My Father and the Talmud
I idolized my dad and resented him. As I’ve untangled our relationship, I adopted his passion: Talmud study
There’s no single story that clarifies everything: Everything changes and yet remains exactly the same; roles change and shift, and yet we wind up in the same place. I look at his wide forehead, his Paul Newman ice-blue eyes, the sametenem ponim—the velvet face; he knows everything and knows nothing and yet he can hear anything. I have seen people tell him things about himself, terrible things, but it doesn’t matter what you say, how terrible, he will find the human in you and in him.
Once I told him of my ardent plans to wreck everything in my life, to turn everything—career, religion—upside down. I thought my news might give him a heart attack, so as a precaution I arranged to tell him of my plans in the office of a top psychoanalyst (a former Marine). I told him frankly that the life I had built and we had built together was false and needed to be knocked down in one fell swoop. I will never forget the look on his face: total concern and complete silence at the same time. It was the silence that only true and wise love can give.
Somehow, this experience of confiding in him, and his response, helped me to find strength. This wisdom, his wisdom became embodied for me in the bais medrash, the fountain where our people gather every morning and evening to drink.
It was here I found and still find myself going involuntarily almost to struggle, to torture, to find my place literally—in these words, the words of the Talmud for which I thought I had no feeling. The brutality of the bais medrash, the unending, bittersweet rhythm of the rabbis’ imprecations became a source of life, but only after I allowed myself to hate them long enough and with enough heart and soul. It turns out that everything I thought I hated, I loved and hated, and this continuous struggle with the Talmud has brought me closer to him.
Every night now, I go to the bais medrash. I gird myself to do something difficult, even painful: ride the winds of several opposing ideas in a complicated Talmudic discussion. I flail about with the big boys, barely bunting and walking in a ballpark of homerun hitters—the oceanic Talmud and its demanding discourse will flatten even the biggest of men—and every night I return home wiped out and wonderfully defeated.
On the terrain of the Talmud where everything human and divine is discussed and ruled upon, a man borrows a cow and something happens to it, an egg is laid on a holiday, a man betroths a woman with the stomach lining of a stoned ox. With these lines I relive those early, tender, hellish moments with my father, but now improbably with a better ending. Every time I go back to the bais medrash, I forgive, I am free. Free to be with him and yet no longer tied to him in exactly the same way.
A good friend of mine once said that if you feel a pain in life, that pain is more than likely the pain of the man who is not one with his father. The pain of not being one is more painful than anything else, except of course, perhaps the pain of being one with one’s father.
The prophets tell us that in the end of days, the hearts of fathers will be restored to their sons and the hearts of sons to their fathers. The Hebrew word for son is “ben,” which also means to build, but this is not simple. There cannot be father-son love (or any love) without some destructiveness. In fact, the instinct to destroy, Freud said, is greater; the death drive overrides everything. But somehow through the cracks, like the persistent sing-song of the Talmud, the small still voice that threads through a man’s life says, “build, build.” And here on this road, this father and this son walk together.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
A yellowed photo hidden with an heirloom watch led me to discover a prewar life I never knew existed