By Translated by Michael L. Rodkinson
WHY SHOULD CHRISTIANS FEEL INTERESTED IN THE TALMUD? 1
Christian theology and Jewish theology having really followed two parallel paths, the history of either cannot be understood without the history of the other. Numberless material details of the gospels find, moreover, their commentary in the Talmud. . . The distinction of epochs is here very important, the compilation of the Talmud extending from the year 200 to the year 500 nearly.--Renan's "Life of Jesus," Introduction.
Is the literature that Jesus was familiar with in his early years yet in existence in the world? Is it possible for us to get at it? Can we ourselves review the ideas, the statements, the modes of reasoning and thinking, on moral and religious subjects, which were current in his time, and must have been revolved by him during those silent thirty years when he was pondering his future mission? To such inquiries the learned class of Jewish rabbis answer by holding up the Talmud. Here, say they, is the source from whence Jesus of Nazareth drew the teachings which enabled him to revolutionize the world; and the question becomes, therefore, an interesting one to every Christian, What is the Talmud? . . .
The Talmud, then, is the written form of that which, in the time of Jesus, was called the Traditions of the Elders, and to which he makes frequent allusions. What sort of book is it?
The answer is at first sight discouraging to flesh and spirit. The Talmud appears to view in form of fourteen heavy folio volumes, of thick, solid Hebrew and Aramaic consonants, without a vowel to be seen from the first word of the first volume to the last word of the last. Such is the Jewish Talmud, including both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian. Who can read it? It can be read, for it has been read . . .
The Talmud is the great repository of the mental products of a most vigorous and vivid race of thinkers, through long ages of degradation, persecution, oppression, and sorrow; and, as such, few human works are more worthy of, or will better repay, the student of human nature . . .
What light it may shed on the words of Jesus and Paul to know the modes of thought which were such a perfect world in their time! When Paul speaks of his studies at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the principal authors of the Talmud, of his profiting in the matters of law above many of his equals, we see him, an ardent young enthusiast, on the way to become an accomplished rabbi, perhaps even a Nasi, in some future day, and we understand what he means when he says, "But what things were gain tome, these I counted loss to Christ." It was a whole education and a whole life's work that he threw at the feet of his new Master.
Looking at the Talmud in contrast with any other ancient sacred writings extant in the world, except the Bible, we must be struck with its immense superiority . . .
I desire, in conclusion, to express my obligations to the ponderous erudition of the two older standard authors on this subject . . .
The writings of Dukes, an author of our own day, are especially rich in regard to Rabbinic proverbs and apologues; and in one of his prefaces he expresses the hope that they may be of some use even to that rather numerous body of Christians who give little other evidence of being Christians at all, except that of hating the Jews.--Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 21, p. 673, sq.
The science of our day owes to itself the duty of studying the Talmud impartially. It will judge worthy of its attention this monument of a religion and a civilization whose influence has not been void in the world, and whatever its absolute value may be adjudged to be, science will understand it, and study its formation and development. It will demand of the, Talmud instruction, or, at least, information, almost as varied as the subjects coming within the compass of science. The historian will address himself to it for light upon the history of the earliest centuries of the Christian era, and of the centuries immediately preceding it, and though not seeking in it precise data, which it cannot furnish, he will be sure to find a faithful picture of the beliefs and ideas of the Jewish nation on its moral and spiritual life. The naturalist will ask of it numerous questions concerning the sciences, physical, natural, or medical. Has it ever occurred to any one to compile, if not the fauna, at least the flora of the Talmud; that is, of the Palestine and Babylonia contemporary with the Empire? It were easy with it as a basis to furnish a second edition of Pliny's Natural History, certainly as valuable as the first. The lawyer will question it on the history of its jurisprudence, will investigate whether, how, and by what intermediaries Roman law and Persian customs influenced it, and it will be a curious study to compare the results that two different civilizations, directed by opposite principles, have reached in the jus civile and the jus Talmudicum, The mythologist will dive into its legends, and, by a nice application of the comparative method, determine the history of Midrashic mythology. The philologist will devote himself to the language--that abrupt, rough language by means of which the Talmud seems to please itself in heaping up obscurities of form over those of the thought, and he will be sure to make more than one happy find. For, says the author of the History of the Semitic Languages, "the lexical spoliation and grammatic analysis of the Talmudic language, according to the methods of modem philology, remain to be made . . . That language fills a hiatus in the history of Semitic idioms.
Finally, the philosopher will demand of the Talmud the explanation of Judaism and the history of Jewish institutions, and as the Talmudic books offer the completest expression thereof, and as he has at hand all the component elements, a scrupulous analysis will give him the law of the development of the Jewish religion.--Darmesteter, "The Talmud," p. 96.
Here we have an attempt-and the attempt is praiseworthy--to put the Talmud, or the substance of it, into plain English, and for this the Christian reader, if not the learned rabbi, must be grateful to the translator.--Independent, April 7, 1899.
