Jew­ish Text

The Land of Truth: Tal­mud Tales, Time­less Teachings 

  • Review
By – October 10, 2019

The Tal­mud, Judaism’s mag­num opus of Jew­ish thought, con­tin­ues to chal­lenge Jew­ish learn­ers with its terse lan­guage and com­plex argu­men­ta­tion. Jef­frey L. Rubenstein’s The Land of Truth: Tal­mud Tales, Time­less Teach­ings seeks to make the aggadic (non-legal) Tal­mud more acces­si­ble by offer­ing an anno­tat­ed read­ing of select­ed texts, orga­nized around three major themes.

The Land of Truth is intend­ed for read­ers who wish to explore the Baby­lon­ian Talmud’s under­stand­ing of the human expe­ri­ence. It is divid­ed into three parts and is designed to be used for indi­vid­ual or group study. Part One explores Judaism’s phi­los­o­phy on aging, fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships, suf­fer­ing, and ill­ness. The sec­ond part explores the prin­ci­ples that make for moral life, includ­ing com­pas­sion, humil­i­ty, and Torah study. The rela­tion­ship between the indi­vid­ual and larg­er soci­ety is the focus of Part Three.

Ruben­stein explores Rab­binic Judaism’s com­plex, incon­sis­tent, under­stand­ing of the impor­tance of being ground­ed in this world, ver­sus the cen­tral­i­ty of a belief in the after­life, the world-to-come. The author presents a text from Ta’anit 22a, which tells the sto­ry of Rab­bi Baro­qa, who is stand­ing in a mar­ket with Eli­jah the Prophet con­sid­er­ing who will enter the world-to-come. As peo­ple pass in the mar­ket, Eli­jah iden­ti­fies a jail­er and a pair of jesters as wor­thy, despite them seem­ing less qual­i­fied for the after­life. Through this exchange, Rab­bi Baro­qa learns both that appear­ances are deceiv­ing and that those who prac­tice hero­ism and humor are equal­ly wor­thy of a place in the world-to-come. Rubenstein’s analy­sis of this sto­ry includes sev­er­al addi­tion­al Tal­mu­dic texts and con­cludes by draw­ing a con­nec­tion to the work of Holo­caust sur­vivor Vik­tor Fran­kl and the civ­il dis­obe­di­ence of refus­nik Natan Sharansky.

The end of the book offers a close read­ing of the well-known sto­ry of a gen­tile who approach­es Hil­lel and Sham­mai for con­ver­sion. Ruben­stein draws a par­al­lel between the story’s mes­sage and an approach to Tal­mud study as a whole. He sug­gests that just as Hillel’s response is intend­ed to engage the con­vert and encour­age fur­ther study, the author’s book is an invi­ta­tion to a life­time of engage­ment with the time­less wis­dom of the Talmud.

The Land of Truth is enter­tain­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing. It effec­tive­ly draws the read­er into the world of Tal­mud study while also con­nect­ing this ancient text to mod­ern ideas and ideals. Ruben­stein makes the cen­tral lessons of the Tal­mud acces­si­ble, com­pelling, and mean­ing­ful for a con­tem­po­rary read­er. Both the novice and advanced stu­dent of Jew­ish stud­ies will appre­ci­ate the author’s clear writ­ing and insight­ful analy­sis of what is often con­sid­ered the most impor­tant trea­tise on Jew­ish life.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions