The Lost Talmud, Part Two

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

Two SVARA-niks lean over a table covered in silver bowls. They are picking things out of the bowls.

I was born at the tail end of the generation that can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that Kennedy was shot. And there’s the generation that can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. And when they saw the video of George Floyd being murdered. And when they heard that RBG had died. 

I can also tell you exactly where I was when I learned that glassmaking had once been forgotten and lost to civilization, but, miraculously, many centuries later, reinvented anew. I remember the sense of terror I felt at that moment, realizing that fundamental aspects of our civilization that I’d taken for granted were actually quite fragile and vulnerable. If making glass could be forgotten, then what else could be forgotten? Pretty much everything, I realized. And what, I then wondered, had once been known but is still forgotten and may never be rediscovered? What did we once have, but is now lost to us, even to memory? It was one of those life-changing moments for me, and has given me (or maybe just surfaced what was already) a certain highly attuned sense of the preciousness, precariousness, vulnerability—and responsibility to care for–the treasures of the past.

They say that it takes just two generations for a skill or craft to be lost. That’s a very short period of time! That means that it takes just two generations—say, our grandparents and our parents—or us and our children—to lose forever what might have been an invaluable part of our collective consciousness for millennia. That the arc of not just the moral universe, but the material, intellectual, and spiritual universe as well, might actually bend backwards sometimes, and that parts of it not only might but certainly do in fact, break off, never to be restored, is a truth, I realized, that we also have to hold very vigilantly.

I believe that the spiritual, moral, and intellectual technology that allowed us to create world-changing human beings—the Talmud—was actually lost generations ago. No, the Talmud itself wasn’t lost, of course. But what the Talmud actually is was lost, leaving us to think that what has passed for the Talmud—its message, its goal, its purpose, its point, and how it was intended to be used—would, I think, have disappointed and broken the hearts of our rabbinic ancestors. And if, as the Rabbis say, there’s a God who cried along with us in exile after the Destruction of the Temple, then that same God has been sitting in the last row of the yeshivot of most of our current colleagues and most recent ancestors, and is weeping. That God is confused and despairing, and upon hearing the rav in the front of the room answer the question, “What’s the source of this halacha?” with the response “It’s the halacha given by God to Moshe at Mt. Sinai,” his mind is not put at ease and he is not comforted. 

So…this is where we pick up the thread from last month’s Part I of this essay. What do I think is really going on in this “sampler of samplers” we call the Talmud? To understand my new hypothesis, let’s revisit my old one. Old hypothesis: the Talmud is here to do just two things: 1) to teach us how to make sometimes even radical change from what the Torah or our inherited tradition says, and 2) to help us become the kind of people who know when change needs to happen and have the dispositions necessary to make that change. 

You’ve heard me call the Rabbis queer. You’ve heard me call them radical. You’ve heard me call them activists, visionaries, sociologists, and great marketers. And I still think they were all of these things. At different times. But when you connect all of those dots across the generations of Rabbis, it becomes clear that the Rabbis were, essentially, community organizers. They were leading what they hoped would become a new social movement of people hurting—just like they were—from a tradition that was no longer working for them, no longer compellingly answering their basic human questions or helping them live lives of meaning, a tradition that was no longer helping them become the kinds of human beings they knew they could become, or create the kind of liberatory world they envisioned. They were in pain over a Torah that, in many ways, was no longer workable, and which no longer spoke to their deep sense of what a God they could believe in, wanted of them. 

So, new hypothesis: the bulk of the gemara, specifically what we call the “proofs” in the halachic sections of the Talmud (the “stitches in the sampler”), were not actually meant to be techniques or tools for upgrading the tradition. They were not primarily meant to teach the rabbinic students in the yeshivas of Yavneh, Sura, or Pumbedita how to make change. That, they knew, was done simply and unapologetically with svara. Rather, what I’m now seeing in these “proofs” are, just maybe, techniques for messaging that change to the people. What if the so-called proofs are actually sample dialogues the Rabbis were being taught, to use with the people, to help the Rabbis bring them along? “I know, I know, you heard “eye for an eye” while you were listening to the Torah being read in the marketplace last week, but “money” is really what that means! Money for an eye! Look here: see this word “strike” in the Torah, where God’s talking about how if you strike an animal you have to pay for it, and that word “strike” over there, where God’s talking about striking a person? Well, God put those two words—”strike” here and “strike” there to teach us that what we do here—money!—we should also do there–money! See?” 

And remember those five “failed” proofs in HaChovel that I talked about last month? What if those were actually examples of “Don’t bother with these arguments!” that, the stamma was teaching?! “Hey,” the stamma was saying, “these arguments for helping them feel more comfortable that what we do—money—is actually what the Torah meant all along, won’t work! See how they’re all countered with common sense? The people have lots of common sense. And what we’re telling them is, let’s face it, completely non-sensical! These won’t work! Dazzle ‘em with the gezera shavas and the kra yeteras!” 

