Relics for the Present
Contemporary Reflections on the Talmud
By Levi Cooper
Maggid Books and Pardes, 2012, 321 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 30, 2012
Many rabbis write books based on Torah verses, which they use as a backdrop for their ideas about contemporary society and the application of what they consider moral principles to various modern problems. Rabbi Dr. Levi Cooper, a teacher at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and rabbi of HaTzur VeHaTzohar Congregation in Zur Hadassa, adopts the innovative approach of doing so with texts from the first five chapters of the first book of the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot. He does not write to explain the Talmud text, but focuses instead on modern lessons that he can extrapolate from what the Talmud says.
Cooper has a hundred short essays, each usually three pages in length. His methodology is shown on pages 185-187 in an article entitled "Reading far-fetched tales." He tells a Talmudic story and comments: "This tale sounds unconvincing to a critical ear, as do so many others like it. A skeptic would certainly claim that many of the stories preserved in rabbinic literature are self serving: lauding the bearer of our tradition, painting them as superhuman, and granting them immunity from any criticism and – more significantly – any challenge to their authority…. Nevertheless, such passages can and should still be read – if not for their historical value, then for their didactic worth." Cooper then tells us the lesson that this fantastic tale is teaching.
Cooper doesn't fill his book with scholarly examinations, for this is not his intension. Thus, for example in his second essay, "Day or night: When do we start?" he recognizes that the renowned medieval sage Rashbam understood the biblical statement "there was evening and morning, the first day" to mean that the Bible considered the day to begin at dawn. God created during the day, then evening came, then morning, and the first day ended with dawn when the second day began. He also observes that in the Temple the day began with the morning, not the evening. Yet, although he notes this he doesn't burden his book to explain why Jews today begin the day in the evening. But, rather, true to his purpose, he speaks about the moral values of our current practice: Rather than starting the day by gulping down a quick breakfast and rushing off to work, "the day should begin with coming home to the family and sitting around the Shabbat table."