Talmud, Relevance, and Classicism: On the Question of "The Relevance" of the Talmud for Contemporary Students (Hebrew)

Avital Hochstein

At the basis of this paper is the underlying assumption that many Talmud pupils ask about its relevance and the relevance of learning it today. The writer looks at "the relevance problem" from a number of different angels: Each one of the three chapters of the paper entails a different point of view of the Talmud and its current "relevance problem."

The first chapter states a few characteristics of the Talmud and examines it as a classic, a text within the cultural canon of Jewish society. The writer assumes that defining "Talmud" is important and essential in order to have a deep discussion over the difficulties students express about learning it. She adds that a basic concept of "Talmud" is important to those who teach it, and raises the possibility that looking at it as a classic might bring benefit to teaching it in general and to dealing with "the relevance problem," in particular.

The first chapter opens with a discussion of classical texts, classical in the sense of their social and cultural status, and pin points a number of basic criteria for this status. The writer focuses on the discussions of three thinkers: Harold Bloom, Italo Calvino and Robert Hutchins who discuss classical texts and present their own perception of them. A basic distinction is raised between two types of characteristics: "external" properties, such as the historical and social status of the text, and "internal" ones, such as those that derive from the content of the work. At the end of the chapter the writer focuses on a few basic qualities of a classical work.

The second part of the chapter asks what are the characteristics of the Talmud, this for two purposes: in order to get to a basic definition that might enable a conversation about the Talmud and in order to enable a basic comparison between the Talmud and classical works, in general. The discussion is based on definitions given by thinkers and researchers from different fields: from the philosopher Levinas and the author Bialik to Prof. Frenkel. The writer summarizes, as follows: The Talmud is a text presented in the form of a discussion. Its direct content is historical and legal-halachik, but often, there is an underlying philosophical, conceptual discussion that strives for clarifications, distinctions and truth, in theological and existential questions - though often without clear-cut conclusion. Beside its dialectical discussions, the Talmud also incorporates stories, sayings, ideas, beliefs and so on. It is a unique genre that was created over several hundred years, in different places, by various people. It reflects the past in which it was created and shapes the content with which Jewish culture has dealt and is dealing - a culture that has been immersed in it since its creation and till today. This already makes the Talmud meaningful for the present.

Among the qualities that are shared by the Talmud and classical texts are: their being texts that are meaningful at all times, their being creations that cause their reader to be active in relationship to them, and their being a storehouse and keeper of tradition. There were also distinctive qualities, such as the Talmud being a text that was written over hundreds of years, not by one known author and the uniqueness of its genre.

The author then discusses the "relevance problem" as it arises in the subjective perceptions of those who learn and/or teach the Talmud. The second chapter focuses on conversations with great teachers, people who founded institutions and innovative ways of teaching Talmud, people who deal with the teaching and learning of Talmud. The chapter addresses the teaching of Talmud and relates to the issue of its place in our time and its being a classical text. The interviewees were R. Prof. Hartman, R. Ebner, R. Brovender and Ruth Kalderon. Among the main points that came up in these conversations were the way each speaker presented his perception of the Talmud, the way he explained the difficulties of teaching Talmud today and the suggestions he gave for dealing with these difficulties. Two main attitudes were raised in the interviews: the first focused mainly on "external" characteristics of the Talmud when explaining both its (high) social status and the difficulties of teaching it today, the other emphasized mainly its content as a source of meaning, religious and other, and as the main source for the difficulty in learning Talmud today. It was interesting to note that all the speakers emphasized the importance of a conscious commitment to studying Talmud, a consciousness that stems from the identity of the learner, as a basic component of the attractiveness of Talmud study. It is also important to note that all speakers when describing the Talmud noted qualities that are parallel to those of a classic text.

The third chapter turns to the pupils and asks how they perceive its relevance and what is their attitude toward it in general. It is based on a questionnaire that was given to a particular group of teen-ages, boys learning in the religious education system in Israel, in schools that are not yeshivas. The chapter presents a preliminary analysis of their responses. This chapter serves only as a demonstration of the type of research that needs to be done on a broad scale, with students from varied backgrounds and learning environments. This chapter is not an exact portrayal of the attitude of the youth in our times toward learning Talmud; it presents only an anecdotal picture, the full view of which requires a full-scale survey.

The questionnaire asked pupils to scale their interest in learning Talmud, their affection for it and the relevance they found in learning it. The survey also asked for the reasons behind the choices made. From the answers we can see that there was a slight inclination to a positive scaling by the students, and that the responses were strongly correlated, i.e. students tended to give the same rank for all three questions. The general picture that immerged was that students who find the Talmud less attractive (less interesting, less likable and less relevant) explain this feeling as related to the fact that they perceive the Talmud as "distant", not "touching them" or their surroundings but "pertaining to another world". They also perceive it as "difficult" and "holy". This group of students also pointed to their feeling that its study is not of "practical use". Students who scaled the Talmud as being attractive also had a common perception of the Talmud: They describe it as being of a "unique content - halacha." This also reflects their concept of its cultural place, because many of these students describe there own identity as religious or Jewish. They also explained their high ranking as pertaining to the fact that the Talmud is part of their "culture and past", both content-wise and culturally. These students also indicated that the Talmud has to do with "who they are" and the "big general questions of reality".

It is evident that among the students who find the Talmud attractive there is a perception of it that includes many of the basic qualities of a classical text. The writer states that in her opinion it is important to recognize that students who are attracted to the Talmud find and describe a similarity between it and classical texts. First of all, because this is a central aspect that accompanies its particular content, halacha. Secondly, it seems that teachers would benefit if they would relate to this attractive aspect while teaching.


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