Nathan Lopes Cardozo

My Fascination with the Chaotic World of the Talmud

Sixth of 10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz  (For the first question, click here. For the second question, click here. For the third question, click here. For the fourth question, click here. For the fifth question, click here.)

Recently, I have been invited to respond to ten questions by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.

Question 6

For someone who writes about Jewish spirituality and philosophy, your love of the Talmud is amazingly prominent in all your writings. What is your attraction to the Talmud?

Nathan Lopes CardozoLet me tell you a story that happened to me when I was learning in Gateshead Yeshiva, England, which is the largest and most famous Talmudic College in Europe. (Later, I spent another four years in Mirrer Yeshiva, Yerushalayim, and in a rabbinical college where we studied Choshen Mishpat, the legal side of rabbinical law.)

It is in Gateshead Yeshiva that I spent my first eight years studying Talmud.

When I arrived there, they had to add another class – “Minus One” – since I had no experience at all in how to learn Talmud. To this day, it is puzzling to me that the hanhala (leadership) of the yeshiva was prepared to accept me as a student. I was completely unqualified, and it was only through the perseverance of some Dutch rabbis who were my devoted teachers and who kept begging to let me in and, surprisingly, succeeded.

As a side note, when I later entered the official lowest class, something unusual happened. All the Talmud classes were in Lithuanian Yiddish and nobody in my class knew any Yiddish, although they all came from Orthodox families. They were all British and spoke English. (Some of their parents spoke Yiddish.) But I had studied German in high school and it was not at all difficult for me to understand Yiddish, since most of the words are derived from medieval West German. This meant that I became the official translator in the classroom. So I translated the Yiddish into English, which I had also mastered at high school. But after that, my fellow students had to tell me what it all meant, because I lacked the Talmudic knowledge to understand what the Rabbi was saying! This was quite funny.

Although I’m a Sephardi, I love Yiddish! It’s a soul language that basically defies all principles of what an official language should be. It’s musical and can convey feelings no other language can. I remember that the Roshei Yeshiva called me Lapes Cardeizei, because Lithuanian Jews can’t pronounce a long “o”! Interestingly enough, the Amsterdam Portuguese Spanish community to which my family belonged, never spoke Ladino, the typical Judeo-Spanish language. Instead, they spoke plain Spanish or Portuguese.         

Back to the story: While in Gateshead, I got a letter from a non-Jewish friend from my former school days who asked whether he could visit me, since he wanted to know what this “Jewish monastery” was all about. I told him that he would be most welcome. When he came, I gave him a yarmulke (skullcap) to wear and took him to the bet midrash where about 300 young men were learning. I deliberately didn’t give him any introduction, so he walked in totally unprepared for what he would encounter. To understand his shock, one has to realize that when one enters a study hall or library of any university, the first rule is Silence. People whisper so as not to disturb others.

When my friend walked in, he encountered a verbal storm of such magnitude that he could barely hear his own words. The noise was deafening. People shouting to each other, walking around nervously, pointing at a Talmudic text and sometimes telling their friends to go home because they had no clue what a certain passage was actually about, got it all wrong, and their situation was hopeless. And after all that, these students walked away as the best of friends and had a good laugh at their fierce dispute. There was a deep camaraderie among them and one could really call all these disputes a “holy war” – one of love for the Talmud and one’s fellow man!

When my friend somehow recovered from the shock, he asked me what this was all about. Was it a demonstration against the Queen of England, or some other political protest that got out of hand? I replied, “No. What you witness here is a discussion about what God actually said at Sinai to Moshe and the Children of Israel a few thousand years ago.” He stared at me with big eyes and said, “You still don’t know?” And I said, “Indeed, we still don’t know! May God be blessed for that”!

This, in a nutshell, explains my fascination with the Talmud. It is the ongoing discussion of what God wants from us while, for the most part, not giving us a final answer and leaving us in limbo. Why is this? Because it is only through discussion and disagreement that a tradition can stay alive and be relevant. Once it is finalized, it will die. (See the works of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.) This is the reason that I object so strongly to the codification of Jewish law.

For me, the main characteristic of the Talmud is deliberate chaos. Chaos is God’s signature when He wants to stay out of the picture and asks His children to catch a glimpse of Him when they see an opening through the dark clouds. It’s somewhat related to chaos theory in science. It reminds me of what Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science once said: “As a rule, I begin my lectures on Scientific Method by telling my students that scientific method does not exist” (Preface to Realism and the Aim of Science, London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1992, p. 5).

