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SIDIC Periodical VI - 1973/3
The Talmud (Pages 25 - 28)

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A Christian Student of Talmud
Pierre Lenhardt

 

Why study Talmud? Because it is in the Talmud, the central expression of the Jewish tradition, that Christianity has its roots. The study of Talmud is no mere marginal activity or useful specialization among the various possibilities for theological research; it is to be studied because, after the Resurrection of Christ, the Jewish People with their tradition and their Talmud still remain positively orientated towards God. The study of Talmud can have no sense for those Christians who do not feel that in spite of its inevitable difficulties and obscurities, the Word of God received through the Jewish tradition enables them better to live the Word . This conviction gives a Christian quality to the study of Talmud and it is essential for those who intend to undertake this study seriously under Jewish teachers.

Learning from Jews

To study Talmud one must learn from Jews. This statement may seem self-evident, but it must be well understood because the fact that the Talmud is now printed and translated into modern languages might seem to make it accessible to objective, scientific enquiry by specialists . Though it is true that external contact can sometimes make useful contributions to exegesis or to Christian spirituality, it is always dangerous to remove a detail from its context: such utilization of the Talmud is ludicrous when compared with the profit the Church could draw from really listening to the Word of God, studying it in contact with living Judaism. Although the Talmud is written, it is really at the heart of Jewish religious tradition. This tradition is basically oral, and the Talmud is its aidememoire . The student of Talmud must receive it from the Jews because they live by it, bear it in their hearts and continue it. Translations, dictionaries, concordances cannot open the door to its meaning which remains closed until the Jews are ready to hand over the key.

Today it no longer seems a breach of principle for a Jew to communicate the Talmud to a Christian. Where Christians no longer look upon it as anti-Christian, even diabolic literature to be censured or burnt, Jews have no further need to defend it by a refusal to communicate it. It is true that many Jews still feel some mistrust on this point because they are not yet sure that the Church has sincerely abandoned all missionary intentions in their regard. They maintain a certain attitude of reserve towards the Christian student until he has manifested by his perseverance that the study of Talmud has for him a positive meaning and a vital interest.

The first condition to be fulfilled by the Christian, no matter what the framework in which he is studying, is initial perseverance. It takes months, years to acquire the rudiments: Hebrew, Aramaic, terminology, literary forms, history of ancient Judaism. Only painful effort whose limits cannot be determined a priori enables the student to confirm his own conviction and obtain the confidence of his Jewish teachers.

Then the question arises, differently for each student, how to continue a lifelong study of Talmud. For some the only possible way is private study during free time. This is by no means the least rewarding nor the least noble way; it shows, better than any other, that the Christian like the Jew, and following his example, is prepared to study the Word of God disinterestedly.

Others are able to undertake a long-term intensive study of Talmud alone. Such an undertaking, even if it has in view effectiveness and measurable results, should also have a quality of disinterestedness. Indeed, in the present situation of the Church and of societies whose origin is Christianity , it will be a long time before talmudic studies arouse any great interest among non-Jews and make productive activity possible. It is still more unthinkable that it could ever be technically and morally conceivable for a Christian to teach Talmud to Jews. Nor can the areas of research and publication offer tangible results, because to make a really useful contribution at such levels one would need to have studied Talmud from childhood. The only concrete activity possible is to help Christian beginners who are at the initial stage mentioned above.

In the first difficult period the Christian beginner, though he receives the essentials from his Jewish teacher, may need help from a student who has already had experience and is less of a beginner than he is. Thus, in spite of all the above-mentioned limitations, there is a concrete opening for the Christian who feels called to make the Talmud the principal object of intensive study.

Among possible activities there are, of course, certain ecclesiastical employment areas in information and communication. Yet such activities, necessary as they may be, are only secondary to study, which is in fact study of the Word of God and which can be neither motivated nor measured by any other work. If he is to help Christian beginners efficaciously and give them correct information, the student of Talmud must continue all his life to study under authorized Jewish masters. Where are these masters who are willing to teach Talmud to Christians?

The first possibility is naturally the yeshiva where the living oral tradition of Judaism is maintained and transmitted. The yeshivot have great diversity and correspond to all the different needs of Jewish students who vary in age, language, and mentality. What they have in common is their Jewish and exclusively Jewish character. They cannot be blamed for this exclusiveness since their aim is to form practising Jews capable of transmitting the tradition of Israel to other Jews.

Thus the yeshivot, as far as one can tell, have no place for Christian students. It is perhaps regrettable for several reasons that there is no possibility of development in this direction, but we must understand the situation and accept it. The Jewish authorities wish to maintain the integrity of an institution which is essential to the life of their people, and we must show an absolute respect for their position.

However there are Jewish universities and university institutes which, unlike the yeshivot, admit Christian students more or less completely. It would serve no purpose to list the names and locations of these institutes, but the author would like to mention L'Institut International d'Etudes Hebraiques of Paris where he was so warmly welcomed and so competently guided for years, particularly by Rabbi David Berdah of blessed memory.

The fact that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is Hebrew and not Jewish shows that it wishes to be open to all branches of studies, and to all students, no matter what their religion. Because of its position, unique in the world, particularly the Jewish world, the Hebrew University gives first place to the faculty of Sciences of the Mind . The first among these are: Bible, Talmud, Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism, Hebrew Language.

Within this framework the Department of Talmud has a special place and, like the other departments, it is non-confessional since its purpose is not specifically religious. It aims at teaching students to read and understand the literature of Jewish tradition: the Mishna, Tosefta, Talmuds of Jerusalem and Babylon, Midrashim, post-Talmudic Responsa. The teaching is critical, philosophical and historical, and it is not geared to forming rabbis or community leaders but Talmud teachers for secondary schools, research and scholarship. This purpose differs greatly from that of the yeshivot, some of which challenge its legitimacy and go so far as to refuse all contact with the University.

