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Reading David Foster Wallace Led Me Back to Studying the Talmud

The late author’s work was Talmudic in nature. That’s why his books made me miss the Jewish texts I’d left behind.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Alan Trotter/Flickr)
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David Foster Wallace rekindled my love of Talmud.

To be more exact, the realization of the Talmudic nature of David Foster Wallace let me see that I never truly left the world of the Talmud; I’d just transmuted that experience into an obsession with literature, and specifically with him.

As an obsessive fanboy of the deceased author, I was asked to speak at a meeting of the David Foster Wallace Appreciation Society at the WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn last February about how I first came to love him. In preparing for this small shiur on Wallace, I came to the sudden and convincing realization of the Talmudic nature of his works and thought: Like the commentaries on commentaries in the Talmud, Wallace wrote footnotes on footnotes. In his works, ideas lead to more and stranger, seemingly digressive ideas; and like the Talmud, Wallace finds meaning in the apparently irrelevant and idiosyncratic particulars of life. (The comparisons could go on. Just look at the layout of this Wallace essay and compare its appearance to this page of Talmud.) I realized how, in my religious development, I’d simply gone from one Talmud to the next. Appreciating this comparison reopened the wound I’d had since leaving Talmud behind, and I could no longer shake the ache of longing for a life of Talmudic study.

After a torrid and heady five-year relationship with Talmud, first in yeshiva in Israel then at Yeshiva University, I had given up the Talmud and left Orthodoxy about three years before the event. But speaking about Wallace, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t really ever leave the rigors, pains, and joys of a Talmudic mindset. It marked me for life.

***

I first met the Talmud in high school, as an apathetic student in a Jewish day school. My rabbis sang its praises as the Jewish text, but all I saw were petty arguments and archaic words rationalizing the actions of rabbis. Relying on ArtScroll to get me through all the Talmud tests and finals, I never paid any real attention to the actual text until my senior year. I needed an easy class and chose Elective Gemara because it entailed high-level conversation about concepts, which felt like a creative free-for-all. (OK, more honestly, I chose the class to get closer to a girl I liked. I assumed that she would join the class, but she ruined my plans by opting for something else.) Even though I could barely read a daf of Gemara, and knew Aramaic about as well as I knew Chinese, I loved it all in an intuitive sense. As an introverted teenager I read a lot of philosophical material that flew right past my intellectual capabilities, but in those classes I felt in the presence of an intense, secret tradition that held the answers to all my budding intellectual questions about myself and the world.

Then I went to yeshiva in Israel and my harmless crush turned into a torrid obsession. I went from learning Talmud one hour a day in high school to learning 12 hours a day. I fell in love with the prohibitive, sprawling text that weaves minutiae of law with legend, arguments with stories of Jewish survival. I saw the Talmud as intergenerational conversation with idiosyncratic rules and unspoken assumptions that I couldn’t stop thinking about. It filled my vernacular and my dreams. I thought in Nafka Minas, Hava Aminas, and Ka Mashma Lans. I learned how to think from Rashi, Tosafot, Rambam, and Ritva; how to parse an argument, how to argue, how to present an idea, and how to fight with words as weapons. While other people took breaks, I tried not to, staying in on weekends and up late at night, not out of a pious personality, but out of an obsession with perfection.

It’s hard to describe a yeshiva student’s relationship to the Talmud. To many it becomes the end all and be all of life, the reason to wake up and to go to bed late, the conduit of creativity, the apex of achievement and accomplishment, the sole arbiter of the value of our days, the worth of our souls, the ultimate path toward divine intimacy, the gauge of our self-esteem, and the currency of social popularity and even sexual desirability. All of this inevitably creates a pressurized social situation that for some, myself included, can engender anxiety around learning Talmud.

After two years of living with the Talmud in Israel, at 19, I began a similar, though more hectic life, at Yeshiva University. While devoting some of my time to secular studies, I pursued an almost monastic style of Talmud study, making room in my schedule to learn at least 11 hours a day, which at the time I wore as a badge of pride. But the external social pressure and the internal pressure for perfection in Talmud studies only heightened the anxiety I felt around this lifestyle. I stewed in a poisonous social pressure. I came to think of my individuality, what I could offer other people and the world, as resting solely in my Talmudic skills. If I experienced a sluggish day of study, I felt apocalyptic and self-destructive, and if I felt creative, at the height of my powers I floated above the world at least for a few minutes. I needed to think of myself and to have others think of myself as a Talmudic genius and devotee, so like all insecure people, I thought that at any minute, everyone would see through my pious persona of devoted intelligence. Yet the Talmud gave me countless moments of unbridled joy and intimate religious connection, so I felt torn. Talmud, like a jealous lover, or an addiction, could not stand to let go, or allow me any time off, or even allow me to truly study other disciplines. It commanded my complete attention, my energies, the deepest recesses of my mind and soul, and I acquiesced time and again.

Within this period of intense study, at the height of my Talmudic prowess and passion and yet also at the height of my anxiety and depression, I first found David Foster Wallace. Scared of my psychic shadows, alone in my apartment for winter vacation, at age 20 I devoured his essays and felt free for the first time in years. At the time I didn’t realize that I took so quickly to Wallace because he held the same allure as the rabbis of the Talmud: a unwieldy genius, hyper-aware, obsessed with understanding the confusing world. In reading Wallace, I felt forgotten, small, free of the demands of greatness. But Wallace remained merely a pleasant distraction; Talmud was still my most ferocious lover. For now.

This vicious anxiety surrounding Talmud study persisted throughout my undergraduate years and through the start of my postgraduate career, as I opted to stay at Y.U. to pursue rabbinical studies. I still felt moved enough by Jewish texts to spend my days with them. However, I eventually realized this pressure, coupled with a growing alienation from Orthodox beliefs and values, led me to drop out of the program.

I left the Talmud begrudgingly at 23, ashamed of my failure, and felt the need to apologize for my desertion to my rabbis, my parents, my friends, and the great tradition of Talmudic giants. I began to place my hopes for happiness in more secular sources. I read more literature, philosophy, and kept up with popular culture. I still went through the motions of my religious observance: I prayed three times a day, went to shiur, and learned with my chavrusa, but internally, I was a nonbeliever.

Soon after mentally separating from the Talmud, I left Orthodoxy altogether: the Talmud, the world of the yeshiva, the strictures of religious ritual, and the demands and consolations of Orthodox dogma. I still lived in the Y.U. area, but I felt like an outsider in a community of insiders, a heretic amongst the devout. At home, I was a nonbelieving, nonpracticing Jew, but in public I still wore the same clothing and the same kippah, ate kosher food, and generally adhered to Orthodox custom. It would take two more years to live comfortably with my nonobservance and nonbelief.

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Reading David Foster Wallace Led Me Back to Studying the Talmud

The late author’s work was Talmudic in nature. That’s why his books made me miss the Jewish texts I’d left behind.