Rabbi Daniel Gordis recently published in article called, “The Letter that Natanyahu Should, but Won’t, Send,” in response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
He throws out the common trope that intermarriage will spell the demise of Reform Judaism, despite the fact that Reform Judaism continues to thrive in the United States. One would think that the old claim that Reform Judaism will necessarily die out after three generations would, itself, have died out by now, since Reform Judaism is still going strong after many more than three generations, but there it is again.
At any rate, he also claims that “virtually no young Jews are conversant with Jewish texts,” and goes on to lament that most non-Orthodox homes don’t have a Mikra’ot Gedolot or the Talmud. The claim about the Mikra’ot Gedolot strikes me as a technicality. I would venture to guess that most Reform Jewish homes have a Tanach, the Hebrew bible, and many have a Chumash, or Torah commentary. So even if we don’t have the commentary Rabbi Gordis wishes we had, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any basic Jewish texts at home. There are, of course, basic Jewish texts that one may find in a non-Orthodox Jewish home that one may not find in an Orthodox Jewish home.
I do agree that it would be great if more non-Orthodox Jews had more familiarity with ancient Jewish texts. For those who already have a Chumash, however, I still wouldn’t recommend that the next thing to do would be to run out and buy a copy of the Talmud. I’m not sure whether this is what Rabbi Gordis was recommending, but I know at least one person who took it that way, so I’d like to address the idea here.
Why not run out and buy a copy of the Talmud? First, it’s a big, expensive series of books, especially for those who aren’t fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic and therefore need to buy a copy that includes an English translation. Second, the Talmud isn’t something that one just picks up and reads. It is obtuse and confusing. Nobody is likely to get through it the first time on his or her own. It is meant to be studied with others; having one sit on a bookshelf untouched is useless.
Third, a lot of the Talmud is about the minutiae of halacha, or Jewish law. If you’re an Orthodox Jew and you need to know whether the oven that you took apart, moved, and put back together is still ritually pure, the Talmud can be very useful. If you’re interested in how the ancient rabbis argued about such matters, the Talmud can be quite interesting. If you’re not Orthodox and you’re looking for ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, most likely these halachic discussions are not going to provide that for you.
There are, of course, many parts of the Talmud that can help any Jewish person to find ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, and many discussions that are not halachic in nature. Does God get angry, and if so, for how long? Does God pray? What are the ethics we should follow? How should we treat our workers and each other? These are the passages many non-Orthodox Jews would find the most engaging. Unfortunately, purchasing a Talmud will not go very far in helping them to find the information they seek.
So, what is a Jew to do?
If you’re interested, I would suggest that you look in your area for a class on the Talmud or other ancient Jewish texts. Many synagogues and other organizations offer them on a regular basis. Usually, you don’t need to be a member of a synagogue to take classes at one. Be sure to check out the content of the class. Is it just on halacha? Is it on ethics? Is it on theology? Look for something that appeals to your interests.
If you don’t have a Chumash, buy one. Buy a copy of “The Bedside Torah” by Rabbi Bradley Artson for an accessible interpretation of the Torah. On a weekly basis, read the Torah portion and commentary for that week. Better yet, join a Torah study group, or form one of your own. Approach a local rabbi to ask for recommendations about other Jewish texts to read.
There are a lot of different ways into the Jewish texts. The best ones involve studying with others. The worst possible thing you can do is to waste your money buying a huge, obtuse text and have it do nothing more than weigh down your bookshelf. Instead, get out and engage. Then, once you’re familiar and comfortable with the Talmud, go ahead and consider buying a copy of your own.