On most Saturday afternoons, I get together with a group of friends to study Talmud—the ancient, massive, intricate text that explores the nuances and implications of what orthodox Jews regard as divine law. Sunday mornings I go to church.
The combination isn’t as eccentric as it seems. I’m a Jew by ethnicity and heritage, a Unitarian Universalist by faith and affiliation. “UUism” (yu-yu-ism), as we fondly call it, is a religion that makes no demand to cut off from your religious past. Rather, it challenges you to think through what that past means for your life today, your spiritual development, your service to the world.
I remain deeply rooted in my Jewish past. For 24 years I taught Judaic Studies at the University of North Carolina. I have a deep emotional tie to the people and nation of Israel. With the Hebrew language, I feel a particular bond. It’s one of my greatest joys that I read Hebrew fluently, speak it passably. Among my books, the dearest to me is my 17-volume Thesaurus of Hebrew by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who more than any other single person was responsible for the miracle of the revival (or re-invention) of Hebrew as a modern spoken language.
So on Sabbaths I study Talmud, as Jews have for centuries. It means as much to me as the UU worship service the next morning.
When I taught at the university, my students used to ask: why Talmud? Why don’t Jews make it an act of religious devotion to study the Old Testament? Isn’t the Scripture more central to Judaism than the Talmud?
Sure it’s more central. But it isn’t the Talmud.
The basic unit of Talmudic discussion, the “sugya,” is almost like a dance, with its assertions and questionings and playing off sources one against the other, its back-and-forths, its resolutions that usually open the door to more questions. A dance—formally structured, each sugya in a pattern familiar from others you’ve studied, yet not quite like them, as no two snowflakes are quite the same. To study the sugya is to be caught up in the dance.
My friend Professor Marc Bregman, of UNC-Greensboro, writes me from Israel: For a really accomplished Talmud scholar, “a sugya is like a whole symphony and the scholar is like the conductor or even composer. It is said that Mozart and others like him could conceive of a whole symphony, not in the time it takes to play it, but in an instant—the whole complex piece of music completely present in their minds. That’s the way the master scholars do Talmud. A sugya is not a linear discussion but a whole organic mechanism that they see working and then analyze where something unusual is going on—like master mechanics.”
I’m not a master Talmud scholar. I never will be. My own association is not with a symphony but with the martial art Taekwondo, which I practiced back in the 90s—albeit with far less aptitude than I have for Talmud. We spent much of our time learning a series of “forms,” sequences of punches, kicks, blocks and the like, which repeated themselves symmetrically. (What you first do with your left side, you later do with your right.) When it was working, when I was caught up in it, I occasionally felt myself become one with the form. The way I’ve felt myself become one with the sugya.
The sugya transcends time and space. It spans the generations. So, while you’re immersed in it, do you.
In this lies a species of immortality.
In this lies a species of salvation.