Thursday, August 2, 2012

Can I Prop a #Gemara on my Spin Bike: Musings on the Talmud from one Reform Jew

In case you don't follow all the Jewish news, last night was the Siyum HaShas--an event that can only happen every 7.5 years as a cycle of daily Talmud study is completed. It is a HUGE accomplishment, and as I contemplate trying to begin the Daf Yomi cycle, I cannot even begin to imagine how to fit that sort of sustained, daily study into an already packed calendar.* 

In an article about the Siyum HaShas, one of the leaders of the Reform Movement is quoted as saying:
“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.”

He is, overall, correct--I think. We as Reform Jews have long eschewed Mishnah and Talmud in favor of Torah and Tanach. We have seen these books as solely the province of halachic Jews; Talmud belongs to "them." I don't want it to be that way; more importantly, I don't think it should be that way. I know, like many things in a dynamic movement, this is shifting, and I am happy about that. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi might roll over in his grave, but I think that the Talmud in particular is a liberal text! 

A newly ordained colleague of mine is mid-cycle in Daf Yomi, and he was the one who first posted the article I quoted above. He wrote: A complete program of study can't ignore the single most important text outside of the Bible! Needless to say, I agree. And more, as I wrote to him:  I think it SHOULD be more of a priority.  It is, by definition, an interpretive document, lending itself to creativity, debate, and--well--interpretation, which are three things I think the Reform Movement holds dear and does quite well. If  we are asking the question of how we live Torah in our everyday lives, I think that the Talmud is probably the best living example of how to ask that question.....I'll get off my soapbox now.

But, clearly, I did not get off my soapbox. I just came over here.

We rabbis are asked to write personal statements as part of our job application process (now I am spilling all the secrets). In part of mine, I wrote about text, and what Talmud in particular has become for me:

I walked out of my very first Talmud class. I could not understand the language or the logic; moreover, I could not understand what it could say to me even if I could comprehend it.  Later, I fell in love with the study of Talmud. I learned, deeply and with great reverence, the language of our ancient texts. I threw myself into their debates; I talked with them as I talked with friends.  I learned their language, to be sure, but I also think I helped them speak in ours. And therefore, I am able to introduce these friends to others, to allow them to enrich the lives of congregants as they have enriched my life. I passionately believe that the rabbis of the Talmud, of the Mishnah, and of the Midrash can speak to Reform Jews in the 21st century; I just as passionately believe that we need to speak back. The rabbis themselves say that when two people sit to study words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests with them. Each Shabbat morning, I invite people into the conversation of Torah, including their expertise and their thoughts and their struggles into the ongoing chain of Jewish learning. So, when bnei mitzvah students sit in my office, thinking (or complaining!) about writing their divrei Torah, I always remind them that Torah is a living, breathing document. It is not a book that sits on the shelf. We change Torah and Torah changes us—and in it and with it, I believe we can find the Divine Presence. 

Full disclosure--and for any of you Congregation Rodeph Sholom learners who might be reading--I have not taught a sustained Talmud course. And I don't think I will be able to this year. But, I will continue to learn and teach Talmud from my lens, and my eyes. 

And if you'll learn with me, I really do think we might encounter the Divine. And if not the Kadosh Baruch Hu, some old Jews with senses of humor.

Ken yehi ratzon.

*Think I could prop a Gemara on my spin bike??


  1. Make room on your soapbox for me. Frankly, one of the purposes of my RASHI'S DAUGHTERS novels was to encourage more liberal Jews [Reform and Conservative], and more women, to study Talmud. The Judaism we observe [or choose not to observe] today is Rabbinic Judaism. The Torah may be our 'ur-text' but many of its laws do not apply to modern Jews; i.e. we do not sacrifice animals in Jerusalem for our festivals anymore, instead we attend synagogue and say the prayers and blessings that the Talmud describes. It is the Talmud that informs today's Jewish Law and customs, as it has done for 1500 years. Reform Jews especially should be studying Talmud because of its great diversity of opinion, its respect for minority opinions, and techniques for challenging/amending Torah when its rules no longer work in society.

  2. By now you have probably seen the Talmud app by Artscroll. Definitely a way to study Talmud on the bike! Soncino said they would have their own app by July but, alas, it was not out as of yesterday. In any case, I feel like the resources to study Talmud have never been greater than today and I am ready to replunge into the sea once more!

    1. Ha. I need old fashioned paper to learn Gemara, and I can't abide by ArtScroll, but love that there are so many resources!

  3. Having been a member of the then UAHC Jewish Ethics Committee, I brought a perspective on ethical issues formed by thousands of years of tradition with SHAS.

    I teach Ethics at University but the ethical issues raised from actual occurrences in SHAS was an enrichment to ontological, deontological, utilitarian and caring ethics.

    R. Bernard Bamberger, z'l, told me you start with Talmud for its wisdom, even though not binding.

    Arthur L. Finkle, RJE

    1. I love that idea from Rabbi Bamberger. Thanks for sharing it with me.