Once again, I’m recovering from The Internet. Specifically, from the Jewish blogosphere, especially the spaced dominated by Orthodox rabbis. And I’m not even talking about the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, which is a topic gaining traction following the #MeToo movement. (See #GamAni) – after all, sexual abuse is hardly limited to one religion, one denomination, one social class or one community. It is everywhere. (I am recovering from that too, a subject of a different post....) I am talking about reactions to my post from last week about discovered the Stama Gemara, the editor of the Talmud.
I know that my journey of leaving 40+ years of Orthodoxy behind and becoming a Reform rabbi is likely to make Orthodox rabbis unsettled. But sometimes I am still surprised at how this finds expression.
So, when I wrote about my experience of reading the Talmud as as a collection of stuff that was purposefully collected and manipulated to make us think that the conclusion of the text is one that is Correct and Received and Divine, it generated some hard reactions. And I discovered, once again, why it is such a dangerous thing to share honestly our experiences of healing, change, or awakening. The reaction so often just becomes another thing that you end up having to deal with.
To be fair, I received a lot of very supportive and engaging responses. Many other Recovering Day School Graduates shared a similar process of unlearning messages that we received, ones that are harmful, dishonest, or purposefully manipulative. Others welcomed me to the world of Enlightened Folks, wondering what took me so long to get here. And actually, there were several really long and interesting threads on different pages, within Orthodoxy as well, which actually delved into the question of where the Talmud came from, how it is taught, and what it means to be educated with all this “God Language.” I think that these are genuinely useful, productive and engaging conversations.
And then there was the other group. The Deniers. Or, more accurately, The Gaslighters. The ones who said I must be making this all up. It’s not true. This doesn’t happen.
It is a surprising reaction. I was ready for the accusations of being a heretic. I am used to Orthodox rabbis talking about me as if I am not even Jewish, as if my ideas are so beyond the pale that I wouldn't even be rescued if I were at Sinai. That was mostly when I was an Orthodox feminist. But this line of attack -- as if to say, nobody is THAT strict -- was different. And was no less undermining.
The first inkling of being cast this way was a comment on someone’s thread in which the guy, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote, “I literally laughed out loud when I read the part where she discovers that ‘there is an editor’.” Oh, haha, I guess that’s funny. Like, how could I be so stupid? And by the way, like, I’m right here, on the thread, not a “she” but maybe a “you”. I am particularly sensitive to being talked about as if I am not there, even when I am standing right there in the room, or on the thread, as it were. This felt very dehumanizing and dismissive. It brings out a defensive urge to say, “Hey, you know, I’m not an idiot.” Which is never, like, a good thing. You see, my sentences are already getting flimsier just thinking about it. It can have that effect.
But it wasn’t just that he was laughing at my process. It was this implicit denial that anyone can seriously think otherwise.
This comment had echoes elsewhere. On one thread, a guy who was genuinely engaging and kind wrote to me, “There isn’t a single Rabbi or Scholar who actually thinks that the Talmud was written by God.”
Right, not a single rabbi. So I must have been imagining all this, getting these messages that it's all from God and you can't go against it. I must be making it up, that I had teachers insisting that the Oral Law was given at Sinai.
Again, I was left feeling like there is something wrong with me. As if to say, how can it be that I am 47 years old and never encountered this idea before?
To be clear, I HAVE encountered this idea before, that there is the hand of Man and not just God in our texts. I have long since abandoned the belief that the Talmud is written by God. Still, knowing that and learning the text that way are two different things.
I have never learned Talmud the way I did with David Levine last week, in which we read the text with an eye towards, “Which are the words of the Stama and why is he saying what he is saying? How is he leading us on, what does he want us to believe, and why?” Those were the guiding questions, and they transformed for me the learning experience, and yes, this lens was new for me – not the idea of human editing, but this technique for reading the text.
So I’m reading these reactions that on the one hand suggest that I’m an idiot for not doing this sooner, and on the other hand suggest that “everyone knows” that the Talmud is man-made and it can’t possibly be that this is new for me. That is hard. It is wearing on the soul.
To be clear, this language of “Everyone Knows” is one of the tactics of emotional abuse that Suzette Haden Elgin writes about in her classic book “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense”. It is a phrase that actually intends to make the other person feel like an idiot. It can be very effective.
