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The Talmud is a collection of elaborations on the themes raised in the Hebrew Bible created by noted Rabbis of the second temple era. It is an immense body of literature in both Hebrew and Aramaic, and is divided into two sections: the Mishnah, and Gemara, which comments on the Mishna. According to tradition, the Mishnah was taught to Moses on Sinai (along with the rest of the Torah). Moses then told it to Joshua, who passed it on down the line in an oral tradition. (See the first Mishnah in Tractate Avot, also called Pirkei Avot) For this reason, it is often referred to as the 'Oral Torah.' It was finally written down in the second century C.E. (Christian Era) because the Romans were killing the scholars who had memorized it. Another major reason was that with the dispersion of Jews into exile, the old methods of ensuring accurate transmission were no longer working due to there being too many isolated communities. By having it written down, it was meant to ensure a consistency of practice amongst Jews and to reduce "Machlokes b'Yisrael" ("Arguments and fracturing within the people of Bnei Yisrael")
The Mishnah is written in Hebrew as it was given on Sinai and Hebrew is considered the "Leshon haQodesh" (the holy tongue). The Gemara is written in Aramaic (the prevailing language of the Jewish community in the early first millennium CE) as it needed to be read and disseminated amongst the general community, much as legal enactments and case law are used today.
There are, technically speaking, two Talmuds -- the earlier Jerusalem or Yerushalmi Talmud (apparently incomplete due to Roman interference in Jewish religious structure in 425 CE) and the later Babylonian or Bavli Talmud (the one more studied due to the larger Jewish community in Babylonia). When there are conflicts between the two, the Talmud Bavli is considered authoritative. This is for two reasons:
- The Talmud Yerushalmi, as mentioned, is incomplete and very badly edited
- When we have two books from the same generations of rabbis we give precedence to the later one as they have the benefit of having seen the earlier one and incorporating it into their text. Indeed, we see this often in Talmud Bavli where an opinion from Talmud Yerushalmi is brought and discussed as part of the decision making process.
The Talmud has many commentaries and supracommentaries. As the commentaries grew, it became progressively harder to find the correct decision and render an opinion. Thus, various summaries of the contents were made, with the Shulchan Aruch becoming the most accepted one, though others are used for background and the information (Mishnah Torah and Arba'ah HaTurim are two of these). Orthodox Jews consider the Mishnah on the same level as the Torah, but the Gemara is not, as - unlike the Mishnah and Torah - it was not directly transmitted from God to Moses. More liberal Jewish groups do not always agree. The Ethiopian Jews, or 'Falasha', never had the Oral Law to begin with, but accepted it when they come to Israel and now completely follow it. The only group that rejects it completely are the Karaite Jews. The Talmud is the earliest known example of hypertext - that is, text that directly refers to another text.
The Talmud is a work of great complexity and sophistication, and has much to say on a great number of subjects. As such, it is central to Jewish religious education even in liberal Jewish groups and its study is considered one of the highest duties of the educated orthodox Jew.
Much of its writing (particularly that written to defend Judaism against Christian theology and the Jewish people against a hostile world) is cherry-picked by antisemites as a defense for their hatred and paranoia. Such people probably know the Talmud no better than they know the Qur'an.
One reason that Talmud quoting-mining is so strongly linked to antisemitism is that quoting the Talmud is almost always more trouble than it's worth. The Talmud is long, complex, and explicitly contradictory, and an honest citation requires a significant amount of context to establish whether the opinion cited is meaningful or relevant to modern Judaism. Legitimate critics of Judaism will typically be able to find citations in a more straightforward source, such as one of the Jewish law codes, Rabbinical responsa, or modern Jewish publications. Critics who rely solely on the Talmud for critical citations often explain their lack of other sources by accusing Judaism of hiding secret, shocking beliefs, whereas in fact Talmudic opinions that are not cited in later literature simply aren't important to later Jewish tradition - just like obscure laws can be discarded if they are never cited in relevant common law sources.
