Non-Orthodox Responses to the Siyum Daf Yomi

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By the morning after the Siyum I had already traded messages with Rabbi Avi Shafran. I was intrigued by the participation of non-Orthodox Jews in the study of the Daf. Would those who committed themselves to long hours poring over Shas find themselves gradually committing as well to halachah? Would we witness a realization of the words of Chazal (Eichah Rabbah): הלואי אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו מתוך שהיו מתעסקין בה המאור שבה היה מחזירן למוטב, that the brilliant illumination of Torah would win them over? Or would we come to more fully understand the gemara’s (Berachos 17A) excoriating of those who approach Torah for the wrong reasons: וכל העושה שלא לשמה נוח לו שלא נברא? I asked Avi to keep his eyes and ears open, and forward appropriate pieces to me. He quickly obliged, and has kept up a steady flow of articles.

So which Chazal would typify the response of those outside the Big Tent of traditional observance? The former, optimistic approach or the latter, more damning one?

As we would expect, both maamarei Chazal were adequately represented in the responses.
Those responses showed enormous variety. Some were classic sour grapes. (“Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says the pace of Daf Yomi is overly focused on getting through the Talmud rather than studying it deeply. ‘The question is how much depth does one really get into with a Daf Yomi kind of approach,’ Wernick said. ‘It’s breadth over depth. The Conservative approach to Jewish study tends to be more depth-oriented.’” Let’s have that one again? When Conservative Jews don’t study Talmud, they study it more deeply than the Orthodox?)

A variation on this theme was the protest – heard in several articles – that “Stupid, It’s Not About the Orthodox Anymore,” especially in regard to making Talmud study more egalitarian. (“New York native XX, who now lives in Jerusalem…got into the Daf Yomi while studying at Jerusalem’s Conservative yeshiva six years ago. She soon began writing limericks about each page of Gemarah…and posting them on her blog. ‘My interest in learning has nothing to do with halachah,’ [she] said. ‘For me, what’s exciting is that the debates were not resolved. You have everybody’s opinion; they’re all fighting with each other. It’s just a thrilling intellectual experience.” This last sentence offers new insight into Rashi’s defining שלא לשמה as על מנת לקנטר.

In truth, while people can debate the merits of this phenomenon, it was really within the Orthodox world that women were participating without the histrionics. Attending the LA Siyum were a few women who had quietly plowed through Shas on their own, keeping their achievement quiet and discreet, and deciding against turning it into a feminist thing. In Israel, a group of frum women made a siyum, having studied as a group for the cycle and led by a woman magedes shiur. Our readers may hotly contest whether this is good public policy or not, but the women, unless I am mistaken, should be saluted for two things: their investment of time, and their keeping it a matter of their personal quest to study more Torah, not an imposition of a new feminist agenda upon a benighted community. [For a treatment of women’s increased connection with serious learning as we draw closer to the time of Moshiach, see Devorah Heshelis’ The Moon’s Lost Light, and its impressive haskamos especially pages 60-72.])

The shallowness of these responses is deceiving. Behind it, perhaps, lies something positive: the recognition of Jews estranged from their true patrimony that the Torah belongs to them, too, and they are offended by being considered outliers to a celebration of its majesty. We have witnessed a manifestation of the gemara that anyone who studies Torah in the presence of an am ha’aretz is as if he violated his betrothed in his presence.

The shallow responses were not the modal ones. They were outnumbered by pieces that expressed wistful admiration for the investment of so many hours of study by those who committed to learning the Daf, and of a community that not only embraced study, but celebrated it. In some cases, the authors were moved by the spirit of MetLife to commit to the next cycle themselves. The literary critic of Tablet Magazine,(a magazine not noted for its zealous defense of tradition, Jewish or otherwise) announced that he would begin the cycle without any background or assistance and blog once a week about his reactions. (While some frum commenters skewered him for his reach exceeding his grasp, many more wisely offered him encouragement, hoping that he would somehow encounter the right resources along the way.)

One moving testimonial told of the hashgachah (he treated it that way!) shown to a Los Angeles filmmker. His grandmother passed away (although he didn’t realize it at the time) on the day of the siyum two cycles ago, propelling him to explore his Yiddishkeit. He resolved to study Talmud years later, walking into a seforim store and asking for Volume One, only to discover that it was the first day of the 12th cycle. He attended MetLife as a mesayem (with the help of Rabbi Mechie Blau, who served as MC at the Los Angeles event, and to whose neighborhood he “happened” to move), convincing several friends to begin the latest cycle, and is now doing a documentary about learning the Daf.

