Shas imparts transformative lessons even to those who study it in a different way
In this Season of the Siyum, among the many tens of thousands of words written about daf yomi are those that have appeared in the Jewish media beyond the frum community, and they are revealing in their own way.
In Tablet, for example, a New Jersey Reform clergyman named Benjamin David wrote about having just finished the daf yomi cycle, which, he acknowledges, isn’t “the kind of thing most Reform rabbis are expected to do… I was an outlier, a fact I learned to embrace.” Reading his essay, it’s easy to be dismissive of the idea of “reading all 63 volumes of the Babylonian Talmud,” and how it challenged his “ability to study for at least 15 minutes every day no matter what the day brought: illness, emergencies in my congregation, funerals that necessitated hours of driving, snow days, and the ever-present voice that had had enough of such a project.”
However much or little his experience may have resembled that of a frum learner of the daf, there’s something inspiring about him describing himself as “the only one in the pediatrician’s waiting room with Tractate Yoma in one hand and my kid’s winter hat in the other…. When you study Talmud every single day for seven-and-a-half years, the pages become a part of you. You are holding a tractate so often it becomes an appendage…. I studied on my 15th wedding anniversary. I studied the day my grandmother died. I studied on Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Purim.”
Later on, he writes movingly that the “most uplifting part of my daf yomi experience came when I had cancer… [which] resulted in a month in the hospital to receive a most aggressive form of chemotherapy, followed by 17 rounds of radiation. It might have marked the end of daf yomi for me but actually the opposite is true. Through all of it I studied and with great devotion, even with nurses scrambling around me and my vitals being taken multiple times every hour…. I was still part of this sacred community, even while cloistered in the oncology wing at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.”
He writes of being “surprised all the time while engaging in daf yomi. As a Reform rabbi, I was in a decidedly small group of progressive Jews who had taken on the project. But I saw once and again that the Talmud is as progressive as any document we Jews lay claim to, with endless references to change, and how to make Judaism work in whatever age the reader found him/herself…. Such revelations gave me license to go further in my own practice, rethinking Shabbat and learning and holiday observance in my own life and the life of my congregants.”
It’s certainly true that getting an inside view of Torah can be a great revelation that it’s in fact replete with change and adaptation to changing circumstances; only someone unfamiliar with Torah can believe otherwise. The chasm between us and the heterodox movements isn’t over whether change takes place in Torah — the whole framework of Torah shebe’al peh presupposes it — but over what can change, who is authorized to effect that change, and for what reasons. There are specific rules for granting the authority to enact and change laws, and Jews who don’t observe halachah or accept normative Jewish beliefs don’t qualify. Nor can change be a response (acknowledged or otherwise) to the values and beliefs of the surrounding society.
Although no one would mistake this essay for that of an Orthodox Jew, he writes with a tone of humility and respect, even reverence, for the Talmud, not with a chip on his shoulder. He says of his study that “at times it challenged my sense of belief, having me reconsider my own understanding of G-d and Israel and prayer.” In a blog post after completing his first year of the cycle, he wrote: “When I close the door and open the Talmud, something always happens. I experience a change. My mood changes. My day changes. The study is itself meditative, calming, and rejuvenating. Those age-old pages consistently grant me perspective and guidance, very much like prayer.”
And that attitude extends to the multitudes of Orthodox Jews whose love for the Talmud he seems to appreciate, as he writes that “vast crowds of black-hatted Orthodox men will gather this week in places like MetLife Stadium outside New York City to toast one another and celebrate the accomplishment of coming at last to the end. It is not lost on them, or me, that completion requires persistence, relative health, and even a bit of luck. Such mass gatherings will happen virtually everywhere Jews live.” He concludes, poignantly, “As for me, I’ll celebrate quietly…. Then I’ll… naturally, begin again.”
IT’S INTERESTING to contrast Benjamin David’s piece with one by literary critic Adam Kirsch, who for seven years has written a weekly Tablet column based on having “read a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.” In this valedictory column, Kirsch writes of attending the Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium in January, because “reading about the last Siyum, in 2012 was what inspired me to begin my Daf Yomi study, and throughout the whole seven-plus years I looked forward to being present at this year’s event. It didn’t disappoint: Where the Jets and the Giants usually play, 90,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered to pray, sing, dance, and affirm their belief that studying Torah is the pathway to the World to Come….”
He writes that he declined to recite the Hadran with those making a siyum at MetLife partly “because I knew that the way I did Daf Yomi was very different from the way most of the people there had done it: in English translation… not truly every day, but usually reviewing the week’s pages on the weekend; and, of course, with the aim of writing about each week’s study for Tablet. But most of all, I felt that I should finish the Daf Yomi cycle in the spirit in which I had approached it from the beginning, which was not the spirit of a believer.”
Difficult as it is to read those last words, it’s worth reading what his goal was in writing his column:
I have tried to write about the Talmud with respect for what it has historically meant for Jews and Judaism, and what it still means for religious Jews today. I felt this was especially important because among most Jews like me — I was raised in a Conservative synagogue and I’m now mostly nonobservant — the Talmud is usually discussed with little firsthand knowledge and even less reverence.
One reason for this is that Jews who don’t know the Talmud take their ideas of it from Western culture, which reflects Christianity’s view of the Talmud rather than Judaism’s…. for secular, “enlightened” Western thinkers as well as religious ones, the Talmud has been synonymous with arid legalism. In English, the word “talmudic” connotes perverse over-analysis. This is one of the main reasons why I wanted to do daf yomi — so that I could understand how Jews themselves thought about their law, rather than how others defined it for them.
Like Benjamin David, there’s no mistaking Adam Kirsch for a Torah-oriented Jew. And yet, he says, his daf yomi columns were “a kind of travel writing: I am revisiting the intellectual homeland of my ancestors in order to gain a better understanding of them and of myself. I don’t intend to move there permanently, and I recognize that a tourist sees things only superficially and often incorrectly.” And he ends by suggesting that “non-Orthodox and even nonbelieving Jews should learn about our textual homeland, which is still thriving with Jewish life, as I saw at MetLife Stadium last week.”
An anecdote (that works better in the original Yiddish) tells of a chassid who approached the Kotzker Rebbe exultantly, saying, “Rebbe, ich hob gelernt Shas [I learned through Shas]!” “Gut,” the Kotzker replied, “ober vos hot dir Shas oysgelernt? [That’s good, but what has Shas taught you?]” Reading these essays, one sees that the power of Shas is such that it imparts lessons even to those who study it in a way that’s far removed from our conception of Talmud Torah.
The Kotzker’s piercing question, however, is one for which we must all have a sufficient answer.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 797. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org