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Steinsaltz Brings Talmud to the Masses

But do we deserve it?

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How was your weekend? Maybe you caught a movie—or finally finished that novel on your nightstand, that’d be nice. Look, let’s be honest though, whatever you did was embarrassing compared to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who this Sunday, after forty five years, completed his 45 volume translation and commentary of the Talmud.

Steinsaltz’s work is one of the great egalitarian projects of modern Judaism, which of course only rubs in the fact that he is so much better than you. Born of secular socialist parents in Jerusalem, he studied physics and mathematics along with his rabbinical studies. He designed a word processor for his work. He’s written over sixty books, hundreds of articles, been compared to Rashi and Maimonides and called “a mind of the millennia.” He’s funny. He has fifteen grandchildren. Much like Hillel, he once beat up Chuck Norris while standing on one leg.

And what now for the Rabbi? He says, “I have plans for the next 70-odd years.” So. What are you doing this weekend?

You can watch the Rabbi translate the final words here:

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hmmm. i teared up at hearing this particular singing of ‘Ya-aseh Shalom….’- really got to me, somehow.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Nothing Steinsaltz has done can make the bulk of the Talmud worth reading. Try a page and see how far you get.

I tried once and I learned that a Jewish midwife should not deliver a gentile baby because it would be a sin to bring another gentile into the world and that a Jewish woman should not use a gentile midwife to deliver her baby because the gentile woman can’t be trutsted not to kill the Jewish baby.

Sweet stuff.

Christopher says:

I rather doubt that Bennett Muraskin read the whole page regarding midwives.

The Talmud is not a set of fixed rules but a collection of the debates of the sages, debates where opinions were sometimes separated by lifetimes.

Reading Talmud is not a shortcut to learning the answers, it is an exercise in finding the questions.

Yaakov Hillel says:

Over the last 14 years I have covered once all of the Talmud with Steinsaltz, believe me it is no easy feat. The Talmud is not like going to law school. It covers over five hundred years of discussions and more so arguments of the interpretation of Jewish Law. Today we use the Talmud as the basis for Jewish Law making and decisions, but as it says in deuteronomy the rabbi of your generation will be the one who will decide how to relate to how act and follow the interpretation of the law from Moses to modern day. When we are allowed to act in a certain way and it is right and in a similar situation to act in the same way and it is totally wrong. Steinsaltz has done a superb job with his team of bring the Talmud to the intelligent individual of today. Learning his interpretation is great, it is not easy.

Yaakov Hillel says:

There is something very dangerous for just anybody to learn the talmud. We saw what Mr Muraskin wrote. You can find many different interpretations of the bible in the Talmud, some I would not dare put on this page. You must remember that during the time the Talmud was written the Romans who ruled Israel practically wiped out the Jewish presence from Israel. This is why there was no continuation To the Israeli Talmud But the Babalonian Talmud actually never stopped.At a cerytain point it just changed form from one period called Amoraim to the next called Gaonim. On the otherhand between the Romans,byzantines,and crusaders only a handful of Jews remained in Israel that were actaual decendants of the Jews present during the destruction of the second temple 2000 years ago.For this reason there was at many periods a very strong antipagan or later antigentile relation and laws were sewn to suit the situation. However it does say in the bible do not come close to those of other nations because your son will go after his daughter and he will bow to her gods and you will be lost to your God and your religion. This is te reason that The children of Israel were to be very stringent with the nations they took over when they conquered the land. Today this the exact stance the Muslim take when somebody marry’s out of their religion or if they change their religion. In Islam the punishment is one—death.

Bennett Muraskin says:

I read the whole page cited by Christopher. Not only does it confirm what I wrote, but it gets worse:

“R. Joseph further had in mind to say, in regard to what has been taught that in the case of idolaters and shepherds of small cattle one is not obliged to bring them up [from a pit] though one must not cast them in it — that for payment one is obliged to bring them up on account of ill feeling. Abaye, however, said to him: He could offer such excuses as, ‘I have to run to my boy who is standing on the roof’, or, ‘I have to keep an appointment at the court.'”

Exactly what I want to teach my children…. An expression of the worst form of Jewish fundamentalism. Hatred of the goyim.

This is further evidence of the nastiness of the Talmud. Sure there are counter examples, but when it comes to Jewish-Gentile relations, they are few and far between.

Bennett, I would suggest that the Talmud is an ancient collection of debates and reflects both the wisdom and the errors of its era. It was written in the era directly after the Hebrew Bible was “closed,” i.e., Jewish leaders ceased to accept any new books for the Tanach. So we are talking writings that are 2,000 years old.

So just as the vast majority of Jews no longer practice polygamy, even though the Tanach mentions it, so we should disregard the outdated parts of the Talmud, and mine it for the good within it.

For people who cannot afford the Steinsaltz Talmud, or are uncertain where to start, or understandably cannot face reading 45 volumes, I would suggest downloading the “Ein Yaakov (Eye of Jacob),” a collection of ethical and mystical teachings from the Talmud, which omits many of the outdated civil laws.

