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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.

Joseph Winkler
February 10, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Alan Trotter/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Alan Trotter/Flickr)

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.

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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Joseph Winkler, a freelance writer living in New York, is a contributor to vol1brooklyn and The Rumpus.

Joseph Winkler, a freelance writer living in New York, is a contributor to vol1brooklyn and The Rumpus.