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Getting It

While studying another arcane tractate of the Talmud, I recall my childhood lessons with my father and my struggle to understand everything he taught me

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
August 17, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

My local bais midrash in Passaic, New Jersey, is filled with people striving to understand the Talmud. I, sometimes, get it. My friend Chaim always gets it, always understands. He is one of the masters of the bais midrash. And he knows it.

One recent Sabbath, he prepared a lesson on libations. Sometime after the sin of the spies discussed in the Book of Numbers, the Bible mentions, seemingly out of nowhere, the mitzvah, the commandment, of nesech—libations.

The dictionary definition of a libation: a drink poured out as an offering for a deity. This drink, Chaim said, was a mixture of oil and flour or wine and flour that accompanied the sacrifices but was poured on the side of the altar. Chaim, an actuary by training, with a gigantic brain and sometinim panim—the beautiful velvet cheeks of a Jewish man-child—went further. There were all kinds of offerings to God: sin offerings, guilt offerings, peace offerings, burnt offerings. “Were all sacrifices brought with libations?” Chaim asked our study group, before answering his own question: During our 40 years wandering in the desert, in the days of the movable Mishkon—the Tabernacle—only some of the sacrifices were brought that way. After we settled the land of Israel, the “little man”—not a member of the priestly caste—was allowed to bring sacrifices on his bama ketana, a small at-home altar. (When Solomon’s Temple, God’s “permanent” home, was built, the rules changed again.)

But did the “little man” bring sacrifices with libations or without? This all depends. Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva argue in Tractate Zevachim—the tractate of sacrifices, the no-man’s land of Talmud. No mere mortal has paid an in-depth visit to Zevachim since Adam. Chaim wanted to take us there, so that we could “get it.” But why? Yes, it’s saintly to study, but what exactly do we get when we “get it”? And what, I wondered, do we get when we don’t get it?

I looked around in our small group of six men in late middle age and I noticed that a certain dissociation had set in. We are all modern men, fully at home with our American selves. If we are not captains of our respective fields, we are at least competent—this one in medicine, the other in finance, business, education. One of us, Moshe Mordechai, a man with the silver hair and beard of a saint, had begun to doze. Frank, a financial consultant, could not resist a joke, calling heter bamas—the dispensation to allow for home sacrifices—“Obamacare.” We laughed. We tuned out. We were starting to not get it.

My mind took me back decades to the early mists of memory of my godlike father, who wanted me to get it, too. He would roll up his sleeves and with great passion delve into the Talmud and “rejoice” in the law. It was not your typical sing-and-dance rejoicing, but it was called hana’a in Yiddish and Aramaic: a spiritual pleasure, a bond Jewish men of learning have with their God—a geshmak.

My father told me that God loved the Jewish people so much that he gave them the law. Initially, when I heard this at the age of 7, it sounded absurd to me, but I pretended to get it. Why? No 7-year-old is supposed to get it. But my father, with his perfectly round face and Frank Sinatra baby blues, wanted to be gotten. Teachers need to be gotten. Fathers need to be gotten. And so it goes. Who gets gotten and who gets forgotten?

When I wasn’t getting him or the subject, was I getting something else? Was I getting myself?

We would go over one tractate after another, one rabbinical argument after another. Do you get it? He would ask. I was fighting a flood, a deluge. There was all this information, this detail, this energy aimed at me. He was desperate that I should get it. I tried with all my might. I nodded my head and repeated his lessons back to him. We were both happy, but I was never sure whether I was getting it to please him, to please Him—the Almighty—or to please myself.

Practically a lifetime later, the whole thing now seems like a dream to me. We lived, from a Jewish point of view, in far-flung places like Atlanta, then off the Jewish grid, cut off from the main Jewish centers. It was not a community thing to study Talmud as it is where I live today in Passaic. So it was just me and him. We might as well have been the only two Jewish people in the world.

Moshe continued to snooze. Others checked out completely. I stopped following and was fighting sleep. Chaim was plodding away. Is he a generous servant of the Lord, a modern-day Moses, a humble teacher, or is he dissociated, detached from aspects of the reality around him?

Scrupulously, he checked his sources. The different books of our long centuries of the bitter exile lay open before him: the Rosh (12th-century Germany), the Ramban (11th-century Spain). He wanted to get it right. I once said that the Ten Commandments were etched on Chaim’s forehead, and they are still there for all to see as he concentrates.

It all checked out. Was it over? It had wound down to the end in a big thud. No one was listening anymore. You would think I would have felt relief. Finally, this obscure, recondite lesson, holy as it may be, was over. We could all eat something now, take a Sabbath nap, be returned to the custody of our own daytime demons and daytime dreams.

