These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Thoughts on Gemara

Posted on February 21, 2011 by Zach

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About a month ago, we began our second semester at Pardes, giving us the chance to switch up our class schedules.  I had been studying Tanakh (in the Intensive Tanakh Track), and enjoying it, but I didn’t find the Tanakh course offerings for the new semester very interesting.  Instead, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to start studying Gemara in an intensive way, especially since I would have plenty more opportunities to study Tanakh in the future.  At first, it was difficult, especially getting through the passages in Aramaic (a language that I had never learned).  Now, after having gotten a bit more comfortable with the material, I feel at least as if I have a grasp of the form and type of discussion that takes place in the Gemara.

In my level (‘ה’ with Leah Rosenthal), we’re learning Masechet Sanhedrin, a section of the talmud dedicated to the legal courts, crimes, punishments, etc.  For the last couple of days, we’ve been working through a passage dealing with בן סורר ומורה – the wayward and rebellious son, who, according to Tanakh (Deut. 21:18-21), is to be brought by his parents before the elders of the town to be stoned to death.  The rabbis are extremely disturbed by this, and spend many pages limiting every aspect of the case, using every trick available to them.  They limit the age at which it can take place to just a few months in his early teens; they insist that it can only be because the son has both eaten too much (exclusively kosher) meat, and drunk too much wine, and only in the presence of worthless people, while not involved in a communal meal.  The son must have stolen the money for the meat and wine from his parents, bought it for a cheap price, and not eaten it in the house.  Even the relationship between the parents is brought to bear on the case: the mother must be equal to the father in appearance and stature, and they must both agree to bring their son before the court (ie, the father can’t decide alone, or intimidate his meek wife into it).  The list goes on and on.

In other words, they essentially box the entire situation out of existence.  The Rabbis even admit as much, בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות – that such a case has never and will never take place.  They then go on, bringing up other examples of halachic cases that could never happen: the destruction of a rebellious Israelite city and how to deal with a “leprous” house.  In all three cases, it seems that the rabbis are disturbed again by the fact that there would be a halachic discourse on a situation that is effectively impossible.  Why are they wasting their time?  How could God prescribe a law that has no practical application?

I have had similar questions concerning Gemara, which is why I originally chose to study Tanakh rather than Gemara.  Why waste my time with a text that has no practical value to me, and which I don’t even really esteem literarily?  I don’t accept many of their guiding principles when approaching the Tanakh, and so many of their answers strike me as hollow or, worse, just wrong.

When confronted with these questions, the rabbis offer two different answers.  One possible approach is represented in all three cases – a rabbi speaks up and declares that he himself has witnessed such a case, thereby proving the value of the law.   I find this to be a cheap response, which represents what I dislike about rabbinic thought.  There is no evidence whatsoever of such a morally degenerate Jewish city being proscribed by fellow Jews, and yet a rabbi makes this false claim, in order to bolster a faulty system.

The rabbis do, however, give another answer to the question למה נכתב – why is such a law written?  דרוש וקבל שכר – seek, and receive fulfillment.  In other words – there is value in the process, not just in the laws derived from them.

I haven’t yet made up my mind on how valuable this text is to me.  This is part of my tradition, which always has some draw, and the rabbis do bring up interesting questions.  Their project of adapting an ancient text to their modern era is certainly worthy, as is its continuation into our modern time.  Whether or not I find it relevant to my life is another question, but until I figure that out, I’ll take their advice: seek, and receive fulfillment.  Whether I accept the conclusions that they reach, or my own in response to questions they pose, for the time being, I can accept that there is value in the process