CHAPTER THREE of his exploration appears just below. You can read “CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple” by clicking here. Read “CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself” by clicking here.
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What is Talmud Study?
Chapter Three: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.
In order to fully understand the difference between the written and the oral in Jewish texts, we need to look at the story of creation.
The cosmology that we receive at the beginning of the Torah is difficult. We know from the first verse that certain “things” already exist at the moment of creation – these precursors are darkness, the deep, God, and God’s intention to create. The ambiguity inherent in the existence of these “things” creates a philosophical conundrum that medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides above all others, address but are unable to resolve: out of what source is the material of creation derived? If God is all, then how can God be changeable? Can a changeable God be perfect? If God is not all and creation is separate from the Divine, how can God be limitless and all powerful? These are rankling questions. The sword that Maimonides wields to cut this Gordian knot is the idea that the natural laws that apply to our physical existence do not also apply to God.
Maimonides places the understanding of this essential dilemma beyond the realm of human cognition and beyond words, but the Torah itself goes another way – “God said, ‘let there be light; and there was light.’” God speaks, and through speech alone the physical world manifests.
How are we to understand this act of speech? It is presented in the Torah in words that are easily understandable to us because they are presented in a human rendering of a divine language. But who hears these words and who records them for posterity? The next verse, “God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness,” shows that speed and intellection are not identical. “Let there be light” truly is a verbal utterance. The text continues, “God called the light day, and the darkness Night.” This shows us that discernment and naming are related, and that both are consequences of separation (division).
The story of creation is a story of speech, of distinction, of judgement, and of naming. Out of speech comes life and activity. The first act of creation echoes through the whole work of creation. It is both foundation and model.
What begins in speech is also accomplished through naming, the means of distinction. Judgement can only be rendered on what has been made distinct. The Written Law begins with spoken words. In the process of discernment (seeing things as distinct from one another), things become separated from each other in name and in the physical world. God makes these separations through speech and thought. But we know that human will does not translate into reality without physical action.
God models this translation for us in the way that convenants between God and Abraham are accomplished. A covenant is made through acts of physical separation – cutting. While all of these cuttings are marks in flesh, it is important to remember cutting (carving, incision, and gouging) was also the action required to produce writing in Abraham’s time. One carved into stone, incised into metal and wood, and gouged or traced in clay or even sand.
The first of these covenantal moments is the very odd covenant of the pieces. Abraham (Abram at the time) is told by God that he will come to possess the land and he asks for a divine sign. God calls for Abram to bring a three-year heifer, a three year she-goat, a three-year ram, a turtle dove, and a young bird. Abram does this and cuts all of the animals in half (except, without explanation, the young bird) and lays the two halves of each opposite one other in two symmetrical rows. Abram then falls asleep in the heat of the day and sinks into a feverish dream. In the dream, he is told of the long road his descendants will have to take before they take possession of the covenant-promised land. When he awakes, it is already the darkest of dark nights and “there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces.“
Abram is brought to a moment that reenacts creation (with a hint of the fourth day in the presence of two different lights). The torch that passes between the pieces reiterates and sanctifies through fire the sacrifice through separation that Abram has made. Abram has made his inscription in the flesh of his offerings, a symmetrical division which mirrors the symmetrical separations made by God in the creation – day/night, heaven/earth, water/land, etc.
This divine sanctification of a human act of physical separation is not yet the equivalent of a full transition to written record, but it is the initiation of the use of signs as abstractions for words and ideas. The Covenant of the pieces is a sign that Abram/Abraham would keep in memory. The next step in this process is brit milah. Brit is the inscription of the covenant onto the living human body. It is the first permanent mark. The technology of covenant is converging with the technology of writing.
This relationship to permanent marking is clarified in the Akedah (the “Binding of Isaac”). Abraham is told to offer up his son as a sacrifice. God’s motivation is a classic conundrum. Whether or not God intends this as a test of Abraham, it becomes exactly that. The usual interpretation is that the Akedah is a test of Abraham’s faith, but it can also be interpreted as a test of Abraham’s understanding of the mechanics of the written aspect of covenant. Isaac already bears the covenantal text on his body. A sign has been inscribed. We are being told that written signs are made to create clarity and for permanence. The misunderstanding on Abraham’s part that needs to be corrected is his belief that a covenant that ends life can overwrite a covenant in life. This second sign would negate the first and is prevented. Subsequent prohibitions on tattoos, scarification, and even beard cutting reinforce this understanding.
In our next installment, we will talk about Jeremiah and the transition from the inscribed to the scribed.
Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany