The Promise and the Talmud


A couple weeks ago I blogged about having just finished reading The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. I so thoroughly enjoyed reading the book that I could not wait to begin the sequel, The Promise. Well last weekend I finished reading that book as well (I know, I’m behind on the J-Bom reading).


The difficulty with reading any good book, and especially a series of books, is the disappointment at finishing the book. The disappointment was not with the books (chas v’shalom), it is being bummed that the story is over. Maybe it’s just me … but you grow acquainted with the characters, the setting, and the story. So when a good book is over, you have to say goodbye.

Well, that is how I felt finishing The Promise. I just spent the last month or so getting to know the intimate details of the lives of Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders, and all the other characters. I was brought back to Brooklyn in an earlier decade. While I was reading these two books (The Chosen and The Promise) they were guests in my home, we rode the metro together, and they fell asleep next to the lamp on my bedside table. A good book pulls you into it, and brings you into the world of the characters’ lives.

I have also blogged a couple times about the Talmud. I have always loved Jewish texts. For many years I have had a particular growing appreciation especially for the world of the Talmud. This has been especially true over the last two years or so. I have developed a true love and admiration for the intricate conversation of the Talmud, its details, and it development. It is a very difficult body of texts that requires a mastery of its nuances, language, and conversation before you can really begin to understand and appreciate it. One cannot just read a book about the Talmud. Yes … that is how many of us were first introduced to it. But like with anything, one must truly become acquainted with its technicalities to really understand it.

I am not claiming to have arrived, nor do I claim to be some talmid chacham in regard to the Gemara. I am simply on a journey like many of you. The point is not agreeing on everything. The Talmud is a collection of complex conversations between individuals and generations that was eventually codified. So it is in a way, like listening in and participating in any other sort of conversation. There are things you will agree with, things you will not, and some that just challenge you! But the only way to understand it is to participate in the conversation! To add your own voice to the dialog.

This love and appreciation of the Talmud is really reflected in the works of Chaim Potok. (I have been on some sort of Potok kick lately, and have read three of his books, and just started a fourth). You especially experience this love of Talmud getting to know Reuven Malter and his father. As Reuven is in yeshiva, and studying for s’micha, you experience Gemara the way Reuven does, and see the pages in the way Reuven sees them.

Preparation for Orthodox s’micha is very intense. And as the time draws closer, Reuven spends most of his life enveloped in the Talmud in preparation for his s’micha exams. I found the way Reuven often vividly describes this relationship to the Talmud so very moving:

I locked myself into the world of the Talmud, lived in it even during the hours when the texts were not open in front of me, saw the shapes of its printed pages everywhere … I lived in a world two thousand years in the past, in a time when sages had been remarkably unafraid of new ideas, and I sat on the earthen floors of the ancient academies, listening to lectures on the Mishna, listening to the discussions that followed, and sometimes a sage would take my arm and we would go into a silent grove of trees, and walk and talk (The Promise, p. 310-311).”

These words reflect a deep admiration and love for this great body of literature, and as I read this I was challenged to go deeper in my own interaction and relationship with these texts. As I mentioned earlier, it is not about the Talmud always being “right,” or agreeing with everything written on the page. In fact, I am often very bothered by some of the conversations in the Gemara. But that does not mean I do not appreciate the discussion. I am often just as irked in daily conversations. But the answer is to engage rather than disengage. To dig deeper and swim in the conversation. And as Messianic Jews, we have our own unique voice to add to the collection of voices of our people over the generations.

So my challenge to each of us is to learn to swim in the conversation. To dig deeper and learn to truly appreciate the voices of our people embodied in the pages of Jewish texts.

“L’Shanah tovah tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a sweet New Year!”


About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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7 Responses to The Promise and the Talmud

  1. jonroush says:

    I am looking forward to the opportunities to do this in this coming year.

  2. Alan Greene says:

    R. Brumbach –

    I just came across your site, and realize that I am responding to an older review. I am also a lover of Chaim Potok’s writing. In addition to “The Chosen” and “The Promise”, I would also recommend “The Book of Lights”. A significant portion of this novel is somewhat autobiographical, based on R. Potok’s service as a Jewish chaplain in Korea in the early – mid 50’s. The story begins with the last year in seminary, where the protagonist, Gershon Loran, is studying Kaballah with a Professor “Keter”, and Talmud with Professor “Malkuson”. Also making an appearance in the novel are former President Truman and Albert Einstein(!).

    Another book that has meant much to me over the years (non-fiction) is “The Gate Behind the Wall: A Pilgrimage to Jerusalem”, by Samual Heilman. Highly recommended.

    All blessings to you and your ministry,
    Alan

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Shalom Alan,

      Thank you for commenting. I have also read the Book of Lights as well as The Gate Behind the Wall, and I agree, they are both excellent!

      Have you read Potok’s In the Beginning? Also quite powerful.

      Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

  3. Alan Greene says:

    Rabbi Joshua –

    I have read “In the Beginning”, but it was years ago. Thanks for jogging my memory! I will plan to read this again soon.

    If it happens that you are inspired (as I am) by Rebbe Nachman, a book that I am currently reading and would recommend is “Crossing the Narrow Bridge”, a kind of contemporary compilation of many of the Rebbe’s writings, by R. Chaim Kramer.

    By chance, have you had any experience with the Tanya, by the Alter Rebbe, Schneur Zalman?

    Again, many blessings and Shabbat Shalom!
    Alan

  4. Alan Greene says:

    Rabbi Joshua –

    One final comment regarding Chaim Potok, in particular “The Chosen”: I was especially impressed by Reuven’s father, David Malter, because of his tenderness and spiritual sensitivity. I was not so much this way when my children were young (they are all grown, and I have grandchildren), but I try to be so now. All of my children are believers in Yeshua, for which I am eternally grateful. I am a Gentile believer (and have been so for 41 years) with a love for things Jewish.

    Blessings,
    Alan

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