The bulk of this volume consists of readings of two sections of the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli): the section on the “Three Kings” (who are excluded from the world to come), beginning at Sanhedrin 101b, and the section containing the “Evil Inclination” parable, beginning at Yoma 69a. In addition there are short pieces dealing with the “Ten Tribes” debate (Sanhedrin 110b), the discussion of the two Hebrew alphabets (Sanhedrin 21b), the interpretation of dreams (Berachoth 55a), the four men who “entered paradise” (Chagigah 15b), and the instruction to “give thanks for evil” (Berachoth 60b).
The point of view of these readings is that of a sympathetic outsider. It was my hope as I began this project that my naivete as a student of Judaism might have its own virtue, in that I could regard the texts with fresh eyes, and might see some things that piety and respect for authority tend to render invisible. Several years later, I feel as if I have uncovered treasures beyond my wildest expectation.
I have found that traditional interpretation underestimates the level of thinking in the Talmudic text, by taking it too literally. Mythic and legendary stories, along with far-fetched leaps of language, have traditionally been treated with extreme credulity and reverence, when the text demands just the opposite: a creative engagement that penetrates to the underlying ethical, political and spiritual questions. That was how the rabbis themselves proceeded.
The book should appeal to secular Jews, philosophers and progressives (as well as traditionalists willing to take a fresh look). The author considers himself to be making a contribution to contemporary philosophy, as well as to the interpretation of the Talmud.