Last week something remarkable happened in the Jewish religious world, unequaled in the non-Jewish one. While millions flew to the London Olympics to watch the most prestigious sportsmen and sportswomen performing spectacular feats in large stadiums and sports fields, hundreds of thousands of Jews flew to Jerusalem, New York, and many other cities in nearly every part of the world to dance, sing, and express unmitigated joy about something as remote from sports as can be. And all this as if their lives depended on it. Standing for hours in long lines waiting to get in, they did not come to watch the most incredible tour de force of sports, but rather to share in the absolutely unimaginable – something not even the Olympics can beat! One of these gatherings took place in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, a sports arena (!!) that can hold 82,500 spectators.
What world-transforming event had taken place that made them leave their families, work, and even old age homes and spend their hard-earned money to celebrate an event that seems to be the pinnacle of their lives? A rock concert? A mind-boggling scientific discovery? A peace treaty to end all wars? Or perhaps a child prodigy who broke all records? No, it was none of these. Not even close. These people came to celebrate something that even the Guinness World Records is unable to chronicle. They came to study the last page of a book, with the ineffable anticipation of immediately starting it again, from page one, without losing a minute.
These Jews, many of them well into their 80s and even 90s, with long white beards, arrived with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, including numerous babies to celebrate the completion of what is probably the most bizarre book in all of human history: the Babylonian Talmud. And this while dressed in their Shabbat clothes as if they were going to a royal wedding. Indeed, a wedding it was. As no other. It was the wedding of a 4,000-year-old nation to a book nearly 1,500 years old and probably the largest in the world. A wedding with hundreds of thousands of guests including many women, some of whom not only participated but even finished the Talmud themselves.
Since 1923, when Meir Shapiro zt”l (1887-1933), the famous rabbi of Lublin, initiated and instituted the Daf Yomi (a system of Talmud study in which one learns one page a day), Jews throughout the world – from religious, less religious, and even secular backgrounds – complete the 40 or so volumes of the Talmud in seven-and-a-half year cycles. This book is said to have 2711 pages, but this is far from true. Since it is written in cryptic language and most of the words are missing – as in secret code – it would, by today’s standards, fill approximately 10,000 pages if not more. It has a nearly infinite amount of commentaries and sub-commentaries and has led to the creation of so much scholarly literature that the many explanations and discourses on Shakespeare and Spinoza are naught in comparison.
This type of celebration, such as the one that took place in MetLife Stadium, is unparalleled in the entire world of secular and religious scholarship. That people from all walks of life – not only scholars, but even laymen and youth – finish an encyclopedic work by studying it every day without exception, as if their lives depend on it, is the strangest cause for celebration known to human beings. Have you ever seen hundreds of thousands of Shakespeare lovers – including scholars, laymen, young people, and even kids – coming together in a huge stadium to dance and sing when they finished the last page of Hamlet?
Many of the “finalists” live in old age homes, others are confined to wheelchairs; some are recovering from illnesses, others are in severe pain; some are on vacation in Hawaii, others are longing for their beds after a long day of hard work. Yet, whatever the hour of day, they all push themselves to finish one more page – every day, without exception, for seven and a half years. Only to start all over again because they can’t get enough of it! The world may come to an end, they may lose all their money in risky business deals or have severe migraines, but nothing will stop them from opening the Talmud and wrestling with another page, which is often harder than the most difficult salto in Olympic gymnastics.
Studying Talmud is more difficult than playing chess. The text is nearly impossible to decipher. You find yourself in a labyrinth with almost no hope of discovering the exit. This is true not only for laymen but even for the greatest scholars.
How strange it is that while the Western world is accustomed to finishing a book, the Jewish world emphasizes and celebrates the continuous restarting of the same book. While Western students are pleased to have completed a book and, for the most part, have no intention of returning to it again, the Jew finds it difficult to part from the very book he has just finished. In fact, it is not the completion that is celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Jews in these stadiums, but rather the anticipation of returning to page one of this old book as soon as possible! Finishing is reason enough for simple thankfulness, but having the opportunity to begin all over again is the greatest joy and requires a festive inaugural event.
Western civilization is preoccupied with getting matters over with; Judaism, dedicated to infinite beginnings, is a protest against that very culture.
It is not for nothing that these “finalists” say the following personal words to the Talmudic Tractate they just finished:
Hadran alach – “We will return to you”; Da’atan alach – “Our minds are still with you.”
Even more surprising are the words reflecting the feelings of the text towards its students:
Ve-hadrach alan – “And you will return to us”; Ve-da’atach alan – “And your mind is still with us.” We know that just as we will never forget you, you will never forget us, and you will watch over us.
This is the language of a love affair between the student and his text, in which the words become living beings to be coddled and cared about. And the text reciprocates. The Jew sings while reading the Talmud, because it is the song of lovers who cannot get enough of each other!
Is it not most remarkable that when two Jews meet, one will say to the other, often in Yiddish: Nu, zogt mir a shtickel Toire? (So, tell me a new insight into the Torah or Talmud!) Have we ever heard of two people meeting and one asks the other to tell him a shtickel Shakespeare because there is no greater joy?
Why does the Talmud evoke such an unusual and emotional approach, compared only to the affection between lovers? Why can the Jew not part from the Talmudic text, like any other human being who 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. It is multi-faceted. It carries layer upon layer of meaning. It evokes images and insights that are not yet revealed on a first or even second reading. Just as the lover will constantly be surprised by the ongoing revelation of new facets of his or her beloved, so does the student of the Talmud realize that he has not even begun to grasp the text on a superficial level. It is like peeling an onion without ever reaching its core. One can only be a perpetual beginner.
Carefully studying the Talmud reveals a diversity of ideas and philosophies, often compared to the sea. There are storms and waves, rebellions and deep faith, colors in every combination, noise and silence, music in every setting. It is a work that cannot be characterized; it eludes all definition. There is no limitation set on any subject, and problems run into one another becoming intricate and interwoven. There are legal and theological towers built, which crumble to pieces with one analytic and often razor-sharp statement only to be replaced by a hypothetical deductive method that either leads nowhere or hits the nail on the head.
It is therefore impossible to dogmatize the text and 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 the text.
While many issues of theology are discussed, there are no articles of faith as known in Christianity, although there is a great amount of debate concerning certain fundamental beliefs. But, as many commentaries have amply shown, nearly all of them are open to heated debate and disagreement. True, there are certain guidelines and not everything goes. One must approach the text with awe, as a religious document and not as a work of literature using literary criticism. At the same time, however, it is clear that there is an inherent distaste for finalized positions. It is part and parcel of the prohibition not to create false images. For the most part, only the existence of God and the divine nature of the Torah are beyond discussion. The Talmud, then, is an honest reflection of the Torah itself.
What the Jewish people received at Sinai was not dogma but a law and a spirit to live by, deeply rooted in ethics and a religious experience. The Torah does not overly emphasize what needs to be believed, but rather what categorically needs to be done so as to create an ideal, religious, and ethical society. The subordination of dogma creates the possibility of interpretation and allows for many views. Judaism does not create monuments out of stone but out of words. It is this fact that makes Judaism distinct and attractive to so many intelligent people.