This quote mining of the Talmud without regard to later interpretation and the way it is actually lived by (orthodox) Jews in their daily lives is similar to the quote mining of laws or law doctrines of common law, that is the basis for many a pseudolaw.
Examples of Controversial passages
According to one appallingly racist legend preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, God cursed Ham because he broke a prohibition on sex aboard the ark and was "was smitten in his skin". According to another, Noah cursed him because he castrated his father. This passage is used by some to argue that the Curse of Ham (which was used by religious slavemasters to argue that slavery was acceptable) has its origins in the Talmud. However the Talmud does not connect the two curses. Only Canaan is cursed (which itself raises moral questions to say the least) to be a slave. None of Ham's other sons, Cush, Mizraim, and Phut are cursed as such. The "curse of blackness" has about as much significance in modern Rabbinic Judaism as the "curse of scattering" of Levi and his descendants (including the Kohanim or Priestly Caste). This is because these two stories and their "curses" are what are called aetiological postdictions. In other words the author made up (or more likely just copied from someone else who made it up) a legend to explain how things came about.
The Talmud says that Jewish girls can wed at the age of 13 at the earliest and 20 at the latest. Nevertheless the chapter Pirkei Avot, or "Ethics of the Fathers" in the Talmud says that the best age for marriage is 18 for both men and women. The couple would consummate their marriage on their wedding nights. In accordance with Jewish law, a man is expected to regularly have sex with his wife and provide her with food and clothing.
The Talmud also seems to place Jews as better than other people in some places when read literally, which is disturbing to say the least. Unlike Christianity and Islam, which hold that Christians and Muslims are in fact equal to every- oh wait.
The Courtier's Reply and the Talmud
When challenged on their use of Talmud quotes, antisemites often object that they're being subjected to the Courtier's Reply. Why, they ask, are they not qualified to criticize the Talmud when the Tanakh and Torah are fair game?
Simply put, the existence of the Courtier's Reply does not allow any untrained person to comment on any subject that strikes their fancy. For instance, an untrained person cannot simply pick up a scientific paper and expect to be able to debate it without serious misunderstanding. Likewise, unlike the Tanakh, the Talmud is simply too complex and technical of a text for an untrained person to understand. While the Tanakh consists of many genres of literature (e.g., folktales, legal codes, history, poetry, &c.), it was mostly written to be heard and understood by laypeople. If a text is in the Bible, it is intended to communicate to the layperson something about Judaism's values and beliefs. The Talmud, on the other hand, is a very complex legal document preserving many (frequently contradictory) oral traditions from various rabbis. Any given quote from the Talmud may be fundamental to Judaism or may be meaningless; without a basic knowledge of Rabbinic literature, Jewish practice, and Talmud scholarship, it's impossible to judge.
Of course, that does not mean that the ideas contained in the Talmud are beyond criticism. There are many, many books written about Jewish law for laypeople. However, this alternative would not be acceptable to most antisemites, who do not want to honestly criticize Judaism for what it is, but rather accuse Judaism of hiding secret, scandalous beliefs which simply don't exist.
- See the Wikipedia article on Talmud.
- See the Wikipedia article on Jesus in the Talmud.
- A partial 1918 translation of the Babylonian Talmud by Michael Rodkinson
- A more extensive (and recent) translation exists at http://www.halakhah.com
- "Ethiopia Virtual Jewish Tour". Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/ejhist.html.
- Their Hebrew name, "qara'im", literally means "the readers", ie. those who rely solely on the written law and not the oral law.
- Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b
- Goldenberg, David M. (1997). "The Curse of Ham: A Case of Rabbinic Racism?". In Salzman, Jack; West, Cornel. Struggles in the promised land: toward a history of Black-Jewish relations. Oxford University Press, p.24
- "'Kosher' Sex". Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/sex.html.
- eg. Ereget Raschi Erod 22 30