The Ein Yaakov is available for free in an early 20th century translation stored on a Chabad website — though it was not translated by Chabad — here:

Scroll down the page to the “Ein Yaakov” — five volumes in PDF — download them — and consider reading just a few pages per day. While there is much outdated material such as Bennett Muraskin justifiably objects to, there is also valuable material on Jewish ethics and mysticism.

If you don’t like reading PDF books on a computer screen, or would like a better translation, offers a one volume translation of the Ein Yaakov — pricey, but well-reviewed.

There is also a book from the 1930s, “Everyman’s Talmud” by A. Cohen, also available on, which summarizes the ethical and mystical teachings of the Talmud.

The Talmud can be exasperating in some parts, and inspirational in others.

Bennett Muraskin says:

With all due respect to Robin Margolis, I submit that the errors far outweigh the wisdom. And “errors” such as the repeated anti-gentile statements are hard to ignore. They go beyond “errors” to fatal flaws.

Do you really want to spend time reading who Jews are permitted to throw in a pit or leave in a pit? Please!

As a whole, the Talmud is not so much obnoxious but arcane and irrelevant. This is why I do not think it is worth the effort to systematically read it. Pirkey Avot is the one big exception.

Therefore in the final analysis, I question the value of Steinsaltz’ project. It is not as if previous translation don’t already exist. Or distillations like Cohen’s or Bokser’s.

Nothing Steinsaltz said on Sunday or in a PBS documentary a few years ago changed my mind. Pilpul remains pilpul.

I am well aware of Ein Yaakov. I find the aggadic folktales in the Talmud far superior to the halakha. You can find some of them in my book Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, which owes alot to Bialik and Ravnitsky’s Sefer Ha’Aggadah and Ausubel’s A Treasury of Jewish Folklore.

Dear Bennett:

If we followed your criteria, we’d also have to throw out the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), which also contains some really great material and some really appallingly outdated material.

Our civilization is thousands of years old. I think we should give our fellow Jews credit for intelligence — they will reject outdated items and study items that continue to offer meaning.

It seems to me that your call for rejecting the Talmud might also lead people to reject your book, which has, by your own account, taken tales from the Talmud and incorporated them in your text.

Maybe I’m missing something here — but if you feel that people should not read the Talmud, why should they read your book, which contains Talmudic materials? Just playing devil’s advocate here.

Bennett Muraskin says:

You are right. I value some of the aggadic material in the Talmud, but not most of the law and most certainly not the laws that vilify non-Jews. Maimonides is not better in this regard. He vilifies non-Jews as well. How can you get around this bias? It goes to the core of how the Talmudic rabbis viewed the world, which is incompatible with our views.

You are also right about the Tanakh. There are a few books that convey humanistic values: Jonah, Ruth, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes (more existential than humanist, but still valuable), but the rest is highly authoritarian and ethnocentric.

My point is that the outdated items as you call them are the overwhelming bulk of our traditional literature. We progressive humanistic Jews have to be very selective in how we use this literature. Most of it was written for fundamentalists and fanatics.

I see that you are part of an organization advocating inclusive Judaism, which sounds great to me, although it is the first I have heard of it. The question, however, is what you include and what do you exclude. Why ritually read the Torah or bury oneself in the Talmud, if they are dominated by “appallingly outdated material?” Much of Pirkey Avot is wonderful but it is only one tiny portion of the Mishnah!

I would much rather read and honor the few truly humanistic portions of traditonal literature and then move on to the good stuff: Spinoza, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Dubnow, Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, Buber, Kaplan, Howe, Biale, Wine etc.

How about you?

Hey, Bennett,

Isn’t it great how Judaism changes over time, yet still retains the Talmud as a foundational text? The writers you list would not have existed if not for the Talmud and Judaism’s basis upon it.

Sorry for the snark: I just think the distinction you make is almost arbitrary and has already been included within Jewish civilization. Yes, some parts of our writings are odious, and we have rejected them.

The challenge and beauty of Talmud is that it contains both timeless ethical principles (how to decide triage when lives are at stake) and arcane details (mention of specific types of woven baskets).
It’s also important to understand that the words of the Talmud, like those of the Torah, often cannot be taken at face-value. Both require analysis, questioning, and engagement. If you skim through or come to snap-judgments, you’ll miss the best parts.
Lastly, while everyone reads Torah and Talmud through the lens of our current experience, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Jewish existence and experience has been radically different at various points over the last few thousand years.
May we all find our “chelek” in Torah, as it says in daily prayers.

Bennett Muraskin says:

To Eli–you and I may have rejected the odious writings, but there are still many who make excuses for them. If the Talmud, with very few exceptions, preaches hatred for the “other,” what kind of “foundational text” is it?

The greatness of the writers I mentioned resides in their rejection of the Talmud. They were all apikorism in one way or another.

To Leah—what are the “best parts” of the Talmud? Certainly not the bulk of the halakha and only a small fraction of the agadah.

The excerpt that Christopher sent was obnoxious. Please refer me to what you find of value.

As I read all the comments what we have, here is a reinactment of Talmud, you guys have a sense of humor.
Party on.

I’ve said that least 3794739 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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Steinsaltz Brings Talmud to the Masses

But do we deserve it?

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