Since January, I’ve been participating in a daf yomi program. That means that every day, 7 days a week, I study a page (actually, two facing pages), of Talmud.
The fact that someone like me, who grew up in a secular home and did not have a Jewish education, has the opportunity to do this is a new development. The Talmud itself, for those who don’t know, consists of passages from the Mishna, the Oral Law first written down around 200 CE in Hebrew, and the Gemara, a much larger body of commentary on the Mishna that was compiled over a period of several hundred years afterwards. The Gemara is written in Aramaic, a language close to Hebrew, but the writing is condensed and elliptical. It also includes notes by Rashi and others commenting on and explaining the text. Until recently there was simply no way a modern reader could approach this without a great deal of preliminary study with knowledgeable teachers.
But in the last three decades, scholars have produced translations of the Aramaic texts along with detailed commentary to fill in the gaps for ignoramuses like me. In particular, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, z”l, who died earlier this month, created a monumental translation of the entire Babylonian Talmud (there is also a Jerusalem Talmud, but the one compiled in Babylonia is considered more authoritative) into modern Hebrew, which in turn has been translated into English. More than just a translation, Rabbi Steinsaltz interpolated explanations and context into the text, so that it’s possible to read it almost like a novel. There are even diagrams, which my wife says remind her of computer games.
The Talmud is not an orderly exposition of Jewish law. Rather it is a record of the deliberations and conversations of generations of sages, in which arguments are given for multiple interpretations of the Mishnaic texts, which themselves are an attempt to elucidate the commandments of the Torah and apply them to everyday life. Sometimes the Gemara will say “the halacha is such-and-such” but most of the time, all you have are the arguments. There are also stories, ridiculous medical advice, superstitions, insults – including some passages that have been used by Jew haters throughout the years as evidence for our evil ways. During the Middle Ages, non-Jewish authorities sometimes ordered printed copies of the Talmud to be censored or even burned.
The seven years it takes read the whole thing are daunting. When I started the daf yomi program, I didn’t believe that I would last more than a few weeks. But I’ve become more and more interested and involved as time goes by. I have even learned a few useful expressions in Aramaic, for example in yesterday’s daf, pok t’nei l’vara! (“go, take that teaching outside”). I’m convinced that if I live long enough (b”h), I will finish the project. I will never be either a scholar or very observant, but this study brings me closer to Judaism and Jewish history.
I think that this would not have happened if I still lived in a non-Orthodox community in the USA. In Israel, Judaism and Jewish history are in the air. I am continuously made aware of who I am, by the language, the holidays, the symbols of the state, the biblical geography, and the fact that I am surrounded by Jews. There are neighborhoods in Brooklyn in which I would also be surrounded by Jews; but even there, the consciousness of living as a small minority in someone else’s country is inescapable (not to mention the reminders provided by the growing number of antisemitic incidents). And I would miss the diversity of Israeli Jews, Jews of every color and culture.
But don’t I know that one of five Israelis is an Arab? Of course. There is room for an Arab minority. Nevertheless, there are also dangers – not directly from the presence of the Arabs, but from those that want to use their presence as a reason to weaken the Jewish state. Meir Kahane believed that the Arab citizens of Israel posed a demographic threat. Their birthrate was higher than that of the Jews, and so he predicted that the Jewish majority would ultimately be eroded. Today the birthrates of Jewish and Arab citizens are not far apart (I think the high Haredi birthrate is a greater threat to a functional state).
The real problem is an ideological one, posed by those (Jews and Arabs) who want to replace the state of the Jewish people with a state of its citizens. 62 members of the Knesset understood this when they passed the Nation-State Law to guarantee the continued Jewish character of the state. Right now there are attempts to weaken the law by inserting language to guarantee “equal rights.” We should be aware that the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty is already interpreted to guarantee equal civil rights to individual Jews and Arabs; and it is not necessary or desirable to weaken the provision of national rights that is made by the Nation-State Law to the Jewish people alone.
I am also not at all diffident about calling for Jews everywhere to make aliyah, despite the difficulties. You can certainly study Talmud in the diaspora, whether by subscribing to the daf yomi or by studying at one of the numerous yeshivot or other institutions of Jewish learning there. But you cannot, even in deepest Brooklyn, breathe Jewishness with every breath, as you can in the Jewish state.
We live in the basement of an inn that my wife runs. The rooms upstairs are for guests, and in summer it’s not bad to be in the coolest part of the 110+-year-old house, even if accommodations are spartan down there. The contractors who worked on a storage area and adjacent long crawl space had not done their work correctly, and so the sump pump we have down there is overwhelmed and we will have to pay a stiff price to fix walls, drainage and shoring.
Recently, I began starting to learn Hebrew. It was surprisingly accessible. I aspire to read well enough to peruse copy from newspapers, or even a passage in the Talmud. Versus your daf yomi, I’m pitifully behind and never likely to catch up.
To be a guest in one’s own house is not a bad recipe for living. Sometimes, you take your foundations for granted, and must remake them and learn about what it takes to keep the house standing. I breathe in American verse and song, but feel my Jewishness is part of America’s beginning and my continued existence. The home of the Jewish soul is taken outside by the modern world. May I be worthy where I am and for my family.
bravo, Vic, kol hakavod.
Gemara is the heart of study for most religious Jews. And learning in it does really put the person in touch with the ‘Jewish mind’ in all its argumentative difficulty. Though I come from a nominally Orthodox family I suppose I qualify as ‘chozer b’teshuvah’ one who has returned to a deeper connection with Jewish tradition and living according to the Halachah. Nonetheless, I will admit to my own shortcoming. I have studied Daf Yomi and find it does not move me the way Tannach does. But this should not mean much to anyone but myself. The fact is to really know the Jewish religious tradition one must know Gemara.
A few years ago one of the best American and Jewish literary critics Adam Kirsch studied for some time Gemara and posted on Tablet weekly readings. He is by definition a secular Jew but nonetheless was enamored of the text.
I just have the hope that despite your immersion in the study you will not stop writing your important and uniquely strong columns on Israel.