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An Introduction to the World of the Talmud and Other Rabbinical Writings

jan peczkis|Thursday, July 30, 2015

There is a wealth of information in this detailed work by Talmudic scholar Abraham Cohen, and I focus on a few items of lasting interest. [In addition, please see the first comment under this review.] My review is based on the original 1949 edition.



I have read the verses, in the online Babylonian Talmud (Soncino Edition), that I specifically cite below, in order to familiarize myself with them and to see their proper context. However, not all of the material mentioned below comes from the Talmud itself. Some comes from other Rabbinical sources. Whenever possible, I have read them also.

INTERESTING RELIGIOUS INFORMATION

According to the Talmud:

The Book of Genesis teaches CREATION EX NIHILO. (p. 29). The Earth is several thousand years old. (p. 356).

The sins of the fathers may or may not be visited on descendants depending upon whether or not the sinful behavior persists over a number of generations. (p. 115). This resolves an apparent contradiction in the Bible.

Women are prone to witchcraft. (p. 161).

As in the Old Testament, polygamy is tolerated. (p. 166).

LEX TALIONIS refers to financial compensation for wrongs, not a literal “eye for eye”. For instance, it would be impossible for a blind person, who put out someone else’s eye, to be literally punished with the loss of the sight of his own eye. (p. 227).

As much as possible, animals are to be treated with compassion. (pp. 235-236).

HISTORICALLY-SIGNIFICANT INFORMATION

There are two main Talmudic schools of thought on the propriety of divorce. One, the School of Shammai, confessedly converges with the teachings of Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:9) on the indissolubility of marriage except in cases of adultery. (p. 167). On the other hand, the School of Hillel allows divorce for even the most trivial of reasons, such as when the man no longer finds his wife attractive, or if she has spoiled his meal while cooking it. (p. 167). [The latter may partly explain why many Catholics thought of Jewish (Talmudic) ethics as inferior to Catholic ethics.]

As for Jewish jurisprudence, there were two Sanhedrins. One was political, and the other religious. (p. 299).

The author cites Talmudic, and other Rabbinical, passages on shopkeeping and usury being “thieving occupations”. (pp. 195-196). [This is ironic, as Jews later majored in these occupations, and were, for this very reason, often accused of being cheats and parasites.]

Cohen mentions “The law of the land is law”. (Baba Kamah 113a). (p. 190). [This Talmudic passage, DINA DE'MALKHUTA DINA, was used by Poland’s Jews to justify Jewish allegiance to the foreign powers ruling over Poland after the Partitions of Poland (1795-1918) and to justify their usual refusal to support Polish independentist efforts.]

One Rabbinic passage deals with the issue of whether it is ever acceptable for Jews to turn over one of their own, to the gentiles, so that the remainder of the Jews is not put to death. (p. 99). [These verses came up during the Holocaust. The JUDENRAETE had to decide whether or not to comply with Nazi German orders to ship some Jews to their deaths in the hope that the Nazis would be placated, and would spare the remaining Jews.]

The author does not mention Christianity in the Talmud itself. However, he does mention a passage in Numbers Rabbah (xiv, 10). The word “Ishmaelites” is identified by Cohen as an obvious code word for Christians, done in order to circumvent the censor. (p. 147).

JEWISH UNIVERSALISM

In dealing with controversial passages in the Talmud, I follow a Judeo-realist approach. In doing so, I try my best to avoid the extremes of anti-Semitism (making false or unsubstantiated accusations against Jews) and philo-Semitism (treating Jews as incapable of wrong thinking or action.). That is where I stand. Take it or leave it.

The Talmud contains both universal and exclusivist concepts, and one does not negate the other. (See (NV) in the first comment under this review.) Author Abraham Cohen emphasizes the universal aspects of traditional Judaism. However, he realizes that even the universalism taught in the Talmud was not a given. He comments, (quote) On the question whether Gentiles will share in the Hereafter there was not an agreed opinion. “R. Eliezer declared, ‘No Gentiles will share in the world to come…’” (unquote). (p. 369). R. Joshua disagreed, promoting a universalist view of salvation based on ethical living, and not on whether or not one was Jewish. This was later picked up by Maimonides, and became the official Jewish doctrine on this matter. (p. 369).

THE “KILL THE BEST OF THE GENTILES” VERSES

Cohen quotes this from Mechilta/Mekhilta. (p. 66). He attributes the verses to R. Simeon b. Jochai, and exonerates the statements based on Jochai’s life under the Hadrianic persecutions. Jochai is said to have seen his favorite teacher, R. Akiba, fiendishly tortured by the Romans, after which Jochai hid in a cave for 13 years. (p. 66; See also p. 231).

Clearly, Cohen is attributing the verses to personal opinions (OV) and situational events (SV) [See first comment.] In this case, his argument is persuasive. However, he does not explain if these verses have any usage in Jewish life beyond the recollection of onetime historical events.

