Academy for Jewish Religion, California - Clergy & Alumni Association


Thesis Title:

When we engage with a text of the Talmud in this place at this time we deal both with a historically meaningful text and one that is relevant in our current day to day lives. How is it that an ancient text can bear such immediate spiritual, social, and intellectual fruit? There are many factors that contribute. In this thesis I will use the example of the discussion of lost and found objects in tractate Bava Metzia as the springboard to discuss the components involved with the practice of contemplative Talmud study. The first element is that of the elevation of consciousness or the Talmud’s ability to get one to think about thinking. The consciousness of consciousness is known in neuroscience as “reflexive consciousness.’” Talmud study is an exercise par exelance of reflexive consciousness. Both within in its own framework of discussion and in its difference from our way of thinking today – it develops our ability to notice how we perceive and experience our own minds and those of others in layer after of layer of possible meanings. The Rabbis explore human motivation and emotion in their lively discussions and the presence of an active self is a key component of reflexive consciousness.

A second compelling aspect of Talmud study is that it is a practice of relationship on multiple levels. The Rabbis of the Talmud relate to each other in their discussions. The students of Talmud relate to the Rabbis when they explore their words. The students relate to each other in chevurta or larger groups as they actively engage, and the student relates to himself in discovering what she thinks or feels about the topic at hand. This kind of active interpersonal engagement can be challenging. At times you may want the person you are studying with to simply agree with you and you may not see why they can not. This will be equally true for your partner wanting you to agree with them. The Talmud models a discourse that provides helpful strategies for relationships of empathy and integrity.

In the last few years there has been an explosion of research about and interest in the inner workings of the human brain. The fields of psychology, child development, education, and medicine have greatly benefited from the new insights of neurobiology. Spiritual traditions specifically that of mindful Buddhist practices have also gained tremendous encouragement from the research that shows the physiological benefits in the brain of their practices. There has been less research into other spiritual and religious traditions. In my discussion on the core elements involved in contemplative Talmud study I will make links to the current neurological research. In the course of the thesis I will highlight those links with the hope that future research will endeavor a Talmud specific study.

There are many approaches to Talmud study. The discussion in this thesis presupposes a certain approach that I am calling contemplative Talmud study. It is the style of teaching that I have been engaged in my learning at the Academy for Jewish Religion- California as well as in a summer program at Pardes in Jerusalem. In this style of Talmud study the teacher creates an environment in which they guide students through the understanding of the texts (logic, language, historical context, inter textual references, literary analysis, theological and practical implications) as well as inviting students to engage in their own experience of the learning. There is a dialogue between the students and teacher, between the students and students, and within each student. All of these dialogues are valued and encouraged. In addition students meet together in chevurta partnerships where they continue to dive into the texts and each other. The creation of meaning for the student not simply memorization and mastery is valued. The study is interested “not just in the world that lies behind the text of the Talmud, but also the world that is opened up by it.” (Elizabeth Shanks Alexander)

Email: rabbisusan@nefeshla.org