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Everyman's Talmud

by Abraham Cohen editor

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Review

It’s easy to be puzzled by Judaism. Christians expect to find a great deal of agreement between themselves and orthodox Jews, since we agree that the Old Testament is the Word of God. It’s baffling, then, to find Jews arguing against basic doctrines like the inherent sinfulness of man. Don’t we all believe in the Garden of Eden? Isn’t the doctrine of the Fall taught clearly in the Old Testament?

The answer to these questions—and to the general puzzle about the Jewish view of the Old Testament—is provided by this excellent book by Abraham Cohen. Since most of us can’t read Hebrew, we will probably never plumb the depths of the Talmud—but Cohen can and does, and then provides a very readable summary.

As it turns out, most orthodox Jews believe that Moses received not only written law but also oral law from God. The written law was recorded rather quickly, in the form of the Pentateuch. The oral law, according to Jewish tradition, was handed down verbally from rabbi to rabbi, and was not formally written down and organized until several centuries after Christ. This oral law, along with rabbinical teachings about the law, was finally recorded in the Talmud.

In a sense, then, orthodox Jews have a New Testament. The analogy isn’t perfect, of course—Jews believe the oral law of the Talmud is as old as the Pentateuch, so the Talmud is in no way a “fulfillment” of the Old Testament. Instead, it is viewed as a clarification, even as something useful for massaging the meanings of difficult passages in the Old Testament.

Thus, while the Old Testament clearly teaches the inherent sinfulness of man, the Talmud expressly indicates that man is basically good, and may choose whether or not he follows God: “The Holy One, blessed be He, says to man, ‘ . . . the soul I give you is pure. If you return it to Me in the same state of purity that I give it to you, well and good; if not, I will destroy it before you.’”

Passages like this one make Everyman’s Talmud a real eye-opener. Students who used to believe there was very little difference between the Christian worldview and Judaism (we both believe in one-half of the Bible, don’t we?) will now recognize that the Jewish understanding of the Old Testament is hampered by the authoritative status of the Talmud. The lesson is timeless: diminish the authority of scripture and you will quickly lose track of truth.

by Jeff Baldwin

Thegreatbooks.com