The Talmud manages to do what few legal systems even attempt: it integrates psychological and moral issues seamlessly with normative legal guidelines. But to appreciate the full extent of this integration, it’s important to pay attention to something that is too often left out of today’s Gemara classes: the aggadah.
The mitzvot of Shmittah and Yovel set out a complete program of social and religious life that encompasses respect for others, for the the land, and for God. Israel’s right to live in peace and prosperity in its own land is conditional on its building a model society, which provides a safety blanket for its weakest members. We aren’t just told to have compassion on those who are down on their luck; we are legally mandated to act toward them as we would toward our closest family.
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.
For Diaspora Jews, fluency in the Hebrew language may mean the difference between raising a generation of knowledgeable apikorsim and a generation of ignoramuses, destined for cultural oblivion.
What is the proper response to a blessing? According to Rav Ish-Shalom, we learn the answer from a an unexpected source: the mourner’s Kaddish.
Jews have historically been habituated to see governments as a hindrance to our well-run society. In Israel, that government is now us. We’ve had nearly 3000 years to learn the lessons of exile, but we’re going to have to unlearn this one in a hurry.
Yes, we should do all we can to win our battles; we can’t afford not to. But giving up our values will not help us win. It will only cost us our self-respect and the morale of our soldiers. To take on the values of our enemies is to surrender to them, to become them. Is that what we want to do? Certainly it’s what our enemies want us to do. Many in the Arab countries would love for us to sink into barbarism and so lose both reason to fight and the means of doing so. They know that our flourishing economy gives us a material advantage over any combination of Arab states. But all this is built on love of life, not death.
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.
Do we tithe produce grown in a greenhouse? According to Rav Ish-Shalom, the answer has something to teach us about parenting.
There is something transcendent in this act of forgiveness. Something that speaks to us of human greatness. This is especially true in the case of one who has just been grievously wronged by a person motivated by pure hatred. Such is the case of the Charleston shooting victims who forgave the killer of their loved ones.
And yet, do we really have the right to forgive one who has wronged us, but is unrepentant? And do we have the right to forgive one who wronged someone else? The answer given by Jewish tradition is “No”. There are situations when one is not allowed to forgive—not only not obligated, but not allowed!