Two conflicting tasks confront the Talmudic commentator: on one hand, his goal is that of the objective scientist, using objective methodological tools to unravel, to the greatest degree possible, the meaning of the text for its intended audience. Thorough knowledge of the language and culture of the composition, in their broadest sense, is crucial to understand the meaning of any text. By definition, objective text study, to the degree possible, means divorcing one’s self from the normative implications of the subject matter.
At the same time, Torah study is the religious gesture par excellence. The sacred texts where God’s mind and man’s mind meet, and where man employs his God-given intelligence to understand, appreciate, and carry out God’s revealed Will, thereby become the focus of the ongoing relationship between the Creator and His elect. One who studies Torah within this frame of mind will demand meaning and relevance from the text.
By ignoring the former goal, one would run the risk of rendering the Torah irrelevant. The meanings that had been invested in the texts would contribute nothing to any type of contemporary discourse. It would remain a closed book. Those who would purport to ignore objective tools in the name of preserving the integrity of Torah undermine the Torah’s intelligibility, the basis for the ongoing conversation between God and the Israel.
At the same time, ignoring the devotional elements of Torah study allows the Torah to petrify completely by consigning it to the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Studies. As long as the Jewish people lives, the Torah is its constitution from and covenant with God. Treating it as a dead-letter violates its very essence.
Reading the current segment of the Talmud, as any, is limited by these constraints. This particular segment is unique because it is reflecting upon the very tensions described in the preceding paragraphs. Therefore, the following presentation is both a description and an example of an earnest attempt to mediate the dual constraints of objectivity and relevance.
Our story is set in the middle of the 2nd century, CE. The three Rabbis who open the story with their conversation are all considered later students of the great Rabbi Akiba. Although Rome had been a major player in the local politics for nearly two centuries by then, it was only in that generation, after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, that the Jews living in the Land of Israel sensed that they were no longer sovereign over their own land, and that they were in a state of unredeemed exile and would remain so for the foreseeable future. For two centuries, Jewish and Roman cultures existed side-by-side, sometimes at war and sometimes at peace. With the failure of Bar Kochba’s revolt, Jewish culture was swallowed entirely into the Roman world, and forfeited its status as an autonomous culture. The task fell to the leaders of that generation to shape the proper attitude toward the newly dominating culture, and it is with this in mind that the story begins.