Monday, December 01, 2008

Understanding Jewish Thought

The title is of course ridiculous. We might as well pretend to sum up French thought in a single essay, or feminist thought. I only hope to give a beginning.

Christians encountering the Talmud have an immediate suspicion about all this conversation or argument about truth. In the Bible, truth is truth, and statements which contradict each other cannot both be true. This idea of reading the inconsistent commentaries for wisdom seems uncomfortably flexible, as if any fool thing might be allowed. The Christian wonders: Do you believe your book or don't you?

A slight change of perspective might be illuminating. Jonathan Sacks wrote a brief explanation twenty-five years ago that has stuck with me, and this commentary is an expansion.

What is wealth? In BT Shabbat 25b, four rabbis answer:
Rabbi Meir said: He who takes pleasure from his wealth.
Rabbi Tarfon said: He who has one hundred vineyards and one hundred fields, and one hundred servants working on them.
Rabbi Akiva said: Anyone who has a wife who is pleasant in her ways.
Rabbi Yossi said: He has a toilet near his table.
The order is important, as we shall soon see. Rabbi Meir gives the normal thoughtful person's answer. Were we to sit around a table and discuss this (as we are to imagine the rabbis doing), we would come up with something like this very quickly. We could go on in this vein for some time, discussing our expectations, our confidence in tomorrow. our ability to see things in perspective. This is the sort of one-off quote that makes it to daily calendars or church signs. It contains a large measure of truth, but it is not surprising in any way. All of us, when in our best mind, could come up with something like it.

Rabbi Tarfon will have none of it. Wealth is wealth, he says. Don't pussyfoot around with your philosophising. We all know what a person means when he says another is wealthy. Pretending otherwise is being too clever by half. Had Rabbi Tarfon's comment opened the discussion, it would merely be the foil for the others to challenge - the worldly, rather unimaginative view. But coming after Rabbi Meir's comment, it has a different meaning. It is a caution not to be so heavenly minded that we lose touch with the real world. It is a jolt back to reality.

Rabbi Akiva attempts to go deep into the matter, stepping aside from the idea of goods and treasures and into the heart of reality. A rich man with an unpleasant wife would trade all his goods for a wife who treated him with respect and honor. But a poor man with a pleasant wife would not trade her for great wealth. Applying this standard to all the good things a person might have - learning, luxury, honor - she would be the most valuable at every comparison. Therefore, a wife who is pleasant in her ways is the greatest wealth. All the other non-monetary wealths are implied in this comment. Once we have broken free of the idea of luxury, any number of other valuable pieces of a life could occur to us, all the more abstract and emotional ideas. Rabbi Akiva does not mention a wife as a starting point for such ponderings, but the endpoint. He has taken all these into consideration. He sums up.

Rabbi Yossi gives what seems at first to be a stupid, even base answer. But if you imagine him speaking at table with these other learned men, the wisdom becomes clearer. "Well, right now I'd settle for not having to walk so far to get to the loo." He breaks the tension with a joke, but one with meaning. Let's not get carried away with ourselves here. The simple things matter as much as the great thoughts. As Akiva's comment is an extension of Meir's, so Yossi's is an extension of Tarfon's. What troubles us at the moment can rob us of our wealth. Today it is having to leave a table of friends and a good conversation to relieve myself. Tomorrow it will be something else.

Taken together, the four lines of thought lead us into the main ways of thinking about great issues. Any of us might spend a year considering wealth from this starting point and learn a great deal, even with no other input. There is challenge, humility, out-of-the-box thinking, and perspective here.

The Talmudic lesson is not presented as an essay, but as a conversation, or even an argument. It is interactive. Others are necessary to find wisdom. Even after you have spent your year contemplating wealth in terms of Shabbat 25b, you can only realize this wisdom in conversation with others. The question is never quite fully answered - one must remain connected to the community to achieve wisdom. Observant Jews have individual prayers, but they must also have a minyan (usually ten) for prayers and matters of sanctity. There is great suspicion of a wise man trying to fly solo in Judaism.

Christianity has more of a tradition of individual contemplation and wisdom - the Desert Fathers and other mystics would be the extreme of that - but a tradition of fellowship and community arising out of Judaism is even stronger, though we often don't notice it. Throughout the OT God speaks of being present "in the midst of the congregation." The NT reduces the number absolutely necessary to two or three gathered in Christ's name, but records many groupings of believers taking counsel together. Paul, and John of Patmos are forced by circumstances into isolation, but this is treated as an exception. Some contemplatives have been hermits, but more of them have been in community.

In your next reading of the Gospels, keep this picture of discussion and argument in mind. Jesus speaks as a rabbi from something similar to this tradition, and how He treats the conversation about important questions, and where he places Himself in the argument is fascinating. New things will jump out at you from the Scriptures, especially in the parables.


terri said...

Interesting post.

Jesus upset this whole way of getting at the truth by declaring actual answers to many of the questions posed to him....answers that were not well-received.

Frequently we hear directed towards Jesus the cry of.."by whose authority do you do/say these things?"

He offended the community of Rabbis who would wrestle the truth from each other without ever coming to a useful, definitive conclusion.

So...on the one hand Jesus participates in the discussion, but on the other hand he ends several conversations with finality...not brooking any further comments on the matter, and laying bare the Pharisees tendency to overthink simple principles and turn them into traditions which undercut the very point Scripture was making.

Carl said...

Good, thought-provoking piece.

For me, understanding Jewish thought became easier after law school: Talmudic conversations seem structured a lot like--indeed, anticipated--the Socratic method. There is at least one analogous Christian tradition: in my experience, Talmudic and Jesuitical are near synonyms.

Departing a bit from terri, all three systems are designed to teach a way of thinking that, when fully absorbed, often yields "useful, definitive conclusion[s]."

Boethius said...

Hmm, I never thought of it that way before. It has created musings for me. Thank you.