Rabbi Silton’s reflections on concluding a cycle of Talmud study
By JAMES R. CLEVENSON
Is there a “Jewish soul” that is different from a Gentile soul? No, but we have a great literature, as well as world literature, from which to derive inspiration— “whoever does that—his soul is enhanced.”
Learning is the key to spiritual advancement, according to Rabbi Paul Silton, who noted in a recent discussion that Yehudah HaNasi, the chief redactor of the Mishnah, affirmed in the second century the value of studying secular knowledge.
Rabbi Silton quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “When a Jew prays, he speaks to God; when he studies, God speaks to him.”
The former pulpit leader of Conservative Temple Israel in Albany, serving there from 1974 to 2009, Rabbi Silton is marking the completion of his first cycle of Daf Yomi Talmud study. The page-a-day study of the 2711 pages of Talmud takes about 7-1/2 years. The rabbi said that his practice has been to attend early morning Daf Yomi sessions, daven (pray) Shacharit, and retire to Starbucks on Western Avenue near the University at Albany for a couple more hours of study.
He and educator and materfamilias Faye Silton were married just before Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967, and celebrated this past weekend 50 years of marriage, with a ceremony on Shabbat and a Sunday Talmud siyum (completion of study) party at Beth Abraham-Jacob Synagogue in Albany.
These paragraphs record a wide-ranging June 27 discussion including some of his experiences in the “sea of Talmud,” where he learned about business and other things that he never expected.
Openness In The ‘Sea’
On Jewish and non-Jewish souls, the rabbi pointed out that Adam and Eve weren’t Jewish, and that all humans are created “in God’s image.”
Those who think Orthodox religious people, “black hats,” charedim, are narrow-minded, might benefit from looking into the Talmud.
Studying Talmud is a spiritual experience, as well as stimulating the intellect’s curiosity about all subjects. Rabbi Silton said, “I’m amazed at the openness of the rabbis.” He pointed to some key conclusions of the creators of what we now call “rabbinic Judaism,” the instrument of which is the Talmud and the thousands of discussions and debates over 700 years that gave rise to this physical record.
The rabbis concluded that prophecy is ended, God does not speak to man, and it is our responsibility, using our reason, to make rulings both interpretative and new.
In the famous argument on “The Oven of Akhnai” in Bava Metzia 4, 59a, Rabbi Eliezer calls on heaven to validate his argument, which heaven does. Nevertheless, the rabbis conclude that since Torah is already given, we don’t need heavenly decrees—we need to work things out using our human resources. To resolve questions we are instructed in Deuteronomy 17 to go to the judges of our day.
Rabbi Silton pointed to the creativity and “democracy” of the Talmud sages even in finding ways to get around Torah commands that are impractical, such as the requirement to forgive debts every seventh year, when the land is to lie fallow. The rabbis reasoned that with such a rule lenders wouldn’t lend, which could cripple business. The rabbis ruled that courts may collect for lenders.
Jesters In Heaven
The often-stern Elijah is asked in Taanit 22a who will be guaranteed a place in the “world to come”—he points to two comedians! because they console sad people. And the jailer who prevented prisoners from molesting the female prisoners—even though the man does not wear tzitzit (ritual fringes)! But these people do good.
What about terrible Torah commands like sending gluttonous and drunken young men to the village elders to be stoned? The Talmud rabbis created rules that make this impossible. Then why have the law? Rabbi Silton said, “So you should study it and understand why it shouldn’t happen!”
A contemporary example: On Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), the Hallel (praise) service is said, with a brochah (blessing). But blessings include the phrase “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu” (“who sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us…”) — yet this holiday clearly is not mentioned in the Torah—God couldn’t have commanded it. Rabbinic Judaism arrogates (one may say, without prejudice) to itself the authority to order religious practice.
While the rabbis have a set of rules for interpretation, in fact there are three different sets, promulgated by three rabbis. (I am reminded of the saw “Two Jews, three opinions!”) Minority opinions are recorded—why? For the future. While “there is nothing new under the sun,” things do change, and the rabbinic approach ensures flexibility. For example, there has been a transition from regarding all non-Jews as idol-worshippers.
As people have become God’s partners in legislating, the rabbis emphasize personal responsibility. It is up to us to us, for example, to prevent injuring other people and their property—this extends to our oxen, our cars, pits on our property.
Similarly, the Nazi Holocaust was not an “act of God.” Rabbi Silton rejects the attitude of rabbis who told the persecuted, “Don’t run, it’s the will of God.” The Holocaust was created by human evil, he said; it was not a punishment from God. And illness is natural, due to the fragility of human life, of nature.
Rabbi Silton has been involved in seeking justice for Nazi criminals—he believes we have to stand up for doing the right thing, for truth, for ourselves as Jews. Growing up in a non-observant but proud Jewish family near anti-Semitic neighborhoods in Dorchester, Mass., his police officer father told him, “If you’re ever attacked and you don’t fight back, I’ll give it to you!”
Rabbi Silton quoted Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who ruled that Israel’s Orthodox should serve in the army: “Let us not be victims,” he said; referring to an Israeli soldier he said, “that man’s uniform is the garment of the high priest!”
Though there were survivors all around in the 1950s, Rabbi Silton said no one talked about the Holocaust. He said he asks himself every day, “How could this have happened?” He said that to forget would be to desecrate the memory of the victims.
Summarizing his Talmud study, he said, “The Talmud teaches us to be practical.” He noted that in Eden, Adam and Eve were instructed to work in the garden and to tend it.
For Albany Daf Yomi study times, Rabbi Silton, 469-6727
On “The Jewish View” cable TV program Rabbi Nachman Simon and Marc Gronich in 2016 interview Daf Yomi participants the late Salo Steper, and Stan Rosenberg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEhPsMPENVo.