“Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of Yours?” (2 Chronicles 1:10)
After witnessing the national revelation of the written Torah, Jews strived to preserve its timeless teachings under all circumstances. Throughout history, Jews continued to teach the values within our Scripture despite the utmost divergence and assimilation that occurred in our faith. Without the written the Torah as a visual guide, rabbis and sages began teaching its values by word of mouth. In order to preserve a tight-knit Jewish community amongst the Diaspora, rabbis congregated and organized a strict law system, or halackha. Those laws, stories, and debates recorded in the Talmud set the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism.
While many Jews vehemently study these sacred texts, there is a basic underlying truth in our faith: we live and foster Jewish lives according to majority-based decisions in a book! Rabbis and leaders that lived centuries ago created these guidelines and laws that define how we practice Judaism today. With a hope of governing a lost Jewish community and preventing it from going astray, rabbis endlessly debated with each other. Finally, ritualistic practices were decided by a mere voting system; if a unique Jewish voice did not have enough support at the time, it was outvoted by the majority. We could have been able to indulge in chicken parmesan today if our rabbinic faith took a different approach to decision making.
The various denominations of Judaism have structured worship services and belief systems derived from ideas in the Talmud. While Orthodox Judaism remains extremely traditional with halackha, other liberal movements take values in the Talmud to create entirely different ideas. Despite the different observance levels, all the unique formats in which to lead congregations are compiled in the tractates of our rabbinic literature.
Unfortunately, there is a common misconception. Many people see the observance levels of Judaism as a vertical scale, with the Orthodox Jews as the “most Jewish” and every denomination following as less. Ignorance created that scale, but we, Jews facing the search for pluralism, cannot seem to eradicate it. Many truly believe that by picking and choosing halakhic practices in the Talmud, they are shifting themselves up and down this scale of Jewish dominance that they created for themselves. That, however, should never be the case.
Why must we only formulate our faith from rabbis’ debates hundreds of years ago? Why do we need to limit ourselves to the decisions and laws formed by a majority opinion? Beneath the stories and laws, the Talmud is ultimately a source of teaching. We should study and foster the voices in our rabbinic history, but never limit our spiritual practices to those decisions. Our daily practices should be filled with meaning and understanding. If you do not gain that spiritual understanding from studying the Talmud, then that is not the end of your faith journey, but merely the beginning. For at the end of the day, someone eating chicken parmesan is no less of a Jew than the rest of us.
The tractates that form our Talmud provide us with the insights from our sages, but do not determine the final destination of our spiritual paths today. It is our Jewish obligation to expunge the “scale” of Judaism and replace it with a full circle of open minds. If the laws written in the Talmud do not spiritually satisfy us, then we should find eclectic sources of wisdom. Let’s be our own tractates of the Talmud; let’s share our own voices and govern our religious practices. With the former sages as our guides, let us congregate to listen and study as we personalize and govern our faiths for the future. The printed Talmud, along with the Talmud we can create for the future, can unite us as we search for meaning in our religious practices. Jews today should not be defined by the observance levels of their faith, but rather, their ability to recognize other approaches to meaningful Jewish living.email print