Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fallible Rabbis

The Talmud is arguably the most influential book in all of Jewish writing - and Jews have written many many books. The Torah (Pentatuch) of course ranks higher and is more seminal; the rest of the Bible only notionally so, I'd argue. Absent either Talmud or Torah and you have no Judaism; over the centuries, however, considerably more time has been invested in relating to the Talmud, and that's the sense in which I'm willing - a bit gingerly - to position the Talmud even higher than the Torah.

This year the 100,000 or more of us who do Daf Yomi have been doing the Nezikim tractates (Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and now Bava Batra); in many ways, these three, perhaps along with the Shabbat, Sanhedrin, and perhaps Kiddushin tractates are the most improtant of all 37 tractates.

What do these volumes, whch stand at the center of Judaism, mostly deal with (bearing in mind that all tractates wander all over the thematic landscape)? Not theology, as you might expect of the heart of an ancient religion; not how God relates to us and back. Nor even religious belief in any recognizably Protestant form, of Faith, say, or Destiny. The Nezikim tractates deal with civil law. What happens when my ox damages your vegetable patch. How do we know when a contract is valid. This month we've been discussing things like setting boundries between fields, respecting the neighbor's property, figuring out what happens when two people claim the same property. In a month or two we'll have a long look at the laws of inheritance. (I peeked).

Which means these discussions which stand at the heart of Judaism deal with the reality that people living together will have a lot to bicker about. Real people in the real world will have all sorts of differences about lots of things in their daily lives. This can't be changed or abolished, but hopefully it can be regulated.

It's not only the simple folk or the uneducated. The other day I passed the story of Rav Kahana, whose field was washed away in a flood, and who then rebuilt his fence on his neighbor's land. There's a medieaval scholar who explains he did this by mistake, but that's not the reading as I see it, since he was certain enough about it to be taken to court. The Gemara then tells both of the ruling that was handed down, but also of how Rav Kahana himself - as an important scholar - participated in the legal discussion of how such a case should be ruled. This is not the first time I've come across such a case, where an important scholar and religious leader is censured (or exonerated) for his earthly actions. Even important rabbis, leaders of their communities and figures of reverance for the following millennia, were real people, and they had real quarrels just like everybody else.

Bava Batra 41a-b. (Note for Soccerdad and the other eagle-eyed pedants: Yes, I know this is a few pages ahead of the schedule. I'm a progressive fellow).

Have I ever mentioned that this thread starts and is explained here? Well, it does.

1 comment:

Soccer Dad said...

Eagle eyed? I've never heard of an eagle wearing bifocals. :-)

My brother tries to stay a week ahead. (My chavrusa and I desperately try to keep up with the current Daf.) And anyone who studies at the OU offices is always a day ahead, since they record the shiur and put it on the web for everyone else the next day.

What's the famous story at the beginning of Berachos where an Amora's wine turned to vinegar because he got back at someone who was robbing him?