Divine Telepathy: Reading Talmud

Reading is Telepathy

Ox Gores Man
Bull Gores Man at Pamplona http://news.nationalgeographic.com 

 

 

Writing and reading are acts of telepathy.  The author tells me what’s in his mind. I try to decipher it. It can be an ecstatic communion, or dull. But assuming there’s another mind may help us out of the postmodern moral abyss.

Yes, the author’s story is just a version. The characters are just representations. The author tries to reduce the arbitrariness of selecting these few signs out of an infinity of possible others through force of will and practice and erasure. If we resonate with what we read, we respect and admire and can be pleasured by word art. But who is to say what is right or wrong in anything?

Welcome to the postmodern abyss, where morals throw themselves off the cliff to die. Where ethics are a matter of local taste. Where the world is anything you make it. Chacun á son goût. Or a “Negative Theology,” what Charles Taylor saw in Derrida’s philosophy.

When you open a book, are you already judging the author against some ideological test? Or do you try to know the author’s mind first before deciding he had failed your personal litmus test?

Reading the Talmud is good training for suspending your judgments.

The Talmud is a hypertextual text of a symposium among hundreds of rabbis and scholars spread across continents over the first five centuries after the Destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The  Mishnah plus Gemarah that make up the canonical Talmud, along with inclusions of sanctioned commenatries by Rashi and others, are at least 6000 pages long. But the Talmud project has never stopped growing and promises to keep growing as commentators comment on commentators to adapt the Torah to an evolving reality. Easily millions of pages have been written about it. Not only is it a cryptic attempt at capturing a convoluted conversation, the conversation itself is an attempt to reconstruct a text that was never supposed to be written down, the Oral Law of the Jews. In short, the mere act of learning to read the Talmud requires years of study just to give it a fair hearing, to try to understand what the sages were trying to say before deciding if what they said had any merit.

Anyone can dip into this sea of interpretations and stories and pronouncements and duels among rabbis and extract something out of context to prove a point. But just to learn the names of the “authors,” the eras and cultures in which they lived, the assumptions underlying their discourse,  and the pretexts for that discourse, requires a lifetime.  It’s good practice for suspending your self-interested interpretations when reading a mere 300-page novel by a single author.

 

 

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Dung and Divinity:

How the Rabbis of the Talmud Recognize and Preserve the Added Value of Public Spaces

This Sunday I found Divinity in dung.

Bava Kama is a tractate of the Talmud concerning the assessment of responsibility, damages and liabilities. When people cause harm to each other directly, by injury or theft, or indirectly, through hazards that they own like wild animals or open pits or fire that’s gotten out of control, how do judges apportion payments of liability? After all, the thin line between barbarity and civilization lies in the rule of law to exact retribution in place of vengeance.
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