As I discovered to my own sorrow during and after college, it’s not easy to find a path into the Talmud as a beginner. I was interested in the richness and strangeness of rabbinic texts, but I grew up with no religious education whatsoever, so I had no context for them, and no idea where to begin in investigating this interest more deeply. The first problem I encountered was in understanding what the Talmud actually was. I read the descriptions of its components (Mishnah, Tosefta, braitot, gemara) over and over, but I couldn’t easily retain them. They were too abstract, too unfamiliar. It took me ten long years of stopping, starting, and skirting the edges of rabbinic texts to finally gain the tools and understanding I needed to feel confident in engaging with the Talmud.
Therefore, when I was asked to give a lecture introducing the Talmud in a religious studies class I was a Teaching Fellow for, I had plenty of thoughts, but few clear and concrete ideas about how to concisely explain what it took me over a decade to really learn. So I started from the beginning: what is the Talmud? As in, what are its fundamental pieces and attributes? The Talmud is vast, it is coded with reams of insider language (even setting aside the fact that the terms are in Aramaic), and it is, to put it mildly, generically unusual. How was I going to cover all of that in an accessible way? What I finally realized was that there is a genre familiar to us in modern life that closely parallels the form and flow of the Talmud: the internet discussion board. Specifically, an internet discussion board for a deeply involved and passionate fandom.
There were many such fandoms to choose from, but Star Trek stood out immediately as the obvious choice. Not only because I am a lifelong fan, but also because it is a cultural touchstone, and one defined by its nerdy, “crazy,” obsessive fans. That was exactly what I needed: a group that was immediately recognizable for engaging with deep and specific insider references, using rich source material up for constant reinterpretation. What could be more parallel to the Talmud? Further, the form of a discussion board is an excellent metaphor for the Talmud: its conversation is non-linear, overlapping, with people quoting others who were quoting others who had quoted them, and so on. It was also not bound by time—people could drop in and leave a message in the middle of a longer discussion months or years later, which might spark a renewal of the conversation. While this metaphor doesn’t account for the anonymous stam layer, unfortunately, it gets at the essence of the complex and sometimes bewildering overlap of topics and timelines we find in the gemara.
Finally, there was the fact that Star Trek’s core fandom is completely, utterly devoted to the mythology of the show, and they spend a lot of their free time thinking about contradictions in the show, unaddressed issues raised by the show, and whole areas barely suggested by it. This is, of course, exactly the project the rabbis are engaged in. In so doing, something like the TrekBBS board manages to contain virtually every genre imaginable, from deep interpretation to bizarre creative writing. For a specific example, I chose a thread called: “Parsecs in Star Trek: Are They What We Think?” This board turned out to be a fascinating case study. First, it contains a lot of graphs and charts—a lot. These were unimportant in and of themselves, but what they showed was how invested the creators were in completely understanding phenomena that are entirely beside the point of the plot of the show. Second, this thread is engaged in doing something that I believe the Talmud does all the time: comparing an imagined world to a lived one, and trying to make them measure up.
Therefore, it became clear that Star Trek was the right vehicle for me to introduce the Talmud to beginners. I wrote a lecture explaining what the Talmud was, a brief overview of its history and its components, and a short walkthrough of a specific text. Before I got to the history or the excerpted text, however, I began by showing an image of a Talmud page in the supporting PowerPoint presentation. The page appears intimidating to beginners; however, at this point I segued into a section demonstrating point by point the ways in which the Talmud’s structure is echoed in an internet discussion board. I showed the particular thread on parsecs that I had chosen as the specific analogy, as well as a few images of discussion thread subject headings on the TrekBBS to demonstrate the wide-ranging set of topics the board covered. Then, I returned to the Talmud and broke down the components of a Talmud page, and explained how they were related to each other. At each step, I was able to reference the ways in which these interweaving components paralleled some aspect of the Trek discussion board.
Through this analogy, it suddenly became possible to make the Talmud far less foreign. The methods and goals of the Talmud, its overlapping timelines, and its sometimes-bizarre tangents suddenly had a recognizable context. Further, I believe that taking the analogy out of the world of religion (although into something that arguably, resembles it), frees up students to let go of some of their assumptions about what a religious text is and what it is for. The Talmud, by virtue of its sui generis nature, is unlikely to be like any religious text beginners have encountered before. It is deeply interested in minutiae that can often seem paradoxically beside the point to those who have grown up in a Protestant culture that values individual devotion over community praxis. However, such approaches have not been lost; they have simply been redirected. They appear in other areas of our lives, including online in the TrekBBS board.
The discussion board analogy formed a bridge that allowed students to see that as obscure as the Talmud seems (and is), the processes and methods by which it approaches its subject matter are actually more familiar than they might think. It also clarifies why it makes sense that in order to read the Talmud, you have to become as deeply familiar with the source material, the in-jokes, the terminology, the characters, and so on, as the authors are. Otherwise, it looks like gibberish. This allows anyone who is familiar with a fanatical fandom, which is lots of people these days, to use that recognition to form a window into understanding what the rabbis were doing and how they were thinking about it—and therefore to lay the foundation for reading and understanding Talmudic argumentation.
Furthermore, it worked. Students continued referencing the Talmud texts that they had been assigned to read in preparation for the lecture that I gave throughout the semester. I assigned them knowing full well that the students would get a limited amount out of them, given their lack of training. However, the depth of interest and engagement several students had with those texts in spite of their unfamiliarity with them confirmed to me a teaching theory that I have had for some time: students do not need to be able to fully master material in order to get a lot out of it. This sounds obvious, but I have encountered fellow teachers who are reluctant to assign work to their students when they feel it is beyond their students’ level. I advocate the opposite: with judicious care, go ahead and assign them things they will not understand. The fact that they cannot be expected to fully assimilate the information must be taken into account for assignments and grading, of course, but beyond that, there is a great deal to be gained from exposure to something entirely beyond one’s experience. It invites students to challenge themselves, it lets them explore where the limits of their knowledge lie, and most of all, it is real. That is, they can experience the full richness of the Talmud by not understanding it, rather than in spite of it.
There is, after all, a fundamental barrier in learning Talmud when you have not grown up exposed to it (and sometimes, even if you have): you will spend a lot of time feeling like you don’t understand anything. While sometimes frustrating, it’s only by embracing that step that it becomes possible to move forward in understanding the Talmud, or any other complex subject worthy of study. Therefore, by making difficulty high but keeping expectations realistic, you can create a space for your students to encounter something alien and fascinating, and to safely fail at it. They will still learn quite a bit about the Talmud. But in the end, for me the goal of teaching about Talmud, especially to beginners, is not for them to go on to become rabbinicists, or even to ever read the Talmud again. It is for them to encounter a difficult, fascinating text, and to try to place themselves in its world, to understand and connect with the people who created it. And Star Trek is one way of letting them in on that connection right away: they know people like this. If they try, they can know some more.
Rebecca Kamholz is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University.