The informed reader realizes that the early Christians were also subject to hideous tortures, and martyrdom, by the Romans. Yet there are no New Testament verses calling upon Christians to kill the best of the Romans.

DIFFERING TRANSLATIONS

Cohen writes, (quote) The harsh sayings which are occasionally found in the Talmud with respect to non-Jews often spring from the conviction that “Gentiles are addicted to licentiousness” (Jebamoth 98a). The Rabbis were revolted by the low standards of conduct that they saw practiced around them and were thankful for the finer ideals which their religion offered them. (unquote). (p. 66). [The online Babylonian Talmud, for Yebamoth 98a, uses different wording.] Cohen tacitly assumes that he can read the minds of, or otherwise deduce the intentions of, the Rabbis. In any case, his exculpation, even if valid, is hollow. Surely the Rabbis knew that Jews had no monopoly on virtue and the GOYIM had no monopoly on vice.

Let us make this clearer. Imagine a white commentator, overlooking the good people who are African-Americans, and feeling revolted by what he considered the low standards of conduct exhibited by other African-Americans, making the blanket generalization, and racist statement, that “African-Americans are addicted to licentiousness.”

On another subject, the author translates Menachoth 43b as saying that the man thanks God for making him an Israelite, and for not making him a woman or a boor. (p. 159). However, the online Babylonian Talmud translates the first part of the passage as thankfully saying “who has not made me a heathen.” The Prayer Book says “Who has not made me a heathen, a slave, a woman.” (p. 159). Cohen justifies these passages through the Israel-Torah relationship, which is elaborated in the ensuing paragraphs.

THE ISRAEL-TORAH RELATIONSHIP: UNLIMITED IMPLICATIONS

With regards to the following quote, Gen. R. [Genesis Rabbah] and Lev. R. [Leviticus Rabbah], refer to the extra-Talmudic (and probably post-Talmudic) Midrash Rabba. On the other hand, the tractate Ta’anith is part of the Talmud. The issues revolve around the implications of Jewish Chosenness, which are not, as often claimed, limited to Jews having extra duties to God.

Cohen writes, (quote) The main responsibility of Israel is the guardianship of the Torah, the Divine Revelation. Since the purpose of the world’s creation was the glorification of God’s name through the medium of the Torah, and Israel was to be its recipient, it follows that “Israel was in the thought of God before the creation of the Universe” (Gen. R. 1.4), that “Heaven and earth were only created through the merit of Israel” (Lev. R. xxxvi. 4), and “As the world could not exist without the winds, so is it impossible for the world to exist without Israel” (Taa’anith 3b). No self-glorification is here meant, since the sayings refer only to Israel as the guardian of the Torah and therefore state a spiritual fact. (unquote). (pp. 60-61).

Oh, no? How could the ancient Jew even IMAGINE that God needed the Jewish people, for the creation of the world, unless he believed, at some level, that Jews are superior to the GOYIM?

To believe that God wants to favor a particular people, in some general way, as the Chosen People, is one thing. To believe that this presumed Chosenness goes as far as God creating the world, through the fact of, or the merit of, the Chosen People, is quite another! The latter does not logically follow from the former.

To believe that there exists a special Torah-Israel relationship is one thing. To believe that the very existence of heaven and earth is dependent upon the existence of Israel is quite another! The latter does not logically follow from the former.

Instead, it seems that Jewish supremacist thinking is riding piggyback on the inferred Torah-Israel relationship. Imagine the white supremacist seriously suggesting that the existence of the Universe, including that of Earth, was dependent upon the existence of white people. Framing it in religious terms would not change its racist essence.

There is more to all this. Clearly, the Torah-Israel relationship is, or can become, an all-purpose standby explanation (or exculpation) that can be invoked to justify practically any statement in the Talmud.

A GENTILE STUDYING THE TORAH DESERVES DEATH. WHY?

Author Abraham Cohen cites a series of passages that he contends are universalistic with regards to Jews and non-Jews. He then comments, (quote) On the other hand, it must be admitted that we do occasionally meet with dicta which breathe a very different spirit. Typical examples are: “A Gentile who occupies himself with the study of the Torah is deserving of death; as it is said, “Moses commanded us a Torah, an inheritance for the assembly of Israel” (Deuteronomy xxxiii. 4)—the inheritance is for us, not for them”. (Sanhedrin 59a)…In all probability such declarations as these were called forth by the rise of the Christian Church whose members also studied the Scriptures and claimed that the Divine Grace rested upon them. (unquote). (p. 63).

The tone of Cohen’s statement is clearly speculative and exculpatory. In addition, it is a non sequitur. Surely, the justified killing of a Torah-studying gentile does not follow from a concern about what Christians believe. [See also (PV) in the first comment under this review.] It would make sense to execute a GOY for trying to destroy a Torah scroll, or, given the spirit of the times, even for showing disrespect to the Torah. But for studying it? Come on!
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