Little books are often made from larger ones. Lamb’s tales from Shakespeare taught a generation the narratives of Shakespeare before they were ready to tackle the language. Lots of simplified pebbles were hewn from the boulder of Gibbon’s history of Rome. But no vast series of tomes has been more boiled, digested, excerpted, and explained than the Talmud. For the study of the Talmud is the work of a lifetime and the reading of a book the work of a week.

Some have chosen the way of Reader’s Digest: Montefiore and Loewe in their Rabbinic Anthology and Cohen in his Everyman’s Talmud offer a series of Talmudic teachings with a lot of the awkwardness smoothed over and things they considered no longer relevant omitted. Other scholars, such as Solomon Schechter, tried to portray the theology and worldview of the rabbis based on Talmudic learning. In our own age, with the avalanche of self-help books, when everyone from Marcus Aurelius to Proust can tell you how to live your life more productively, can the Talmud’s timeless wisdom not be abbreviated and harnessed to the same end?

Behold the explainer for the age: How the Talmud Can Change Your Life, by Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz. This is a more learned and, in some ways, more serious book than its title might suggest. Though written with a light touch and easily read, it does in fact explore deep themes in the Talmud and in life.

The Talmud famously preserves arguments. If you ask why, Liel Leibovitz has an answer that reveals his approach:

The rabbis chose to record their arguments because they understood a few profound truths about human nature: that change was as terrifying as it was inevitable; that people have a tendency to think of history as a positive linear progression and are therefore likely to view the latest development as necessarily optimal; that the human urge to break rules is just as mighty and eternal as the need for boundaries; and that when all that we know and love and believe comes tumbling down, our first and most disastrous instinct is often to abandon all hope.

There is a great deal of wisdom in that paragraph, and it is distilled from a story about a rabbi who “really loved prostitutes.” The flavor of high and low is sustained throughout the book. Leibovitz will keep you reading and along the way, like a maggid, a storytelling preacher, the author has rounded up stories outside of the Talmud to teach us what the Talmud itself has to say about our lives.

I suspect that few prior books on the subject tell us much about the beginnings of Billie Holiday’s career or the depredations of the founder of the Dewey Decimal System (who apparently was a first-class no-good-nik). One of Leibovitz’s charms is that of the petichtah—the ancient means of preaching whereby you begin in one place (usually with a verse), cover vast territory as though traversing the sea, and then swoop back to show how the original verse is seen in a new light. Leibovitz will begin with, say, the story of Soviet secret agent Aldrich Ames, who (I think it is fair to say) has never before been linked with the sages Ravina and Rav Ashi. Yet Leibovitz ties them all together in pursuit of a significant lesson of life, the way in which we can and sometimes should disappear into stories larger than ourselves.

In a moving epilogue, Leibovitz talks about a major health crisis in his own life that led him back to the Talmud. The reader has felt throughout the book that this is more than an academic project and discovers the beginning of it at the end of the work. I would quote “in my beginning is my end” except that it is from another well-known no-goodnik.

Much of the Talmud is taken up with the minutiae of life. To be honest, much of it isn’t even the minutiae of life as it exists now, since ceremonies in the Temple or agricultural laws do not apply in a literal sense to our lives in this century, especially in the Diaspora. In some ways, studying the Talmud is a lot like the hand exercises one does on the way to piano mastery. They seem inexplicable in themselves but later you see how indispensable they are to the entire enterprise, and along the way you hear some unexpectedly beautiful music.

The danger is that when you are surrounded by so many details, it’s hard to step back and understand the grand sweep. Leibovitz not only retells the stories of the Talmud (and many other stories as well) with a deft touch but offers a poignant lesson that rises from the text and seeps into self-awareness.

I cannot omit noting that I was reading this book when October 7 struck. And a single line illustrates its wisdom and relevance. In a passage about memoirs of the Nazis, Leibovitz notes: “Grief was a communal challenge, not an individual crisis.” How true that was and is. How perfect for the moment. How necessary and wise the book that offers it.

Photo: AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link