Yesterday and today I find myself wondering if it is possible to be a good Orthodox Jew without studying Talmud. At Talmud shiur (class) yesterday, I found it hard to follow the argument and obviously looked puzzled (or completely out of it) as the rabbi came up to me afterwards and asked if I followed it. I’m ashamed to say that I was too embarrassed to admit that I followed very little and lied and said I understood most of it.
Today I read Did ‘Daf Yomi’ Make Me a Better Jew? in which non-religious literary critic Adam Kirsch reflects on whether studying the whole Talmud one page a day has made him a better Jew. Somehow he got something out of it, even though he regards much of it as backward and obsolete in both practical and moral terms, whereas to me it is the word of God (at least in some sense).
There’s a rabbinic teaching somewhere that if you stop studying Torah, you go down a path that leads to denying God (the path is: 1) not dedicating yourselves to learning Torah; 2) stopping performing commandments; 3) be shunned by others who are devoted to Torah; 4) hating the rabbis who teach the Torah; 5) preventing others from doing the commandments; 6) denying the divine origin of the commandments; 7) denying the existence of God; taken from here; I can’t find the original source). It’s pretty stark. I do study Torah, but not what lots of people say I should study and I don’t dedicate myself to it as much as I used to.
Realistically, and although many in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world would deny it, historically most Jews did not study Talmud. Firstly, for 50% of the population (the women) Talmud was literally a closed book until the twentieth century, and in much of the Haredi community it still is where they are discouraged or explicitly forbidden to study it. Then, in the past some Jews were illiterate. I haven’t found literacy statistics for the Jewish community. It was probably greater than the non-Jewish community, but I don’t know by how much; certainly not all adult male Jews were literate. Even among adult Jewish men who did engage in regular Jewish study (and we have evidence of men quite low down the social hierarchy doing this), in many cases they would have studied Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) or Mishnah, the oldest and most straightforward part of the Talmud rather than the Gemarah, the more complex part of the Talmud and what most people mean when they say “Talmud.” Nevertheless, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz pointed out in The Essential Talmud, Jewish communities that stopped studying the Talmud (usually as a result of bans and book burnings by the Medieval Christian Church) soon disappeared.
Part of me hopes to really study Talmud one day, somehow, even to do Daf Yomi, studying a page (both sides) a day for seven and a half years. Another part of me says I’m crazy for thinking that: I find the legal discussions incomprehensible and boring. The only parts I like are the aggadic (non-legal) bits, which are often sidelined in the contemporary frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) world. (I would love to get a copy of an English translation of Ein Yaakov, which anthologises all the aggadic material in one volume, preferably alongside Ayin Ayah, Rav Kook’s commentary on it).
It doesn’t help that the traditional style of Talmud learning is not particularly suitable for me, either a paired discussion of the text or a class led by a teacher. When discussing with another person my social anxiety and perhaps my autism leads me to clam up and not saying anything, while in a class situation I find it is hard to follow the thread of discussion trying to follow the text and the verbal discussion. I follow written texts much more easily than spoken conversation, which could be autism again. I did go to one class where we were taught to tabulate the different opinions under discussion and that was a helpful technique, but I am struggling to get back into doing that. It is not always clear to me what the disagreement is about and therefore how to tabulate it.
Sometimes I’ve seen discussion that roots the legal discussion of the Talmud in philosophical disagreement and then I find it easier to engage with it, but not many people in the Orthodox world see it that way (this new book apparently does and I’d like to read it) and I don’t know how to study that way alone.
In fact, studying Talmud alone is very hard. You really do need a teacher to teach you all the stuff that you need to know, but which is not explicit in the text, as the Talmud basically assumes that you have already studied the whole of the Talmud. This is probably a deliberate way of stopping people studying outside the chain of teacher-student traditional transmission, keeping elements of the oral tradition that the Talmud was originally.
