Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Talmudic Secrets EXPOSED!

I have recently gotten, somewhat unwittingly, into a short rhetorical tussle with Michael A. Hoffman, II. Yes, THAT, Michael Hoffman, author of "Judaism Discovered: A Study of the Anti-Biblical Religion of Racism, Self-Worship, Superstition and Deceit", and other classics of modern literature. Short, because after realizing who he was, I decided to make myself a tuna sandwich and watch Episode 6, Season 1 of Stargate Atlantis.

I'm a sucker for SciFi. When we first arrived in the US in 1991, my favorite show was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite a complete ignorance of the English language - a point my older brother reiterated, alternating in curiosity, mockery and frustration - I was drawn to to the fantastical plots, the futuristic technology, and the soothing yet virile voice of Jean Luc Picard.

Oh yes, I have a brother. When I was perhaps six or seven, he took me to a bicycle store a long walk from our home in the Rashkanovka district of the Moldovan capital city of Kishinev. The store was closed, but we spent a good fifteen minutes ogling the inventory through large display windows. It was a less developed area of town, though a major road passed on a hill above us. In the mid-1980s, it was still common for Moldovans with homes to own hens and roosters in their small yards, in the traditional way. Anyway, in our excitable state, staring at those shiny spokes, we didn't notice that a pack of wild dogs now had us surrounded and was closing in. Before panic overwhelmed reflex, my brother pushed me behind him and kicked the closest growling beast in the torso. A smaller dog managed to flank him and bit me in the Achilles tendon. Finally our cries were heard by the locals and the dogs were dispersed. My brother rushed me home, filling my head with an 11 year old's knowledge of horrifying infectious diseases. I don't know who was scared more - him, of being beaten by my father for letting this happen, or me, anticipating a variety of violent deaths, stymied only through an intervention of many large needles.

Yaacov has made regular posts about his Daf Yomi (Page Daily) group learning of the Talmud, explained at length, and in style, here. Having come into Jewish learning and observance over the past five to seven years, encompassing now a good chunk of my twenties, learning Gemara (not to be confused with Sodom and Gemorah), was never a strong suit. Forget my infantile Hebrew language skills, which turn group learning into a race to rewrite the text and commentary in English before everyone else has moved on, so as not to forget who said what just one line before. Gemara introduces, also, a different style of learning and thinking - actually, many styles - which are quite different from the comparatively linear reasoning we are generally taught in school. Deprived of being able to reference the Hebrew directly, and unable to collate disparate tangents into a cohesive argument that draws a clear conclusion, any reasonable person is left thinking himself an utter fool.

You see, the tangents may have something to do with one another, or with the argument, or not. It may not even be a cohesive argument, but merely a story to illustrate a point which supports an argument having nothing to do with the main subject of discussion - but all infused with value. Rabbi Shai Taub once consoled me that the more intelligent, classically rational people take the longest to adapt.

How are you doing so far? Now imagine I had written this in two languages - one you can barely read, much less comprehend, and another (Aramaic) which has not been spoken outside of Jewish yeshivas and isolated enclaves of Kurds and Armenians since the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia. Sure, you learned a great deal about my preference in television, my brother's heroism, and that Moldovans raised chickens in the middle of a metropolitan city. All that may be very interesting, possibly even self-contained and potentially very useful, some other time. Let's get back on subject, which the Gemara always does, eventually...

Regarding a person who reads a translation of Gemara, or even the native text itself, without the proper guidance, training and structure, the Gemara (Sotah, 21b-22a) calls them a "deceitfully wicked person". But why?! They are studying Talmud, after all! Wicked, because this person will fail to learn the laws properly, and will not understand how to deal with the apparent inconsistencies, causing him to give false rulings. Fine, but then why is he deceitful? Because someone who hears him and doesn't know better might think that this is a real scholar who knows his stuff, when in fact the Talmud accuses him of being responsible for "the ruination of the world".

The Talmud is a tool that has enabled Jews, and many non-Jews (including Roman Emperors), to acquire the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by generations of Jewish sages, with the purpose of understanding the nature of our existence and relating to it. In and of themselves, tools may have great value, but their utilization is dependent on the merit of those who wield them. People like Mr. Hoffman, who profess to bring to light the diabolical, haven't exposed the Talmud; they have exposed themselves.

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