I guess I have a crush on the Talmud from afar without having the experience to say I really understand and love it.  I would like to get to know it better, but, like all my female crushes, it holds itself aloof, uninterested in me, unwilling to pour its secrets in my ear.

I mentioned in my last post that my shul (synagogue) is starting a new weekly Talmud shiur (class).  I brought the relevant volume of Talmud over from my parents’ house.  I started the first page.  The first third of the page or so is a Mishnah and can read and understand well and remember it from when I’ve studied it before… and then I suddenly hit the Gemarah (commentary on the Mishnah) and I don’t understand a word.  Literally not a word, because it’s all in Aramaic (the Mishnah is in Hebrew, the Gemarah is in Aramaic; my Hebrew is not great but OKish, my Aramaic is virtually non-existent).  I might see if I can just read the English translation, but I vaguely remember it all being very confusing stuff about what time you can say the Shema in the evening.  I think there are five or six different opinions, which may or may not be mutually exclusive.  This is how the Talmud goes, lots of highly technical legal arguments that I just can’t follow.

I would really like to do some weekly Talmud study and I would really like to take part in more shul events, especially given that I’m struggling to get up in time for shul on Shabbat mornings, but I can’t see myself managing this, even if I find a way to prepare in English during the week.  I imagine I will feel out of my depth in the shiur, as I’ve felt out of my depth even in beginner’s Talmud shiurs and I imagine that here everyone will be much more advanced than I am.

I get so frustrated at my lack of Talmudic knowledge and skills.  It’s not just that I feel stupid and inadequate compared with other frum men or that I feel that frum women aren’t interested in marrying me because of it.  It’s the feeling that I’m missing out on such a major part of being Jewish and being Jewishly educated.  I guess I’m not used to being the stupid one in the class, or the one who isn’t clever/knowledgeable enough to join in the conversation (as opposed to having things to say, but not joining in out of shyness).  I felt so isolated when people were bidding to do Mishnah and Talmud study on Simchat Torah to get honours on Simchat Torah and I couldn’t join in.  Admittedly that was only partly because of my lack of Talmud skills; I could have bid to study Mishnayot (not that I understand anywhere near every Mishnah I study) and I was partly upset by the whole idea of publicly bidding to do Torah study, which did not seem tzniut (modest) to me.  Still, a big part of why I left the room that night and didn’t join in was feeling that I have no share in the Talmud, in the bulk of the Torah.

I’ve made about five different attempts to study Talmud, in a class, with a chevruta (study partner) and on my own, in the original but using different translations.  Almost every time there is the excitement about finally engaging with what is in many ways the most important book in Jewish thought (in some ways more so than the Torah) and it has almost always defeated me.  There was just one exception, when I was going to a beginner’s Talmud class at a Modern Orthodox adult education centre, where I learnt not just individual sugyot (topics), but study skills to help me learn in general.  If I had been able to go for another year or two I might have learnt enough to be able to study away from the class, but, alas, the class was cancelled before I got to that stage.

Orthodox Jewish life, at least for men, revolves largely around Talmud study and thrice daily prayer, neither of which I can manage with my mental health, although my difficulty with the former is as much about not having learnt the techniques when I was younger and my brain more plastic than it does the depression.  I feel cut off from the community, even in a sense emasculated, a fear reinforced by my failure to marry and procreate, not to mention my fear that that failure is caused by not having studied enough.  I feel so inadequate compared to other Jewish men – ordinary people without smicha (rabbinic ordination) – who have mastered entire masechtot (tractates/volumes) and I can barely master a single sugya (a legal argument, usually a couple of lines long).  I feel so ashamed whenever anyone holds a siyum (party for finishing study) at shul, knowing that I will never be able to do it, probably not even for Mishnah (I do study Mishnah, albeit with varying frequency, but I don’t feel I understand enough to justify holding a siyum if/when I finish a seder.  I often just read the words without understanding).

Perhaps this (the Talmud inadequacy, perhaps even the singleness, the childlessness) is my punishment for not going to yeshiva (rabbinic seminary) after school when a number of my friends went, when my school teachers wanted me to go.  But what I had encountered of the Talmud didn’t really grab my attention and make me want to go.  Even at that stage, I found it difficult and boring.  I would rather have studied Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) although at that stage I didn’t know that there are yeshivot where that is possible, albeit alongside traditional Talmudic study.  But I felt that I wasn’t frum enough to go and I didn’t think my father wanted me to go and I was nervous enough about going to university fifty miles from home, let alone to a yeshiva on the other side of the world.  There was no one in my family who had been to tell me about it and the teachers who wanted me to go didn’t sell it to me or guide me to the right yeshiva, they just acted disappointed when I went straight to university.  I guess I felt I wasn’t frum enough to fit in; at that stage I had only just started keeping Shabbat and I wasn’t fully keeping the laws of kashrut (the dietary laws), partly because I was trying to avoid confrontations with my parents, so I felt I couldn’t in good faith go to yeshiva.  Maybe I was wrong, maybe if I had gone I would have found a way to study and understand and move on with my religious growth.  Or maybe if I had gone, my mental breakdown would have just come earlier in an institution with less pastoral support than university.  I will never know.  I just know that I’m excluded from the mainstream of Jewish religious life.  That’s not entirely the fault of my not having gone to yeshiva and my not having learnt how to study Talmud, but that is a part of it.

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3 thoughts on “The Talmud and Me: A Tragic Love Story

  1. Out of curiosity I looked up an English translation of a Gemarah, and the one I stumbled across happened to be about which day of the week to get married. Wow. It seems like they’re talking in circles and I can’t imagine Aramaic makes it any easier to understand…

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    1. Oh, also the traditional Talmud page is unpunctuated (you can get a punctuated version now, but a lot of Orthodox Jews regard that edition as too modern and won’t use it). Sometimes you can’t easily tell if a something is a statement, a question or a sarcastic question (the rabbis were not above using sarcasm in their debates).

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  2. Right! What upsets me is that other people seem to cope with this much better than I do. I can understand people who were raised very religious understanding it as they would have been studying Gemarah intensively since they were in their early teens and Mishnah since they were even younger, but there are plenty of people who came to this late in life who still seem to have no problem understanding Talmudic logic and reasoning, not to mention Hebrew and Aramaic. And I can’t work out how they can do it and I can’t. In the beginner’s Talmud classes I’ve been to, I was usually (saying this without pride) one of the better students. So how come outside the classes everyone seems to grasp this much better than I do? Did they all spend time studying intensively in yeshiva at a more advanced age? Am I missing some really obvious technique? Or is everyone else just bluffing their way through it?

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