Endings and Beginnings [1]

In February, I reached a landmark of sorts in my Jewish life--I completed study of the entire Babylonian Talmud, a project that took me about six years.

Having done so, I have been giving some thought to how this task has affected me personally, and about the strange love affair between the Jewish people and this strangest of literary creations.

I don't recall exactly when I first decided to make the commitment to make it through the Bavli. I had in the past taken on some similar obligations. One year it involved reading through the whole of Rashi's classic commentary on the Torah, subsequently graduating to the more expansive one of R. Bahya. More recently, I had made it through the Mishnah (using the readable modern Israeli explanation by Pinhas Kahati). The Babylonian Talmud seemed inevitable.

"Daf Yomi"

About sixty years ago R. Meir Shapira of Lublin, one of the leading Orthodox communal activists of his generation, originated the idea of having the whole Jewish world simultaneously studying one leaf of the Talmud every day. At that rate the entire work could be completed in approximately seven years.

For reasons no longer clear to me, I developed my own accelerated schedule, according to which I would add an extra folio on Shabbat, the holidays and the days preceding them.

Owing to limitations of intellect and time, I restricted myself to the "basic" level embodied in Rashi's standard commentary. I am utterly dumbfounded at minds that are able, when studying at such a pace, to delve further into the infinitely profound strata of understanding that the Talmud does contain.

I did not follow the "official" schedule of the Daily Talmud Page (Daf Yomi) that has become so popular among every-broadening circles in the Jewish religious world. I allowed myself to follow my own interests as the spirit moved me, or as appropriately portable versions came to hand.

This last remark may sound strange, but it should be noted that the luxurious folio volumes with gold-leaf bindings that we usually associate with Talmuds are not very convenient for day-to-day use demanded by my lifestyle. I don't know if anyone has yet tried to study the effects of photo-offset miniaturization on the study habits of Jews, but I would venture to estimate that there has been an appreciable increase in the hours devoted to traditional religious study now that versions of the classical texts are available that can be read, albeit with considerable eye-strain, on buses, under one's work desk or at odd moments of leisure.

For my part, I find myself overwhelmed by the geographical associations that are evoked by totally unrelated debates on abstruse topics in Jewish religious law. One tractate conjures up associations with the Shi'ite village in Lebanon where I studied it during my Israeli army reserve duty; another page I plodded through while waiting in a queue at Disneyland; still another I read just before my first job interview at the University of Calgary. I imagine that these personal associations will be forever attached to their respective sugyas (topics).

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star

Why the Talmud?

At some level of consciousness, I was constantly coming back to a basic question: Of all the great classics of Jewish religious literature, how did it happen that the Babylonian Talmud, a technical work of esoteric and often irrelevant legal argumentation, became the most popular text among such broad segments of the Jewish masses (often to the consternation of leading rabbis of the time)?

The conventional answers, that point out the religious motivation underlying Talmud study, don't seem to hold water. There are any number of Jewish classics, from the Bible to the products of the 19th Century Musar (moralistic) movement, that offer much more immediate religious inspiration and fulfilment.

Nor is the Talmud a real guide to day-to-day practice. Talmudic reasoning thrives on unlikely theoretical possibilities, and I doubt that more than 10 percent of it relates directly to any problems likely to be encountered by normal people.

Contrary to widespread opinion, while the Talmud is a work about law, it is not a book of laws. If you really want to know what to do, ask your Rabbi or look it up in a code of Jewish law like the Shulchan Aruch. Frankly, I am repeatedly amazed at how little my Talmudic study has equipped me to actually decide practical questions of Jewish law.

Quite the contrary, the Talmud goes out of its way not to offer direct answers. One of its basic premises is that two or more mutually contradictory positions can both be defended. Also, that no proof--even of a view that you know to be correct--is to be accepted unless it does actually prove what it's supposed to.

Someone who has been brought up on this kind of intellectual diet will not easily be taken in by the various simplistic and fundamentalist ideologies that are constantly being thrown at us. This would appear to be a basic value of Jewish education: that it is more important to teach people how to think than to give them set and facile answers. That is what Talmud is about.

Talmud as Sport

But there is much more, much more than I can hope to get into within the space limitations of this article. Let me at least raise one point that I do not feel has been emphasized sufficiently. I will illustrate it with an example.

About a dozen years ago, when Israeli television still had a sense of humour, there was a very funny satirical program called Nikku'i Rosh--Head-Cleaning.

One episode was built on the premise (then considered fanciful) of what would happen if the religious political parties had control of television. Alongside black-coated versions of various detective thrillers and situation comedies, the producers presented their version of what the sport broadcasts would look like. They brought the viewers into a yeshiva where a group of Talmud students were arguing back and forth, metaphorically thrusting forth with proof-texts and defending with logical counter-argument.

It turned out that the author of that segment, a well-known left-wing activist, was in fact a yeshiva graduate. He had really caught the point. Historically speaking, talmudic study has been the national sport of the Jewish people!

The modes of argumentation are exciting and challenging in a way that non-initiates cannot really appreciate. Yes, the secret is out. The reason Jews have been studying Talmud for so many generations is not only because of religious commitment, not out of idealism, but-because it's fun!

The Talmud leagues are now accepting rookies. Try a few innings; it can be contagious.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

First Publication: JS, April 19 1989.