Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Dilling Exhibit

As I have come across people calling themselves rationalists or atheists that have unabashedly referred to the Dilling Exhibit when discussing the Talmud, I have decided to write up a proper debunking of the exhibit's content. For those who have never heard of it, the Dilling exhibit is a quote-mine of Talmudic material, whose intent is to make the Talmud seem as though it accepts and downright encourages theft, pedophilia, murder and various other obviously bad things.

Some Christians also repeat similar allegations regarding the content of the Talmud, whether for anti-Semitic or anti-Judaic purposes. (These two are somewhat distinct things, with different causes, uses, objectives and so on. However, sometimes they do have common ground and there are representatives of both that share the same misunderstandings, misrepresentations and downright fabrications. I may attempt a small dissection of these two topics at some points, but such a dissection will necessarily only be an overview of the relevant literature.)

The Talmud is notoriously difficult to read. In part, this is due to the time that has passed since it was written, and to purely cultural differences - were a rabbi of the 4th century and I to try and express the same sentiments, we would probably express them in wildly different manners. Three main hypotheses for its obscure style are easy to come up with: design, cultural distance (already hinted at above) and incompetence.  I find the two first to be the most likely explanations. Other Jewish works from the same time are often somewhat less difficult to understand (then again, mystical works may be significantly less easy to understand, but the causes seem to be somewhat distinct from the causes underlying the problems when reading the Talmud) - provided you know the involved vocabulary (which is not necessarily easy). The Talmud is, by its nature, a discussion, and as such it records contradictory stances as well as sometimes far-flung reasoning to support whatever point the involved rabbis are trying to make. I suspect the talmudists wanted to make their work force the reader to become a participant in the discussion, rather than just a "reader" (obviously, some of the quoted rabbis may not have been aware their sayings would be recorded - so it is possible the recorded statements merely reflect a general style to engage the pupils?). To that purpose, it is fairly well made - the reader gains much from having a reading partner that has participated in the talmudic discourse earlier.

The final option is that the authors did not really realize the importance of (linguistic) frames of reference at all, and assumed the text would be understandable to anyone despite obvious flaws in understandability. However, the great emphasis the Talmud places on study, on learning from teachers, etc, seems to argue against this particular explanation. I severely doubt the talmudic rabbis where incompetent at expressing their ideas.

I do admit the Talmud has its bad moments - some of which are pretty terrible, even -, as does every old religious work. (And most newer ones as well.) However, some of the criticism it has received is definitely not justified, and reflects badly on the originators of those particular bits of criticism. Either their criticism originates in ill will or in ignorance. Both are road-blocks for rational thought.

This will be a long-term project, of course, just like the Murdock-Walker-etc project. Until I have finished The Christ Conspiracy, this particular project may not see very frequent updates (not that I can say The Christ Conspiracy-debunking has seen frequent updates either!), and it may also take a back seat to The Suns of God. However, the pace at which the debunking is performed is not the important thing - once it is done, I will be happy to have carried it out, as it will remain online for the foreseeable future for those for whom a source such as this is useful.

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