The Talmud is not a work of art. The task of reducing the thought of a thousand years into a coherent system proved too much even for a hundred patient rabbis. Several tractates are obviously in the wrong seder or order; several chapters are in the wrong tractate; subjects are taken up, dropped, and lawlessly resumed. It is not the product of deliberation, it is the deliberation itself; all views are recorded, and contradictions are often left unresolved; it is as if we had crossed fifteen centuries to eavesdrop on the most intimate discussions of the schools, and heard Akiba and Meir and Jehuda Hanasi and Rab in the heat of their debates. Remembering that we are interlopers, that these men and the others have had their casual words snatched from their mouths and cast into uncalculated contexts and sent hurtling down the years, we can forgive the casuistry, sophistry, legends, astrology, demonology, superstition, magic, miracles, numerology, and revelatory dreams, the Pelion on Ossa of argument crowning a web of fantasy, the consolatory vanity forever healing frustrated hope.
If we resent the stringency of these laws, the intrusive minuteness of these regulations, the Oriental severity of punishment for their violation, we must not take the matter too much to heart; the Jews made no pretense to keeping all these commandments, and the rabbis winked on every other page at the gap between their counsels of perfection and the stealthy frailties of men. “If Israel should properly observe a single Sabbath,” said a cautious rabbi, “the Son of David would come immediately.”116 The Talmud was not a code of laws requiring strict obedience; it was a record of rabbinical opinion, gathered for the guidance of leisurely piety. The untutored masses obeyed only a choice few of the precepts of the Law.
There was in the Talmud a strong emphasis on ritual; but that was in part the Jew’s reaction to the attempts of Church and state to make him abandon his Law; the ritual was a mark of identity, a bond of unity and continuity, a badge of defiance to a never-forgiving world. Here and there, in these twenty volumes, we find words of hatred for Christianity; but they were for a Christianity that had forgotten the gentleness of Christ; that persecuted the adherents of the Law that Christ had bidden His followers to fulfill; and that had, in the view of the rabbis, abandoned the monotheism which was the inalienable essence of the ancient faith. Amid these ceremonial complexities and controversial barbs we find hundreds of sage counsels and psychological insights, and occasional passages recalling the majesty of the Old Testament or the mystical tenderness of the New. The whimsical humor characteristic of the Jew lightens the burden of the long lesson. So one rabbi tells how Moses entered incognito into Akiba’s classroom, sat in the last row, and marveled at the many laws derived by the great teacher from the Mosaic code, and of which its amanuensis had never dreamed.117
For 1400 years the Talmud was the core of Jewish education. Seven hours a day, through seven years, the Hebrew youth pored over it, recited it, sank it into his memory by sound and sight; and like the Confucian classics similarly memorized, it formed mind and character by the discipline of its study and the deposit of its lore. The method of teaching was not by mere recitation and repetition; it was also by disputation between master and pupil, between pupil and pupil, and the application of old laws to the circumstances of the new day. The result was a sharpness of intellect, a retentiveness of memory, that gave the Jew an advantage in many spheres requiring clarity, concentration, persistence, and exactitude, while at the same time it tended to narrow the range and freedom of the Jewish mind. The Talmud tamed the excitable nature of the Jew; it checked his individualism, and molded him to fidelity and sobriety in his family and his community. Superior minds may have been hampered by the “yoke of the Law,” but the Jews as a whole were saved.
The Talmud can never be understood except in terms of history, as an organ of survival for a people exiled, destitute, oppressed, and in danger of utter disintegration. What the Prophets had done to uphold the Jewish spirit in the Babylonian Captivity, the rabbis did in this wider dispersion. Pride had to be regained, order had to be established, faith and morals maintained, health of body and mind rebuilt after a shattering experience.118 Through this heroic discipline, this rerooting of the uprooted Jew in his own tradition—stability and unity were restored through continents of wandering and centuries of grief. The Talmud, as Heine said, was a portable Fatherland; wherever Jews were, even as fearful enclaves in alien lands, they could put themselves again into their own world, and live with their Prophets and rabbis, by bathing their minds and hearts in the ocean of the Law. No wonder they loved this book, to us more undulant and diverse than a hundred Montaignes. They preserved even fragments of it with fierce affection, took their turns in reading snatches of the enormous manuscript, paid great sums, in later centuries, to have it printed in all its fullness, wept when kings and popes and parliaments banned or confiscated or burned it, rejoiced to hear Reuchlin and Erasmus defend it, and made it, even to our own time, the most precious possession of their temples and their homes, the refuge, solace, and prison of the Jewish soul.