What is the Talmud: A Jewish Perspective

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Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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Talmud by Stephen Wise, Rabbi, OakvilleThe Talmud is a magnificent compilation of Jewish laws, stories and ethics.  It was written over the course of 1000 years, so you can imagine how long it takes to study.  Yet there is a system of study where you read one page a day for about 7 and a half years and you will have read all 63 tractates.  This past summer 2012 there was great celebration for those that completed the cycle, called a Siyum.  Then next morning, the cycle started again. 

One of the repeating notions in the Talmud, is that each generation of scholars is lesser that its predecessor.  At one point in one of the early chapters, tractate Eruvin, (devoted mostly to laws concerning the Sabbath), Rabbi Yochanan describes how his teacher Rabbi Oshay was so great, they used to cram 4 people into one seat.  Another Rabbi pipes up that when he studied with his teacher Rabbi Ben Shamua, there were 6 in a seat.  They lament that past teachers of wisdom can no longer be found, as though the transmission of Torah is in continual decline.

“Every generation knows more about how the world works than the one before, so that a high-school student today knows more about physics than Isaac Newton did in his time.”  – Adam Kirsh


This goes against the grain of modernity, which assumes that everything gets better, that we are constantly progressing in knowledge.  As Adam Kirsh, a writer for the online Jewish magazine Tablet writes, “Every generation knows more about how the world works than the one before, so that a high-school student today knows more about physics than Isaac Newton did in his time.”  Each generation is wiser and further ahead.  But the Talmudists have the opposite view, and so the task of the present is not to sacrifice everything for progress but rather to preserve our heritage so it doesn’t slip through our fingers.

I think ideally we can find common ground between these two extreme views.  Certainly we must be humble enough to learn from those who came before us, value their wisdom and acknowledge their insight.  At the same time, we cannot dwell in the past and ought to continually strive to add levels of knowledge and acumen to what we know and progress to new inventions, new medicines, new technologies.  It is our obligation to learn from our predecessors and then make our own mark and do our part in building a better world.



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