My son is currently in Israel at a yeshiva. In our telephone conversation yesterday we spoke about his eagerness to study Talmud.
Our discussion reminded me of part of a talk Rabbi Steinsaltz gave at a Jewish school in Kiev.
Rabbi Steinsaltz said:
Some 150 years ago — this is a true story — a certain German prince wanted to know what the Talmud is.
He asked a certain rabbi to invite him to a yeshiva and teach him one page of Gemara.
Thus, for a few days this prince sat and studied the first page of Bava Kamma. He found it very interesting and thought-provoking, but there was one thing that he could not understand.
At the very end of the page, it says that the problem they were dealing with throughout has no practical meaning whatsoever, that it is merely theoretical.
What is the point of such a book? He asked, Who needs it?
I do not know what the rabbi’s reply to that prince was.
But if I were there, I would tell him that the main question of the Talmud is not “What do I need to do next?”; for that, there are other books.
When I want to know what steps I should take in order to cook a certain dish, I refer to the cookbook; and in order to know what my next action should be, I open a book of halacha or any other sort of practical book.
But in the Talmud we have something that will not necessarily be of any tangible benefit to me today, tomorrow, or ever. It is a value in its own right, something that gives me no respite.
For in the very final analysis, what I want to know is — Where is the truth?
And indeed, the central, all-encompassing question in the entire Talmud is, Where is the truth — as far as any human being can attain it.
For certain people — hopefully, for Jews — the pursuit of truth is an inner need.
We cannot go to sleep until we find out what truth is.
For us, truth is not a trivial matter such as what is the length of my trousers; it is something that we cannot live without.
And in this sense, it is deeply connected to our philosophy and to our faith.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
from the transcript of a talk titled “The Pursuit of Truth” presented to a girls’ school in Kiev.