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The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to…

The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud

by Dov Peretz Elkins

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From the virtually endless text of the Talmud, Elkins has selected a handful of aphorisms to elaborate upon. Each very brief segment begins with a one or two line Talmudic quotation, and is followed with a few pages of observations on the wisdom of the passage. The material is excellent, his selections are good ones, and his writing style effective - simple and easy to read quickly. Jewish values are not the same as Jewish rituals or customs. The reader will find that Jewish values are, in nearly all cases, the same as Christian or Muslim values. (At least is we dismiss the right wing extremists in any of the three religions.)

The only drawback was that for a good many of these quotes, Elkin's little essay or mediation, did little to elaborate beyond what the quote said in the first place. "Teach your tongue to say 'I don't know'" (Berakhot 4a) is not followed by anything that you haven't gathered intuitively from this Talmudic statement. The majority of the chapters are enlightening, I was just disappointed that all were not. ( )
  fingerpost | Dec 29, 2011 |
The Bible in Leviticus 19: 34 states that people must love others as they love themselves. Rabbi Akiva, one of the most important Talmudic rabbis, wrote that love of others is a basic principle of the Torah. Jesus said this as well. The sage Hillel who lived in the beginning of the common era rephrased the teaching in an easier to comply negative way, do not do to others what you feel is harmful to yourself. The Talmud has dozens of examples of this important teaching.

Rabbi Elkin offers over fifty short essays on over fifty different values discussed in the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of sixty-three books made up of legal discussions and aggadah. Aggadah is “folklore, myths, legends, stories, moral aphorisms, and other nonbinding advice and nonsystematic theology. The wisdom in these pages,” he writes, “comes from the second category.” He states that his objective “is to show you that the ancient rabbis were concerned most of all with living the good life.” His book won the National Jewish Book Award.

The Talmud, for example, stresses in Sotah 14a, that kindness is so important that “the Torah begins and ends with acts of loving kindness.” In Genesis, God clothes the naked Adam and Eve, and in Deuteronomy, at the end of the Torah, God buries Moses. Elkins writes that the rabbis considered kindness “the essence of Judaism,” for the essence of Judaism “is what we do for others.”

Thus, the Talmud states in Bava Metzia 58b that “whoever shames another in public is like one who sheds blood” and in Sotah 49b that “giving charity is greater than all the sacrifices in the world” and “charity is only complete when it comes with kindness.” But kindness is not restricted to humans. Gittin 62a states: “One must not put any food in one’s mouth until the animals have been fed.”

The rabbis also emphasized that learning is important. In Bava Batra 12a, they say that a child born of an illegal marriage who is learned is superior to a high priest who is an ignoramus.

Elkins discusses four dozen other values, such as moderation, personal growth, the golden rule, peace, justice, humility, flexibility, self reliance, marriage, love, and the value of physical labor.

Yet, while stressing proper behavior, the Talmudic rabbis never implied that ritual is unimportant. People must establish a proper balance between ritual and behavior. They must be careful not to stray too far in either direction. Elkins quotes the scholar Maurice Samuel who wrote that trying to be a good person while ignoring the rituals and ceremonies that reinforce the behavior is like a beautiful rose that has been plucked from its roots. He also notes that the Orthodox Rabbi Emanuel Rackman mocked the occupants of an apartment building who disallowed Jews to have an apartment in the building if they were Sabbath violators; yet they didn’t care if the potential occupant was a bank robber or a drug dealer.
  iddrazin | Apr 28, 2011 |
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