The year I first cracked open a book of Talmud was 2006, and life was pretty good. I was a moderate liberal filled with the righteous indignation of the Bush years, I was a 19-year-old Birthright-style Zionist in Israel (The Land Flowing With Beer and Single Jews My Age), and I was a loyal and proud son of the Conservative Jewish movement. Sure, life wasn’t perfect. I had an undiagnosed panic disorder, no girlfriend, and my friends back in the states missed me, and I missed them. But surely the Democrats were about to sweep the midterms, and with Israel withdrawing from Gaza, peace couldn’t be many years away, right? Talmud was an exciting intellectual adventure, and a necessary step on my way to the Rabbinate. As the foundation of Jewish religious thought, Talmud would clarify the complicated Halakhic discussions that I had been told were the heart of Jewish life. At that time, my religious life and my political beliefs were distinct.
Now it’s 2015, and I’m angry. I’m angry about the corrupt and violent “justice” system in America. I’m angry about the millions of deportations. I’m angry that women’s reproductive rights are being eroded almost daily. I’m angry that Israel, a state that claims to represent my values as a Jew, maintains military rule over millions of people. And I’m angry that the majority of Jewish leadership is silent on these issues. In short, I’m your average outraged radical leftist, looking to tear down the structures of our world and put up new ones.
So what changed me? Simple, really: Talmud.
Oh, there were lots of betrayals of trust by governments and politicians, lots of shocking revelations, lots of long, hard conversations. But the reason I’m a radical leftist, the reason I believe in taking to the streets and demanding a better world, is Talmud.
Talmud is a deeply conservative book, true. It was written by the rabbis of Roman Palestine and Sassanid Babylon, an elite class of religious leaders with ties to imperial power who trace their lineage and their right to rule to a divine revelation. But that’s just the history. In content and methodology, the Talmud is deeply subversive. There is not a single law that isn’t reexamined, reversed, and re-reversed. The rabbis regularly overthrow one another’s viewpoints. There is no power, including the Divine Power, that is not challenged and questioned. Talmud is a revolution, printed on the page.
I am fascinated by the Talmud and the hold it has over me and Judaism. That’s why I started the podcast “Radio Free Babylonia,” which is produced by Jewish Public Media (@JPMediaCo) and debuted this past week. I am excited that the project will be appearing alongside the other great shows Jewish Public Media is producing, but mostly I’m excited to share the Talmud I’ve come to know and love, that powers my belief in a more just and beautiful world. Radio Free Babylonia examines class, race, sex and privilege as matters of Talmudic inquiry. We will be calling out the Talmud for its sins and using the Talmud to call out our own ignorance and bias. We are pulling a heist, an emergency rescue mission. We will find Talmud where it has been wasting away, in all its academic pomposity and yeshivish insularity. We will smash and grab all of that ideology, and argumentation, and brilliance, get it out of the ivory tower and onto the streets.
Talmud radicalized me. I’m sure as hell gonna try and return the favor.