I have only been doing any sort of Talmud study for just under a year, and in that time I have only seen a single ice crystal located upon the tip of the great berg that is the quintessential Jewish text. In the parts of the Talmud I have been able to study though, I have noticed that there is a strong defining character to Chazal’s discussions. Every little point is obsessed about, and the rabbis insist on concocting seemingly crazy explanations for what appear on the surface to be simple mistakes or minor disputes. Aspects of Jewish life htat would appear to be utterly irrelevant are made hugely important, while little attention is paid to “big themes”. Statements are made with minimal citation, and there are often logical leaps and references that can’t be explained without commentary. In other words, the Talmud is often the antithesis of a friendly open text, with an obsessive nature that has an almost counterproductive quality.
And I love every word of it.
As I learned more and more Talmud, I began to have two thoughts. The first was that the more I learned in the Talmud, the more I realized how very much I did not know. The second thought was that there was something profoundly familiar about the back and forth of the Gemara.
It wasn’t long before I recognized the source of my déjà vu. The intense interest in minor details, the convoluted answers to questions that wouldn’t occur to casual observers, the insistence on preserving continuity: these were fundamentally geeky traits.
Anyone who has immersed themselves in a world of fans of any cultural work, usually of a fantastic or sci-fi nature, will understand precisely the behavior to which I’m referring. For those unfamiliar with quintessential geek behavior, I suggest a quick visit to a forum based on anything with a strong core of followers.
I am happy to say that I have precisely the geeky personality that abounds in the Talmud. My browswer history is full of odd queries about Star Trek, but it is also full of research I’ve done about tiny questions I’ve had in Judaism. (Take a look at the sort of discussions found on the Jewish and Science Fiction StackExchanges and you’ll find much the same sort of dynamic) I suppose the similarity might run both ways, given that many geeky works have strong Jewish themes and Jewish influences (including perhaps the most Jewish line in the history of cinema).
I’m not particularly enamored with grand debates on spirituality or the nature of the divine, but when I see the Talmud debate how to (and if one can) carry a needle on the afternoon before Shabbat, I find myself exhilarated. Where religious philosophy is dense and uninviting, the Talmud and the countless rabbinic commentaries on it speaks directly to me with their method of understanding the Torah.
I realize that it might appear as if I’m insulting Chazal or trivializing the importance of the Talmud or the Torah, but nothing could be further from the truth. The rabbis of the Talmud aren’t dry, strict disciplinarians focused on rules; they’re Torah loving Jews who showed their passion for both the Oral and Written Torahs with their incredible focus on detail. These were not casual Torah fans; they were the sort who went to conventions (i.e. the great Torah academies of the post-Second Temple period) and wrote extensive fan works about the source material (i.e. rabbinic literature). The Talmud is the ultimate expression of reverence for the Torah, because immersion in the world of Torah (or in anything else, for that matter) can only be accomplished with a geeky obsession. What better way could their be to honor the Torah that we were chosen to recieve?
Judaism’s unique status as a nerdy religion is so powerful especially because it is my heritage. Perhaps the reason that I can talk to my father in the language of geeks (and he could speak to his father before him ad infinitum) is because I come from a tradition passed down from father to son for thousands of years that encouraged and fostered the questioning and focus that embodies the Talmud. Perhaps that’s why science fiction has so many Jewish themes and Jewish influences (as well as perhaps the most Jewish line ever uttered in the history of cinema).
Everyone’s relationship to religion is fundamentally different, and I certainly don’t want to tell everyone that to be Jewish, they have to be a geek. But I also know that an enormous part of my love for Judaism is motivated by the inherently geeky nature of the thousands year old tradition.