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Introduction to the Talmud (Bill Dolman)

This will not be a class “about the Talmud”. Rather, it will be a class that “studies Talmud”.

Talmud is composed of Mishna (often mistakenly described as a commentary on the Torah), Gemara (often mistakenly described as a commentary on the Mishna), and various commentaries on them both.

What Talmud (often translated as “learning”) does is, by blending Halachah (debates about law) and Aggadah (stories), explain and expand the often difficult passages of Torah (often translated as “instruction”) – explain how to live life.

For instance, Torah tells us to guard and remember Shabbat; to keep Shabbat holy; to do no work on Shabbat; to not light a fire or gather wood or manna on Shabbat. That is all. Through a complex debate among sages over a 500 year period, Talmud shows how meanings for guard, remember, holy, work, light, gather and even Shabbat (as a day in the week) were determined, both in the broad brush and in minute detail.

That doesn’t mean that we, as Reform Jews, agree with those meanings or follow that Halachah. Rather, Reform tells us to determine what is meaningful to us, and to do it.

But how to determine what is meaningful . . . .

To a Reform Jew, Talmud is not a description of how to live. However, Talmud can teach a Reform Jew an alternative way of thinking – a way to approach everyday life – joys, sorrows, accomplishments, losses, relationships and society – that is not necessarily “logical” – that is not bounded by the twin pillars of dualism and rationality that, thanks to the ancient Greeks, permeate Western thought. Not hard and fast laws – rather a way of approaching our approach to them. A way to determine what may be meaningful.

We will start with the tractate of Bava Metzia: “Two men appearing before a Court hold a garment. One says ‘I found it.’ The other says ‘I found it’. One of them says ‘It is all mine.’ The other says ‘It is all mine.’” What happens in the tractate describes, in detail, how ownership of property – whether it is found, disputed, borrowed, lent, etc. – was determined. For us, the issue will not be the determinations. Rather, it will be how the determinations were made.

So that we can understand the way of thinking. So that we can determine what may be meaningful to us.

From time to time, we will interrupt our study of Bava Metzia to skip to a story – Aggadah – and see how a magical and mystical story is used to illuminate an idea.

We will study Talmud in English. Thanks to the availability of both Hebrew/Aramaic and English translations on-line, we will not have to buy copies of the Talmud, but rather use (download and (if we want) print) the online texts. We will meet weekly. And we will see how much we can learn about how the Sages thought Jews should approach this world.

So that we can determine what may be meaningful to us.

Classes will start on Sunday, October 4, at 10 a.m. at TBO, and meet weekly afterwards. If interested, talk to Bill Dolman (780-450-6337). He’ll direct you to the texts to download and bring to the first classes.