December 13, 2018

The Purpose of Talmud Study

“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.”

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