This month I studied a little Talmud. And I do mean a little. Once a week for three weeks, the senior rabbi at my synagogue led a handful of us through several sentences of discussion around the Biblical injunction, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”
“This class will not teach you how to keep kosher,” the rabbi warned when we began. It didn’t. But it did give us a look at the structure and style of the 1500-year-old compendium of law and lore that’s the framework of the Judaism practiced today. It introduced us to some of the rhetorical rules the rabbis followed when they argued. It offered a tiny taste of Aramaic, the vernacular spoken by Jews at the time of the Second Temple, (including Jesus). It offered up fascinating factoids about how folks in Babylonia in the 1st millennium C.E. understood the world. Blood isn’t part of the body. It’s the life force that passes through it. The relationship of the placenta to the body is similar to that of excrement. Milk is meat while it’s still inside the udder. It only becomes dairy when it’s expressed.
The most important thing I learned is that although I’m intrigued by Talmud’s odd logic and charmed by its arcana, I’m not intrigued and charmed enough to devote the effort required to study it for real.
The truth is, what attracts me isn’t the book itself, but the idea of it. Or maybe what I really mean is the layout. A page of Talmud is like an archeological site, where successive layers of the life that happened in that single spot over time are all laid bare at once. Only in Talmud, the relics revealed aren’t pottery and bone, but arguments and ideas. A page of Talmud lays bare a train of thought passed from one mind to another over the course of 700 years.
I first encountered the Talmud about 10 years ago, when I was teaching Torah at my synagogue in Vermont. Around this same time, I had also just started writing Little Grandma’s Mirror. At that early stage, I had a lot to say and a great urgency to get it down, but no idea of what approach to take. Rather than stop and consider structure, I just wrote in whatever format attracted me on any given day. Sometimes it was journal, sometimes a personal essay to be published in Seven Days. For a while, I compiled an annotated list of all the objects I remembered from my parents’ house. The most fun was a fanciful tale set in a 19th-century shtetl.
When in came time to get serious and pull the pieces together, I thought about the pages of Talmud I’d been poring over. What if I tried creating something similar – not picking and choosing between my texts, but presenting them all at once and letting them reflect on each other? I spent hours cutting and pasting and fiddling with format, and printed out three sample pages. It looked cool. But how was anyone supposed to read the stuff? How could I control the different narratives so the appropriate pieces were juxtaposed? Which of my texts should I present as the original, and which as commentary? Just thinking about it all made my head hurt.
In the end, I set aside all the texts except the shtetl tale, which I wove into a contemporary family story. The result is much more reader-friendly, but multifaceted enough to satisfy my taste for layered narrative. The book I’m working on now is even more straightforward, and I’m pleased with the way it’s going.
But spending these three evenings this month studying the possible implications of “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” sent me back to those old attempts at Talmud-formatted composition. They don’t work at all, the way they are. But they do make me wonder, once again, about the possibilities.