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With poetry and scholarship, Daf Yomi Talmud study grows beyond Orthodox

by Uriel Heilman, JTA

August 2, 2012 | 11:04 am

Orthodox Jews dance during the 12th Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the completion of the Daf Yomi, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Aug. 1. Photo by REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Orthodox Jews dance during the 12th Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the completion of the Daf Yomi, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Aug. 1. Photo by REUTERS/Eric Thayer

As a light drizzle tapered off over MetLife Stadium, more than 90,000 Jews packed into the home of the NFL’s Jets and Giants for an event quite unlike any the popular sports and concert arena had ever seen.

They came dressed in black and white, but not for any sports team. Instead of a raucous kickoff, there was a hushed mincha prayer. And in place of hot dogs, cheesesteaks and beer there was babka, danish, and mineral water from a company based in Lakewood, N.J., a center of yeshiva study.

But, as at the football games and rock concerts, there was great exhilaration at the stadium Wednesday night for the Siyum HaShas – the completion of the 2,711-page Shas, or Talmud, in the page-a-day study cycle known as the Daf Yomi (literally, “Daily Page”).

The excitement was evident in the furrowed brows of concentration on congregants’ faces during the prayer services, in the impassioned speeches onstage, and during the heady singing and dancing that followed the end of the special Kaddish marking the completion of the Talmud.

“Fortunate is the person who sees, who experiences, this great gathering,” declared Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, the emcee of the Siyum HaShas. “Try to visualize the singing and dancing that’s going on right now in shamayim [heaven] watching tens of thousands celebrating the masechtos [tractates] they worked on so diligently!”

For the organizers of the Siyum, the event was an opportunity to showcase the strength of so-called Torah Judaism and its resurgence in America following the Holocaust. Indeed, the Holocaust was the first subject that the chairman of the event, Elly Kleinman of Agudath Israel of America, talked about in the night’s opening speech, and the Jews’ survival and religious resurrection since the Nazis was a recurrent theme throughout the evening.

But the night’s official theme was Jewish unity, something one speaker tried to hammer home with a remark about the lure of the Daf Yomi for all Jews: those with black hats, shtreimels, knit yarmulkes and even baseball caps, he said.

That description, of course, left out a few slices of the Jewish community, even if it covered pretty much everyone at Wednesday’s Siyum celebration (except the few thousand women relegated to an upper tier).

Yet, despite the challenges of doing the Daf Yomi – moving at a relentless pace through thousands of pages of dense argumentation covering complex Jewish legal matters and odd tales narrated without punctuation in an arcane language – daily Talmud study is spreading beyond the confines of those categorized by Orthodox headgear.

In some cases, it’s happening in very unorthodox ways.

New York native Ilana Kurshan, who now lives in Jerusalem and works for a small literary agency there, got into the Daf Yomi while studying at Jerusalem’s Conservative yeshiva six years ago. Soon, she began writing limericks about each page of Gemarah (a synonym for Talmud) and posting them on her blog, Ktiva.blogspot.com, in an effort to better retain what she was learning.

After completing folio 5a of Tractate Niddah, which deals with laws of ritual purity and women’s menstruation, Kurshan wrote:

Just before and just after the sex
The couple performs body checks.
It is never in vain
There could yet be a stain
Says one rabbi. Ketina objects.

“The Talmud, for someone who has a diverse range of interests, is the most incredible text because it has everything in it,” Kurshan told JTA. “There’s nothing as exciting as the next page of Gemarah because it’s so discursive. There could be a wild tale. For me that’s so exhilarating. Every daf is uncharted territory.”

Kurshan also writes essays about her studies, including reflections on how the dafs correspond with her life – like a horoscope, she says. When she was pregnant, Kurshan ruminated on how her baby’s upcoming journey through the birth canal was paralleled by a Talmudic discussion of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt through the “birth canal” of the Red Sea.

“My interest in learning has nothing to do with halachah,” Kurshan said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law. “For me, what’s exciting is that the debates were not resolved. You have everybody’s opinion, they’re all fighting with each other. It’s just a thrilling intellectual experience.”

For Yedidah Koren, who is doing a master’s degree in Talmud at Tel Aviv University, Daf Yomi study has provided a harbor of stability in a life filled with constant change.

“It’s been the most steady thing in my life for the last 10 years,” said Koren, 27, who began while a student at a Jerusalem seminary and continued through her national service, college, a year abroad in Sweden and married life. Sometimes, she learns the daf over breakfast, on the bus, or during prayer services. She’s on her second Daf Yomi cycle.

“It’s a way to finish Shas a few times in your lifetime,” she said. “And besides that it really gives you a sense of stability, and a strong, emotional bond with the Talmud. The more you learn it, the more you connect to it, and it’s always there for you.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who was ordained by the Conservative movement and co-founded an independent egalitarian yeshiva in New York called Mechon Hadar, says Daf Yomi is beginning to catch on in non-Orthodox circles.

“Daf Yomi in particular is a real commitment, a daily commitment for 7-plus years that I think only now is gaining some traction outside Orthodoxy in a meaningful way,” Kaunfer said. He said, however, that he’s not aware of any non-Orthodox synagogue with a daily Talmud class – known in the parlance as a Daf Yomi shiur.

There is growing interest in Talmud study among Jews not steeped in Torah scholarship because, Kaunfer says, once they have the intellectual tools to learn Gemara, they are empowered to access one of Judaism’s most difficult and central texts without the filter of someone else’s perspective or ideology.

“I think there’s something very appealing about opening up a mysterious text, and I think people want to experience a text unmediated,” he said. “In the internet age, where everything is open, one of the last things that’s uncracked are the sources of Jewish wisdom and culture.”

Businessman and Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman convenes a weekly Talmud class in his office taught by varying rabbis.

“The Talmud belongs to all of us,” Bronfman said. “Studying Talmud, there’s so much wisdom there, and it also gives you a chance to argue, and that’s very Jewish.”

Daf Yomi is not without its critics.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says the pace of Daf Yomi is overly focused on getting through the Talmud rather than studying it deeply.

“The question is how much depth does one really get into with a Daf Yomi kind of approach,” Wernick said. “It’s breadth over depth. The Conservative approach to Jewish study tends to be more depth-oriented.”

Instead, his movement encourages learning one Mishna per day. Though the Mishna is the foundational text for Talmudic discourse, it’s much shorter and simpler: The Mishna is to the Talmud what the Constitution is to Constitutional law.

Koren, the master’s degree student at Tel Aviv University, defended the Daf Yomi approach against the sort of criticism offered by Wernick.

“A lot of the claims against Daf Yomi is that it’s not deep and it’s not rigorous and you don’t really remember when you learned,” she said. “But how many different topics do you come across that if you learn just classic, regular yeshiva Talmud, you’d never come across?”

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism, says Talmud study is not a priority for his movement, which assigns the same authority to contemporary Reform rabbis as it does to Talmudic sages.

“Text study is very important to us, but we focus on the Ur-text, on Torah in particular. Talmud, the Oral Law, is not our core text,” he said. It “certainly doesn’t rise anywhere to the level of a daily study encouragement for us.”

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