Is the Talmud Full of Lies?

I wrote a longish piece for this blog entitled What is the Talmud?  I got a letter not too long after from a reader with a sincere question that I’ve been thinking about since: “What about things in the Talmud that are unfriendly to Christians or even to Jesus?” I’ve seen other questions in the search terms people use to find things on the blog, such as “Is the Talmud full of lies?”

First, if you aren’t sure what the Talmud is, read the earlier blog post. I’m not going to explain it here, other than to say that the Talmud is sacred to religious Jews from Orthodoxy to Reform.  We engage with the volumes differently in some ways, but we all see them as sacred.

Condemnation of Other Religions

As rabbis often do, I’m going to start answering this question by asking a question. Is the Talmud the only holy book that speaks ill of other faiths? If you look in the Torah, there are some very nasty things in there about “Canaanite ways” and the Egyptian religion. If you look in the rest of the Bible, you’ll see disparaging talk about other religions of the time.

One can cherry-pick the Gospel of Matthew or the Quran for lines that speak unflatteringly or with condemnation of nonbelievers. I’m not going to offer examples because I do not want to provide quotes to someone intent on misusing them. Try Googling “Antisemitism New Testament” if you want some examples.

All ancient Scriptures have passages that are no longer representative of the understanding of modern believers. Each moderate expression of religion has its own way of dealing with those passages. For example, in 1965, Roman Catholic pontiff Paul IV signed the encyclical Nostra Aetate [In Our Time] which revisited Catholic relations with non-Christian faiths. It explicitly rejected the interpretations of Matthew 25 that had horrible consequences for Jews. It redefined relations with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

Like these other Scriptures, the Talmud has passages that look down on outsiders. This should not come as a shock to anyone. What matters is what we teach currently, and how we behave. Jews today believe that belief in Judaism or Jewish practice is NOT required for salvation: one can be acceptable to God by being a decent person, period. (This is one of the reasons we don’t encourage conversion to Judaism: once one is Jewish, then there are more requirements!)

References to Jesus

There are some passages of Talmud that refer to a character named “Balaam.”  Some scholars believe that some of those might actually be coded references to Jesus of Nazareth. More of them are references to the Balaam of Numbers 22, a significant story in the Torah. There are other references to someone(s) named Yeshu. Again, it isn’t clear which of them refer to Jesus and which to someone else. An example:

On the eve of Passover, Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward, he was hanged on the eve of Passover. Ulla replied, Do you suppose he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not an enticer, one about whom Scripture says, “Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him?” (Deut 13:9). But with Yeshu it was different, for he was connected with the government. – Sanhedrin 43a

This passage appears not in a discussion of Christian history, but as an example in a discussion about the notifications required in a capital trial. Another name sometimes interpreted to refer to Jesus is “Plony” which is actually should be translated “Anonymous” or “Mr. X.” (“Mrs. X” is Plonit.) Usually when we see “Plony” it means that we could apply this case to many different people.

All that said, there are passages that do seem to refer to Jesus or his mother in unattractive ways. One example is in Sanhedrin 106a:

R. Papa observed: This is what men say, “She who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters.”

This passage began as one of those Balaam passages, referring to the Balaam of Numbers. Then it shifts, and this observation by Rav Papa, with its reference to a carpenter, seems to be a smear on the mother of Jesus. It’s also a bit of a non-sequitur to the passage preceding it.

Consider the Source!

Be careful where you read about these passages, too. In researching this piece, I looked at a lot of websites which purport to give lists of terrible things in the Talmud. I went through the lists, looking for examples to use in this article, and often I found mistranslation, out of context quotes, and flat-out lies. Then when I looked elsewhere on the site, I realized it was an antisemitic website, with a full panoply of lies about Jews. So consider the source before you take something as truth.

In Summary

Is everything in the Talmud lovely and sweet? No. Some of it sounds like exactly what it is: fifth century discussion written by men who had fifth century notions of astronomy, physics, anatomy, and economics. There is a severe lack of women’s points of view. Problematic passages abound. We wouldn’t be able to read it at all were it not for notes left us by a tenth century teacher and rabbi, Rashi.

Why read it at all? Because some of what’s in there is wonderfully insightful. It is the record of the process of hammering out what it might mean to live a life of Torah. It touches on everything, from the most mundane (they are preoccupied with bathrooms) to the most sublime (the will of God.)

Modern day students of Talmud use its study in many different ways. We do read it all, although some parts are taught much more often than others. The obscure ugly bits don’t get much use other than as an intellectual exercise. When there is something difficult to understand, we engage with it as we do with problematic parts of Torah: we study. We struggle. We may sometimes lift our hands and say, “I have no idea what to do with this.”

Personally, when I’m studying, I am guided by another quotation from the Talmud, one that I believe will keep me mostly out of trouble:

[Hillel] said to him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” – Shabbat 31a

Why Do Good?

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.