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The Canadian Jeiwsh News

Thursday, July 30, 2015

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Research for life choices

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In this week’s CJN, we publish an interview by The Times of Israel correspondent Raphael Aren with the revolutionary Jerusalem scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

In his typically pointed and iconoclastic manner, Rabbi Steinsaltz expounds upon the far-reaching personal potential to be found in study of and familiarity with, at least to some degree, the Talmud, which for him can be an effective and even magisterial way to develop human character and particularly Jewish, human character.

“Dealing with Talmud is like doing psychoanalysis. At least you’re beginning to understand what you are,” Rav Steinsaltz told Aren. (Our emphasis) “No part of Jewish culture, on any level, is without some sort of connection to the Talmud, he added.”

Later in the interview, Aren summarizes one of the rav’s key messages about the study of Talmud: “Once a student understands that learning Gemara is not necessarily about the actual subject the rabbis are discussing but understanding axioms, he can tackle any other problem.”

When he speaks about study of the Talmud, Rav Steinsaltz ought to be listened to. He is one of the world’s pre-eminent talmudic authorities, as Aren points out.

Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd. recently published an elegant new English translation of Rav Steinsaltz’s Hebrew edition of the Talmud. (Elsewhere in this edition of the paper, Prof. Martin Lockshin reviews it.)

The main reason that Rav Steinsaltz has laboured for decades to provide a more accessible but no less authoritative version of the Talmud was, as he once succinctly phrased it to “let my people learn.” As with all great teachers, he has provided pathways for individuals to walk on their own. He has opened windows through which people might look and possibly see new and startlingly revelatory things.

Because so many of us formed early opinions about Judaism as a severe culture primarily of prohibitions, we tended to back away in later life from even casual curiosity about investigating more of it. So many of us made decisions about the way in which we would live Jewishly without actually knowing too much about the options available. In no other realm of our lives, however, would we make decisions, let alone momentous ones, without first doing the research, without getting the basic information on the subject.

And yet, when it comes to leading a Jewish life – I am categorically not referring here to the leading of a religiously observant life – so many of us simply cast aside the rich history, literature, heritage, customs and values of our storied people without first researching what it is we are casting aside.

Rav Steinsaltz has dedicated the larger part of his life to providing us with personal learning opportunities and resources to do that preliminary research. The new Koren Talmud Bavli is one quite spectacular resource.

There are countless others, although not on as grand a scale as the Talmud Bavli. For example, Maggid Press, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd, has recently published a three-volume work by Rabbi Binyamin Lau called The Sages.