The saddest treatment was offered by Dr Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative) in the Wall Street Journal. After expressing some mostly respectful admiration for the Daf learners – including a nod to the New York population survey that recently showed the disengagement of the non-Orthodox population from learning and ritual and the explosive growth of the Orthodox – he shared his hope that the experience could be modified for the non-Orthodox. The seeds planted by R. Meir Shapiro, he writes, should be a “project worthy of commitment from all of us.”

Amen. We have to part ways, however, when we examine his vision:

What learning could galvanize non-Orthodox Jewish minds, stir our hearts, nourish our souls? How can we include the voices of all those who want to engage in Jewish study, women and men?

I propose a different page for Jewish learning, one that is open to the larger world and bears the impact of modern thinking. It would cleave faithfully to texts, rituals, history and faith while being informed by art, music, drama, poetry, politics and law.

Imagine if every Jew who wished to do so could awake to a platform of daily Jewish text not limited to Talmud—and to Jewish media not limited to text. Daily reading of Torah or psalms would be juxtaposed with their echoes in the headlines of the day; a passage from Job would be accompanied by clips from the Coen brothers’ film, “A Serious Man”; the poetry of Isaiah could be explored side by side with that of the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

As the gemara writes in a different context, מי מעכב על ידך?” What prevents Dr. Eisen (who is an academic thinker of formidable power) from translating his vision into immediate reality? There are far more Jews nominally connected to the Conservative movement than Orthodox Jews. Why, then, is there no Conservative Artscroll?

One reason is that the commitment, alas, is simply not available. It is a pipe dream, just like widespread adherence to Conservative halachic standards was, and remains a pipe dream. (“There are no Conservative Jews, only Conservative rabbis,” wrote someone cited in Marshal Sklare’s sociological consideration of Conservative practice many decades ago.)

More important, however, is why the vision is fundamentally flawed. He has drawn the arrow in the wrong direction. People who are drawn to Torah sense that there is something different, elevated about it. Orthodox or not, those who completed the cycle didn’t need or want the Coen brothers to make Talmud relevant. The entire point of genuine Torah is that it informs our involvement with the world, not the other way around. It is, as it were, the application of the Mind of G-d to the human condition. To be sure, we bring our human experiences to every page, but we try to refine them there by following a different lodestar. We are eager to park some of those experiences at the door and be transported to a higher place – even those (or especially those) among us who are quite familiar with Coen and Amichai. We may even appreciate both of them – but they are not Divine, and Torah is.

We hope and pray that Dr. Eisen will also appreciate this distinction some day. When he and his followers do, we will be waiting to welcome them to sit and study Hashem’s Torah together.

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14 Responses

  1. h.s.cohen says:

    Once again the Conservative Movement shoots itself in the foot.It’s had more than one hundred years to get it’s self together ,to date it has not done so.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    I recall that when R Steinzalz’s edition was published by Random House, he came to the US and gave a shiur to a group of NY literati including the late Joseph Papp. One could sense that the members of the shiur were trying to compare Bava Metzia to Nach and looking for messages that were not present in the text but which Rishonim and Acharonim have broken their heads over in transmitting to us. That humbling feeling is part of the realization of being in the Sea of the Talmud.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    I am fascinated by the idea of a documenmtary about learning the Daf. I think that if it shows a fraction of what a Magid shiur does in terms of preparation and the mesiras nefesh of his talmidim, such a documentary could be a huge Kiddush HaShem.

