Is Talmud study the secret to Jewish success?

The Essential Talmud
Adin Steinsaltz
Basic Books, 1976
ISBN: 0-465-02063-1 

Many Christians assume that modern Judaism is a religion of the Bible. For Jews, the Bible is the Tanach – what Christians call the Old Testament. And while religious Jews would claim allegiance to the Tanach, it is not a stretch to say that Talmud commands their attention. It is the primary focus of study and meditation. Here is how Adin Steinsaltz puts it:

If the Bible is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is the central pillar, soaring up from the foundations and supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice. In many ways the Talmud is the most important book in Jewish culture, the backbone of creativity and of national life. No other work has had a comparable influence on the theory and practice of Jewish life, shaping spiritual content and serving as a guide to conduct. [The Essential Talmud, p.3]

Few will dispute the remarkable achievement of Jewish people in virtually all walks life. But we might well ask how it is that a people who have been hounded and harassed throughout history can excel in so many pursuits.  Rabbi Abraham Hirsch Rabinowitz believes that much of Jewish success is related to the benefits of Talmud study.

The versatility and achievement of the Jewish mind is proverbial. There is hardly a field of human contemplation and endeavor in which Jews have failed to excel. Precocity and originality have usually marked the contribution of Jews to knowledge, as also a striking ability to improvise. Of the main factors that together created the Jewish mind, there can be little doubt that the contributon of the age-long preoccupation of the Jew with Talmud and halachah is formidable. The study of Talmud, undertaken at an early age and pursued assiduously, nurtured alertness, discernment, and acumen and cultured the ability to weigh situations and opinions. It encouraged debate and individual research, rewarded initiative, and lauded brilliance. [The Study of Talmud, Jason Aronson Inc, 1996, p.xiii]

But what is the Talmud? The Talmud is a multi-volume summary of oral law that evolved over several centuries of work by scholars who lived in Palestine and Babylonia. Jews believe that Moses received both the written law and the oral law on Mount Sinai, and that the Talmud is the codification of that oral tradition. Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), leaders in Judaism began recognizing the importance of codifying these traditions lest they be lost to Jews who were dispersed throughout the known world. It was during those four to five centuries following the Temple’s destruction that these oral teachings were recorded, edited and assembled into what we know as the Talmud.

Anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with Jewish tradition will know that mastering the Talmud is a life-long pursuit. Only those convinced that their spiritual well-being rests upon knowing Talmud will make that commitment. And yet, Christians who desire to understand their Jewish friends and neighbours might do well to seek a basic understanding of the content of Talmud, and how these traditions guide Jews in their daily lives.

Adin Steinsaltz has provided just the volume for those looking for a basic introduction to how Jewish law functions. The Essential Talmud will give readers a fascinating look at codified oral tradition – an insider’s explanation of how religious Jews tackle the big questions of life in terms of fulfilling God’s law as they understand it. Though written more than thirty years ago, I have yet to find an introductory text that does the job as well as this one.

Steinsaltz covers his subject under three major headings: History, Structure and Content, and Method.

After answering the question, “What is Talmud?”, the author follows the long, arduous history of how the Talmud was produced. In doing so, he covers the two major centres of Torah study – Jerusalem and Babylon – showing how the Babylonian Talmud came to be the most authoritative Talmud.

The second major section of the book explores the structure of the Talmud, looking briefly at the various subjects treated within the oral tradition. The major themes covered are:

  • Prayers and Benedictions
  • The Sabbath
  • The Festivals
  • Marriage and Divorce
  • The Status of Women
  • Civil Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Sacrifices
  • Dietary Laws
  • Ritual Purity and Impurity
  • Ethics and Halakhah
  • Derekh Eretz (Deportment)
  • The World of Mysticism

 For me, the third section provided the greatest insight into how the religious Jew thinks, for here Steinsaltz discusses Halakhic exegesis, methods of study, and how the Talmudic mind works. I suspect more than a few conservative Christians will find this section both fascinating and frustrating, because Talmudic thinking often runs counter to what would be considered clear biblical teaching. For example, there is in Talmud a debate among rabbis where one rabbi calls God as his witness. To our surprise, the rest of the rabbis discount any divine contribution on the basis that God, in giving Torah at Sinai, placed custody of Torah on earth – under the protection of Moses, and by extension, the rabbis. Not even The Almighty can speak against the rabbis!

Reading The Essential Talmud will not make you an expert in oral Torah, but it will provide insight into how religious Jews order their lives. It will also, I hope, encourage Christians to give greater attention to their own pursuit of mastering the living and enduring Word of God – in reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on the words of Holy Scripture.

About David Daniels

Evangelical Baptist Pastor. Reformed Soteriology. Enjoy freelance writing & reviewing. In my cybersphere (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Blog, et. al.) following, friending, retweeting, linking, quoting & commenting does not equal endorsing.
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8 Responses to Is Talmud study the secret to Jewish success?

