Curious Tales of the Talmud

ctott_350px wide bannerTo some, “Curious Tales of the Talmud” may sound as preposterous as a celebrity gossip column in the Yale Law Journal.
After all, the Talmud is a reservoir of religious teachings and a most authoritative and fundamental Jewish text filled with penetrating legal analyses, many of which are still referenced when trying to solve contemporary ethical issues. But “tales” of the Talmud? “Curious tales”?
The Talmud’s role as the primary source of Jewish law can obscure its value as a literary treasure.
Indeed it is true. The Talmud has many tales that, at the least, can be called curious. In fact, considering the downright zaniness of many of them, “curious” might be a kindly understatement. The stories in the Talmud reveal an imaginative richness and a striking sense of an ongoing task of narration as a crucial part of the interpretation and preservation of a treasured culture:
…A seafaring rabbi docks his boat on an island, only to realize that the apparent terra firma was really the back of a mammoth sea creature. . . . A king and queen argue whether sheep are superior to goats or vice versa; a high priest settles the debate. . . . G-d prays and asks a high priest to bless Him. . . . A rabbi debates the sages of Athens and explains to them how to sew together the parts of a broken millstone and how the spirit of an un-hatched chick escapes the eggshell. . . . A nocturnal vision causes a Talmudic sage to have a newfound respect for an idolatrous monarch…
In order to better appreciate these cryptic accounts we must first become familiar with this Talmudic subgenre (that is part of the larger genre known as Aggadah), to understand what it is doing in the Talmud, and to comprehend its ultimate significance.
Judaism is full of deeply resonant and transformative wisdom. Some of its most profound ideas about life, the universe, the soul, and our relationship with G-d are encrypted within these peculiar and nonsensical Talmudic tales.
One of the most intriguing and perplexing aspects of the Talmud is that, despite its tremendous size and the remarkably broad range of topics it covers, it contains virtually no discussion about sociological, psychological, philosophical, or even theological issues. The sheer genius of the Talmudic scholars, as evidenced by their hair-splitting Halachik debates and their finely honed methodologies, creates a natural expectation for profound insight and depth in the existential areas of life. And yet…utter silence.
On the other hand, the Talmud contains many seemingly arcane and implausible stories and tales. It is disquieting that these same brilliant and lucid rabbis, who expound on legal issues with such profound and grounded logic, become tellers of stories that can only be described as outlandish. Indeed, throughout the ages, scoffers and anti-semites have used these stories in an attempt to prove the Talmud’s silliness and, hence, its irrelevance and disposability.
These intriguing legends are by and large not accessible to the general public, nor are the profound pearls of wisdom that are encrypted within them.
Now you have the opportunity to delve into this little explored dimension of the Talmud for yourself — an adventure to unravel layers of personal meaning as we decode these mysterious tales together.
Curious Tales of the Talmud is a fascinating and fun course. Each of its six lessons addresses a fresh passage of the Talmud, one that promises to be a real head-scratcher. The lessons will each provide a method of decoding, demonstrating how to uncover unique and important takeaway messages which are relevant to the experiences of the modern individual.
Curious Tales of the Talmud is a six-week course that begins on April 254h located at, and in partnership with, the St. Paul JCC.
Come curious – you’ll leave amazed.