For all the talk of “triumphalist” Orthodoxy, the Agudah (and everyone else) has been remarkably muted about what transpired across America a few weeks ago. The Siyum HaShas was greeted with enthusiasm, to be certain, but we have not heard it trumpeted as an unparalleled achievement in American Jewish life — though it surely was.
For the past fifteen years or so, the Jewish community has been studying and writing about a phenomenon called the “Continuity Crisis.” Because Jewish affiliation is down and intermarriage is up, the overall Jewish population of the United States is in rapid decline. Between 1990 and 2000, the Jewish population declined from 5.5 to 5.2 million, despite an influx of several hundred thousand immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. In just one decade, over half a million Jews went missing. Unless this trend is reversed, the implications for the Jewish future are both obvious and bleak.
Along comes the Siyum HaShas (Completion Celebration) of Daf Yomi, the program of daily study of a single folio of Talmud. In 1990, there were about 35,000 attendees at Madison Square Garden. In 1997, there were 50,000 across the country (and via satellite from as far away as Melbourne). In 2005, the number approached at least 100,000, possibly as many as 120,000.
Some of this expansion is because the Agudah brought the event to more locations. Some is because people told their friends how great the last one was. But some, without question, is because there were more people — many more people — learning Daf Yomi in 2005 than in 1997.
So here we have a program that is not merely holding its own, but expanding — and showing no sign of slowing down. Does anyone doubt that, barring a truly unusual event (like the coming of the Messiah), the next Siyum will be larger — and probably much larger — than the one just held? Want to know how to solve the Continuity Crisis? Start a Daf Yomi class.
The Agudah could be crowing. After all, it was at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel that Daf Yomi got its start, in Vienna in 1923. And it was Agudath Israel of America that arranged the nationwide Siyum. They proved the naysayers wrong — traditional Judaism isn’t merely surviving, but blossoming. And while everyone else is worrying about continuity, the Agudah is worrying where to fit everyone the next time around — even if New York doesn’t get the 2012 Olympics (and kol shekeyn, all the more so, if it does).
But you didn’t hear a word of this sort of talk. For the New Yorkers, I heard that the ultimate highlight was simply experiencing 30,000 other people answering Kaddish and Kedushah. The speeches themselves were inspirational as well, as I (and many others) wrote at the time. The theme of the evening was inspiration — as in, inspiring more people to learn more the next time around.
The speakers barely mentioned Agudath Israel (if at all), and instead gave all the credit to the individuals who completed the cycle. They were right, of course — while it may have been (and was) a lot of work arranging a big event like this, the real effort was put in by those who learned “the Daf” every day.
The result of this choice of emphasis is further growth. There are more people learning Daf Yomi at the end of March than there were at the end of February. Some of this is because, of course, people want to start at the beginning. And some of that, undoubtedly, is thanks to the inspirational night of March 1.
Some have criticized the Daf, because — they argue — many attendees would get more value out of a program in chapters of the Bible, Mishnah, or a slower-moving Talmud study class. While that might be a reasonable claim, Daf Yomi is self-directed. There are many other classes available — but students of the Daf recognize the value of both the daily schedule and phenomenal, yet attainable, goal of having at least seen every page of the Talmud. If they thought they would get more benefit out of a different class, they would go to a different class.
Students of the Daf learned (on March 6) that igra d’pirka, rihita — as Rashi explains: “the main reward for those who rush to hear a drasha from a Sage is the reward for rushing itself, since most of those going don’t understand enough to follow the lecture and repeat the words of their teacher afterwards, so that they would get reward for the study.” By contrast, those who attend Daf Yomi classes are certainly understanding a good part of what they hear, and Artscroll has made it easier to follow along. The attendees are not merely rushing to sit there, but rushing to learn. You don’t need to be an advanced scholar, you just need to be dedicated. And no one should minimize either the effort, or the accomplishment, of each person who demonstrates this dedication to Jewish learning, day in and day out.
What Daf Yomi produces is not merely dedicated Jews, but informed teachers and laypeople.
The Jewish Federations have spent millions studying the Continuity Crisis. Daf Yomi is busy solving it.