Recently, a team of Korean journalists visited the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Jerusalem to see the how Jews study Talmud. Even for Israel, this was strange photo op – a group of Koreans, fully rigged out with a TV cameras, winding their way through a crowded beit midrash filled with animated yeshiva bochrim shouting, gesturing and doing what they generally do in a beit midrash: learning. Why were they so interested? Well, it seems that Asians are impressed by the high achievements made by Jews thoguhout the world. How, they wonder, could such a relative minority of the world population have captured a majority of the world’s accolades? The disproportionate number of Nobel prizes won by Jews makes them look for the secret of our wisdom and success. The answer, they believe, lies in one thing: Talmud. So they came to observe and learn.
It reminds me of the novel from several years ago titled Fugu Plan, a fictionalized account of how the Japanese, believing in the authenticity of The protocols of the Elders of Zion, planned to invite Jews to settle in their country. It sounds almost racist, but it isn’t. Because, while the answer might not be found in the books known as Talmud, it can be found in Talmud.
Let me explain.
Most of us identify Talmud as those big books that are warping wood shelves in bookcases in Jewish homes around the world. But it’s not the book. In fact, Talmud wasn’t supposed to be a book. It isn’t even a noun. Talmud means learning or studying — the first part of the phrase Talmud Torah – the careful study of Torah.
Talmud is a scientific method of understanding the underlying message of the Torah, finding the universal meaning (Tao?) that makes it relevant in every generation and applicable to any situation.
Talmud was built on the ashes of the 2nd Temple. While nations were erecting imposing cathedrals and soaring spires in immutable stone, Talmudists (that is, practitioners of Talmudic method) were creating a consciousness, a system of inquiry and analysis or a way of seeing the world that enabled generations of Jews to thrive and succeed where other cultures failed.
This method enabled generations of great minds to soar like eagles while others were plodding along on the ground. No wonder the Mishnah in Avot says “Turn it and turn it again, because everything is in it.” – הפך בה והפך בה דכולה בה
Talmud is both a mosaic and a web – it covers everything. If you really study it well, you can see how it works as an integrated whole, and you will cover everything that can be covered. And while for Jews it is the ultimate form of worship, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz terms it, it is also a method for sharpening the mind as it seeks out the one truth that underlies all.
So who knows? Maybe you really can get to Oslo from Ponevezh?