This department is however very different from the other departments because the Talmud can be competently taught in all its concrete reality only by Jews who are deeply penetrated with the living tradition of Judaism. Moreover, among the students only religious Jews, prepared from their childhood, are in general capable of confronting the difficulties of Talmud study and of reaching the level of higher qualifications, the masters' degree and doctorate, since the requirements for these are very advanced. Happily there is the first level, the bachelor's degree, which is not altogether unattainable by the average Jew or non-Jew if he has been well prepared before entering the University and if he is prepared to work extremely hard for three, four, or even five years.

For the bachelor's degree the courses are normally distributed over a period of three years, and structured around the Talmud itself, chiefly the Babylonian Talmud which is the backbone of the studies and their touch-stone. In this the University is completely traditional, showing clearly that rabbinic literature cannot be studied scientifically without constant reference to its monumental centre, the Babylonian Talmud. This insistence on the Talmud, in the restricted sense, is evident from the first year. During thistime, before there can be any initiation into criticism, the student must immerse himself in the traditional texts. For those whose previous training is judged to be insufficient, special intensive exercises are provided in addition to the normal courses and practical work on the Mishna, Tosefta, ancient Midrashim and the Talmuds of Babylon and Jerusalem.

When the first lap is over, at the latest in the second year, the study of post-talmudic literature must be begun: the works of the Geonim of Babylonia, and of African, Spanish, French and German masters. From the second year onwards the student must participate in seminars, give explanations, and do written work. The third year is like the second, but heavier if the B.A. has to be completed; another year may prove necessary for this. In addition to the exams and written work there are several qualifying tests to be passed on a total of 200 pages of the Babylonian Talmud.

Difficult Beginnings

A Christian who does not see the study of Talmud as a vital activity at the heart of his Christian faith would from the beginning of the first year find such a programme impossible. Even as time goes on, this conviction as well as hard work would still not suffice without the friendly help of fellow-students and professors. From this point of view the second year, and still more the third, is easier than the first, because during the first one has to struggle against discouragement in relative solitude. Such difficulties are unavoidable in a university whose aim is neither to organize social meetings nor to further the dialogue between Christians and Jews. The great teachers who direct the department of Talmud have very little time to spend on newcomers, and they understandably avoid giving premature encouragement to beginners. It would be useless to give artificial support to students who, for a variety of reasons, do not wish or are unable to face up to the great and inevitable difficulties involved. The Jewish student has the help of community prayer made spontaneously by pupils and professors every morning, afternoon and evening, whenever the time-table permits. The Christian has not this help. He cannot impose his presence on Jewish community prayer. He must be on his guard against all ambiguous attitudes and he must avoid all useless stressing of differences. Such intuitions, about which one does not always feel sure, tend to deepen the solitude. Certain technical difficulties inherent in the study itself must be solved alone, because by asking for help one might appear to be seeking special treatment. From this point of view one should be grateful to Jewish fellow-students and professors who give only the amount of help asked for.

Finally, one must realize that the difficulties of the first year are normal and healthy. The second year, in spite of the fact that it is technically more difficult, is less heavy than the first. Exam fever brings about a more real contact with students and professors. Something has been acquired which makes it possible to enter fully into discussion about the different courses and seminars available for the r. ew academic year. Some students are surprised to find that one is still there, and in general all are pleased to see a Christian persevering in the study of Torah. The professors make one feel, by a cordial handshake or simply by a wink, that one is welcome. It is clear that both the initial loneliness and mutual discretion have built up trust more successfully than any words could have done. The Jewish teacher knows that his Christian pupil will not embarrass the other students by too great an ignorance, or by misplaced questions irrelevant to the Jewish problematic. He also knows that this pupil, coming as he does from Europe, can help certain of his fellow students to a knowledge of articles or books written in languages other than Hebrew. Jewish fellow students no longer hesitate to ask him for the lecture notes that he has taken such pains to make clear and complete.

The third year is one of explicit encouragement; one must finish. One hastens towards the goal and begins to talk of what lies ahead; but it is good to keep at the back of one's mind the probability that a fourth year may be necessary.

Effort Rewarded

In this way the years pass, very quickly, and very full. There is scarcely time to think of the future. One thing is certain: the experience is worthwhile. On the intellectual level there is both difficulty and satisfaction. On the emotional level one experiences great joy and great sadness. The sadness is caused by the realization that too few people profit from the riches of the Talmud department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Very great teachers have only a few Jewish students to prepare for the future; but this is a Jewish problem which a Christian is not expected to solve. From the Christian point of view it is a pity that so many Christian students of the Bible do not realize that Bible study, to be complete, must comprise study of the Talmud; for this the Hebrew University offers unique facilities. The difficulty of the Talmud does not entirely explain this lack of involvement for which there are certainly other causes: ignorance perhaps, or repugnance. It is difficult to say which of these is the saddest for the Church.

It is a great joy for the Christian to realize from his study of Talmud how many deep affinities exist between the Jewish faith which he is learning to know and the Christian faith which he is trying to live. One thinks of the sign that the Church would be if these affinities were understood by Christians, if exegetes and theologians were to enrich her by their discoveries through contact with living Jewish tradition. Joy is sometimes threatened by impatience and by fear of failure, but God who calls us to pray can, in silence, transform impatience and fear into joyful expectation of that time which he himself has fixed.


Brother Pierre Lenhardt of Sion, while continuing his studies in Talmud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, will be teaching at the Ecole Biblique.

 

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