Talmud, Messianic Judaism, and Imperfect Truth

Talmud is not what you think it is.

I say that because Talmud is not what I thought it was. I had done a fair amount of reading in Talmud and about Talmud before taking a class, which I am half-way through, at the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (mjti.org).

Wow, was I ever wrong. So I will just assume that you are wrong as well about what is in Talmud and what it’s purpose is.

I don’t intend to go in depth here and give you examples. I intend only to open your mind to something and perhaps create a desire for further study (guided study, by a qualified instructor — it is foolish to think you can learn Talmud on your own or by reading a few books).

So, to begin to open your mind to Talmud, why it is important for Messianic Judaism, for example, let me help you think generally about something important: the imperfection of our ability to know the truth.

What does it mean to live for God? Can anyone live, or more specifically know how to live, exactly as God desires in every circumstance?

A simplistic answer: “Yes, God told us in the Bible how to live and all we have to do is read it and do it.”

The wise student replies: “How do you apply the Bible to a complex problem of real life, such as third world debt or capital punishment or even a personal decision about which charity or ministry God would want you to support?”

Simplistically, we can all see that stealing is not God’s will. But life rarely throws such simple dilemmas our way. Would God be more of a pure capitalist, even if it meant millions starving due to mental illness, addictions, and lack of motivation to succeed in a capitalistic society? Or would God be more of a pure socialist even if it meant lack of production due to lack of motivation and rampant corruption as people seek to be more equal than others in spite of socialism’s promise of equality?

Hey, the problems of life don’t even need to be that difficult. In the Talmud, it turns out that the simplest commands of God are not so easy to define precisely. Deuteronomy 6 commands that the words of the Shema be repeated several times a day and taught to children (a command ignored by non-Jews, though Scot McKnight has helpfully brought back the value of the Shema for Christians in his book The Jesus Creed, get it HERE).

God’s command in Deuteronomy 6 seems fairly simple. But there is a place in the Talmud where two sages debate the issue. Must the Shema be recited in Hebrew or can it be recited in any language? The argument goes on and on with both sages using the exact wording of Deuteronomy 6 to make their case.

You see, just because something is written down in the Bible, and even if we all agree that the Bible is inspired and infallible, still it requires interpretation.

And whenever there is interpretation, there will be interpretations (plural). Whose is right?

For a lot of Christians the call to be like Jesus is at the center of spirituality. A simply form of this is the question, “What would Jesus do?” Recently a documentary asked the question, “Would Jesus drive a gas-guzzling SUV?”

Well, if our way of life is so simple and so clearly spelled out in the Bible, you answer that! Would he?

It’s not easy for people to live with uncertainty. I, for one, drive a Chevrolet Suburban. God might not be pleased with that. But then, he gave me eight children in a world where a car is pretty important and we won’t all fit in a Hybrid Compact Japanese car.

So, what does any of this have to do with Talmud and why Talmud is important for Messianic Judaism?

Like I told you, Talmud isn’t what you think it is. Talmud isn’t a book you quote from authoritatively to give weight to some point you wish to make. This is what most Messianic Jews think Talmud is. Thus, when they read an opinion in Talmud that they find unscriptural or offensive, they reject the whole thing.

No, Talmud is not a book of answers. It is a discussion. For the most part, it is a discussion with no answers.

Let’s be honest. Life is like that. Would Jesus watch “Grey’s Anatomy”? Could you write a short paper defending both sides of that question? I know I could.

Here’s the big point, the thing I’ve been building up to all along: Talmud is a discussion about Torah that teaches us to probe the very depths of Torah and it is the discussion that causes growth more than any confident set of answers we supposedly arrive at.

Have you ever tried to read a philosophy book? You thought the meaning of reality was rather simple and then some Greek or European dudes made fine distinctions between things like ideals and forms or phenomena and noumena. And your mind was opened to new levels of thought. And you had less certainty. But you had greater sensitivity.

That’s what Talmud will do for you. That’s why we need Talmudic scholarship in Messianic Judaism. We need people who understand the why’s and why-not’s of keeping the Torah.

Must we say Shema in Hebrew? You tell me.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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