When I study Talmud, I feel like I’m in the middle of an ocean in which anything and everything is being discussed, tested, and taken apart to be reconstructed, only to be demolished again. It is a magnificent painting full of colors, shadows and dazzling combinations, which perhaps only Rembrandt van Rijn, the great artist from Amsterdam, would have noticed. There is fantasy, art and music all around – from the classics to jazz and beyond – one great symphony.

For me, it is not so much about religious knowledge but about a way to see the world and the intricacies of human existence.

It reminds me of the famous comment by theoretical physicist David Bohm: “The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained” (as quoted in “New Scientist,” February 1993, p. 42).

I feel like I’m being lifted out of intellectual confinement and walking into a landscape of real, spontaneous, ongoing, magnificent life.        

The Talmud is a discussion among approximately 400 Sages who constantly and fiercely argued about nearly everything, while many of them did not even live in the same era or city. But everybody meets everybody, because the redactors of the Talmud completely ignored time and space. They deliberately put everyone against everyone so as to get the maximum amount of discussion going.        

Nothing in the Talmud is in the right place. Discussions jump from one subject to another; everything is alive and kicking.

First, we hear a stirring argument about payment of damages, suddenly followed by how a woman should seduce her husband in the bedroom. (For a small fee, I’ll tell you where it is!) Subsequently, we find out how to pray with deep kavana (intention).

And that is exactly its beauty: Sex is related to prayer, and prayer is connected with damages.

At first, you can’t make head or tail of it, until one day you “get” it and it becomes a revelation. A real delight.           

Piercing logic combined with fables of tremendous depth, popular wisdom, and humor are all around. Huge storms with high waves that come down with enormous power and are then smashed to pieces.

It has nothing to do with Greek thinking, where everything needs to fit into an overall philosophical system, and where one proposition must logically follow from another.

The Talmud is wise enough not to go that way because, for the most part, life is not composed of logical propositions, but rather of emotional upheavals and deep feelings.         

After all, life is a chaotic experience into which we human beings try to put some order. And that is what the Talmud tries to do – address the sum total of life and not just one dimension of it.

So, the wisdom of the Talmud is in many ways much greater than that of the philosophers. The latter often live in ivory towers, while the Talmudic Sages lived among the people. They were great scholars, but also farmers, business people, shopkeepers, and judges. So they knew life’s experiences and challenges much better than the philosophers did.

Yes, the Sages had to put some order into the chaos and initiate some rules, especially when dealing with the community. There had to be some conformity to basic norms. Otherwise, the chaos would become impossibly unmanageable and very harmful. But even when they did “lay down the law” one way or the other, they never saw it as the only way to accomplish their goal. When they decided to go one way, they didn’t deny that there was another way just as valid. But for practical reasons, a decision had to be made. So one of the most powerful Talmudic concepts came into being: Elu ve-elu divrei Elokim Chayim – “these and those are both the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). In other words, both views are correct even if they contradict each other, just as we have contradictions in science. They are built into our universe. But one must make a decision. To paraphrase William James: Not to make a decision is also a decision.

This is most fascinating and keeps me spellbound. There is no other literature that offers this. The Talmud is a kind of all-encompassing encyclopedia of Judaism and life, which deliberately lacks alphabetical order and for the most part refuses to give you end results and final information. But it takes you through all the ups and downs, showing you every option, and often leaving you in limbo, thus telling you that ultimately you need to work it out yourself.

There is little doubt that the Talmud was and is the most powerful vehicle for keeping our nation alive, because it formed its lifeblood and made Jewish life an unusual symphony with many cantatas in minor. But above all, it facilitated laughter and joy of life even in the ghettos, in the midst of poverty and misery. It took the Jews to a place far beyond the walls of the ghetto and allowed them to experience a different plateau of limitless spiritual opportunities. It was a marvelous way to escape the realities of life and already taste the messianic age, which was still far from coming.

