A new literary project caught my eye over the last few days. Two of my friends, Leah Vincent and Sam Katz, have teamed up with Aya Rose, and are trying to publish a book called “Legends of the Talmud.”
People often assume that Orthodox Judaism is a religion based on the Five Books of Moses. Of course it is, in a sense, but the People of the Book actually have a different book that forms that basis of the religion. That book is the Talmud.
The Talmud is the primary text of Orthodox Judaism. The Bible requires interpretation and Orthodox Judaism relies on the interpretations of the Talmud. Personally, I think when it’s taught the right way, Talmud can be for everyone. One can have a spiritual experience swimming in the sea of the Talmud. It should be that way for everyone and it can be that way for everyone. From a halachic perspective, experiencing Talmud discourse and participating in the process, is a valuable experience for anyone.
It’s not just in matters of law and ritual that the Talmud influences Orthodox Judaism, social mores, ethics, philosophy, and many other non-legal aspects of Orthodox Judaism find their source in the Talmud as well. Perhaps above all, story telling is the hallmark of the non-legal sections of the Talmud. Rabbis and political figures, Biblical characters, and legendary heroes come to life on the pages of the Talmud through the stories told about these figures.
“Legends of the Talmud” seeks to bring some of these stories to a modern, younger audience that is thirsty for stories with ancient and religious themes. The “Myths, Folktales, and Fairy Tales” genre for children lacks authentic Jewish content. Artscroll somewhat fills the need for Orthodox children, but not all their publications are accessible and acceptable to the non-Orthodox. “Legends of the Talmud” might be able to fill that niche.
Many Orthodox Jews are probably wondering why non-Orthodox Jews would write a book like this and why they would read a book like this. There is a movement, especially in Israel, for non-Orthodox Jews to study Talmud seriously. MK Ruth Calderon, famously champions this idea. I have my own theories and ideas about the interest that non-Orthodox Jews take in the Talmud, but I was fortunate to have some time to talk with Sam Katz about these issues and more.
Sam is one of those people who is very passionate about Talmud. In his own words, “nothing compares to the Talmud. It’s moiradik!” He cited Carl Sagan’s famous retort when he was asked why he made The Cosmos to bring science to the public. Sagan said “when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” Sam is in love with the Talmud and it comes through when talking about the Talmud with him. In one sense, that answers the question. If you love Talmud, you want to share it. Observance is unrelated to enjoying Talmud study.
For Sam, the journey of writing this book fixed some of the flaws of his yeshiva education. Something I experienced at Ner Israel and Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, was the willingness to take Aggada seriously and analyze the various opinions of certain rabbis in the context of other things they taught. Sam reported that this was taboo in the yeshiva he attended and he thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of working on this book.
One of the stories in the book is a conversation between Rabbi Yose and a Roman Matron. She asked him what God has been busy doing eve since the creation of the world. Rabbi Yose answered that God is playing matchmaker. The book offers no commentary on this story or any other of the stories in the book. I wondered what this story could mean to someone who didn’t actually believe that God was making shidduchim in Heaven. Sam told me what this story meant to him. Children often assume that marriage is easy and natural. They see their parents as a unit that only exists as a unit. They don’t imagine there is any way things could be different and children often struggle with understanding how their parents could have trouble getting along. Separation and divorce often baffle children. Children don’t appreciate the nuances and challenges of relationships, especially marriage. In Sam’s view, the Talmud is teaching us a lesson about marriage. It’s not easy. It’s not simple. God Himself is working on marriages because it is so important and so difficult.
Overall, the book has been an amazing experience for Sam. He was a Talmudphile when he was in yeshiva, and this has reignited his love for Talmud. Sam wants everyone to share in this wisdom and feel the warmth of the Talmud’s fire. But even more profoundly, the Talmud is our collective history and culture encapsulated in words. We all share the Talmud and by bringing it to non-Orthodox children through this book, Sam hopes to build a bridge that can create common language between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The stakes are even greater when families have Orthodox and non-Orthodox siblings and cousins who might be able to relate to each other through this book and others like it.
I wondered if Sam thought this book would appeal to a Orthodox audience and whether the more insular communities would allow this book in their homes and libraries. He felt that the translations should be perfectly acceptable but the illustrations might irk some people. I wish it could have been done in a way that works for everyone but I understand that it can be impossible to satisfy all needs. At the very least, as Sam reiterated, the book can open the doors of the Talmud to a new audience. Hopefully, will become part of the Jewish vocabulary of non-Orthodox Jew and inspire them to seek more of the Talmud’s wisdom.
You can help publish this book on Kickstarter. Click: Legends of the Talmud on Kickstarter
The Talmud is for Everyone http://t.co/tgUaKzNurd
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) June 25, 2014