect far more than any academic text I have encountered at the very best of universities. It is a world of its own that can be read superficially or immersed in, to the point of ecstasy or utter frustration. It is no surprise that thousands of people can devote the whole of their days on earth to understanding its pages and delighting in an experience that can become an obsession. One never retires from Talmudic study.


As a teenager, my father introduced me to one of the greatest Jewish books of the last century Ephraim E. Urbach’s The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. It was written in Hebrew and then translated into English. It describes the personalities and the ideas of the sages who contributed to the Talmud. Of course, reading about is a very different process to studying in depth but it certainly inspired me to go further.


As a lecturer, I am often asked what the best way to enter the world of Talmud is. The ideal is to find a teacher who can guide you gently into its mysteries and challenges. But failing that or going to a yeshivah, I recently came across another translation from Hebrew into English also called “The Sages” by Benny Lau, published in five volumes by Maggid Books. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying all of the five volumes, but you can buy just the first one, and then if you enjoy it go on to the rest. It is less academic than Urbach, more popular, and an easier read. It takes you through the development of the Talmud and is a great place to start.


There is a message in all of this. Currently both in the Diaspora and Israel there is a flow of negative articles attacking the Charedi world’s preoccupation with full-time Talmud study and the absence of secular studies in many Yeshivahs. When you realize the breadth of the subject matter covered when one studies Talmud you realize how intellectually challenging the subjects are, what a range of mental disciplines they require, and how intensive the concentration and mental acuity required to make sense let alone master the subject matter.


I have come across highly successful non-Jewish people in commerce, finance, and the professions who have told me how many brilliant minds they have encountered in their worlds thanks to the Talmudic training that enabled them to excel. So that even if they came to their profession or areas of expertise with a Talmudic rather than a secular foundation, they were still able to succeed because of the intensiveness of yeshiva methodology.


But there is another aspect to the issue where I side with the critics. One has to differentiate between those who have good abstract brains that are sharpened by Talmudic debate, and on the other hand maybe the majority who sadly lack either intellectual capacity, motivation, or simply interest in the casuistic aspect of Talmudic studies. Not to forget those who want to find jobs outside their communities. They are the ones who lose out when no alternative curriculum is being offered to them and find themselves at a loss and seriously disadvantaged in the outside world. They still may be at home in their communities and supported, but if they venture out, they are lost.


I understand the mentality that believes that the only response to the decimation of Charedi life in the holocaust requires the rebuilding and restocking of Torah scholarship. But the crisis is now over. The Charedi world is strong, confident, and dynamic, even triumphalist. It is time to add different curricula to suit different minds. And at last, one sees a few hopeful signs that they are beginning to address this problem.


There are current campaigns in the USA and Israel to demean Charedi education and impose unwanted changes. The New York Times is a good example as always, and state educators having failed in their constituencies seem determined to try to ruin anything else. Even if some of the Jewish voices that seem to be genuinely concerned, are not doing anyone a favor by campaigning against instead of for. Successful Talmudic education far from being in any way inferior to the secular world is as mentally demanding and requires discipline and application to match any other. Anyone who wants to understand Judaism seriously, not superficially or in a simplistic or deracinated form, has to come to terms in one way or another with Talmud. And this is a good place to start.


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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.

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