Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The decline of piety according to the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Your Bubbe Was Not More Jewish Than You Are. The Talmud debunks the myth of declining Jewish piety.
Reading Daf Yomi, one of the things that has most interested me is the Talmud’s picture of the Jewish society of its day. It’s easy to assume that, because the rabbis who assembled the Mishna and the Gemara were exceptionally learned and pious, the Jewish world they lived in was itself extremely devout. Surely the Jews of Palestine and Babylonia in the 1st centuries C.E. would put American Jews to shame with their Jewish knowledge and practice! Yet that is certainly not the way the rabbis of the Talmud understood their world. On the contrary, the impression they give is of a Jewish community divided between a very pious elite—the people the Talmud calls chaverim, “friends,” who took care to scrupulously follow the law—and an ignorant, unreliable mass of ordinary Jews, the am ha’aretz. What’s more, as we saw in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the rabbis were convinced that they stood at the end of a long, irreversible decline in Jewish piety. If we think that Jews who lived centuries ago were better Jews than we are today, the Jews of centuries ago thought exactly the same thing.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.