Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Review: The Wisdom of the Talmud

My Sister-in-Law gifted me a 1950's copy of Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser's Wisdom of the Talmud. I was curious how a 70 year old book would explain a nearly 1500 year old text.

Most of what Bokser has to say about the content of the talmud lined up with what I've pieced together over the years. I was re-introduced to a number of our sages and I marveled at how their philosophies have endured throughout generations. When I consider that I can articulate points of view that after 10 or 20 years no longer make sense, it's all the more amazing that Rabbis of old got so much of it right.

Pursue peace, strive for humility, practice kindness, seek knowledge, provide education for all; these values are so familiar that they hardly seem worth articulating. And yet they were, and in a number of ways still are, revolutionary.

But what really blew my mind in Bokser's work were the chapters leading up to the content overview of the Talmud. These chapters provide a historic account that deftly shows how the Jewish people transitioned from biblical tribes to a centralized priestly religion to the loosely organized Rabbinical faith that we practice today. Bokser covers the people, events and critical changes that made this journey possible.

While I was familiar with many of the events and names that Bokser highlights, I'd not seen them connected in such a clear way. In short, I could grasp that there were both Biblical, Temple and Rabbinical versions of Judaism, but not how we smoothly flowed from one to the other.

Judaism tends to be a religion that focuses on continuity and adhering to traditional practices. Dietary restrictions, for example, aren't re-evaluated on a regular basis to keep them in line with modern sensibilities. Instead, they are derived from ancient texts and remain as unchanging as possible. And yet, as Bokser makes clear, it's only through change that the Jewish people were able to survive.

For example, without transitioning to a fixed calendar in 359 AD it would have been extraordinarily difficult to keep the dispersed communities' holidays in sync. Surely it felt wrong to abandon the procedure for determining dates based on observation and testimony; what with hundreds of years tradition behind the practice. And yet, acts like this are precisely what allowed Judaism to continue into the future.

Perhaps the highest complement I can pay to Bokser's text is this: once I finished reading the book, I immediately flipped back to the historic chapters to re-read them.

To connect the dots of my ancestor's history wasn't something I'd previously considered. Now I wonder why I didn't search this information out sooner.

Thanks Sis, what a treat this book turned out to be!

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