Rather than explaining what the Talmud is, I would like to clarify why this book is so important for the Jews. People who open this book, often cannot figure out what it is all about, and cannot comprehend why we Jews are so immersed in it, what it is that we find so interesting about it.
Some 150 years ago – this is a true story – a certain German prince wanted to know what the Talmud is. He asked a certain rabbi to invite him to a yeshiva and teach him one page of Gemara. Thus, for a few days this prince sat and studied the first page of Bava Kamma. He found it very interesting and thought-provoking, but there was one thing that he could not understand. At the very end of the page, it says that the problem they were dealing with throughout has no practical meaning whatsoever, that it is merely theoretical. What is the point of such a book? He asked, Who needs it?
I do not know what the rabbi’s reply to that prince was. But if I were there, I would tell him that the main question of the Talmud is not “What do I need to do next?”; for that, there are other books. When I want to know what steps I should take in order to cook a certain dish, I refer to the cookbook; and in order to know what my next action should be, I open a book of halacha or any other sort of practical book. But in the Talmud we have something that will not necessarily be of any tangible benefit to me today, tomorrow, or ever. It is a value in its own right, something that gives me no respite. For in the very final analysis, what I want to know is – Where is the truth. And indeed, the central, all-encompassing question in the entire Talmud is, Where is the truth – as far as any human being can attain it.
For certain people – and hopefully, for Jews more than for others – the pursuit of truth is an inner need. We cannot go to sleep until we find out what truth is. For us, truth is not a trivial matter such as what is the length of my trousers; it is something that we cannot live without. And in this sense, it is deeply connected to our philosophy and to our faith.
The first sentence in Maimonides’ great halachic work is a good summary of this issue. He says there that there is one level which is the highest, and there is nothing higher than it: God alone is truth; nothing else can be called truth. The search for truth, then, is the search for the Divine essence within this world. This is what we are really looking for.
I wish to conclude with another story, about a certain tzaddik – righteous person and leader of a hassidic group – who lived in the city of Bershad, in the Ukraine. (This city still exists, but no Jews live there today.) The most important thing in this man’s life and worship of God was truth. He was loyal to the truth to such an extent that when, for instance, he would enter his home while outside it would be pouring, and someone would ask him: Is it raining outside? He would reply: I don’t know; but a moment before I entered the house, it was.
The very last problem that he encountered in his life was as follows: a certain Jew was accused of some serious offense, and if he were to be found guilty, he would have had to suffer grave punishment. The judge said that if this rabbi, who never told a lie in his life, would attest to that person’s innocence, he would release him. Consequently, the rabbi was torn between two considerations. On the one hand, how could he say something that was not 100% true? On the other, how could he be an agent in bringing harm to a person’s life? He asked God to solve this dilemma for him. That night, he died.
What would any one of you do when faced with a similar situation? That is food for thought. It may not be exactly a Talmudic problem; but this, in a sense, is what the Talmud is all about.