I'm involved in an ongoing effort to read the literature of the World's major religions, especially Judaism, so that: 1.) I can understand it accurately, 2) evaluate it correctly, 3.) expound it appropriately, 4.) respond to it competently and convincingly, and 5.) keep others from having to do so, that they may be able to focus on the truth, i.e. the Bible.
The writings of Jewish religious leaders are of particular interest, because they help some with biblical background studies. The Old Testament (Tanakh/תנ"ך), especially the Torah, was/is the text of primary importance for Jewish religion, and until the destruction of the second Temple in AD 70, its exposition and the tradition surrounding it were oral in nature (passed on without being committed to writing). Jesus was a Jew, born into this tradition, and much of the Gospels show His interaction within this religious context as developed in His day. His lively interactions with Jewish leaders are often connected to the discontinuity between the Torah (and OT generally) and Jewish oral tradition, and are regularly nuanced such that understanding Jewish/Rabbinic law is not only informative, but sometimes resolves conundra that otherwise remain elusive.
Also, the Apostle Paul was trained in the school of Gamaliel, one of the most venerated Rabbi's in history (comparing the discontinuity between Paul’s teaching and Talmud is striking). Of Gamaliel, the Mishna states, "Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time" (Sotah, 15:9)
Interestingly, the destruction of the second Temple changed Jewish religion, law, and scholarship, requiring Jews to develop written texts to preserve the oral tradition. This is where the Talmud comes into play. After the destruction of the temple, Jewish religious leaders quickly realized that their oral tradition must be preserved, and so they began doing so in the writings of the Talmud (dwmlt). The Hebrew verb variously translated “to learn/teach” is based on the root lamad (dml, cf. Ec. 12:9). The Hebrew noun for “what is taught/teaching” is a modified form of this word, i.e. Talmud. The Talmud, then, contains the written record of the oral law as it developed, and shows where Jewish leaders developed/taught their views on theology, philosophy, ethics, history, law, customs, mysticism, etc. [Note: the background of this blog site is a photo of my own copy of volume 1 of the Talmud with the green letters (ylbb dwmlt), Talmud Bevaly, i.e. Babylonian Talmud]
A New Testament Example
There are many examples where Jesus acted in a manner fully consistent with the OT law, but in a way contrary to the oral law of the Jewish religious leaders, something that incited their murderous ire. Reading the Talmud brings clarity on some of these interactions. One example I have brought out in my preaching is from John 5, which documents Christ’s healing of the man at Bethesda (cf. John 5:10-12). Note that in vs. 10, the Pharisees had a problem with the man carrying his palate on the Sabbath. They state, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.”
What is striking about this is that not only have the Pharisees missed the point of the Sabbath (cf. Mark 2:27, 28), but when confronted with this situation, they chose an unnecessarily hard line, even by their own standards. As later written in the Talmud, we see their law making an exception for precisely this kind of scenario. In the section on Shabbath, fol 151, col. 2, we read “When a man is dangerously ill, the law grants dispensation, for it says, ‘You may break one Sabbath on his behalf, that he may be preserved to keep many Sabbaths.’” Note that here priority is given to the preservation of life. The situational hostility of the Pharisees in John 5 illustrates their fundamental problem (cf. John 5:42-47).
Warning and Exhortation
Having said all of this, I am reminded of a warning and exhortation made by one expert in Judaic literature, who said of the Talmud, “In it is trash and treasure.” He goes on to state that in the 16th century, Benedictine Monks “made a particular determined effort to destroy it.” However, the biblical language specialist John Reuchlin told his peers, “Do not condemn the Talmud before you understand it. Burning is no argument. Instead of burning all Jewish literature, it were better to found chairs in the universities for its exposition.” This is an attitude that would serve us all well.
It seems to me that in the modern climate, the table has taken a dramatic turn. Secular academic elites would prefer to banish and/or prejudicially vilify the Bible rather than understand it as expounded by its most capable expositors and defenders. In the spirit of Reuchlin, do not condemn the Bible before you understand it. Burning is no argument. Instead of burning (even taken as a metaphor) Christian literature, study at the feet of Christ and invite Him to be your teacher. This is also an appropriate reminder for us Christians.
In my recent reading of the Talmud, I found several nuggets of treasure for stimulating reflection. The following are some of those excerpts which show some of the wisdom to be gleaned from this ancient text. You’ll note a couple of key features: 1.) for pedagogical and taxonomical purposes, they express categories of virtue in groups of four; 2.) they combine rhetorical expression with wisdom and desire for piety. Let me encourage you to reflect on these, particularly noting where these reflect biblical wisdom, and/or spiritual experience.
Communion with God as Paradise
"The Talmud states that, 'Four men entered paradise—these are there names:--Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva” (hagigah, fol. 14, col. 2). 'Maimonides … teaches that the Paradise or garden here is … the retreat of profound philosophic meditation. These five … [reflections] were: 1.) To know that there is a God; 2.) to ignore every other beside Him; 3.) to feel His unity; 4.) to love His person; and 5.) to stand in awe of His Majesty (Vad Hachaz, chap. 4, sec. 19). Deep thought in these matters was spoken of by the Rabbis as promenading in the garden” ( _ Hebraic Literature_).
Note: In this respect, I think we (Christians) can all identify with Maimonides on the splendor of meditation on God. It must be remembered, though, that one can have an existential religious experience, be able to produce architectonic theological formulations, bask in the joys of profound philosophical meditation, yet still fail to know Christ savingly. In this regard, this should be a warning to us all.
Characters of Men Reflected in Attitudes about Possessions (From Nedarin, fol. 64, col. 2.)
“Four things mark the characters of men:--He who says what is mine is mine, and what is thine is thine, is, according to some, a moderate man, but, according to others, a child of Sodom; he who says what is mine is thine, and what is thine is mine, is an ignorant man; he who says what is mine is thine and what is thy own is also thine, is a pious man; he who says mine and thine are both my own, is a wicked man.”
Note: I recently used this in a Facebook post to make a point rhetorically. I posted the above but added the line, “For this, I'll probably get audited to prove what is mine is actually thine.”
Characters of Men Reflected by their Passions (Avoth, chap. 5, sec. 16.)
"There are four kinds of men, according to their degrees of passionateness:--He who is easily provoked and as readily pacified, and who loses more than he gains; he whom it is difficult to rouse and as difficult to appease, and who gains more than he loses; he who is not readily provoked, but easily pacified, who is a pious man; he who is easily provoked and with difficulty appeased, who is a wicked man."
Characters of Men Reflected in their Generosity (Ibid., chap. 5, sec. 19 )
"There are four classes of men who give alms, and they are thus distinguished:--He who is willing to give, but unwilling that others should do so, he has an evil eye toward others; he who wishes others to give, but does not do so himself, he has an evil eye toward himself; he who gives, and induces others to give, he is pious; he who gives not, nor wishes others to give he is wicked."
Characters Of Men Reflected in their Learning (Avoth, chap 5, sec. 19)
"There are four marks by which one disciple differs from another:--One learns and does not teach, one teaches and does not learn, one learns and teaches, and one neither learns nor teaches."
Characters of Men Reflected in their Teleology (Avoth d'Rab Nathan, chap. 29)
"Four things, if kept in view and gravely pondered over, deter from sin:--That a man consider whence he cometh, whither he goeth, who the judge will be, and what the future will bring to pass."