Boris Feldman Remarks at JSN Dinner


Thank you to Rabbi Felsen and the JSN for honoring Robin, me, and our family.  Special thanks to my Talmud cohort, Rabbi Feldman, Dr. Josef Joffe, Professor David Porush, and lantzman Sam Tramiel. 


I want to touch briefly on three things:  the disappearance of Talmud from American Jewish life; the zen of studying Talmud; and a lagniappe for you to savor.


In my life, I have endured thousands of sermons in synagogues around the country.  I grew up in a small Orthodox schul.  I attended serious, erudite conservative congregations on the East Coast and in California.  Until we joined our present synagogue, Congregation Emek Beracha (literally, Valley of Blessing), I heard virtually no discussion in those sermons from the Talmud.  Now that I know my way around the Talmud a little, I see so many places that cry out for inclusion in those many sermons.  Why was it not there, even in traditional congregations?


I had hoped to make that question the topic of my talk tonight, but regrettably, I was unable to come up with a good answer.  Learned friends of mine suggested some possibilities:  eagerness to seem more American, even within observant communities; absence of the requisite skill to immerse in learning; lack of time to devote to study, as poor immigrant Jews struggled to make a life in the Goldene Medinah, the Land of Gold.  Each of those has some validity, but none seems to provide a full answer.  So I leave you with that question to ponder on your own:  for those of you who have been around Jewish institutions in your life, why was Talmud missing?


Second, for those of you who might be tempted to sneak a taste of learning after tonight, I offer you two pieces of guidance.  First, one of the great joys of learning Talmud is that you dont prepare to study you just dive in.  Unlike most of the intellectual endeavors in which you have engaged in your lives, Talmud does not require prep time:  you go straight to immersion.  In the 73 volumes of the Schottenstein edition of Talmud, the dominant English translation by Artscroll, you can open to virtually any page, and the arguments and analysis will pull you in. 


The second suggestion is that, as you study the Talmud, you need to let go of context and focus on the text.  These dialogues were written down between 300 and 500 C.E.  If you ask, how does this relate to what Im doing today?,  you will often find yourself unsatisfied.  For the hour or two that you study each week, let go of relevance and concentrate on the discussions themselves.  Not everything that you learn needs to have meaning outside itself.


Finally, I want to close with a small sample of the delicious dialogue that takes place.  There are so many to choose from, but I will share one of my favorites, because it is so intrinsically and uniquely Jewish.  This comes from Bava Metzia 59b.  Bava Metzia, if there are any lawyers in the room, deals with the law of property and bailments.


The passage in question is a debate over the ritual contamination of a clay oven.  Two Rabbis were debating whether a certain act rendered the vessel contaminated.  Rabbi Yehuda declared it contaminated.  Rabbi Eliezer declared it not contaminated.  The Sages voted and agreed with Rabbi Yehuda:  contaminated.


Lets now pick up the debate in the Artscroll translation:


On that day, R Eliezer advanced all the arguments in the world to defend his lenient ruling.  But the Sages did not accept his arguments.  R Eliezer said to them:  if the Halachah [the doctrinal ruling] accords with me, let this carob tree prove it, whereupon the carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved one hundred amot [about 16 feet] and some say it moved two hundred amot. 


Unconvinced, the Sages said to him:  you cannot bring proof from a carob tree.  He then said to them:  If the Halachah accords with me, let the water canal prove it, whereupon the water in the water canal flowed backward.  The Sages said to him:  you cannot bring proof from a water canal. 


He then said to them:  if the Halachah accords with me, let the walls of the study hall prove it, whereupon the walls of the study hall leaned and were about to fall.  Immediately, R Yehoshua rebuked the walls and said to them:  if Torah scholars vie with one another in discussion about Halachah, what business is it of yours?  The walls did not fall out of respect for R Yehoshua; but neither did they right themselves out of respect for R Eliezer, and they still continue to lean to this day. 


R Eliezer then said to the Sages:  If the Halachah accords with me, let Heaven prove it, whereupon a Heavenly echo went forth and proclaimed:  what argument do you have with R Eliezer, whom the Halachah follows in all places?  Upon hearing this, R Yehoshua stood on his feet and declared: לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא.  It (the Torah) is not in Heaven.  What is meant by it is not in Heaven?  R Yirmiyah said:  It means that we pay no heed to a Heavenly echo in matters of Halachah, for the Torah was already given to man at Mount Sinai.  According to the majority the matter shall be decided.  And since the majority of the Sages dispute R Eliezers position, his position is rejected in practice.


Thank you for indulging me in that passage.  I hope that for those of you who decide to test the waters of learning, you will find as much joy in Talmud as I have.