Yet I was stabbed by the pain of not getting it. I wanted to get it. Why? When I was a kid, I would try to get it all to please my father. I would feel good, but a little hollow when I did, but if I didn’t get it, I could incur his wrath, which was legendary. His face could explode in holy fury and tyranny. Besides, there was always something to pursue back then. Some folly, some shiny thing, a baseball game, some girl, some passing glittering nonsense, but no longer. Suddenly, on a Saturday morning, even as this was a repeat of my life, something had changed. This was now the pursuit, for real. What was once abstract and un-gettable had become real and desirable.

Freud famously named this repetition “compulsion”—a phenomenon where people repeat experiences again and again. It is an unconscious impulse over which we have no control, like a woman who marries a man she believes to be very much unlike her father, only to discover in time that he is very much like her father indeed. This is the unconscious “at work,” hoping to resolve an emotional loop and a knot.

Obviously, Chaim was not my father, but he offered an experience to me, to all of us in our own way, to do it differently. In these moments in the bare bais midrash in a barren Passaic landscape, through winter, spring, summer, and fall, I was reviewing the most important moments of my life—and this time, maybe, getting it right.

I roused everyone. We started to reconstruct the beginning of the talk, piece by piece. Moshe Mordechai joined in from half-remembered slumber and distraction and invoked the question from Reb Chaim Brisker, others from daydreaming and from the netherworlds of Walter Mitty to remember pieces of the talk—the libations, yes, the desert, yes, and also the Talmudic sidebar involving a convert who pledges a sacrifice and dies without having yet paid for the libations. As though we were all streaming in now, the in-gathering of the exiles.

Now we got it. Moshe Mordechai got it. Yisrael Yosef got it. Josh got it. Frank got it. We retraced the steps from the beginning and suddenly, what had been a comatose morning in the fields of the Lord became a real place of learning—a real piece of the Torah.

I went home and told my wife about the difficulties of Chaim’s talk and the libations. She rolled her eyes. Another arcane discussion? But I persisted in describing the angst of being there, the triumph of the morning. And she said, I am beginning to understand what is happening for the men. I am beginning to get it. There was a quiet and persistent joy the whole day and later that week. The best way to describe it would be as a mind-meld with the heavens. Our psyche-soul is part of the heavens and the heavens are part of us and we had found each other in the Talmudic firmament.

I am a psychotherapist and my training is in psychoanalysis. We are trained to try to understand the patient the way a mother might have to intuit the needs of her baby before he speaks. She has to get it; her infant’s life depends on her getting it. This urgency remains with us throughout life. We want to get it and we want to be gotten.

Yet, there’s value to not getting it. In religion and love, for example, we don’t get it. We don’t get our own choices in love and we are certainly not supposed to get our children’s. We “get” our children up to adolescence and then (for the sake of their well-being and ours) we are supposed to become adept at not getting them.

Modern man goes through a process in religion and love of getting and un-getting. Getting and forgetting. If the earlier times were about getting God, then contemporary times might be about forgetting God. Does one forget one’s god in order to get oneself?

I have spent a lifetime only half-getting the Talmud because I felt incomplete about myself, as if knowing God would mean not knowing myself. I could not surrender myself to the rigors and pleasures of Talmud study lest I would be a gefangener, “captured” by my father or god, and I would lose myself.

In order to get ourselves, to retrieve ourselves—to extract ourselves from a world that seeks to enslave us through religion or social coercion—there is something ingenious about us that enables us to not get something. In the early days with my father, I was not getting my father in order to get something about myself, to develop my own life.

Should we please ourselves, God, or our fathers?

Psychoanalysis is famously agnostic on the subject. Analysis can help people un-get and unlearn or it can help them “get” what they need and want for a complete life. Psychoanalysis can help them “get” religion or un-get it.

Strange thing is, now again, I find myself putting all my strength into “getting it.” I am not content merely hearing a talk, I want to “get it.” I am surprised, a little delighted—after a lifetime of avoiding getting it, suddenly I want to get what Chaim has.

All of us men were happy that morning. We had got something about libations. It is said that the wine of libations makes God “happy” and people happy—both—it is over this that the Levites sang and made music in the Temple, during the sacrifice. Perhaps we were the sacrifice on Saturday morning, a communal sacrifice, and our joy in getting it was a form of song.

Now we men of late middle age, we band of brothers in the bais midrash—we see death coming up the hill, but we have also fought it off. The God who made heaven and the earth and the Seven Seas also created our conflicts, our frailties, our deaths, and our capacity to understand and to grow. We have thrown in our lot with Chaim and his god. It is so much more than a piece of Talmud. We will be here when death comes, listening to Chaim.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.