The Completion of the Babylonian Talmud, Daf Yomi
Last week, hundreds of thousand of Jews throughout the world participated in the celebrations of Siyum Hashas, the completion of the Babylonian Talmud in a seven year cycle which was initiated by the great Torah scholar and tzaddik Rabbi Meir Shapiro z.l. of Lublin (1887-1934 ) Both in the past and at the present time, Jews from all religious and not so religious backgrounds have managed to study one daf, talmudic page, a day and so completed the Talmud, existing of about 40 volumes, once more. This is indeed a major accomplishment, unparalleled in the entire world of secular and religious scholarship. This is even more astonishing taking into account the fact that the Talmudic text exists (most of the time) of a cryptic Aramaic language, which is hard to decipher, even for scholars.
On the occasion of this extra-ordinary event, it is important to remind ourselves of how much the study of the Talmud or other Jewish religious texts differs from the way we study texts and literature in our western civilization.
While it has become an ideal in the western world to finish a book, in the Jewish world it is the start of a new book, which is emphasized. While western students are pleased to have completed a book, having (for most of the time) no intention of returning to it again, it is the Jew who has difficulty in parting from the very book he just completed. In fact, it is not the completion of the work, which he celebrates but the start of a new one with the promise to return to the old book as soon as possible! Finishing gives reason for thankfulness, having the opportunity to begin (again) is an excitement and requires an inaugural party. Western civilization reveals a preoccupation with getting matters over with, Judaism is dedicated to infinite beginnings. It is a protest against a culture, which is dedicated to the necessity to end.
This is born out by the fact that it is an old Jewish custom to turn to the just completed book with the following personal words which are spoken at the completion of every Talmudic Tractate: Hadran Alach, we will return to you, and
Daatan Alach, our mind is still with you.
And even more surprising are the words reflecting the feeling of the text to- wards its student:
Vedaatach alan, Your mind is on us,
‘We know that just as much as we will never forget you, you will never forget us and that you will watch over us’.
This is the language of a love affair between the student and his text in which the text becomes a living being to be cuddled, cared about and caressed. The text itself, reciprocates in kind. Not for nothing does the Jew sing while reading the Talmudic text!
For what reason does the text invoke such an unusual and highly emotional approach only compared to the affection between lovers? Why cannot the Jew part from such a text like any other human once he has finished studying a book?
This is due to the realization that one never even began to fully understand the text in the first place. The text is multi faceted. It carries layers upon layers of meaning. It invokes images and insights, which were not yet revealed at a first or even second reading. Just as the lover will constantly be surprised by the ongoing outpouring and revelation of new facets of his or her beloved one, so does the student of the Talmud realize that he has not even started to grasp the text on a superficial level. It is like unpeeling an onion without ever reaching the core. Jews therefore realize that they are perpetual beginners.
Carefully studying the Talmud reveals a diversity of ideas and philosophies, often compared to the sea. There are storms and waves, silences and noise, rebellions and deep faith, colors in every combination, music in every setting. It is a work which cannot be characterized, eluding all definitions.
It is therefore impossible to dogmatize the text and to finalize its meaning or conclusively determine its intention or outlook. Doing so, as is sadly the case in some religious circles, is a complete misreading of its nature and should be avoided under all circumstances.
While many issues of theology are discussed there is no finalized theology to be found in all of the Talmud. There are no articles of faith as known in Christianity, although a great amount of debate concerning certain fundamental beliefs, are discussed. But as many commentaries have abundantly shown, nearly all of them are open to heated debate and disagreement. True, there are certain guidelines and not everything goes. One needs to approach the text in awe as a religious document and not as a work of literature using literal criticism. At the same time however it is clear that there is an inherent dislike for finalized positions. It is part and parcel of the prohibition not to create false images. Only the existence of God and the divine nature of the Torah are beyond discussion. As such the Talmud is an honest reflection of the Torah itself.
What the Jewish people received at Sinai was not dogmatics but a law and a deed to live by, deeply rooted in ethics. It does not overly emphasize what needs to be believed but what categorically needs to be done so as to create an ideal religious ethical society. The subordination of dogma created the possibility of interpretation and allows for many views. Judaism did not create monuments out of stone but out of words. It is this fact,,, which makes Judaism stand out and why so many intelligent people have been attracted by it.
With that in mind one can study Talmud correctly and hear the multi-faceted word of the Holy One Blessed be He. Studying it in a different way is unauthentic and contrary to its holy nature.
 See for example the ongoing debates concerning Maimonides famous thirteen principles of faith based on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:11. For a overview of some of the issues involved see Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Maimonides Thirteen Principles Reappraised, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford, 2004
 See however chapters 2, 7 and 8 in Marc Shapiro’s work in which it is shown that not even these principles are without major controversies See note 1.
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