And yet other people in the shul (synagogue) Talmud shiur are able to engage with the text and to ask and even answer pertinent questions. Some may have spent time studying in depth in yeshiva or elsewhere, but some I know have not. I’m not stupid, yet somehow I can’t keep up. It’s not like other shiurim where I know the answers or have good questions, but am too shy to speak up; here I genuinely don’t know what is going on a lot of the time. Maybe some of it is the teaching. When I was in the Talmud class where we tabulated the discussions, I participated a lot more. But that class isn’t running any more.
Today I went over the passage we studied yesterday, trying to take notes and tabulate them, but I didn’t understand the text (even using the commentary) enough to produce coherent notes, let alone to tabulate them. Actually, that’s a little unfair, as I think I did just about grasp the general argument being made, even if I couldn’t repeat and explain it to someone else (always a sign that something has not been truly learnt, in my experience). But I did struggle with it. I’m wondering if this book might help explain the structure of the Talmudic argument – the terminology the Talmud uses yields clues as to what it is saying, for example different language is used to introduce a challenge based on a contradictory older text compared with a challenge based on pure logic.
I definitely think there’s a “left-brain/right-brain” thing going on with Talmud study (for all one has to be careful about overly deterministic readings of brain hemispheres), that halakhah (Jewish law) is left-brain/logical while aggada (the non-legal parts of the Talmud, often narrative) is right-brain/creative. I prefer studying the aggada and am much better at it then halakhah. Unfortunately in the Talmud the halakhic passages far outnumber the aggadic and in frum society skill in understanding halakhah is far more prestigious than understanding aggada. What puzzles me is why Orthodox Jewish culture is so overwhelmingly logical rather than creative – is it really just a matter of training your brain from a young age to study these texts in this way? But then, how do many ba’alei teshuva (people raised secular who became religious late in life) manage to train themselves to think that way? I suppose it would explain why so many Jews are lawyers or accountants.
Traditionally some men who couldn’t learn Talmud themselves supported Talmud scholars, either by making donations to yeshivas or to support yeshiva students or by sending their own sons to Jewish schools or yeshivas where they learn Talmud. But I don’t have children and may never do so and I don’t have the money to donate to yeshivas. What money I do have for charity, I prefer to give to those that support people in need directly rather than educational establishments and I’m very reluctant to sponsor the Haredi “learning not earning” yeshiva sector because it’s not an approach with which I agree.
I went for a run today, unfortunately not a particularly good one, but I was glad to get some exercise. My mood does lift when I run, even though managing the transitions to and from running can take a lot of time, plus on some days, as today, I get an exercise headache. I Skyped my rabbi mentor and, as I noted above, spent some time on Talmud study. I tried to work on my novel, but struggled, although in an hour of writing-and-procrastinating I got close to my daily target of 500 words. I’m not sure why I struggled. I guess I had a mixture of headache, anxiety about work tomorrow, writing dredging up difficult memories of the past as well as trying to write dialogue and incidents that I’m not sure I can portray well. The extent of the anxiety in the evening was a bit shocking and I’m not sure that it is all linked to work for reasons, although work is a big part of it.
I watched Doctor Who too which knocked my mood back even more. Don’t worry, I’m not going to review it here, but I will say it was stupid, boring, incomprehensible and patronisingly “woke” without any redeeming features… and then they used an almost subliminal image of Jerusalem as a symbol of “war” in a montage supposed to show the end of the world, with no other identifiable locations that I could see. War and eco-catastrophe are apparently Israel’s fault. I seem to have heard that somewhere before. After The Witchfinders “Jewish violence vs. Christian love” antisemitism (from the Doctor!) I begin to worry about Chris Chibnall. In super-woke Chibnall Who, all minorities are good except Jews, who are not allowed to actually appear and have voice and agency and are just used as noises off to show us how bad people can be. It wouldn’t be so bad if Chibnall could actually do his job and write and commission decent Doctor Who stories instead of clichéd, preachy drivel with no real characters or new ideas. I mostly liked series eleven and defended it from people who said it was boring and politically correct, but the “new production team are just finding their feet” excuse is wearing a bit thin a third of the way through their second season.