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Meeting the midrash

Another shehecheyanu moment: I translated my first few bits of Talmud today! This morning I started a Talmud tutorial, via phone, with Rabbi Judith Abrams, director of Maqom and author of A Beginner's Guide to the Steinsaltz Talmud. It's the new class I'm taking this term, one more small step into the Aleph rabbinic program.

I had read the introduction of her beginner's guide before our phone call, so I had a sense already of Rabbi Abrams' approach to Talmud. (The book, by the way, is terrific; I recommend it highly.) In her intro, she makes six basic points intended to facilitate Talmud study. The first one is Talmud is a waltz; it's not composed according to Western literary patterns, but what seems at first like chaos is actually pretty structured, and the one-two-three rhythm of opinions will come to feel intuitive after a while. Another is Apply it to your life: the text will come most alive when we discuss it, debate it, and find ways of making it relevant to our own situation. My favorite of these prefatory paragraphs may be The self-esteem issue, where she writes:

I can almost hear you thinking, "Yeah, right! Who am I to write down insights? I don't have any background. I'm not that observant. How could what I think about Talmud be important?" Please stop thinking this way. You need an appropriate amount of self-esteem to study Talmud. If you don't have enough, you'll stifle your voice unnecessarily. On the other hand, if it's too high, you'll fall into the classic Talmud trap: thinking that because you are smart or observant that you are somehow above the Talmud. Learning Talmud requires a balance of humility, bravery, wonder at the glory of the document in your hands, and a pride in ownership, knowing that the texts are yours to explore and enjoy.

That was really useful for me to read before we began. Without even knowing me, she'd hit the nail on the head. I've spent enough time with Torah that I've come to feel comfortable expressing interpretations of and responses to it, but Talmud? Talmud is huge! Talmud is beyond me! Talmud is probably more than I can handle! -- at least, that's what the voice of tremulousness tells me. Fortunately, if this morning's class is any indication, the voice of tremulousness is totally wrong -- and will soon be replaced by the voice of experience, which will remind me that this is a) within my capabilities and b) surprisingly fun.

We spent our time on one passage apiece from each of two midrash collections, written down around 350 C.E. but composed of material which is probably much older. From Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Nezikin we read a paragraph expanding on Exodus 22:20, "Neither oppress nor pressure a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The question naturally arises, why does the Torah mention oppression and pressuring, both? Mekhilta presumes a difference -- that one means oppressing with words, and the other means pressuring on money matters -- and explores what it means that we once were strangers ourselves.

And from Sifra Behar Sinai we read a commentary on a passage from Leviticus 25 instructing us not to oppress our neighbors in land transactions. In expounding on that passage, Sifra lists several forms of verbal oppression we're meant not to engage in, like hassling a repentant sinner by reminding him of his former ways. In a broader sense, this part could be read as an exhortation to relinquish old baggage, not to harass someone for who they used to be or what their ancestors did.

Further, Sifra says, if we encounter someone who is experiencing suffering -- illness, tribulations, or the death of a child, for instance -- we must not do as Job's friends did, blaming the victim as though a moral failing had brought about the tragedy. (Remember that toxic theology we heard so much of after Hurricane Katrina, as though the destruction of the city had a moral valance? Yeah. Maybe the religious right needs a course in remedial Talmud study. They could start with this beginner's guide.)

Anyway. Rabbi Abrams is warm and personable, and her enthusiasm for the text is contagious. It's just a beginning, of course; I can't translate fluently, and I need the back-and-forth instructor/student interaction to help me divine the questions the text presupposes and to understand the responses it offers. Still, the fact remains that I read my first few paragraphs of Talmud today, in the original, and they were intelligible, smart, and occasionally even funny. It's the first step on a lifetime journey, but I'm a lot more excited about the trip now that it's begun.

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