Selling the Siyum: a Los Angeles Times Op-ed

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On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran my op-ed on the upcoming Siyum Daf Yomi. I would love to say that I am enough of an anav not to be proud of publishing in one of the nations’s Big Five. While I am not that anav, I do have enough restraint not to mention on Cross-Currents the vast majority of articles I publish fairly regularly in a variety of outlets. Why the exception here? Because I hope my piece will get people thinking about how they will interact with their friends and neighbors on the morning after.

The Siyum is going to be big. This means many are sharpening their teeth to tear into it, but far more are going to be looking in from the outside with an inquisitive but congratulatory gaze. I can tell this from the email I’ve received from far outside our community, and lines like the one in Haaretz that point out that the gathering at MetLife will be larger than the iconic gathering of all Jews – the AIPAC conference. The haters will spew their vitriol; the majority of media will be respectful. (I did not have to “sell” my piece to the Times. I mentioned in my cover that at the last Siyum, the Times – as well as the New York Times – provided first page coverage to the event. By the time the op-ed editor called, she knew enough about gemara to question whether I had the right to refer to “the” Talmud, since their were two of them! I told her that the Babylonian one was more important halachically, and that the Palestinian one was currently under occupation. I couldn’t resist.)

We need to think about how to articulate the specialness of the Siyum, especially why it is that we study Torah and love it so intensely. I tried conveying what we took away from learning, and what parallels, if any, could be shared with the rest of the world. I am greatly appreciative of the help I received from the single best idea person I have ever encountered, my colleague at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who provided a number of the concepts. My hope is that readers will come up with more, and use them to turn an item of curiosity in one new cycle into the largest Kiddush Hashem that it can. If we have the ideas, we can share them with family, friends, and the world at large.

Rav Yisroel Salanter wanted gemara to be translated into the vernacular, and taught in secular universities. He felt that if it were appreciated by secular academics, then downtrodden yeshiva students and Jews of marginal commitment may look at it differently. Baruch Hashem, today hundreds of thousands of lomdei Torah do not need the approbation of anyone outside the Torah world to enhance their learning experience. But putting Torah, the jewel of committed Jewish life, in a better light might indeed even today provide a boost for Jews waiting to be turned on to their legacy.

Here is the article as it appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It is reprinted with permission:

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‘Doing the daf,’ a Jewish marathon

Thousands of scholars are about to finish a study of the Talmud, one page per day — a challenge that takes more than seven years.

By Yitzchok Adlerstein
On Aug. 1, I will cross the finish line in an authentic Jewish marathon. I will take my place alongside thousands of other successful competitors as we complete our study of the Talmud, one page per day, a challenge that takes about 7 1/2 years. Just like the participants in that other years-in-the-making event — the Olympic Games in London — some of us are eager to tell our stories.

Next to the Bible, the Babylonian Talmud is the most important text in Judaism. Jewish law, and a good deal of its thought, derives from this work, written mostly in Aramaic more than 1,500 years ago. No topic escapes its gaze or its treatment: family law, commercial law, ethical behavior, criminal procedure, religious observance.

The Talmud was deliberately composed in a kind of shorthand that demands that the student puzzle over the meaning of each line. At the beginning of the 20th century, a young Polish leader, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a member of the country’s parliament, organized a program that would unite Orthodox Jews around the world through the study of the same page of the Talmud each day.

Each folio (i.e., double-sided page) is called a daf, and the marathon is called Daf Yomi, which means “daily folio.” But those of us working through 2,711 folios just call it “doing the daf.” The first siyum, or completion of a cycle, was celebrated in 1923. As one cycle ends, the next begins.

This year’s siyum will be the 12th since the program began. It will be especially poignant for the oldest participants, many of whom believed the Jewish people were doomed as they awaited their deaths in Hitler’s extermination camps. But traditional Judaism rebounded after the war, and this year, about 90,000 people will mark the siyum at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, which will make it a kind of Jewish Super Bowl. Another 60,000 will gather in 75 cities around the world, including in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

There are no medals for those who reach the finish line, but as they used to tell us in Little League, everyone who participates is a winner.

What does it feel like? Much like what Olympians report. It is a long, punishing process. This is my second time around. There are no vacation days, never a skipped day. I have pored over the daf on a commuter train on the northern coast of Taiwan, pushed sleep from my eyes on a delayed flight from Monterrey, Mexico, and forced myself to finish my study time before snorkeling in Maui. To stay the course, we need endurance, dedication and lots of focus.

What does it do for us? First, it is a joyful act of love for Judaism. (Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi recently delivered a baldly anti-Semitic speech at an international antidrug conference, reminiscent of the czarist fabrication of the “Elders of Zion” myth. Rahimi said that the Talmud was responsible for the global spread of illegal drugs. If endorphins are illegal, he may have a point. Jumping out of bed to catch a 6 a.m. Talmud class leaves participants with something like a runner’s high.)

It is not difficult, however, to inventory how we also benefit from the experience: Intellect, like muscle, atrophies when not used. Doing the daf ensures that we will spend some quality time each day tending to our intellectual side. (Only a handful of Jewish Nobel laureates were conversant with the Talmud, but almost all benefited from the Jewish passion for education. For centuries, it was primarily the Talmud that Jews studied.)

