Cedars of Lebanon: Not Meant for Angels
There is the written law—in Judaism it is the Bible—which is supposed to govern all of life: the rule and the exception, the common and the extraordinary, all times and places. It never does, of course, and to deal with life’s stubborn complexities there arises the oral law, which “explains” the written law. Thus is novelty incorporated into tradition, with a subtle naivete that violates neither the traditional nor the novel. Eventually, the oral law becomes Talmudic and is written down in its turn, lest its wisdom vanish with the generations. And alongside of this, and often intertwined with it, there is tradition, preserved wisdom, although not law.
Talmudic Judaism trained sages who formulated the oral tradition, and their wisdom was in the course of time “published” in the form of cryptic accounts—as though taken down by an overworked stenographer—of the deliberations and arguments on the law in the academies of Babylonia and Palestine, as well as in epigrams, brief remarks, pungent insights, parables, and other fragments of prose and poetry. These can be found in the non-legal parts of the Talmud—the Haggadah (or Aggadah)—and in the midrashim, originating in the first five centuries CE and flowering abundantly in the centuries that followed. In contemplating this wealth of material, one finds oneself witnessing a tradition in the very process of growth.
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