  1. Kim says:

    I don’t get why some Christian always try to set up the Jewish people as superior to other ethnicities especially since in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.

  2. Kim,

    There are many Christians who view the Jewish people as superior to others, but that is not what I do, nor was that my point in the review.

    It is a fact that, given the worldwide Jewish population (around 15,000,000), a disporportionate number of Nobel Peace Prize winners turn out to be Jewish.

    They are not instrinsically superior, but a very large number of them are very bright. Some believe this is the result of the discipline of study & reasoning that comes from years of work in learning Talmud.

    Thanks for reading my blog, and for taking time to comment.


  3. phillip says:

    Perhaps not.

    If you look at the biography of these jewish scientists, you notice that a significant many of them are no practicing jews. They could not have study the talmud! My explanation is the following. The talmud becomes not just the certain of a religious jew, and but the secular jew as well ! When a jew child see his elder, and community study long hours, and value of the community is focus on intellectual pursuit, then it is not surprise they would devote themselves to study whatever that interest them.

  4. Phillip:

    I think you make a valid point.

    Among religious Jews there is a great emphasis put upon Talmud study, and that has sigificant impact on the intellectual development of individuals. For the past 8 years I have been extensively involved with the Jewish community, and quite often with religiously observant Jews who would be involved in disciplined Talmud study.

    But as you note, many (maybe most) Jewish scientists, philosophers, et. al. are secular, non practicing Jews. And they also place high priority on intellectual pursuit, which would, of course, result in significant intellectual prowess.

    Between the secular and the religious Jew, the common theme is devotion to study of whatever interests them – the point you make.

    As an evangelical pastor (non-Jewish), and as one who has devoted a life-time to biblical, theological study of the Bible, I have more than a passing interest in the history of the Jewish people. While every ethnic group has those who excel, it is noteworthy that a high proportion of intellectual leaders in our world come from the Jewish community.

    Thank you for reading and commenting on my post.

  5. Euan says:

    I suspect that Jewish intellectual prowess does have a great deal to do with the Talmud. However, I would be sceptical about the substantive content of the Talmud having a huge amount to do with Jewish intellectual prowess; rather, I suspect it is the fostering of the discipline of study and close reading (perhaps as a consequence of religious conviction) that plays its part in giving many Jews that extra part of intellectual rigour and equally, intellectual curiosity.

  6. Thank you for your comments, Euan.

    I agree with you in seeing the “intellectual rigour and equally, intellectual curiosity” as resulting from the disciplined study and close reading of texts such as the Talmud, rather than the actual content of the Talmud.

  7. Joshua says:

    There is a theory (google ashkenazi intelligence) that Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence being on average 1 standard deviation above the norm is what leads to Jewish success in certain intellectual fields (not all). Now is this nature or nurture. There are arguments for both. The nurture argument as stated above is that emphasis on study be it talmud or secular works out the Jewish mind as Schwarzenegger worked out his muscles.
    Another theory went like this. For a long time especially in Europe where Jews were forced to live together and often couldn’t find work so were often supported by the community by being scholars. Now not everyone was able to be a scholar and learn 3 languages at such young ages. Those who weren’t able to handle it, so the theory goes, abandoned the religion. Those who were, were valued and had more opportunity to attract mates. The result was that to maintain your Judaism it was an exercise in intellectual Darwinism. Only the intellectually fit survived.
    The type of intellect verbal and mathematical intelligence but not spatial
    ability was what study of Talmud and Torah dictated as being essential being that each is written in a different ancient language and not the spoken language. The medieval Jew had to be lettered in at least 3 languages in order to survive Jewishly.
    Further evidence that this is the case the study suggests is that Ashkenazi specific diseases such as Tay-Sachs which are genetic in nature are the result of a defect that also relates to intelligence. For those interested the study is here:

    I don’t know if I believe all of that but thought it was interesting enough to consider in this discussion.
    Not sure if I believe it but if true it would mean that studying talmud is a waste unless you find it interesting for its own sake. I have a feeling that if true another form of intellectual Darwinism is happening in the general population now. The world in general is becoming a place where only the very highly educated can prosper. Intellectually successful people tend to marry others like them. And perhaps this explains why IQ is on average getting higher in western nations.
    Just some food for thought.

    • Thank you for your comments, Joshua, and for the URLs to two excellent articles on this topic. I will enjoy reading them.

      You speak of “intellectual Darwinism,” in terms of Darwinism being an accepted truth. While I acknowledge that Darwinism is promoted as factual and beyond question, it is still a theory since it has never been proven. To date there is no clear, unassailable link between animals and humans.

      The biblical account of Creation is far easier to embrace, since I believe in the existence of God, than the sheer chance involved in a Darwinian worldview. Intelligent design is a superior worldview to my way of thinking.

      Thank you for contributing to the conversation – it is, for me, a fascinating one.

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