Cover Story

Virtual reality?

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

Menahoth 110a of the Babylonian Talmud spells out one point, quoting Rabbi Johanan's statement that studying the laws of Temple service is the equivalent of actually carrying them out. Donald Akenson's book, Surpassing Wonder, quotes that statement as evidence of Talmudic teaching that God counts as a virtual sacrifice the recitation of material about the sacrifices of old. A sacrifice studied was a sacrifice made: In God's eyes, the study was as meritorious as a sacrifice made in reality.

Mr. Akenson notes that the Babylonian Talmud even includes a passage in which Abraham asks God what He will do when Israel sins against Him. God says that appropriate animal sacrifices will suffice. Abraham then asks (curiously, since the Temple then had not yet been built), "What about the time when there is no longer a Temple?" God says He will provide in advance for that: The Torah will describe the procedure for sacrifice, and when scholars study that they will be forgiven their sins because it will be as if they were offering up the sacrifices physically.

The Akenson thesis is provocative, but to build on it the idea that Jews for centuries were avoiding life around them and constructing a virtual reality is taking it a bridge too far. After all, the Talmud is largely about dealing with moral problems (such as the utility and legality of divorce) that persist from age to age, and even sections that deal with ceremonial law relate to moral dilemmas. Besides, Jews year after year hoped for the imminent arrival of the Messiah, so they wanted to be ready to construct and maintain a third Temple. And while they were waiting, every Jewish home was to become a small temple, with every table set for a Sabbath meal seen as an altar.

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So there were practical reasons to engage in what from the outside looked like dire impracticality. But Talmud study was also mental ski-jumping, training the mind to stay focused and the body to be poised yet relaxed, regardless of the winds buffeting a person in mid-air. Jewish boys were to study throughout the day, and adult males were to study whenever they could. The exemplary shaper of what became Talmudic Judaism was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, said to be so righteous that he never walked more than four cubits-two yards!-without studying and thinking about the Torah.

The discipline of Talmud study-patience, persistence, and sometimes pugnacity in arguing a point-was also said to carry over into life generally. It's been observed often, but is nevertheless true, that Christianity emphasizes change from the inside out but Judaism is more from the outside in. Rabbis in essence tell their followers: Change your behavior, and your heart will eventually change; observe rituals before you know why, and understanding will come. Study without works is dead, because real religion is religion of the deed. Orthodox Jews deny Christian charges of legalism in their relations to God but emphatically admit to legalism in man-to-man relations, and the Talmud explains the law with its nuances.

So Talmud study is said to lead to right action-and study of anything outside of Judaism, particularly anything associated with Christianity, would lead to evil. Pressure from without and then from within created separate Jewish societies with little knowledge of trends outside Judaism. Periodically, some younger Jews tried to move away from the separatist emphasis, but rabbis tried hard to quash such attempts. In 1305 Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet of Barcelona, concerned that some bright young people were stepping out, proscribed studying of philosophy and science by anyone under the age of 25. His influence led to bans of that sort in many Jewish communities. Generation after generation, Jews studied the Talmud so much and held it in such high esteem that the Jewish vision of heaven became a place where adults, freed from having to earn a living, could study it all day long.

And in this life, rabbis saw God as honoring the diligent student. Pirke Aboth (Sayings of the Fathers), the best-loved section of the Mishnah, quotes Rabbi Nethunia stating, "Whoso receives upon himself the yoke of the Torah, from him the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care will be removed." It quotes Rabbi Jacob saying, "He who is walking by the way and studying, and breaks off his study and says, 'How fine is that tree ... ,' him Scripture regards as if he had forfeited his life." It indicates that, "If even one person diligently occupies himself with the Torah, [God] appoints unto him a reward."

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