A footnote: While I was at the conference, I stayed at the Jewish
Theological Seminary, where young rabbis ¬¬ I think they were
Orthodox ¬¬ were studying. Since I have a Jewish background, I knew of
some of the things they told me about the Talmud, but I had never seen
the Talmud. It was very interesting. It's got big pages, and in a
little square in the corner of the page is the original Talmud, and
then in a sort of L¬shaped margin, all around this square, are
commentaries written by different people. The Talmud has evolved, and
everything has been discussed again and again, all very carefully, in
a medieval kind of reasoning. I think the commentaries were shut down
around the thirteen¬ or fourteen¬ or fifteen ¬hundreds ¬¬ there
hasn't been any modern commentary. The Talmud is a wonderful book, a
great, big potpourri of things: trivial questions, and difficult
questions ¬¬ for example, problems of teachers, and how to teach ¬¬
and then some trivia again, and so on. The students told me that the
Talmud was never translated, something I thought was curious, since
the book is so valuable.
One day, two or three of the young rabbis came to me and said, "We
realize that we can't study to be rabbis in the modern world without
knowing something about science, so we'd like to ask you some
questions." Of course there are thousands of places to find out about
science, and Columbia University was right near there, but I wanted
to know what kinds of questions they were interested in. They said,
"Well, for instance, is electricity fire?" "No," I said, "but. . .
what is the problem?" They said, "In the Talmud it says you're not
supposed to make fire on a Saturday, so our question is, can we use
electrical things on Saturdays?" I was shocked. They weren't
interested in science at all! The only way science was influencing
their lives was so they might be able to interpret better the Talmud!
They weren't interested in the world outside, in natural phenomena;
they were only interested in resolving some question brought up in
the Talmud. And then one day ¬¬ I guess it was a Saturday ¬¬ I want
to go up in the elevator, and there's a guy standing near the
The elevator comes, I go in, and he goes in with me. I say, "Which
floor?" and my hand's ready to push one of the buttons. "No, no!" he
says, "I'm supposed to push the buttons for you." "What?" "Yes! The
boys here can't push the buttons on Saturday, so I have to do it for
them. You see, I'm not Jewish, so it's all right for me to push the
buttons. I stand near the elevator, and they tell me what floor, and
I push the button for them." Well, this really bothered me, so I
decided to trap the students in a logical discussion. I had been
brought up in a Jewish home, so I knew the kind of nitpicking logic
to use, and I thought, "Here's fun!" My plan went like this: I'd start
off by asking, "Is the Jewish viewpoint a viewpoint that any man can
have? Because if it is not, then it's certainly not something that is
truly valuable for humanity. . . yak, yak, yak."
And then they would have to say, "Yes, the Jewish viewpoint is good
for any man." Then I would steer them around a little more by asking,
"Is it ethical for a man to hire another man to do something which is
unethical for him to do? Would you hire a man to rob for you, for
instance?" And I keep working them into the channel, very slowly, and
very carefully, until I've got them ¬¬ trapped! And do you know what
happened? They're rabbinical students, right? They were ten times
better than I was! As soon as they saw I could put them in a hole,
they went twist, turn, twist ¬¬ I can't remember how ¬¬ and they were
free! I thought I had come up with an original idea ¬¬ phooey! It had
been discussed in the Talmud for ages! So they cleaned me up just as
easy as pie ¬¬ they got right out. Finally I tried to assure the
rabbinical students that the electric spark that was bothering them
when they pushed the elevator buttons was not fire. I said,
"Electricity is not fire. It's not a chemical process, as fire is."
"Oh?" they said. "Of course, there's electricity in amongst the atoms
in a fire." "Aha!" they said. "And in every other phenomenon that
occurs in the world." I even proposed a practical solution for
eliminating the spark. "If that's what's bothering you, you can put a
condenser across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off
without any spark whatsoever ¬¬ anywhere."
But for some reason, they didn't like that idea either. It really was
a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better
interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are
studying to go into society and do something ¬¬ to be a rabbi ¬¬ and
the only way they think that science might be interesting is because
their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded
slightly by some new phenomena.
Something else happened at that time which is worth mentioning here.
One of the questions the rabbinical students and I discussed at some
length was why it is that in academic things, such as theoretical
physics, there is a higher proportion of Jewish kids than their
proportion in the general population. The rabbinical students thought
the reason was that the Jews have a history of respecting learning:
They respect their rabbis, who are really teachers, and they respect
education. The Jews pass on this tradition in their families all the
time, so that if a boy is a good student, it's as good as, if not
better than, being a good football player. It was the same afternoon
that I was reminded how true it is.
I was invited to one of the rabbinical students' home, and he
introduced me to his mother, who had just come back from Washington,
D.C. She clapped her hands together, in ecstasy, and said, "Oh! My
day is complete. Today I met a general, and a professor!" I realized
that there are not many people who think it's just as important, and
just as nice, to meet a professor as to meet a general. So I guess
there's something in what they said.
I think Richard answers the question to some extent! I have boldened the parts I feel are relevant. I feel that the premise is wrong - i.e. it is not a loophole. A loophole implies that God is against carrying and elevators, and we are trying to figure out how to get those things back with clever rationalizations.
Nay, the law itself is the end in-and-of-itself. This is demonstrated in the above, by the fact that Richard was trying to show that electricity is not fire, which would be great, it would unlock a whole world of activities we could do on Sabbath, but we didn't accept it because we aren't interested in that. We are simply interested in understanding the law better. Whatever the conclusion we arrive at, we follow, whether it makes our lives easier or harder.
3335 years of rigorously studying God's laws, as honestly and seriously as you can imagine, with unrivalled scholarship. 4000 pages of Talmud, 2000 years of debates surrounding it. It's hard to get your head around the first time you hear it, quite unbelievable.