The Talmud itself asks a famous question, “What is Chanukah?” It is meant as a serious question, and the answer must be more than to retort, “Every Jew knows what Chanukah is!” The question is really this: “What, essentially, is Chanukah? How do you sum up its inner essence?” The same type of question could be asked about the Talmud itself. “What is the Talmud?” people ask, and what they mean is, “What is the nature, the secret of the Talmud?”
It is not necessary to offer a historical or literary analysis. That is easily available in the reference books. Clearly, the Talmud is a great document, spread over enough books to form a library. It derives from the early centuries of the common era, and those whose teachings it records are called generically “the rabbis”, the learned men deriving from the tradition of Moses (women scholars are not absent but on the whole the Talmudic sages were men). Some might call the Talmud a legal document, but it is far more: it is a philosophical work.
This does not mean either that it has no preconceptions, nor that it is a credal work in which the preconceptions are beyond questioning and debate. It believes everything in Judaism and life must be understood as far as one’s capacity goes, and everything can be debated. It probes, it analyses, it illustrates. It goes off on tangents. It brings in an immense range of incidental information. Some things remain open ended with the word teku, read as the abbreviation for the Aramaic words for “Leave it to Elijah to solve!” But the conclusions it comes to, not stated in so many words but implicit on every page, are basic conclusions about Judaism.
They include these. There is a God, who is concerned with the whole of His world, not just heaven and not just earth. All can be sanctified, people, places, things, attitudes, time. The glory of human beings is their minds; God does not give the capacity to reason and then forbid its use, even to doubt. Everything in life is part of a pattern; reality makes sense.
Yet Judaism does not take the easy path and offer lists of dogmas on a plate; what it believes in you find from seeing how the Jewish mindset responded to the experience of life. And you arrive at a passion for truth, justice, peace, goodness; a commitment to morality, education, community, messianism.
Study of Talmud is an absorbing exercise. You do not “read” but “learn” it (in fact with a sort of singing rhythm). You do not judge the Talmud but let it speak to you. In the process you get inside the heads of the wise, and you not only learn who they were but who you are yourself. You come away as an optimist, knowing the future of the world depends not on might, nor on power, but on ideas and the spirit of God.
That’s the Talmud.