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.
I therefore found myself at the age of 24 in an odd situation: teaching Talmud in an Orthodox day school while I experimented privately with a non-Orthodox lifestyle. Though it seems contradictory, the environment in the day school was already considerably more religiously liberal than the environment of Y.U., which allowed me safely to experiment with shades of irreligiosity. The opportunity to teach a pool of smart, fun, and questioning teenagers allowed me to develop a confidence and coherency to my burgeoning secular outlook. I practiced my irreligiosity in conversations with them, and in their genuine acceptance of my opinion, I felt validated, felt safer in exploring the new me with my peers. With time, I felt more assured in the wisdom of my choices and began to fully embrace my secular choices. (Discussing these changes with my parents would only occur a few years later, after a long period of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)
I don’t remember when I stopped thinking in terms of mitzvot and aveirot. I can say that I started with passivity: missing minyan and the allotted time for learning, then choosing to not put on tefillin (which means everything when you’ve worn tefillin almost every day of your life since you were 13). It took time to chip away at the habits of the religious body and mind and to rid myself of guilt. I remember distinctly that unexpectedly one day the guilt just left and I went from sinning here and there to simply making choices solely based on personal secular values. For the most part though, I don’t know exactly how I went from a rabbinical student to a secular person or what the relationship was between intellectual doubts, emotional turmoil, and social alienation that led me toward a new path.
Through it all, from the religious passion to the expansive freedom of a secular life, I remained devoted to the works of Wallace. His voice—restless, wild, voracious, endlessly curious, reflective, and most important, unabashedly genuine—always made me feel less lonely, comforted in my self-doubts, and invigorated in my thoughts. He challenged readers to challenge themselves, assuming that the deepest questions belong to the province of everyone and that above all, past the religious, sexual, societal divides, we all desire deep intimacy despite the cynicism of our culture. He was also the smartest and funniest writer I ever read, and he expanded my intellectual tastes and desires. As I left the religious world, Wallace provided a sense of grounding in a world largely new to me, and his playful curiosity served as a guide through the secular culture I chose to embrace. When he hanged himself on Sept. 12, 2008, I instinctively went into shiva mode.
Wallace, in hindsight, besides his Talmudic nature, was always a rabbi to me, in a post-postmodern world where old values only meant anything if you so chose. In a new world in which I couldn’t believe in old dogma, his work still tackled morality, the nature of belief, obligations, responsibility, and the human spirit.
In the past year, since I gave the talk about Wallace, I dove back into Talmud study—as a 28-year-old nonobservant Jew still strongly ensconced within the wider Jewish community of the Upper West Side. I revisited pages of Gemara and sometimes looked at my notes from my time in Israel and my more sophisticated notes from my time in Y.U. I tutor Talmud, and keep up on academia, but I still feel aloof. If you’ve ever left something encompassing behind you know the impossibility of true return. My belief that the Talmud truly held the secrets of the world can never be reclaimed, the naive innocence of my devotion is surely gone forever, and I cannot say I miss the constricting totality of religious life. But there’s something rare and rewarding in the singular focus Talmud provides, in the sense that everything under the sun falls within your purview. In a sense, it’s grown clear that I never really left the Talmud, or the Talmud never really left me. You can shake off an obsession with time, but you can never erase the marks it left on your soul, your mind, and your personality. Because the more I think about it the more I realize I simply just miss the Talmud, like I miss a close friend.
I miss its rhyme and rhythm, its clarifying absurdity, the incipient stream-of-consciousness of it all (James Joyce could easily learn a thing or two about the mysteries of juxtaposition from the Tanaaim and Amoraim). I miss those shrouded personalities shining through and hiding in myths: the righteous brazenness of Acher (If only Shalom Auslander was the Acher our generation needs and deserves), the often obtuse but optimistic courage of Rabbi Akiva, the curious hideousness of Rabbi Joshua and the legendary relationship between between Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish—one an academic, the other a repentant criminal. I can’t shake the style of those seemingly caviling arguments, those harsh Aramaic words, the wonderful mess of it all. The sort of casual claims of miraculous power and behavior of rabbis, the often arrogant presumptuousness of knowing the mind of God, the outrageous claims of divine intimacy, the readiness to create legends and myth to feed a starving nation for generations. The singsong of the Talmud is now the stuff of legends, that exaggerated lilt requiring a thumbing through the air, a lilt of up and down, up and down, until the climactic conclusion that has become the bane of pulpit speeches. To me, though, the song signified the greatest path to prayer. I felt the transcendence and immanence of God no more than in the Talmudic arguments about cows goring cows.
It’s easy to overstate the wondrous beauty and intelligence of the Talmud, as if it’s some glittering ark of pure gold, free of blemishes. Whatever the Talmud is, it is also a frequently prohibitive document of cruelty, of misogyny, of racism, superstition, and exclusion: elitist through and through. In its ambition, the tradition of Talmud too often turns mistakes into intentional actions and ideas. It is the ultimate Jewish men’s club full of rabbis deigning to know what’s best for women, their rights, and their bodies. At the same time, though, it is an unwieldy document of survival that attained a sort of poetics of analysis. It is both a description of a way of life, a dialogue about that structure and an embodiment of that mode of living. Which is all part of the enduring allure.
Many images, aphorisms, and parables from the Talmud stay with me, but few like the elegant idea of “Luchot V’Shivrei Luchot Munachin B’Aron” (“The Tablets and the shards of the Tablets both rest in the Ark”). The Bible describes that Moses broke the first set of Tablets he received from God upon seeing the sin of the Golden Calf. After punishment and repentance, God gave a second set, which the Israelites carried around in the Ark of the Tabernacle. The Talmud here adds a layer, assuming that the broken pieces of the first tablets lay in the same component as the second set of complete tablets. Apparently, the Talmud relays, shattered remnants of the past still matter, persist in their importance, and deserve preservation and remembrance, just like something whole. I will likely never regain the wholeness of my Talmudic living, but knowing that I can carry around the shards of past provides comfort.
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‘Bei Mir Bistu Shein’ always reminded my mother of her father. And now that my mother is gone, it reminds me of her.