Exhibition A: Elana.
This notion that “Every Rabbi Knows” all this delegitimizes my experience and plants that seed of self-doubt in which I keep asking myself, wait, AM I actually making this up?
It is such an exasperating thing, responding to people who think that you are a crazy woman. I’ve been doing that for so long that sometimes I forget I’m doing it. And I forget what a damaging impact this dynamic can have.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
So this is what I did. I went over to my bookshelf, and climbed up on a chair to reach the top shelf. That is where I keep books that I have had for 25 some-odd years, some I’ve had since I was a young yeshiva student, books that I have long since become distanced from but kept anyway, albeit somewhat out of reach, as a reminder of where I came from, that layer deep inside of me that may always be there. I don’t know why I keep them. Maybe I knew one day that I would come back to them, I don’t know. So, anyway, I climbed on the chair, looking for a particular book, and I found it.
The book is Maimonides’ Introduction to the Talmud. It is considered the classic description of the origins of the Talmud. It is the book that I studied in depth when I was 18- or 19-year-old yeshiva girl and genuinely interested in the Meaning of Life, and Where do I Come From, and How do I Create a Meaningful Life, and How do I Best Keep the Torah. Things like that. I asked my teachers at the time lots of probing questions. What is Torah? Where does this come from? How do we know? Why are we doing this? All these rules, these halakhot, how did we get them? All those kinds of questions.
And the answer I got from my teachers back then was, Read this book. Read Maimonides Introduction to Talmud. And I did. I read it, internalized it, moved on from it for 25 years, and came back to it today.
I opened this book again, now, as a much older person who has been around the block and taken some leaps and landed in a different place. I opened the book again. And here it is, the passage I was looking for. Chapter 1. Paragraph 1. Take a look:
“It should be understood that every mitzva that the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He gave to Moshe Rabbaynu [Moses our Teacher], peace unto him, was given to him together with its Explanation. G-d would tell him the mitzva, and afterwards He would give its Explanation, its substance, and all the wisdom contained within the Torah’s verses.” (P 35)
This is not some little text. This is Maimonides. Introduction to the Talmud. And this is the answer I was given by my teachers for many years about what the Talmud is. Sure, Maimonides knew that there was an Editor. But there is this notion that whatever the Editor did, well, he somehow got it from God. It is reflecting something from Sinai.
That is what I’m talking about. It’s this cognitive dissonance, this very strange combination of ideas that really don’t mesh with each other but are somehow taken as correct. Sure, there are rabbis, and sure they are human, but we listen to them because they have a Direct Dial with God.
So finally, I’m cutting this line. No. I am saying, I am releasing the notion that the rabbis of the Talmud were speaking from a tradition that goes back to Sinai. There are shards, yes. But most of it came from their own minds. That is where I am. That is the internal shift I am making right now.
This may or may not be a big leap. I’m not sure. This is in some ways a big change in my mind. But maybe it’s been there all along and I just pretended it wasn’t there.
I actually think that there are a lot of people who observe Torah who do not actually believe in it. Who don’t actually think that the Talmud is the word of God and yet behave in real life as if it is. I have encountered lots of people (especially over the past few months since I came out as a student of the Reform rabbinate) who have been sharing with me their stories. Lots of people living with this cognitive dissonance. Lots of disconnects between belief and practice. People who do one thing but believe something else entirely. Praying on Yom Kippur but not believing it at all. Covering their hair and thinking that it is awful or ridiculous. Pretending to keep Shabbat according to Strict Halakha but privately bending lots of rules when nobod is looking becuase they don't really like it. I think there are lots of people finding ways to liberate themselves from the understanding that their practices do not make sense to them.
So now I’m trying to repair that in myself. I want my beliefs and my practices to correspond with each other. I am done going through motions because of some vague notion that these practices are God’s Will. I am freeing myself from those narratives. And we’ll see where it takes me. That is my journey right now.
What would Jewish practice look like if we let go of all the things that make no sense, all the things that throngs of people do as if they are God’s Will when in fact they were just the suggestion of someone with a political agenda? What would our practice look like if we released all that and got the actually meaningful part? That is what I am asking. That is what I am searching for.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org