#97 Unorthodox Episodes from the Talmud (4)

This final episode of David’s four-part series entitled Unorthodox Episodes of the Talmud explores the idea of the evil inclination – the yetzer harah – with a particular focus on problems relating to sexual temptation.

David explains that sages of the Talmud discussed how few things are as powerful as the desire for intimacy. This inclination affects all people, including great spiritual leaders.

Illustrating this point, David examines two stories from the Talmud. The first concerns Rabbi Amrum the Pious, a third-century sage who lived in the Babylonian city of Naharda’ah who fights his evil inclinations. The other looks at a tragi-comic story of Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi, a student of Rav, who condemned himself in the face of temptation.

Both stories explore moral and ethical considerations concerning intentional, transgression, culpability, and redemption. Other concepts discussed include:

  • individual and communal shame – both in this world and the world to come
  • mystical manifestations of evil
  • the psychology of guilt and self-control
  • recognition of human failings
  • the power of sexual urges
  • whether thinking about a sin carries the same weight as its enactment
  • moral karma
  • the importance of remembering and respecting human relationships in our quest to do right
  • whether suicide is permitted in certain circumstances
  • the importance of humility
  • an appreciation that we may each fail when our moral will is tested.

In examining these two unorthodox Talmudic episodes, David discusses the notion that individuals are often tested in line with their unique moral parameters; that we should be wary of placing ourselves on moral pedestals because we may be found wanting; we are all responsible for our behaviour; and that we must know our limitations and our weaknesses.

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#95 Unorthodox Episodes from the Talmud (2)

Part two of David’s Zoom series, Unorthodox Episodes from the Talmud, mixes Jewish history with textual learning and fascinating storytelling.

The talk continues the story begun in the previous episode regarding Rav Kahana, a third-century sage who fled Babylonian authorities to find refuge in the Land of Israel following a violent confrontation in a rabbinical court.

In this lecture, David describes the next chapter for Rav Kahana following his arrival at the prestigious yeshiva of Tiberius. Through a series of unfortunate actions and misunderstandings, Rav Kahana finds himself once again at the centre of dramatic events involving pride, regret, and death.

As David unravels this extraordinary story, he explores:

  • key Talmudic figures and their contribution to Jewish life, history, learning, and continuity
  • the relationships and tensions between some of the great Jewish figures and academies of the time
  • the political and hierarchical structures of these rabbinical academies
  • the power of the sages and consequences of unsettling them
  • how concepts of right and wrong do not always resonate through centuries
  • the unexpectedly mystical nature of elements of the Talmud.

This lecture places in context the historical situation of the Jewish communities in Babylonia and the Land of Israel. It also reminds us of the importance of Torah scholarship in relation to the shape and influence of different parts of the Jewish world.

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#94 Unorthodox Episodes from the Talmud (1)

In this Zoom lecture series, David explores several fascinating episodes described in the Talmud.

This first lecture in the series discusses an unusual Talmudic incident involving disloyalty, self-righteousness, contempt, justice, death, restitution, escape, and consequences.

As with many stories from the Talmud, this incident is set during a time known as the Amoraic period – between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE – when the centre of Jewish life was based in Babylonia. It concerns an investigation of a concept in halacha, Jewish law, known as mesirah – an action in which a Jewish person hands over another Jewish person or their property to a non-Jewish authority.

In the story, a rabbinical court (beth din) summons a man poised to inform on his neighbour to the Babylonian government. This man’s disdain for the authority of the beth din results in unexpected and grave consequences.

David examines the details and text of this remarkable event as well as the context and significance of the Talmudic figures involved. He also:

  • explains the relevance of the legal issue in its historical context
  • draws parallels between these historical incidents and recent issues of Jewish law
  • explores variations in definitions of right and wrong, justice and injustice 
  • describes and contextualises the figures described in the passage
  • reminds us of the details and relevance of the historical setting in which the incident is set.

The Talmudic passage discussed in this lecture can be found towards the end of Tractate Bava Kamma, page 117a.

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#92 The Twelve Minor Prophets (3)

Part three of David’s lecture series on the Trei Asar, the twelve ‘minor’ prophets of Israel, examines the texts and themes of:

  • Nachum,
  • Habakkuk, and
  • Tzephaniah.
Habakkuk, the Biblical prophet, watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot. Public domain.

While these three books are short in length, David explains the importance of each, their place in the prophetic continuum, and how they sit in relation to significant moments in biblical and world history. 

The lecture delves into the prophets’ exploration of:

  • the destruction of Assyria
  • the rise of Babylonia
  • the destruction of the enemies of Israel
  • the destruction of sinners
  • the fall of Jerusalem
  • the need for teshuva and self-improvement
  • justice for the nations
  • divine justice
  • the role of God in history
  • the power of the God of Israel.

David provides a historical framework for each of the prophets. He reviews the details of their lives and puts the enormity of their words into context. 

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#54 The Prophets: Ezekiel

A Podcast on the Prophets of Israel in Tanach (Hebrew Bible)

The Book of Ezekiel has been enormously influential on Jewish spirituality for two-and-a-half millennia, including as the foundational inspiration for subsequent Jewish mystical ideas and texts. In this podcast episode, David examines the life and work of the Prophet Ezekiel (Yechezkel), believed to be among the first wave of exiles taken into Babylon. It is in the Book of Ezekiel, largely set during the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the First Temple, that we find an array of profound concepts about ethical existence and societal responsibility that remain startlingly relevant until today – in particular, we can extract much from Ezekiel’s insights into teshuva and Jewish spiritual practice in times of change and uncertainty. David also explores other remarkable elements of the book, including the extraordinary descriptions of G-d’s chariot and the valley of the dry bones, as well as providing insights into the social, political, and spiritual turbulence of the time.

Scan of a Gustave Doré engraving “The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones” – 1866. Public Domain.

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#46 Two Temples (part 2)

A Podcast on Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and Jewish History

The latter years of the First Temple period saw the Kingdom of Judah contending with dangers posed by the politics of the region and the fluctuating strengths and flaws of the reigning Judean kings. In this podcast episode, David examines the eighth to sixth centuries BCE. He discusses the perilous journey of the nation of Israel amid a changing geopolitical landscape; the rise and influence of the prophets of Israel; and the profound impact and historical reverberations of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jewish people into Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar camp outside Jerusalem. Artist unknown but Illustration from Petrus Comestor’s ‘Bible Historiale’, France, 1372. Public Domain. Continue reading “#46 Two Temples (part 2)”

#36 Chazal in the Age of Empires: An Overview of the Talmudic Period (part 3)

The period of the 3rd to 5th centuries (CE) saw a different type of world emerging from one that had, for centuries, been controlled by two empires: Rome and Parthia. In this podcast episode, David explores the new Jewish reality and the revolutionary innovations that resulted. In particular, he examines the extraordinary project of the Talmud, its remarkable later contributors, and allows us to understand the significance of these developments within the context of Jewish and world history.

Rabbi Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy. From Diaspora Museum, Tel Avi. Image used under Creative Commons licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

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