“The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings” by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein— Telling Stories

Rubinstein, Jeffrey L. “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings”,  Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Telling Stories

Amos Lassen

Everyone loves a good story and the narrative world of the Talmud has many. Perhaps the best thing about a story from the Talmud is that, in fact, that it satisfies two purposes—one is the great story and two is a look at the Talmud itself.

I have, until recently, regarded the Talmud as akin to the holy of holies—something so wonderful that admittance into it demands piety and good deeds as well as high esteem for Judaism. I never felt that I was quite good enough to enter the Talmudic world. Then, quite by surprise, I received an invitation to join a group that was going to begin a serious study of Talmud and I jumped at the chance.

Talmud scholar Jeffrey L. Rubenstein gives us both famous and little-known stories and analyzes the tales in their original contexts, explores their cultural meanings and literary artistry, and shares their relevance. Everything that we need to know about a story is right there. Through the stories we experience both rabbinic life (the academy, master-disciple relationships) and Jewish life under Roman and Persian rule (persecution, taxation, marketplaces), we see how storytellers used various literary conventions such as irony, wordplay, figurative language, and other art forms with the goal of communicating their intended messages. What is amazing is that the stories are still relevant today.

Rubenstein selected fourteen stories found in rabbinic literature and he shows us what they mean at the time they were written and what they mean today. First, he looks at each story in the simplest of levels and then goes beneath the surface and behind the words to explore various levels of meaning. Next, he looks at what later generations of commentators did with each story and how they applied the story to their own time and place. He compares and contrasts the stories with what was written or said about the same topic by others in the Graco-Roman world. He looks at what philosophers have to say on each story’s topic and considers the implications and meanings of each story today.

I love the way that Rubenstein deals with the famous story of the man who wanted to convert to Judaism and  came before the great rabbis Hillel and Shamai, asking them to tell him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shamai sends him away explaining that it is impossible to summarize all that he has learned in such a short time while Hillel tells him that the Torah  says that we should do unto others and is done to us and that the rest is commentary and sends the new convert off to learn. For most of us this is not a new story but what might be considered new is Rubenstein’s commentary. He says that there is an essence to Torah and it is upon that essence that everything is based. It is not enough to understand this since it is just as important to study all of the Torah. A core gives us value but there is as much value in what else is there. Rubenstein then reminds us that we  love Hillel’s answer but that we have ignored the second half of  Hillel’s answer—to go and study. Rubenstein gives us examples of this by looking at what economist Steven Landsberg thinks and how science fiction writer Isaac Asimov sees this. The two-part statement of Hillel contains two interdependent ideas.

Moving forward, Rubenstein looks at the postmodern world. He compares us to the convert who wanted to learn Torah standing on one foot. Today’s world is one of sound bites, smartphones and shortcuts. Because of this our attention span is short and constantly shrinking and we want to learn compacted versions rather than full length studies. Forget the one leg approach to Torah and think about learning it in one tweet. Hillel cautioned us that the rest is commentary and that we are to go and learn. To be successful, one must have talent but that is not enough. We must also exert effort, show patience and work hard. This is what we need to learn. We need to work hard to gain wisdom. Rubenstein wonderfully juxtaposes the wisdom of the rabbinic sages with the teachings of the Greco-Roman world to show how their insights are contrasted to our values. We will then see the past differently and regard the present from a new perspective.

By relating the stories to issues in our time and explicating the stories within their original contexts, we gain a whole new way of looking at text and at ourselves.

“Talmud stories are valuable repositories of meaning for anyone who desires a deeper connection to the past. Yet today’s readers are at a lengthy remove from this rhetorically technical, often inaccessible world. A master teacher is necessary to guide us toward understanding the text. That is the strength and value of Rubenstein’s volume: opening up to modern readers a heretofore closed text.”—Beth Kissileff, author of Reading Genesis: Beginnings

Table of Contents

Introduction: Of Stones and Stories    
Part 1. The Human Condition
1. The Surreal Sleeper    
2. What to Do with an Aged (and Annoying) Mother?    
3. Forbidden Fruit, or How Not to Seduce Your Husband    
4. Men Are from Babylonia, Women Are from the Land of Israel    
5. Sufferings! Not Them and Not Their Reward!    
Part 2. Virtue, Character, and the Life of Piety
6. The Ugly Vessel    
7. An Arrow in Satan’s Eye    
8. The Land of Truth    
9. Torah for Richer or Poorer    
10. Heroism and Humor    
Part 3. The Individual, Society, and Power
11. Showdown in Court    
12. Alexander the Great and the Faraway King    
13. The Carpenter and His Apprentice    
14. Standing on One Leg    
Subject Index    
Biblical and Rabbinic Sources Index

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