Taking on the Talmud

To follow the trend of tying this into #blogelul (I’ve been spending Elul away from social media so I almost missed this) I’ll begin Elul 8 with a Prayer: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who makes us holy with commandments, and commands us to immerse ourselves in the study of Torah.

I remember the exact moment when I started thinking like a rabbi. We were discussing the ritual of halitzah in Dr. Panken’s class. The law required the levirate widow to remove her brother-in-law’s shoe and spit in his face. Dr. Panken asked, “What concerns might the rabbis have had about this ritual?”

Almost automatically, I responded, “What if the man doesn’t have feet?”

It seemed so ridiculous that I actually giggled, but Dr. Panken smiled. “Close,” he said. “The correct question is, ‘What if the woman doesn’t have arms?'”

We went on to study the possible roadblocks to halitza, such as a woman who spits blood (Is it still considered spit?). I can’t say that this information has helped much in my rabbinate. Some knowledge about levirate marriage comes in handy when preaching on the stories of Tamar I and Ruth, when I need to offer a counterpoint to arguments for traditional marriage, or when I happened to catch the movie Loving Leah. I’m almost certain that I will never be called upon to preside over a levirate marriage or a halitza ceremony. Why did I need to study that particular text?

This is only one example of my continuing struggle with rabbinic texts. I want to know them and embrace them, immerse myself in them and use them in my rabbinate. However, I often find that there are large swaths of rabbinic text–even midrashone of my favorite topics to teach–that are damaging at worst and irrelevant at best, particularly when it comes to the treatment of women.

Often I find myself cherry-picking passages or ignoring Talmudic thought in favor of more modern Jewish thinkers and writers. However, on Friday, August 3, a strange convergence of events led me want to take on the Talmud in its entirety.

1) My copy of the new Koren Talmud arrived.

2) The Daf Yomi cycle–7.5 years of reading a page of Talmud every day–started.

3) I read this article, in which one of the leaders of our movement explained why Talmud study is not a priority for Reform Jews.

If only out of stubbornness, I decided to take on Daf Yomi for myself. I had always hoped to do so at some point in my rabbinate, when my Aramaic was better, or when I had time and a partner for a daily chevruta. That, I realized, was not going to happen anytime soon, and so I was going to have to do Daf Yomi in my own way.

Although the Steinsaltz edition of the Hebrew found in the Koren Talmud would make it possible for me to tackle the original text, I decided to read the English translation (with footnotes) instead. Even this takes me about half an hour a day, which has made me reevaluate how I spend my time.

It fascinates me that not a single day–not Shabbat, not Yom Kippur, not even the day after the massive international siyyum that celebrated the end of the last Daf Yomi cycle–is taken off. I’ve always reminded my congregants that Jewish learning is a lifelong, never-ending process, and that it doesn’t take breaks for the summer or school breaks or young adulthood. Now I’ve been challenged to live those words for myself.

I haven’t missed a day yet. I don’t always absorb or understand everything I read, even in English. Much of it strikes me as off the wall. There is talk of demons and impurity and exclusion of the differently-abled that doesn’t mesh with my understanding of Judaism (for another English reader’s analysis, check out Adam Kirsch’s weekly report on Daf Yomi in Tablet Magazine).

While the content of the Talmud may not always be relevant to my life as a Reform Jew, the process that the Talmud records is one with which we need to be familiar: a process of discussion and argument and difference of opinion. The rabbis were a group of people committed to imagining every possible scenario. They were charged with balancing a tradition with modernity, a desire for order with a desire to be lenient (in certain cases). They were charged with making sense of their world, even as it changed constantly.

I may never need to know the answer regarding halitzah and the woman with no arms (in case you’re curious, she removes the shoe with her teeth). But by making myself familiar with the methods of the Talmud, I pray that I’ll learn to ask the right questions, as I face the challenges of my own community.

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