Published in the second prospectus issued by the New Talmud Publishing Co., adding to them some remarks of Mielziner's address to the senior class of the Union Hebrew College at Cincinnati, some years ago:
"To impress you the more with the necessity of the Talmudic studies for a clear conception of Judaism and its history, I could also quote the opinions of many of our greatest scholars, but shall confine myself only to a quotation from the writings of two of our most renowned scholars whom none will suspect of having been biased by a too great predilection for the Talmud; one is the late Dr. Geiger, and the other our great historian, the late Dr. Jost.
"Geiger (Das Judenthum und seine Geschichte, I., p. 15 5) in speaking of the Talmud and the rabbinical literature, says:
"'Gigantic works, productions of gloomy and brighter periods are here before us, monuments of thought and intellectual labor; they excite our admiration. I do not indorse every word of the Talmud, nor every idea expressed by the teachers in the time of the Middle Ages, but I would not miss a tittle thereof. They contain an acumen and power of thought which fill us with reverence for the spirit that animated our ancestors, a fulness of sound sense, salutary maxim-s-a freshness of opinion often bursts upon us that even to this day exercises its enlivening and inspiring effect.'
"Jost in his Geschichte des Judenthum's und seiner Secten, II., 202, characterizes the Talmud by the following masterly words:
"'The Talmud is a great mine, in which are imbedded all varieties of metals and ores. Here may be found all kinds of valuables, the finest gold and rarest gems, as also the merest dross. Much has been unearthed that has realized countless profit to the world. The great spiritual work whose outcome has been apparent in the advancement of religion has shown that the Talmud is not only of incalculable value in the pursuit of wisdom, but that it has a self-evident significance for all times, which can not be shown by any mere extracts from its pages, and that it can not be disregarded on the plea of its antiquity as valueless in the knowledge of the Jewish religion. Indeed it is and must remain the chief source of this knowledge, and particularly of the historical development of the Jewish religion. More than this, it is the abode of that spirit which has inspired that religion, these many centuries, that spirit from which even those who sought to counteract it could not escape. It is and will remain a labyrinth with deep shafts and openings, in which isolated spirits toil with tireless activity, a labyrinth which offers rich rewards to those who enter impelled by the desire to gain, not without hidden dangers to those who venture wantonly into its mazes and absorb its deadly vapors. Religion has created this work, not indeed to give utterance in an unsatisfactory way to the great questions of Deity and Nature, Mortality and Eternity, and not to carry on controversies upon the proper formulation of articles of faith, but to give expression to a religion of deed, a religion designed to accompany man from the first steps in his education until he reaches the grave, and beyond it; a guide by which his desires and actions are to be regulated at every moment, by which all his movements are to be guarded, that takes care even of his food and drink, of his pleasures and pains, of his mirth and sorrow, and seeks to elevate him, at all times, to an enunciation of the purest faith.
"'It is thus that this spirit, which breathes from the Talmud, enters into the nation's inmost life. It offers repeated recitals of the various modes of thinking, practising, believing, of the true and false representations, of hopes and longings, of knowledge and error, of the great lessons of fate, of undertakings and their consequences, of utterances and their effects, of persons and their talents and inaptitudes, of words and examples, of customs, both in matters of public worship and private life; in short, of all the happenings, past or contemporary, in the time which the Talmud comprises, i.e., a period of nearly one thousand years, excluding the Bible times.
"'Hence, also, its great value to antiquarians in the frequent allusions to facts, opinions and statements, to modes of expression and grammatical construction, to peculiarities of every kind, which at the same time afford a view of the development of mankind, such as no other work of the past gives.
"'To treat the Talmud with scorn because of its oddness, on account of much that it contains that does not conform to our maturer modes of thinking, because of its evident errors and misconceptions--errors from ignorance or errors in copying--to throw it overboard, as it were, as useless ballast, would be to insult all history, to deprive it of one of its strongest limbs, to dismember it.
"'To dam up its channels by taking away the Talmud, would be to close the access to the head waters and living sources of the Jewish religion, and thus leave her again in a desert land, after the tables of the law have already called forth a world of life and activity. It would be turning one's back, as it were, denying and disregarding one's own. There is a historical justification for the sharply defined modes of worship and religious forms that have their embodiment in set words and in fixed deeds. For this we must look to the Talmud. Judaism is rooted in the Talmud and would be tossed about in mid-air if torn from its soil, or require a new planting and a new growth.'
"In conclusion, my young friends, let me say this:
"If our College had no other purpose than to graduate common Sabbath school teachers who should be able to occasionally deliver popular though superficial lectures, the study of the Talmud, as well as that of our rabbinical and philosophical literature, might have been stricken from the course of your studies. But our College has a higher aim and object. Its object is to educate future guides and leaders of our congregations, to educate banner-bearers of Judaism, representatives and cultivators of Jewish knowledge and literature.
"You can never expect to answer this purpose without a thorough knowledge of, and familiarity with, that vast literature that offers us the means to follow and understand the religious formation, the growth and the entire course of development of Judaism from its beginning to the present time."
70:1 Many learned men, as is well known to any student, have in each century since the close of the Talmud written about the necessity of Talmudic studies, even for non-Jews. We have, nevertheless selected for quotation some statements of modern scholars of this century, to the effect that the study of the Talmud is highly useful to Christian theologians.