One of the first things many new Talmud students realize is that the sages spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on matters with no apparent relevance to our lives today. So what is the point of Talmudic study? With Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Villanova law professor Chaim Saiman offers an account accessible for those unfamiliar with Jewish law that is equally captivating for those with considerable expertise.
Saiman observes that much Talmudic discourse was equally irrelevant to the early centuries of the Common Era, when the Talmud and other early texts of Jewish law were redacted. The laws were formulated with the Jews already in a condition of permanent exile, which meant there was no real-world political community, or state, in which these laws could be applied. Even so, the Talmudic discourse concerning these inapplicable laws is intertwined with discussions of other laws with great practical application to daily life, both then and now.
Regardless of whether the details are, or ever were, applicable to daily life, those who engage in this type of study are playing a key role in Jewish life. Saiman shows the reader why Jewish law, halakhah, is not just “a body of regulations, but a way of thinking, being and knowing.”
The rabbinic texts that are the focus of Saiman’s early chapters have a tendency to speak of these Talmudic laws “as if” they were still operative in the real world—as if the Jews were still governing themselves as a civil society. To illustrate this point, Saiman focuses on capital punishment, with a text specifically from the Mishnah, one of the earliest of the halakhic sources. This text specifically addresses how men and women were to be clothed when being stoned to death. These laws are “as if” because capital punishment was not being practiced during this time.
He demonstrates that according to the Talmud, more clothing on the body prolongs the time it takes to die, and therefore, if a woman is clothed, she will endure more physical pain during her execution than a man. The sages who declare that a female should still remain clothed are saying that it is preferable for her to retain her dignity even at the expense of physical pain. In contrast, one rabbi takes the view that lessening the physical pain of death is more important.
In Saiman’s view, this dispute about stoning reflects “core questions about human nature” that are reflected in today’s policy debates over whether support for the poor should be directed more toward ameliorating physical, or emotional, pain. Saiman’s greater point is that because halakhah is the context through which the rabbis of this period focused on the larger questions of human nature, the rules very much matter even if they were, and are, rarely if ever actualized.
Saiman’s chapter on the European Brisker yeshiva, an institution that dates back to the 19th century, is informative and fascinating—and helps explain why those in the ultra-Orthodox community today retain a single-minded focus on halakhah, including its most obscure details, while they eschew secular education entirely. Because the rules of halakhah are seen as “hard-wired into the fabric of the universe,” nothing can be done to modify certain demands that seem just too burdensome. Although Saiman clarifies that the range of thought among rabbinic thinkers is more expansive than the Brisker method allows, its core ideas still “exert a strong pull on the entire field of halakhic theology.”
In the chapter about Israel, Saiman illustrates both the theoretical and practical difficulties of relying on halakhah as a way to govern a modern state, particularly one in which a majority of citizens do not meticulously observe Jewish law. Saiman argues that it is more useful to think of Israel’s identity as “Jewish” rather than halakhic—a country whose voters see themselves as “decidedly Jewish though not necessarily bound to halakhah.”
Saiman’s concluding section suggests that introducing people to the life of studying halakhah would be a useful way to increase Jewish religious observance in general. Perhaps, but here Saiman is writing from the perspective of a Torah student already committed to religious practice. Those who do not have his experience but find themselves drawn to religion as adults seem guided not by the intellectualism of Talmud Torah but rather by elements that touch their heart and soul. The aspects of Talmud Torah that are most likely to reach nonobservant and less knowledgeable people are agaddot, textual narratives, rather than the discussions of “as if” legal prescriptions.
Even if there is a bit of rose coloring to Saiman’s prescriptions, the book that contains them is a wonderful achievement.