Being tested by the text

By Giles Fraser
June 21, 2009

I have recently begun a commitment to regular Talmudic study with a friend who is a rabbi. There is nothing quite as useful as learning how another faith tradition approaches its holy books to help you see the strengths and weaknesses of your own way of doing things.

Talmud began as the writing down of the oral traditions of Jewish law and lore, probably as a crisis-response to the destruction of the Temple in the first century AD. These traditions were then commented on and interpreted by scholars. And then these interpretations were them­­selves analysed.

All of this was rolled up in a huge carpet-bag of a book, two-and-a-half million words of more or less or­ganised sayings and wisdom, which for centuries has formed the basis of Jewish community life. While the Bible is the bedrock of the Jewish faith, the Talmud seeks to apply it to the practical circum­stances of every­day life.

What I think I am going to love about studying Talmud is the pro­found encouragement to inter­activity. The traditional method of study is in pairs, with a chavruta — literally, a friend. And when you study together, you read out loud and discuss it out loud.

Indeed, the Talmud itself is a discussion, and to take part in that discussion feels like entering into the nature of the book itself. Just as Talmud is a living, changing entity, so, too, the discussion of the book is the way the book extends itself deeper into modern life.

As the great modern talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has put it: “Every­body that was or is or will be a participant [in this discussion] is, so to say, seated at the same table.”

What is fascinating about all of this is that it deals so neatly with the anxiety people like me have about the conjunction of law and religion — specifically, the worry that an em­pha­sis on a spirituality of obedience is all about doing as you are told and not asking too many questions.

Poverty, chastity, and obedience may be the three counsels of per­fection, but when obedience is simply the imposition of some external law — like it or lump it, without the possibility of interaction — it feels more like a spirituality for spaniels than intelligent believers, Jewish or Christian.

I am no great fan of Paul Tillich, but he spoke of pathologies of both autonomy (I do as I like), and heteronomy (the imposition of some outside agency) as being overcome in something he called “theonomy”, where God’s will and my own questioning being are not in conflict.

Talmudic study opens the door to an understanding of obedience that does not crush the enquiring mind.


(c) Giles Fraser, currently Anglican Vicar of Putney in the Diocese of Southwark, is to be the next Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. This article is adapted from one in his Church Times column series, with acknowledgments.

Keywords:talmud | scripture | jews | jewish
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