The majority of the texts in the Talmud pit one opinion against another. The Talmud student therefore learns to examine multiple points of view on complex issues, something we would like to see more of in our political leaders, our talk show hosts and our general political discourse.

We learn to reject the crippling artifact of modernity that casts off everything old as outdated and useless. We learn that when we get past cultural differences, we can rescue the core truths in ancient works and find them enriching.
We appreciate continuity. The Talmud has a habit of speaking in the present. “Rava says,” rather than “Rava said,” even though Rava, a Babylonian contributor to the Talmud, died many years before his arguments were turned into written text. The old lives on in the present, and it projects itself on to the future. (An app is in development that promises to allow students to follow the daf on their computer tablets, toggling between the original texts and an English translation and commentary.)

We discover the power of an interpretive tradition. Taking the Bible or other holy texts literally breeds fanatical extremism. Rational interpretation is the antidote.

And then there are the ancillary benefits. My favorite is humility. We often spend hours struggling with a few lines of text, finally believing that we understand it. Minutes later, a new argument is introduced, and we are left with 2,000-year-old egg on our faces. We learn, often, that we are wrong, and we learn to live with it.
One benefit may be felt far beyond the ranks of individuals doing the daf. With Twitter, YouTube, PowerPoint presentations and so much else in the digital playbook, visual learning has pushed text to the sidelines. At some future siyum, the last players on the storied field of deep textual study may all be on the daf squad.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.

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10 Responses

  1. Robin Clare says:

    I think I can safely say that I would be suitably proud to be included in one of the Big Five publications as well!

  2. dr. bill says:

    nice article. However, when u write: “The Talmud was deliberately composed in a kind of shorthand that demands that the student puzzle over the meaning of each line…” you take imputing omnisignificance to the text to yet another level.

    there are any number of more plausible explanations why a text written over many centuries, by scholars for scholars, challenges a contemporary reader. particulaly in most religious circles, the study of talmud is more aptly described as the study of how talmud was understood by gedolai ha-mesorah and how it impacts halakha le-ma’aseh. think about how often you hear two benai ha-yeshiva debate how the ba’al ha-moar and raavad, or the ketzot and nesivot conceptualized a topic versus the conceptual positions of r. yishmael and and r. akiva. in fact, the direct study of talmud, is often viewed with suspicion.

  3. Allan Katz says:

    At a time when stadiums are being filled with siyum hashas , we should get things into perspective
    one cannot deny the ‘ magic ‘ of daf yomi that attracts a high number of participants and the incredible daily commitment – kevi’as but really for most people a chavrusa a couple times a week that prepares for a shi’ur in depth is more about learning. The famous American educationalist Deborah Meier said – learning is essentially ‘ talking ‘ and teaching is essentially ‘ listening ‘ so the only one who is really doing the learning is the magid shiur . Learning is more about process , being involved , doing your own thinking . Daf yomi has become a daily mitvah , that one does – I go to daf yomi and less about one’s involvement in learning.

    I wish myself and all others lots of si’ata deshmayim ‘ for the next round

  4. lacosta says:

    there are some bloggers/articles relating about women daf learners and maggidot shiur.
    this is important since this study session could be seen otherwise as a patriarchal anti-feminist
    haredi undertaking. i have even seen some non-O lady rabbis writing about them doing the daf.

    they are banying about high numbers of MO participants , and i wonder if there is any data–either in learners, teachers, or siyum attendees….

  5. Yosey says:

    The Talmud has a habit of speaking in the present. “Rava says,” rather than “Rava said,”

    I heard an interesting anecdote years ago attributed to a highly respected Rov in the United States. He was talking to a professor who said “You Jews are a funny people. You hold the prior generations is such great esteem, yet you do not even know where the greatest sage, RASHI, is buried!”

    To which this Rov bellowed, “What? Rashi is dead? Impossible, I live with him daily! He speaks to me daily! I study with him daily. Rashi is not dead and buried, RASHI LIVES!”

    That is why the sages wrote Rava Says!

  6. CJ Srullowitz says:

    Excellent. Excellent. Excellent.

    A real kiddush Hashem.

  7. YEA says:

    “I do have enough restraint not to mention on Cross-Currents the vast majority of articles I publish fairly regularly in a variety of outlets.”
    Might we not benefit from reading those articles as well?

    [YA – I’d like to keep Cross-Currents devoted to its original and stated objectives. The advocacy writing I do in my day job targets a different audience and a different purpose. But I will try BEH to keep your request in mind, and make mention of the articles on FB and Twitter.]

  8. joel rich says:

    So if a cross section of your average Jews (or orthodox Jews) came to you and said they were willing to spend an hour a day learning, in which situations (or what per cent) would you advise daf yome and why.

    [YA – Those who can benefit from the discipline of set, inflexible goals and from the novelty of new material arriving at a quick pace, even if understood only superficially]

  9. michael says:

    sorry to be nitpicky but 1923 was when the idea was introduced by Rav Meir Shapiro. Great article nonetheless.

  10. cvmay says:

    Go for it, feel proud as we are of you for your extensive publications. The “World at large” requires a voice of sanity, reason and intelligence so that readers will see Toras Hashem as the guiding light that it should be. Kudos from the Mays of Brooklyn.