True story: The day after the siyum – celebration of the end of a unit of study – for those who had studied the daf yomi – two sides of a Talmud page daily, Lenny Dykstra (THE Lenny Dykstra) tagged me in a Twitter post, in which he congratulated those who had completed the 7 1/2 year cycle and challenged those who would be starting the new cycle. I’m a veteran of significant Talmud study but definitely not disciplined enough to have done the daily study. But, when Lenny Dykstra gives you musar, well, why would I ignore it? So in I jumped.
I was pleased to see that there are great online as well as face-to-face communities banding together, through which people on this journey are supporting one another. There are podcasts, online guides and even specialized women’s resources to daf yomi that Rabbi Meir Shapira, who dreamt up the idea at his yeshiva in Lublin, Poland couldn’t have imagined. Personally, I’m enjoying the astonishment of the Talmud newbies as they discover the rather chaotic and stream of consciousness nature of the Talmud.
Now, while I’m not a newbie to Talmud study, I’m by no means a scholar. Nonetheless, for those who are less experienced, I am pleased to offer some reflections that I hope will be of value:
- The Talmud was a response to new realities on the ground. The nation that was Judea became a Roman province, Jewish self-government was gone, the Temple was destroyed, the priesthood became irrelevant, the prophetic period ended, “rabbis” or “sages” became the community leaders, the centers of Jewish life shifted to Yavneh, Tiberias, Babylonia.
- The Talmud was a revolutionary set of documents that transformed “Jewish” from a nation that included religious components into a culture that had religion and ethics at its core. It created a version of “Jewish” that could be put in a suitcase and unpacked wherever Jews would live.
- The Talmud is your extended Jewish family’s dinner (or Seder), if 500 years of relatives were invited to the conversation. Or Knesset meeting, if that’s your frame of reference. It’s the rabbinic equivalent of the Annie Hall scene where a Jewish family, living under the Coney Island Thunderbolt roller coaster, brings everything they want to talk about to the table. But with Jewish scholars and their guests.
- There is a lot of wisdom in the Talmud, as well as some mundane and sometimes outright disturbing content. There will be discussions of Jewish practice. There will be sharing of superstitions. There will be deep conversations about the course of history. There will be theological wanderings and wonderings about the nature of God. There will be gossip. There will be potshots at different nationalities. The rabbis and authorities will occasionally insult each other. What you’re watching is the drama of (re-)invention of what it means to be a Jew.through a dialogue that spans over 500 years.
- The Talmud is human. There are spiritual high moments and moments of pettiness. The characters that appear are intelligent, articulate, well-read, and yet, very human.
- The Talmud is a collection that reflects the values of its time. If you’re looking for gender equality, you’ll find some hints of it, but for the most part, that was not the value of that time. If you’re looking for universalism, it shows up occasionally, but that was not the primary concern of the sages.
- If you want to get a sense of how the diversity of who we are today as Jews – traditionalist/Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Zionist, anti-Zionist Jews, Hasidim, atheists/agnostics, converts, ba’alei teshuva – had a stage of development during an absolutely revolutionary era of Jewish history, you’re in the right place.
- Pet peeve: Mishnah is written in Hebrew. Gemara is mostly Aramaic with an occasional Greek or Persian work thrown in.
- The apocryphal story about a law school dean telling new students: “Look to your left and look to your right, because one of you will not be here next year” is going to be true for daf yomi learners. And that’s OK, because as far as you get, you’ve learned more Torah than you had coming in.
We’re in this thing together, my fellow travellers. Hope you see you along the journey and at the finish line.
B’hatzlacha, wishing you all success in your learning.
I know I’m a political moderate because I get criticized by both those to the left and those to the right. Sadly, in the world in which we live today, the word “moderate” is viewed negatively by liberals and conservatives alike. Both seem perfectly happy to throw disgusting insults like “libtard” and “Nazi” at each other without considering what the other side is saying. And having a president that routinely calls people insulting names publicly changes the nature of society, sending a message that disrespectful interactions are preferable to respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree.
The thing about moderate views is that they require nuanced thinking, if not downright divergent thinking. It is very simplistic (and untrue) to think, for example, that those who promote responsible gun ownership want to do away with the Second Amendment of the constitution or totally outlaw all weapons. Similarly, there are those who want to believe that opposing the recent American practice of separating children and parents who enter the country illegally means that they want completely open borders, with absolutely no safeguards.
On the other side, the idea that children in detention facilities are in “concentration camps” or that President Trump or his advisors are “Nazis” is equally simplistic as well as minimalizing what the Nazi era or concentration camps actually were.
So, how do we get to nuanced thinking? One way is through Talmud study. No, seriously. Talmud isn’t just for Jews anymore. Even South Korea adopted Talmud study on some level in order to become “smart like the Jews” click here . While I was probably already a divergent thinker, Talmud study (even when it sometimes bored me to tears or required me to study it in a pretty dead language) opened some critical thinking horizons for me. Such as:
- Two schools of thought that disagree can both be based on data, observations, and knowledge of precedent
- Name calling and insults by one school of thought to another may appear, but are very infrequent
- Sometimes the final answer in a disagreement is: Hell, we don’t know either. Can we kick it off to Elijah the Prophet to figure out?
- There’s the very cool response to two diametrically opposed views: the question of whether a mezuzah should be hung vertically or horizontally ends up with moderation and compromise – in most communities, the decision is to hang it at an angle between the two views
- And in reflecting on the Talmud and on personal characteristics, Maimonides, in the 12th century, states that the “golden path” is that of moderation rather than extremes
So we need to realize that in political and social matters (as in just about everything), there is a bell curve. There will be those few at the extremes that will take radical positions. Like the recent few Republican candidates that had been affiliated with the Nazi party or their friends, the extremes are out there, but in the very far edge of the bell curve with very few voices or followers.
Most of us congregate in the middle, at either side of the top of the bell curve. We’re the people that agree that you can’t have totally open borders, but disagree on how to reach an intelligent policy; The folks who don’t want individuals with serious mental illness or criminal intent to have guns, but disagree on how to assure it.
It’s time for us (Americans, as well as other countries that face polarization) to stop obsessing about the extremists and to focus on the vast majority that actually want civil, respectable discourse and the ability of our leaders to find the compromises needed to really make our world better.
And if picking up Baba Metzia helps them do that, so be it!