Talmudic MOOC

Course: The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction
School/platform: Northwestern (Coursera)
Instructors: Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Sarah Wolf
Quote:

The Talmud is one of the richest and most complicated works of literature the world has ever known. Since being composed around 1500 years ago it has inspired not only religious reverence but significant intellectual engagement. In this course learners will be introduced to the unique characteristics of this text and the challenges that inhere in studying it while studying a chapter of the Talmud.

We’ve all read one of those books or seen one of those movies – Yentl, if nothing else – that feature a yeshiva scene where two boys argue over some obscure point of law involving the Sabbath or ox goring. Because of my long-standing interest in philosophies and religions, I’ve made some weak attempts to understand these things better, but never got very far. So I was very happy to hear about this course. It’s only six weeks, so it’s just an overview rather than in-depth study, but it gave me a very good idea of the landscape and even a few details.

It started with no expectations of prior knowledge, beyond vague familiarity with the Bible and Judaism, and went from there, explaining different works of Jewish literature, how they all fit together, and how the Talmud fits in. Beyond the general overview of historical and cultural origins of the Talmud, the focus was on the opening of one chapter of one tractate concerning edim zomemim, or false witnesses, a chapter often called “Lashes”. Just this one topic covered dozens of concepts, both legal (what is the standard of punishment? What are the exceptions? How were these arrived at?), religious (what is the difference between punishment and atonement?), and logical (how do centuries of rabbinical opinions get dovetailed in an organized, streamlined manner?). It gets a little weird at times, since we’re talking about false accusations of ox gorings or priests who’ve married divorcees – or the story of Susanna being raped and all anybody cares about is the heroic Daniel identifying false witness who named the wrong guys – but the details were absolutely fascinating.

Techniques of logical argument took center stage at one point. Now, I’ve taken four (or five, depending on how you count) courses in propositional and/or symbolic logic, but we weren’t talking modus ponens or syllogisms here, it was about logical structures like Kal Va-Homer, which turned out to be an argumentum a fortiori: extrapolation from a weaker example to a stronger example (logic is logic in all times and places: I just found out this week that Confucius, not really a logician, used modus ponens). There’s the well-known argument between rabbis from different eras, each proposing slightly different ways to approach the legal issues involved, drawing different conclusions. Again, I was fascinated, though I sometimes got lost between rabbis.

The material was presented in lecture form, with videos alternating between two instructors (and included a sprinkle of humor in the illustrations). Although the material was often challenging, explanations were clear and often went over important concepts several times in slightly different ways. The Talmud was often referenced in translation (presumably, many students who take this class would read Hebrew, but I did fine without it) and online sources. Each week included a quiz which included some information-retrieval questions and some that required more reasoning. Two peer assessed essays were required, graded more for completion than content; I found the first topic highly useful as a way of organizing my thoughts. The second essay topic seemed less relevant, but I could see what they were getting at.

Towards the middle of the course, the instructors held a live video hang-out to answer questions and provide additional commentary. It was great to see them in more natural circumstances. I’ve always wondered why so many professors use a solo lecture-to-camera approach when a more conversational setting, perhaps with a small group of students whether on or off camera, could be so much more engaging. But maybe that’s just my preference.

The big surprise was on the forums, where a couple of robust discussions broke out (these are sadly rare on the new Coursera). I’d originally signed up for the course because my MOOC buddy Richard (hi, Richard!) mentioned it to me, so we tossed a few things around and were joined by a few highly knowledgable fellow students. That’s the special thing about MOOCs: there’s an expert in every class, and here there were several who provided guidance to those of us with no background. Most particularly was Yael Shahar, who carefully explained various facets of atonement and forgiveness (a particular interest of mine; remember my months with Dante?). Turns out she is the co-author of A Damaged Mirror, a biographical narrative of a former Sonderkommando’s consultation with a rabbi, decades after Auschwitz, to see if forgiveness is possible.

Anyone who’s curious and interested in knowing a little about the Talmud would enjoy this and be able to gain something from it. If it’s completely new territory, it might be a bit challenging in places, but that’s part of the fun.

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