And as Rabbi Hillel said . . . (Why don’t U.U.s study passages of Talmud?)


When I explain Unitarian Universalism to people normally I will clarify that UU’s by and large are not Cristian and as a broader religious association they seek to find meaning in a broad range of religious traditions and disciplines of study.  Yet if ever as a UU I have been inclined to over state the embodied pluralism in our movement or the cultural newness of what we represent I need only speak to some of the Jewish UU’s or UU’s raised in a home that worked to honor the Jewish heritage of on e of the parents.  Anyone who has sought to make a home in a UU church and who also has a strong Jewish identity will be able to easily point out how loudly our protestant Christian heritage still rings in our buildings, services and ways of being a faith community. 

While this observation is not necessarily telling us something bad however it does cause me to seek and identify ways in which we authentically push past an unreflective replication of explicitly Christian practices and especially how we work to honor a strong Jewish constituency and influence in our societies.  In religious education curricula it is a bit surprising how limited we are in treating and exploring resources of great value within Jewish religious tradition.  Certainly there are plenty of Old Testament curricula that churches have used and loved, and there are lessons from the Old Testament in many more specifically UU curricula.  Also UU curricula have done some great things introducing various Jewish Holiday practices to our young people.

Of course for Jews living during the past millenia the Rabbinic tradition has focussed attention not so much on the Torah and Tannak which are what we think of as the Old Testament but on the debates around the proper adherence to the laws and traditions of Jewish practice as recorded in the Talmud.  Yet the Talmud has hardly been explored even by most clergy.  This seems unfortunate not only because a study of the Talmud would reflect more accurately the religious focus of contemporary Judaism and held to avoid the christian philter which is hard to even identify in how we tell the stories of the old testament yet it is there, but also because in our own history the original minds that were forging the communities and ecclesiastical leaders who would come to name themselves and their congregations “Unitarian” where often far more informed and influenced by such non biblical Jewish scriptures.

John Adams wrote in 1808 “I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations … They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”  Elsewhere he pinpoints the oft misapplied credit given the Romans for the origin of our own legal system charging instead it is right that we honor the Jews and the rabbinic scholars who compiled the Talmud for in this we (not just UU’s or America but all of Western Society) learn the merits of case-law and so much else.

However we can see long before this from the earliest days at Harvard Hebraic studies were  highly esteemed.   Increase Mather a famous forerunner and teacher of the soon to rise Unitarian clergy within the Massachusetts standing order, was a Hebraist who would often quote the passages of Talmud.  This is true of a number of others who would be highly influential in the education of Channing, Emerson, and so many others.

I would love to develop, or help to develop, or have someone else publish so I could buy it– a curriculum (upper elementary or junior high) that worked through a number of Talmudic debates.  It would introduce the class to Jewish tradition and require referencing passages of the Bible but it would be structured in support of an informed engagement with the Talmudic teachings.  These then could be brought to bear on ways of thinking through a host of contemporary issues.

If anyone else is interested in this vision of mine and would like to talk more or is inspired by this to consider at greater length hat might work in such a curriculum I recommend going to a site I found which is a great introduction to the Talmud.  The site is called the Animated Talmud and  has a series of animated lessons that introduce the history, structure, and content of the Talmud.  You do have to register to get access to more than the first five or so videos but it is free to do so.  I hope folks check it out because it is a great resource for any wanting to better appreciate just what the Talmud is and what it has to offer.

The animated Talmud:

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