Professor Menachem Fisch has theorized—and I loved his theory because it provided a fabulous answer to the question: “Why are the proofs in the Talmud so forced?”—that the Talmud had two audiences, two kinds of “rabbinic students”—the more “naive,” pietistic ones, and the more “sophisticated” ones, both of whom the stamma, the Talmud’s creator, wanted to bring along. The more pietistic ones were the ones who accepted—and likely needed to soothe their intellectual and spiritual discomfort at a Judaism that was deviating radically from the Torah—Rabbi Akiva’s very clever contention about how the Torah worked, namely that God had written it in a very special way, such that hidden meanings were discoverable by using a number of (rather outlandish!) exegetical/interpretive tools, which would help you find those secret meanings God had inserted into the Torah. The “sophisticated” ones, on the other hand, would notice the obvious sleight of hand but be able to tolerate the obviously-svara-driven moves while also understanding that some of their more conservative colleagues needed to be reassured that “Nobody’s making anything up here! God really meant this. See the “strike” here and the “strike” there??”

But I’ve come to be convinced (h/t my buddy Dan Libenson here) that the Talmud only ever had one single intended audience, all of whom were in on the project—the sophisticated rabbinic student who “got it,” who understood that all we need to make even radical change is our svara (“gamirna”-informed though they assumed it had to be). And if that’s true, then for whom, and for what purpose, were all the wink-wink proofs constructed? New answer: For the rabbinic students/future Rabbis to use on the People, to bring them along into the new Option 3 Jewish world that they were crafting. 

As my comrade and SVARA Fellow Frankie Sandmel says, “Every community organizer has to tell their story, and the story of the new world order they want to bring, in a way that resonates so people can see themselves in it and it works to bring them along.” Good community organizing begins with a vision that comes out of a shared experience, but then needs compelling and resonant messaging. The mishnah, in its simple, unapologetic “This is what we’re gonna do in the new Jewish world” approach—was really the curriculum for how to make change. The gemara was the curriculum for how to message that change.

This shifting of the lens on “What is the mishnah really doing?” and “What is the gemara really doing?” is important, I think, because once you decide that the “kra proofs” (the arguments that use this or that exegetical tool on this or that verse) aren’t primarily teaching us how to make change—then you’re really left with the question: so what’s the Talmud’s message for how you do make change? 

And the obvious answer that I see in the Talmud, is svara. When the Mishnah puts forth radical new ways of being, thinking, and acting, without any prooftexts whatsoever, I don’t think that they just didn’t care to record their biblical, midrashic or other sources. I’m hypothesizing that they didn’t think they needed any, other than the obvious one, svara! And the widespread academic assumption that the stamma was excavating and reinserting the lost justifications and proofs for those earlier radical moves…well, through this queer community organizing lens…it just no longer seems plausible to me. 

My new hypothesis is that the bulk of the gemara has a third goal in addition to the two mentioned above (how to make change and how to be the kind of person who can): It teaches the student, in every generation, not how we, the Rabbis, got to this or that new law, or how you can get to where you’re going to need to go (you do that with svara!) but how you, future Talmud student, future ”player”—can “message out to the people” how you got from what you inherited to where your svara told you where you need to go in your generation. 

The early Rabbis were primarily world-creators. They didn’t need to sell the story of their new world to anyone because everyone in the room was part of their crowd of a dozen or so guys! You only need to message out, articulate, and sell your story once you think other people just might come along. But that’s a very, very important part of the work! Without that, you have a club, not a world-changing tradition.

Frankie reminded me of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (2:14) that they taught in Mishnah Collective last fall, in which Rabbi Elazar says: 

“Be painstaking in your study of Torah and know what to say to an apikoros (a heretic).” 

רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר הֱוֵי שָׁקוּד לִלְמֹד תּוֹרָה וְדַע מַה שֶּׁתָּשִׁיב לְאֶפִּיקוֹרוֹס

Yes! That, I think, is this third, and even central, agenda of the gemara! And remember, Rabbi Elazar is speaking here to his colleagues, not to amcha, the everyday person. Rabbi Elazar is saying not so much: Learn Torah and the rabbinic tools of Torah interpretation and what to say to an apikoros. He’s saying: Learn Torah and the rabbinic tools of Torah interpretation in order to know what to say to the biblical Jew, to bring them along. That’s what we need to do, to make sure that this new Torah vision of ours takes hold.

At SVARA we’re going to do our best to make sure that we raise up a generation of sages who are, once again, rediscovering and actually using Talmud for liberatory world-building—and then passing it down as such not just to their children, but to their children’s children. Three generations each!

But how did this precious world-building toolbox and agenda of the Talmud get lost in the first place? Who were those “two generations” who refused–or failed, for whatever reason–to transmit this very radical technology of talmudic world-building and community organizing to the next two generations, causing it to be lost for over 1,000 years? 

I have a hypothesis. Stay tuned for Part III! 

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