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Want to save democracy? Begin by studying Talmud!

That massive Jewish text is a call to take no claim of truth for granted, and to hold those in power to the highest standards of decency

I’m not being facetious.

Ten second mini-lesson: Talmud (“that which is learned”) is the vast literary and interpretive record of seven hundred years’ worth of intense discussions by rabbis about the meaning and interpretation of the Torah, the five books of Moses. It contains extended legal arguments, but a healthy percentage as well, of non-legal narrative such as legends, ethical teachings, and sermons. It is a major part of the Jewish literary and religious canon, and its popularity in the 21st century extends well beyond the halls of yeshivot, ultra/Orthodox academies of Torah study. Talmud translations, study aids, and learning programs now exist all over the world for every level of skill and type of learner.

Studying the Talmud is similar to engaging in any discipline that requires critical thinking, careful argument, and testing the veracity of one’s claims. The common derisive use of the word “Talmudic” to refer to a nitpicking argument misses the point of the Talmud: rather than the devil, the democratic is in the details, which await our diligent, critically thinking consideration, whatever the topic might be. Talmud study can save democracy, one student at a time, because it prevents us, potentially, from abandoning our ability to think for ourselves to snake oil salesmen, demagogues, and fake news peddlers of all kinds. Contemporary political, cultural, and scientific debates are stuck, paradoxically, in the “deep doo-doo” of shallowness. Too many conversations and controversies have been infected by unthinking refusals to discern between fact and fiction. Too many people follow their personal prejudices, blind loyalties, and emotional reactivity in determining truth. At its best, and like its more secular academic cousins, Talmudic argument is an exercise in keeping people honest on both sides of a debate.

Yet, Talmudic argument does something more than keep us honest. At its best, the study of the Talmud keeps us civil and respectful during debate, especially when debate becomes most fierce and potentially uncivil. In fact, the Talmud is unafraid to record highly critical object lessons about its greatest practitioners, the rabbis of ancient times, when they are least civil and most unthinking during intense discussion. As revered as they are in Talmudic literature, none of these great sages gets away with being a bully, a liar, or an all-purpose idiot. That is because the Talmud reflects the Jewish people’s commitment to God and God’s book, the Torah, as the ultimate source of truth, not the opinions or charisma of even the greatest religious or political leader. Certainly, in the view of the Talmud, the authority for interpreting Torah ultimately rests with these rabbinic sages. The Torah is no longer in heaven; appealing to God’s direct revelation to determine the truth is set aside in deference to the fallible, but far more accessible method of human debate and discovery. However, that authority is contingent: sunder your commitment to decency and civility in debate and decision making (a not uncommon disease of modern Western democracies) and you forfeit your God given authority, plus maybe even your sanity and your life.

One of my favorite examples of this contingency is the tragic and complex Talmudic story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, his student, brother-in-law and, and colleague. (See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia 84a-b). Here is a very brief synopsis. After bringing him back from a life of crime to a life of religious piety and scholarship, Rabbi Yohanan marries off his sister to Resh Lakish, and becomes his teacher and study partner. Family and professional enmeshments easily lead to growing jealousies, as we might infer from the critical scene in the story. One day, the sages, chief among them Yohanan and Resh Lakish, are arguing a fine point of Jewish law concerning when metal weapons acquire ritual impurity. The two sages take opposite positions and the debate becomes so heated that Yohanan blurts out angrily, “lista’a b’listayutei yada,” “a thug is an expert in the business of thuggery!” That is, “You Resh Lakish would know about matters concerning weapons used for crime, having been a criminal yourself!” Even without knowing the story, you can imagine what happens next: Resh Lakish becomes deeply offended and insults Yohanan, who also becomes deeply offended. Yohanan, known for his power to heal people with prayer, causes Resh Lakish to become deathly ill through his insults. As Resh Lakish lays dying, his wife, Yohanan’s sister, begs her brother to save his life with prayer. He refuses, Resh Lakish dies, and Yohanan goes crazy, eventually dying himself.

My synopsis barely touches the literary complexity and moral symbolism of the story as it is told in the Talmud. Still, what matters for our purposes is the aim of the storyteller in his particular context. Imagine Yohanan and Resh Lakish not as rabbis in an ancient academy but as political opponents or lawmakers arguing across the aisle about a matter of policy and legislation. Given the horrors being perpetrated upon many democracies by demagogues and deadlocked government deliberations, we can easily make this imaginative leap. The Talmudic rabbis certainly made it. They were, in a number of respects, the communal leaders of their time. They knew how destructive polarization, insults against opponents, and ad hominem attacks to score points with others could be to a community’s fabric, faith, and fraternity. A story like this one, (even if it didn’t happen exactly as recorded or didn’t happen at all), indicates that our ancestors understood the destructive potential of verbal bloodshed because they likely engaged in it themselves. What is refreshing about this story is not only the Talmud’s willingness to teach its blunt cautionary lesson, but as well, its refusal, to swear any kind of unconditional obedience to Yohanan and Resh Lakish simply because they’re rabbis. Because they’re rabbis, they get even less of a pass on bad behavior than others; this stands in contrast to populist leaders across the globe who perpetuate much of their charismatic power with promises to their blindly loyal bases that they are the “big Daddies” who will save the common folk from “the enemy”. Far from expecting everyone else to submit to their charisma, Yohanan and Resh Lakish are expected to be loyal to the rule of law and ethics, to clear rules of legal debate, and ultimately, to God, the supreme law giver.

Admittedly, the Talmud’s political context bears little overt resemblance to modern democracy. Talmudic notions of democratic political process were quite limited, even though the rabbis certainly employed ideas such as Halakhah K’Rabbim, legal decisions following the majority. However, the emphasis in Talmudic culture on critical thinking in legal debate and the Talmud’s insistence upon criticizing authorities who do wrong offers us much to think about, especially as we witness the impoverishment of democratic institutions around the globe. Admittedly again, the Talmud is not always studied and practiced in the most democratic of contemporary settings, when we consider how authoritarian parts of the yeshiva world and the Israeli rabbinical establishment can be. Yet we should distinguish between the Talmudic culture of criticism and critical thinking bequeathed to us and the distorted ways in which that culture can at times be interpreted.

I end as I began. Do you want to save democracy? Begin by studying Talmud. It is one of our best Jewish responses to democracy’s erosion: a complex clarion call to all good people to take no claim of truth for granted, to grant no power blindly, and to hold people in power to the highest standards of service and decency.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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