  4. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Efrat: You mean the Conservative equivalent of the Art Scroll CHUMASH is Eytz Hayyim

  5. shaya says:

    Efrat, on the issue of “Conservative Artscroll,” this is what I believe the author was trying to say. Artscroll is a highly successful publisher, which has published hundreds of Torah works of various kinds in English (such as halachic guides to numerous topics, siddurim, the Talmud, commentaries, etc.) that are widely consumed by Orthodox Jews. Browse their website and you will see. Non-orthodox movements have each published their own Siddur, Chumash and Tanakh, that is true, but they have not produced anything remotely approaching the volume and variety of texts published by Artscroll. This is because non-orthodox movements have been unable to inspire most of their members to prioritize Torah study and eagerly consume a large variety of Torah works. From my own experience, I believe this lack of enthusiasm is not something that can be fixed, but something that arises from the theological core of these movements. Non-orthodox Jews should consider joining Orthodoxy, because the future of Judaism is with those who can inspire enthusiasm and dedication. There is a place for everyone within Orthodoxy, and I assure you this applies even to those inclined toward rationalism, feminism and liberalism.

  6. shaya says:

    Efrat, it’s true that Daf Yomi is not for everyone, but in fact there are Orthodox alternatives. Chabad promotes Chitas plus Mishneh Torah as a daily practice, which is more varied and probably less difficult than Daf Yomi. (Chitas is an acronym for Chumash Tanya and Tehillim). If you look on their website under daily study it’s all very conveniently arranged on one website in English. Chabad relates to the non-Orthodox with infinite tolerance and generosity, so there’s one place where you’ll never be a misfit.

    The point about Orthodox women doing Daf Yomi quietly is not that it needs to be concealed; rather, that it is done because of a sincere desire to learn, not out of a critique or resentment of Orthodox Judaism, or out of mimicry of non-Orthodox feminists who want to overhaul Judaism by erasing all distinctions between men and women.

    As traditional sources explain, women are not obligated in the mitzvah to study Torah, other than what they need to know to observe mitzvos, but they still gain merit by studying Torah. There has been an explosion of in-depth learning among Orthodox women in this generation, ranging from Chabad women studying chassidus and Ein Yaacov (the non-legal portions of the Talmud) to Modern Orthodox women getting Masters in Talmud from Stern College or becoming yoatzot halachah or serving as respected Torah scholars in the new Beit Hillel organization in Israel. As Rabbi Alderstein notes, there is a big Tent of traditional observance. There is someplace for everyone to find a home.

  7. Efrat says:

    Unless I”m misunderstanding what the author means, the “Conservative Artscroll” is Etz Chayyim, a Torah Commentary published by the Rabbinical Assembly & United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In addition to commentary that draws from traditional sources, it does bring in scholarly perspectives from archaeology, etc. and adds a “Halacha L’Ma’aseh” section where something in Torah directly leads to halachic observance. But it doesn’t contain art, poetry, & non-traditional literature as Eisen longs for. What does include some of those elements is the Reform movement’s Torah Commentary by W. Gunther Plaut (ironic!).

    Perhaps my perspective as a non-Orthodox Jewish woman might be helpful to the conversation. While I applaud the author’s approval of those women who completed Daf Yomi as “personal quest to study more Torah, not an imposition of a new feminist agenda upon a benighted community,” what’s sad is that it seems to imply (unless i’m misreading) that a public quest to study more Torah would be imposing a new feminist agenda upon the community. I understand what he means within the context of the Orthodox world. But that’s exactly the cultural tone that alienates non-Orthodox (and based on some of my Orthodox friends’ comments, even some Orthodox)Jews from imagining themselves as part of the Daf Yomi endeavor. It’s very hard to learn outside of a community, and when that community slots people into pre-defined gender roles, it feels like a misfit for someone like me.

    That’s what’s inspiring the ruminations of a “Daf Yomi” for the non-Orthodox. Probably unrealistic given the level of commitment most non-Orthodox Jews are willing to give to Torah study, but there are some serious programs of study out there–The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, Meah, Yesod– that do make serious time demands (~120 hours of study over 2 years, not to mention those who regularly attend weekly Parsha classes in liberal synagogues offered in every congregation I’ve ever visited), which indicate there’s a desire to seriously learn Torah. I would agree with the author’s sense that underlying some of the critique is: “Behind it, perhaps, lies something positive: the recognition of Jews estranged from their true patrimony that the Torah belongs to them, too, and they are offended by being considered outliers to a celebration of its majesty.”

    Yet, even in the frum world, Daf Yomi isn’t “for everyone” because of it’s rigor and the difficulty of the material. I’m all for providing many different entry points for Jews to encounter Torah in the hopes that they continue learning and that it influence them on many levels, including, but not limited to, halachic observance.

