“Never mind the Bible, it’s the sanity of the Talmud you need to understand the world and yourself”, declares the Israel Times in a recent article about the work of a famous Jewish scholar. Rabbi Adin Steinsalz believes that the core of religious education in Israeli schools should be the Talmud – the Oral Law of the Rabbis – rather than the Word of God.1
“It’s a central pillar for understanding anything about Judaism, more than the Bible,” Steinsaltz asserts. “The Talmud is not a divine gift given to people. The Jewish people created it. But on the other hand, it created the Jewish people. In so many ways, we’re Talmudic Jews, whether we believe in it or not.”
Replacing the Word of God with a man-made manual? That doesn’t sound like a good idea…
We should well know about the dangers of preferring the created over the Creator – we all need to repent of the times we do it in our own ways, yet here we see people blatantly being encouraged to prioritise human writings over the Word of God.
What is the Talmud?
The Talmud, also known as the Oral Law, is a collection of writings, largely based upon rabbinic discussions about how to practically apply all of the laws in the Bible, and how to live out the Jewish faith correctly. There are parables, stories, and lots of to-and-fro discussion, and profuse commentary although few solid conclusions.
It’s true that there are great principles to be found and much to be gained from the writings, a lot of which is based upon the Bible. However, although it is instructive, fascinating and beautiful in many ways, it cannot – and should not – take the place of the word of God. The people of Israel are straying far from God’s ways.
Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ (Jeremiah 6:16)
Steinsalz believes that replacing the Bible as the key book taught in Israel’s schools could help the Jewish state become a more balanced and stable society.
“The Talmud as a book has the enormous quality that the world needs now more than anything else: sanity… The Talmud is the book of sanity. And when you study it, it confers a certain amount of sanity.”
He suggests that the most radical and extreme characters in Judaism are rarely strong students of the Talmud, and that the back and forth discussions, trying to make sense of life within its pages can be a great stabilising influence.
“It was a big mistake to make the education in Israel based so much on the Bible” he says, “because the Bible was written by prophets. If you read the Bible, you somehow become in your mind a little prophet. That’s the way in which Israelis speak to each other — they don’t have conversations, they all have complete and unlimited knowledge. Learning Talmud would bring a big change to the Israeli mind, because it deals with and is connected to dialectic.”
Man’s wisdom vs God’s wisdom
It sounds to me as if Steinsalz is a lot more comfortable with a truth that can be negotiated than the absolute and uncompromising plumline of God’s word. But maybe I underestimate him. Steinsalz is a brilliant scholar who has made the Talmud more accessible to modern Israelis and English speakers alike by translating the complex language, and giving explanations and commentary. His work is appreciated by numerous Orthodox rabbis and his translation is a must-have for students of the Talmud. According to the publisher’s website, Shefa, those using his material include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, US Senator Joe Lieberman, celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. In 1988, Steinsaltz received the Israel Prize and earlier this year was among the first recipients of Israel’s Presidential Award of Distinction.
There is no doubt that he is a great intellectual force in the people of Israel today, opening up the old Jewish writings and culture for all to investigate, and has contributed much to the people and faith he loves so much. But how can he even think of ousting the Word of God from the top priority in our lives?
But we know this is not the end of the story. It’s important to both face the facts AND have faith. The facts are that the people of Israel have been led astray and have forsaken the ancient paths of God, but we can have great faith that this promise spoken by the prophet Isaiah will one day come to pass:
For a people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, “Be gone!” (Isaiah 30:19-22)
Please take a moment to pray for the Jewish people – that this promise would soon come to pass, and that God’s Word would once again take first place in their hearts.
1. From The Times Of Israel, August 9th 2012. To read the article by Raphael Ahren in full, click here