The changing Talmud as reflection of the changing times of Israel

Many Jews and may be even the majority of them don’t regard the Talmud with its 613 mitzvoth as a Torah-guidance for themselves. That is unfortunate but the reason for this disregard is obvious – we the Jews live in constantly changing world while many of our rabbis are telling us the Talmud is unchangeable. In the Russian-speaking Jewish community there is even an insulting name “talmudist” for those who are not able to adjust a belief or a theory to real facts of life.

However the history of Talmud disproves the notion that it is unchangeable. Indeed it was changing by the sages and great rabbis to tailor the Talmud to constantly changing Jewish life. Here is this history as it is put together mostly from easy to reach and read Wikipedia.

At the beginning, the Torah was a clearly understood God’s guidance on how to begin the creation of a God’s better world with a special mission of the Jews as the Chosen – that was a slow process of human transformation from the pagan mind-set to a Torah-based mind-set. The clear Torah-based directions on how to live and what to do were coming from the Temple and its High Priest to the Jewish nation living all together in the Promised Land.

The living conditions were changed drastically 7-8 centuries later after the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the Promised Land. And at that time, the work on Talmud was initiated as modifying the Torah guidance to new living conditions of the Jewish nation without a State in the Promised Land, without the High Priest and probably with a multitude of various Torah interpretations.

The first work of Talmud was Mishnah which was written in180-220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi. The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a notable rabbi with an analysis on what guided his decision. In this way it brings to everyday reality – to everyday changes in the life conditions of the nation of Israel – the practice of the mitzvoth as presented in the Torah (Bible), and aims to cover all aspects of human living, serve as an example for future judgments, and, most important, demonstrate pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws, which was much needed since the time when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE). The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but rather the collection of existing traditions.

Two-three centuries later another tailoring of the Torah guidance was made to take into account the changes in the Jewish life conditions after the Mishnah times – Gemara was written as a commentary on Mishnah. If the commentary was needed, it meant that the Jewish life in diaspora had been changed again, and a new tailoring was necessary. The most important was that the Jews accumulated different interpretations of the codified in Mishnah Jewish Law – because they lived in different countries among different peoples with different non-Jewish government’s permissions for the Jews on creating their own communities, doing business and participating in the life of non-Jewish communities. There are two versions of the Gemara. The Yerushalmi, also known as the Palestinian, was compiled by scholars of Israel and published between about 350–400 CE. The Bavli was published about 500 CE by scholars of Babylonia. By convention, a reference to the “Gemara” or “Talmud,” without further qualification, refers to the Babylonian version. There is a judgment that the Babylonian Talmud was preferred since it emphasized the discussion process on how to come to a right Torah-based guidance while the Jerusalem Talmud emphasized the final rule.

Again in about four centuries, the time had come for another tailoring of the Torah guidance to the changed living conditions of the nation of Israel. It was done by Sages Rashi (11th century) and Rambam-Maimonides (12th century). In their commentaries both of them were returning to the Torah its universal message – not just for the Jews but for everybody, and were taking the Torah to the homes and other places where the Jews may live – from the confines of synagogues. By that time the Jewish population became much more intellectual and capable of making personal interpretation of the Torah and Talmud tailored to personal life conditions.

Shlomo Yitzchaki generally known by the acronym Rashi was a medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and commentary on the Tanakh. Acclaimed for his ability to present the basic meaning of the text in a concise and lucid fashion, Rashi appeals to both learned scholars and beginning students, and his works remain a centerpiece of contemporary Jewish study. His commentary on the Talmud has been included in every edition of the Talmud since its first printing by Daniel Bomberg in the 1520s. His commentary on Tanach is an indispensable aid to students of all levels.

Mosheh ben Maimon mostly known as Rambam was a preeminent medieval Spanish, Sephardic Jewish philosopher, astronomer and one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. He was born in Spain and believed to pass away in Tiberias. He was acknowledged to be one of the foremost rabbinical arbiters and philosophers in Jewish history, and his copious work comprises a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship.

A next significant change in Jewish life happened in 19th century. In many European countries the Jews received the full rights of citizenry and became an integral part of country’s business, social and political institutions. Again the Jewish law had to be tailored to new life conditions of the Jewish nation, and that gave raise to conservative and reform movements with their own – although formally non-codified yet – changes to Talmud laws. Now we see analogous movements in the Orthodox Judaism which is splitting in many competing streams.

Nowadays like in the past, rabbis continue arguing with each other on the very essence of our world and human behavior in this world:

  1. Had God created the World and the Torah as something unchangeable, and all historic modifications of the Talmud was made to clarify a sort of eternal unchangeable nature of everything, or
  2. Had God created the World as something permanently changing with the Torah guiding us through all World’s changes, and all historic modifications of the Talmud was made to make the Torah guidance applicable to new life conditions.

As a scientist, I am with (2) and I consider all scientists as true Talmudists of the (2) mind-set – we are developing theories and hypotheses on how everything may work along the lines of the Basic Laws created by some Supreme Power, and then trying to prove it by facts – the facts being of material nature (physical experiments) or spiritual nature (behavior of human individuals or human groups).

About the Author
Vladimir Minkov graduated from the Naval Engineering Academy in the former Soviet Union, served in the Soviet Navy and there received his Ph.D. At the end of 1970s he immigrated to America where democracy and the Judeo-Christian spirituality of this country made it possible for him to actively defend both his scientific and spiritual ideas. In the USA he has found the place for his scientific public work in the spiritual realm of One God and Torah.