Time to Write a New Talmud

talmudBy David J. Steiner, Ed.D.

Chronological proximity to Sinai was a short-lived fantasy that elevated certain texts to higher, more authoritative status among Jews. Memory was the dominant model for history. It still is, but memory has its shortcomings and can become irrelevant and even destructive to culture. Stories that were acceptable in the past are now received differently. Faith hasn’t completely been replaced by positivism, but the creed, “Ani ma’amin… I believe with full faith…” now requires the supplement of science and archaeology. Hindsight has prevailed as the 20/20 vision necessary to build a great society, and we need to apply this vision now more than ever or we will all become the modern equivalent of Karaites.

What I have to say here is not new at all. The most eloquent, somewhat recent, version came to us in pre-state Israel from Yeshayahu Leibowitz. At that time, he believed that if the Jewish people return to sovereignty, they will need a new Halakha to accommodate basic things like Jewish police and firemen working on Shabbat because not adapting to contemporary phenomenon and mores inherently compromises and even corrupts both the law and its devotees. He argued that in diaspora there is a Shabbos Goy, someone who can skirt the religious rules for us, but if we have a country of our own we need to change the rule book to accommodate new situations and responsibilities.

When our story “crashed,” as my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe teaches, and the promises of Torah did not pan out, some of us assumed that our prior beliefs were fine, and it was us who were causing our own suffering. These people largely do not exist as Jews today. Some of them decided to look for truth elsewhere. They became pagans, Christians or even atheists and built new lives for themselves. The rest of them chose to create a synthesis between the past and the present, between old faiths and new knowledge. In Jewish history only those who chose this hybrid won. They wrote our history by paving our future with fresh vision.

In each generation, there were three big issues that needed to be addressed; our relationship with land, our conduct, and our faith; in other words, the Land of Israel, the people of Israel and the source of power. Even the Torah is unclear about the size of the land gifted to the people. Likewise, it is unclear whether the Bible expects the same behavior from us within the borders of the land as it expects from us in our exile.

Today the Jewish people live in a symbiotic relationship between sovereignty and hyphenated Jewish identity. This is not a new phenomenon. The words, “Uri, tzafon, u’vo’i Teman, remind us that there was once a vital Jewish community living abroad while Jews ruled themselves in Eretz Yisrael, as our ancestors begged for their return. “By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion,” is not a lament of our sadness about living in diaspora. It is an expression of guilt. Life became good in exile. Scholarship excelled in Bavel while Jews were occupied and oppressed in their own land. The difference between then and now is how we addressed the gap between Jewish life on Jewish soil and Jewish life amidst the nations. While two Talmuds were written, Babylonian and Palestinian, they were both referenced as we extended the canon and continued to pave our way into the future. Only now in the post-enlightenment, post-Zionist era do some of us embrace the past as if it were more authoritative than the present. However, as Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit reminds us, the past cannot be revivified. We live in our times with our unique challenges. We cannot go back to the good old days. We waste our prayers when we petition, “… Hadesh yameinu k’kedem, renew our days like they were before.”

In a Jewish world of diverse beliefs and dispersed populations, in a time when the Jewish people are able to defend themselves against external threats, it is incumbent upon us to write a new book for this new chapter in Jewish life. In his time, Herzl worried about a Jewish problem, but Ahad Ha’am was right to raise the issue as Judaism’s problem. However, claimed Ahad Ha’Am, “Israel’s salvation will come through prophets not diplomats,” is only half right. In today’s world, with a Jewish state and an equally big diaspora, our salvation will come from both, and maybe it is better that it come from neither. In today’s world, with rampant corruption in the halls of Israeli government and an out of touch leadership in America’s Jewish institutions, maybe it is best to turn to the people and ask where it is they want to see the next generation of Jews and the compact that will lead them there.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is a mediator and educator in Chicago.