Seize the daily
August 15, 2012
Years back I attended a course in Talmud at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute. Pardes, an egalitarian yeshiva, attracts young English-speakers eager to catch up on a Jewish education they never had or explore Jewish texts in a more progressive environment than they were used to. I was older than most of the students and, since I was married with kids, probably in a very different place.
Intellectually, we were in very different places as well. The others were eager to acquire the skills to become lifelong Talmud learners. They wanted to learn the telegraphic Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary, navigate the eccentric typography of a typical page, and unravel the knotty logic of what often appears to be a transcribed argument among rabbis of various centuries. In other words, they wanted to decode Talmud on its own terms.
Meanwhile, I wanted to understand Talmud on my terms. I’d pipe up with a meta analysis of a passage — “The rabbis are discussing the order in which blessings are recited, but it’s really a discussion about the nature of gratitude, and how Judaism incorporates its historical narrative even in a simple meal” — and the other students would politely move on. They wanted to know how the rabbis came to order the blessings the way they did; I wanted to understand how ancient Jewish text remains relevant to our times.
I’m probably the kind of learner Arnold Eisen had in mind last week when he proposed a modern, egalitarian alternative to the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of daily Talmud study known as the Daf Yomi. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary called for a “platform” of daily study that would “galvanize non-Orthodox Jewish minds,” that would be “open to the larger world,” and that “bears the impact of modern thinking.”
Eisen imagined a daily reading of Talmud, Torah, or psalms supplemented by a relevant news headline, a clip from a recent film, or a modern Hebrew poem. Such a multimedia approach would “include the voices of all those who want to engage in Jewish study, women and men.”
Eisen’s article was one of a number of cautionary essays written in response to the Siyum HaShas, the massive celebration of Daf Yomi that drew some 90,000 Orthodox men and women to New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium earlier this month. Eisen — like Ezra Glinter, writing in the Forward, and Rabbi Daniel Dorsch, blogging for Ha’aretz — noted that anyone can study Talmud, but that the fervently Orthodox conception of “unity” tends to exclude women and men who don’t accept the traditional gender roles of “Torah Judaism.”
Dorsch, of the Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, wrote about feeling like a “stranger” among the Orthodox men gathered in the Meadowlands. He laments that the Orthodox establishment in Israel does not accept his strain of Judaism, and that haredi — fervently Orthodox — Jews are at best ambivalent about the Jewish state. “This of course left me wondering, whether among the 90,000 gathered there was room for the non-kippah wearing Jew,” writes Dorsch.
One could detect in these responses a degree of Orthodox Envy. While noting the “vitality” of Orthodox communities, Eisen acknowledges the high rates of assimilation and disengagement among non-Orthodox Jews. As Paul Berger reported in the Forward, “No non-Orthodox organization claimed to be capable of staging an event on any theme, religious or nonreligious, that could draw Jews in anything approaching such numbers.”
Back in the day, tens of thousands of Jews might rally for Soviet Jewry or in defense of Israel, but such unifying causes are few and far between in our post-rescue, start-up Israel era. Given that, Eisen is right to take inspiration from what has worked for the haredim: a daily dose of learning that literally puts every Jew on the same page.
A page a day of Talmud is simply too daunting for most Jews not raised in day school. Chabad and Aish have primed the Internet with lively, accessible Jewish learning for decades, but both Orthodox organizations fall short in meeting the needs of Jews from the liberal movements. Despite its centrism and great scholarly legacy, the Conservative movement hasn’t done a great job in this regard either. I subscribe to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Mishnahyomit (Daily Mishna) e-mail, and frankly it is dry as dust. It summarizes the mishna (the legal ur-text of the Talmud) with no attempt to draw out broader implications and meaningful interpretations. I know it can be done: You start out reading about ancient laws and rituals and you end up in a discussion about defining public and private spaces, or your obligations to help those beyond your family or people.
I hope Eisen’s essay leads to a grant so that he can hire a good web-savvy editor and put up a website, Tumblr feed, Facebook page, etc. JTS has the intellectual resources and institutional clout to get this off the ground in a relative hurry.
And if not JTS, any organization or movement could create a program of daily learning that is “open to the larger world and bears the impact of modern thinking.” What are we waiting for?
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.