But it did much more than that. Talmudic learning – with its often razor-sharp reasoning, or its suggestions, which for many people are impossible or farfetched and require a kind of intellectual creativity that no one would have thought about – seems to have had a highly unusual effect on the Jewish mind. To this day, Jews represent 22% of all Nobel Prize winners, which is completely out of proportion considering the fact that the total Jewish population comprises less than 0.2% of the world’s population. This has nothing to do with genetic superiority, but rather with centuries of neurological adjustment brought about by Talmudic learning. This would also account for the fact that many great secular Jews such as Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, and famous composers or musicians, who never or almost never learned any Talmud, were blessed with unusual minds. They carried with them the neurological seeds that were passed down through the centuries, resulting from the Talmudic learning of their forefathers. It may sound strange, but I am convinced that the discovery of the theory of relativity was an indirect outcome of hundreds of years of Talmudic debate.         

This, in fact, poses a huge problem. The more Jews secularize and no longer learn Talmud, the more their brains will no longer be able to produce exceptional ideas in all fields of human knowledge. The neurological imprint will weaken and ultimately disappear, which would be a tragedy for all of humankind. This is a challenge that the Jewish people are confronted with – especially those who live in Israel. But often they don’t realize it.

While it is true that today there is a great amount of Talmud study in and outside of Israel, the question is whether the way it is studied will really prevent this tragedy. The main problem is that it is too much “read” and too little “listened to.” It is studied as if it’s a closed text and its debates cannot be surpassed and continued. What many students and rabbis don’t understand is that the Talmud is the beginning of a discussion, not its completion. The text is open-ended and really asks us to continue the debate. In fact, the problem with the Talmud is that its discussions were written down, while in truth they all should have, paradoxically, remained oral. This is a huge topic, which I hope we can discuss another time.

One last word: I wonder about the fact that great Talmudists in the last few hundred years did nothing else but learn day and night: the Gaon of Vilna, the Rogatchover, the Chazon Ish, and many others. This is highly unusual. It is the jobs and professions of the Talmudic Sages that brought them much closer to real life. They interacted with people in the street and were really involved in day-to-day problems, which gave them a much better grasp on life. We consider them greater than any of the later Talmudists. And even in later days, many great Talmudists such as Maimonides – the major authority of the 11th century, who dominated the halachic world for hundreds of years – was a physician and worked for most of the day; as did Nachmanides (Ramban), who was the second formidable authority after Maimonides. He was also a physician.

And suddenly we have this radical shift in the last 200-300 years when the greatest rabbis are only those who learn day and night. What does this mean for Talmudic knowledge? Is it good and healthy to learn the whole day? Are these people really the greatest? Is it even possible to concentrate to the extent that is required for real Talmudic and halachic knowledge, without taking a break? Can one be really productive when there’s no diversion? Is there no need to take one’s mind off things so as to give the brain a rest?

When we compare this with the greatest of minds in the secular world, such as Einstein or Freud – who constantly took time off, long walks and vacations, and went to concerts and art exhibits – we wonder whether those great halachists could have been even greater had they done what the secular geniuses did. Would they have been more creative and solved many more halachic problems than they actually did? It’s true that some of these later Talmudists produced most remarkable works of genius, but the question still remains. Would they have done even better had they not learned the whole day? Didn’t they – and I write this with the greatest respect – somehow drown in their knowledge, no longer able to see opportunities that the Sages of the Talmud would have seen? Or, is it because the Talmud is not a text but a discussion with so many dimensions that these Talmudists found their relaxation in the Talmud itself besides the fact that their love for Torah and Talmud burned in them as an consuming fire   ?

Still, I cannot deny that the majority of people who now learn day and night in a Kollel (advanced institution for Talmudic learning) don’t seem to come up with really exciting ideas that boggle the mind, but instead produce mediocre insights that are often very dogmatic.        

In fact, I believe that the way the Talmud was studied by later generations, and even more so today, has had disastrous consequences. The Talmud itself actually seems to state that there are some downsides to its study, and this may be the reason why these students of the Talmud are no longer successful.        

But that’s for another time.


Dear Friends,

Every week I receive hundreds of emails, as well as a host of important observations on my essays, via our website, Facebook, newspaper blogs, and other media outlets. It is therefore completely impossible for me to respond—for which I apologize—but please be assured that I read every comment, which I deeply appreciate and from which I learn so much. Only in exceptional cases will I respond in a subsequent essay. My office staff will try to be more prompt in posting these remarks on our website.

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your comments with me, as well as with your fellow readers. I hope you will continue to do so.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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