In Great Britain, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, Professor Jonathan Sacks, has come up with a wonderful idea: We should learn about each other's faiths. Rabbi Sacks' idea was endorsed by the Prince of Wales and other religious leaders. (1)
Rabbi Sacks follows in the footsteps of another outspoken rabbi, Rabbi Michael Rodkinson, who did what he could during his lifetime to share the Jewish religion among Jews and non-Jews alike. Rabbi Rodkinson's English translation of the Talmud was published between 1896 and 1903, and reissued in 1918. (32)
Christian theology and Jewish theology having really followed two parallel paths, the history of either cannot be understood without the history of the other.
— Rabbi Michael L. Rodkinson (2)
In a world torn by strife and warfare (much of it between people of different faiths), no person of goodwill could disagree with Rabbi Sacks: that we should learn about each other's faiths. The first project of Come and Hear™ is to assist in this mission.
It is a modern truism that the truth is revealed by comparing and contrasting opposing ideas. We can gain nothing by closing our eyes to religious literature; we gain by reading, discussing, and understanding. No better result could be achieved than by open and informed discussion of the Talmud, the book that lies closest to the heart of Judaism.
"One of the Wonders of the World"
Come and hear what some renowned Talmudic scholars have said about the Talmud:
… the Talmud is one of the wonders of the world … It still dominates the minds of a whole people, who venerate its contents as divine truth …
— Rabbi Michael L. Rodkinson (3)
Religion in the Talmud attempts to penetrate the whole of human life with the sense of law and right. Nothing human is in its eyes mean or trivial; everything is regulated and sanctified by religion. Religious precept and duty accompany man from his earliest years to the grave and beyond it. They guide his desires and actions at every moment. Food and sleep, civic duty and family life — all are under discipline of the Torah, a discipline accepted freely and joyfully. While every religion attempts such regulation, the Talmudic system represents this striving of the religious idea in its perfection. 'In our eyes,' says Arsène Darmsteter, 'this is its greatest title to the respect and consideration of thinkers. In Judaism we have thus the completest, and consequently the most perfect, expression of the religious idea.'
— The Very Reverend the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, the late Dr. Joseph H. Hertz (4)
Speaking of how the Talmud helped Jews through the centuries of persecution and darkness, Rabbi Dr. Hertz said:
It saved Israel from intellectual and moral degradation.
— Rabbi Dr. Hertz (5)
If the Bible is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is the central pillar, soaring up from the foundations and supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice. In many ways the Talmud is the most important book in Jewish culture, the backbone of creativity and of national life. No other work has had a comparable influence on the theory and practice of Jewish life, shaping spiritual content and serving as a guide to conduct.
— Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (6)
Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz is the founder of the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, and has enjoyed the backing of Israeli presidents and prime ministers; he is a recipient of Israel's highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize. He is currently translating the Talmud into English, French, and Russian.
Let us continue with other scholarly statements on the importance of the Talmud. This from the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia:
The Talmud is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable literary productions of all times. It is an encyclopedia covering the whole scene of human life. It is almost impossible to convey to one who has not spent years in the study of this complex work an idea of its true nature, as even the most exact translations cannot catch the inner spirit of the Talmud … As a repository of the Oral Law, the Talmud's authority is regarded as divine by Orthodox Jews, and hence it is held to be binding and immutable. Conservative and Reform Jews, however, do not recognize the absolute binding power of the Talmud, although they acknowledge the great part it has played in determining Jewish religious ideas and observances.
— Herschel Revel, for The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (7)
Gentiles Welcome to Study the Talmud
Rabbi Rodkinson welcomed Gentile students of the Talmud. One hundred years ago, he wrote:
We are also glad to notice that among Gentiles the study of the Talmud is more or less spreading, as we have the experience that a great number of Gentiles and almost all the theological seminaries and public libraries subscribed to the Talmud, and also many queries concerning it frequently came to us from Gentiles. This all shows that the study of the Talmud among Gentiles is not very rare.
— Rabbi Rodkinson (20)
Talmud Relevant Today
Now let us turn to Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner, a contemporary and prolific writer on Judaism:
The Bavli [Babylonian Talmud] has formed the definitive statement of Judaism from the time of its closure to the present day. The excellence of its composition, the mastery and authority of those who everywhere studied it and advocated its law, the sharpness of its exegesis and discussion, the harmonious and proportional presentation of all details, these virtues of taste and intellect may well have secured for the document is paramount position … The Bavli served from its closure as an encyclopedia of knowledge and as a summa of the theology and law of Judaism.
— Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner (8) (emphasis added)
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and a professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School. Rabbi Adlerstein comments upon a 1999 brief submitted to the US Supreme Court concerning the death penalty. The brief, based wholly on Talmud law, urged that certain principles of Talmud law should be adopted by the US. Interpreting the remarks Orthodox advocate Nathan Lewin, (24) Rabbi Adlerstein writes:
… Lewin builds his case on the strength of what likely is the world's oldest continuously-practiced legal code. He holds up the performance of Florida's temperamental electric chair to the scrutiny of the Jewish Talmud, the backbone of Jewish law for the last two millennia.
… Lewin's essential point is that many of the pressing moral, ethical, and legal issues that are front-burner today were already painstakingly and lovingly considered by savants of the past. Jewish law in particular surprises and delights moderns, because it not only suggests solutions, but teaches how complex moral issues can be attacked and dissected. Within its ancient legal code are deep and detailed considerations of issues like privacy, allocating medical resources, the causes of violence, and many more. So much of the future stands to be illuminated by the minds of those who specialized in pondering deeply and subtly.
— Rabbi Adlerstein (23)