The Babylonian Talmud was originally meant to be a resource for all Jews. But, although written in the vernacular of the day, the lack of universal literacy confined the Talmud to the realm of scholars. The commandment that the Jewish People become “A kingdom of priests” was left unfulfilled. But that is about to change!
Tragedy—such as the harvest that would be lost if there is no rain—has the effect of splintering society. Suffering sets every man against every other. This is true in particular of famine, because if I eat, someone else does not eat. The message of Massechet Ta’anit is: We will not let this calamity splinter us into a group of disparate individuals, each fighting for his own survival. We will meet our fate as a community. We will pray as a community. We will fast as a community. Our strength is in our unity.
One of the most quoted Talmudic stories is the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, the story of a debate between the famous R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the one side and the rest of the sages of Israel on the other side. This is the story of a dramatic upheaval in the Jewish world, whose echoes continue to reverberate down through the centuries to the present day.
In every generation, there is a clash between new ideas and interpretations, which are necessary for the survival of Judaism, and the older, static, “more authentic” ways. And in each instance, the newer ways entail ideas brought in from outside of the “old Judaism”. The Sadducees represented “authentic” Judaism based on written texts; but it was the new ideas picked up during the Babylonian Exile that were needed to ensure Jewish survival in a changing world.
Jewish Law represents the accumulation of our national wisdom and the repository for our experience as a people. We are unique in our identity as a people with a particular relationship with God and with history. Whether any particular halakhic decision is made by a rav in response to circumstance or goes all the way back to Moshe and Sinai is irrelevant; all are part of our cultural DNA and are no less God-given than our physical DNA. It is quite literally a part of us. And we are a part of it. We all have an input to the halakhic process just by doing or not doing.
Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish are two of the greatest sparring partners in the Talmud. The story of their meeting and later falling out contains an unlooked-for treasure on the subject of moral responsibility.
Halakhah is a compromise between ideals and real life situations. The truly great halakhic decisors are those who manage this compromise in ways that not only bring more kindness into the world, but also show others how to do the same.
Rav Elli Fischer recently “came out” as an orthodox rabbi willing to perform weddings outside of the official Israeli rabbanut. He joins a number of other rabbis who are taking steps to bypass a rabbanut that is seen by most Israelis as corrupt and detached from the needs of the people. This clash is an unfortunate result of the political reality at the foundation of the modern State of Israel. While Halakhah and the State of Israel are both expressions of the Jewish drive for self improvement, they are built on a opposing organizational structures.
For the past six weeks, I’ve enjoyed a new and very rewarding experience: I participated in an online course with the intriguing title: The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. The course, taught by Jacob Wright, argues that the Tanakh was aimed at providing a blueprint for a stateless nation. This idea isn’t new; it is central to the writings of Max Kadushin and Daniel Elazar. But Dr. Wright manages to give concrete and vivid support to the idea. While Kadushin looked at oral traditions that grew out of the Torah, Wright traces historical trends evident in the text itself.
We’re used to hearing that this or that halakhic impasse can be resolved only by the authority of a new Sanhedrin. The problem of course is that a Sanhedrin cannot be set up without a unanimous decision of all the “greats” of a single generation–something that is unlikely to happen in the near future. But is re-establishing the Sanhedrin really such a great idea, even if it were doable?