Monday, January 19, 2015

"The Talmud" by Harry Freedman (2104)

Get ready to relearn some of the things you think you already know about the Talmud with this exciting and compelling book by author Harry Freedman. It’s exciting because the Talmud is often confusing to people who are not of the Jewish faith; prompting some to ask me where they can get a “Jewish Bible.” I usually answer “Well, just rip the last 300 or so pages out of your King James Version and you’ll have a Jewish bible.” But that doesn’t really explain much. This book does a better job of it than I do.

The reason for the confusion is simple enough. Many Jews; Rabbi’s included; often tell stories from the Mishnah or the Talmud, which lead the listener to think they are hearing stories from a Jewish Bible. A few years ago I went to a temple to see a lecture on Judaism which was aimed at non-Jews. The audience was left in the dust as soon as the Rabbi began relating stories from the Mishnah and Talmud, giving them the full weight of Biblical stories and confusing the audience in the process.

The importance of this book is that it serves as a ground level entry for the seriously interested; or confused; where the Jewish faith is concerned. The Talmud is simply a codification of the first 5 Books of Moses which comprise the Jewish Torah. It is often referred to as the Old Testament; unless you’re Jewish. Then it’s simply the Torah.

The Talmud goes hand in hand with the Mishnah in that it explains further the traditions and meanings behind the Commandments spelled out in the Torah itself. These are the explanations behind the 613 Commandments contained in the Torah. And you thought it was hard enough to keep only 10! These explanations are akin to the Christian Parables. While they may not be the actual word of God, they are important in the understanding of the New Testament and the things which Jesus did. The same is true of the Talmud.

The author very carefully goes though the history behind the Talmud, beginning with the Torah; or the 5 Books of Moses; which was handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai some 3,000 years ago. That was called the written law. But the next step was the “oral law”, which was not transcribed but verbally transmitted by Moses to Joshua in the desert after Mt. Sinai. Think of this as Moses telling Joshua all the details of his encounter with the God of Abraham.

Next there came the Mishnah, in about 100B.C. This was a codification of the 5 Books of Moses and it would be written and reworked for over 2 centuries, until about 100 A.D. This codification explained just how to accomplish the 613 commandments in the Bible. It is divided into 63 sections and is the forerunner to the Talmud itself, which first made its appearance around 150 A.D. during the Roman occupation of the Holy Land. This is known as the Jerusalem Talmud, not to be confused with the later Babylonian Talmud, which was written between the years 230 and 500 A.D.

The book also gives great insight into the differences between the Saducees and the Pharisees. These 2 sects were somewhat akin to the differences between Conservatives and Liberal, with the Saducees, who had assimilated with the Romans, believing only in the Torah and not the Oral Law or the Mishnah, making them kind of like today’s Conservatives. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the Torah and the Mishnah. They believed that the two went hand in hand, with the Mishnah guiding the understanding of the Torah. Kind of like the “living Constitution” in which today’s Liberals believe.

The author takes the history all the way forward through the centuries, examining each of the times in the world’s history when we almost lost the Talmud, along with the race of people who were chosen to receive the Torah. For those who wonder why that is of any importance this book will both educate and enlighten you. 

You needn’t be Jewish to enjoy this book; it has much to offer in the way of explaining today’s religious differences, many of which drive today’s world politics. That’s the part which makes it compelling.

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