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    The normally Orthodox-bashing Jewish Week wrote an unusually [for them]
    positive article about the Siyum HaShas, but it was on page 9.

    Considering that the Siyum HaShas included 90,000+ Jews,
    why was it not on page 1?

    The article was Siyum in the Stadium by Jonathan Mark, 2012 August 7.

  9. Nachum says:

    R’ Adlerstein:

    Let me respond, unlike Rivka, in reverse order:

    2. I get your distinction. I’m not talking about birkat hatorah, of course, but how other things can help us appreciate (modern literature)- or, at the very least, understand (archaeology, etc.) Torah. (The reverse is, of course, even more true. Knowing, say, Nach, can certainly help us appreciate more modern history.) With your distinction, I don’t see how we disagree.

    1. Thanks very much. I’d just like to point out one little point: That no one learns actual halakhah from the Gemara. Indeed, we don’t even necessarily pasken from the mechaber. Her idea isn’t that far from anyone who learns Gemara. And, of course, one’s attitude here has nothing to do with actual halakhic observance.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    I would suggest that for a BT who is already interested in exploring his or her tradition, that Torah study is a great means in addition to certain mitzvos such as Shabbos, etc, of demonstrating the breadth and scope of TSBP-once you realize that the Torah covers relationships between spouses, parents and children, work place relations, property rights as well as the more practical halachos of Brachos, Shabbos and Moadim, the idea of the sea of the Talmud becomes a reality.

  11. dr. bill says:

    What may account for the disconnect with many non-orthodox Jews is a basic misunderstanding about the role of Torah learning. To some learning Talmud / Torah is study and to others its role is to determine practice. (In fact, what modern day orthodox rabbis tend to read as the text (of Torah), in some cases originally referred to the practice of Torah.)

    Orthodox Jewry, particularly over the last 250 years, has increasingly stressed the religious significance of Torah study. That is often lost / puzzling to those outside the tent.

  12. Nachum says:

    Very nice. But:

    1. I suppose I take offense when someone I know personally is attacked (or at least criticized), by name- the only non-public figure whose name is mentioned- in an article. You should think twice about that, especially considering you don’t know anything about her beyond what you’ve read.

    2. The Coen Brothers and Yehuda Amicha aren’t divine? I see your point, but at the same time, *everything,* especially everything good, is divine. And yes, there are many who can appreciate Torah better if it’s linked to something more familiar to them, and if everything good can be linked into a united whole. Just the other day, my chavruta was excited by the thought that the sugya we were learning had a clear parallel in an aspect of his profession. (I’ve never seen “A Serious Man”- called “Yehudi Tov” in Israel- but a retired rabbi I know enthusiastically recommends it, a the very least for a realistic view of synagogue politics.) Eisen is looking in the right direction, even if your overall criticism of him is correct. It may not be for everyone, at least not in the charedi world, but it’s very much a Torah U’Madda approach, which is certainly legitimate at the very least.

    [YA –
    1. My wife agreed with you. I deleted the name. Yasher koach
    2. No way. And I don’t believe that it is a Torah U’Madda approach. TUM does not erase key distinctions. חכמה בגוים תאמין. הורה בגוים אל תאמיןץ Non-Torah chochmah is Divine in the sense that everything is Divine, but there are levels of how much Divinity we can suck out of an experience. Torah is a discrete level, and neither the Coen brothers’ or Amichai’s work rise to that level. One can be inspired by them, but he does not recite birkas haTorah over them. There are absolute masters of using available chochmah to illustrate and enlighten (my favorite is Shalom Carmy), but it is usually to sharpen our distinction between what comes from Ein Sof.]

  13. Daniel Grama says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein has once again proven his prowess is articulating Torah ideals and philosophies in an articulate and clear fashion. I love the line/idea of a Conservative Artscroll. This ilk of our brethren are simply not convinced of the truth and authenticity of our Torah, hence they
    lack the commitment. Our Chachamim teach us that for those that merit, the Torah is the source of life, for others it poison.
    We should all take to heart and apply the words of Bruriah, on a recent daf, that we pray for all those that are live in darkness, that they find her light and illuminate their souls.

  14. A Jew Grows in Hollywood says:

    Its sad to think of those people who almost transparently remove divinity from their “religious” practice, but heartening to see the Daf Yomi movement draw so many others closer…