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Arguing About the Talmud

As we conclude reading the Talmud’s first tractate, a fierce debate rages about who should study it and how

Dovid Bashevkin
March 08, 2020
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
MISHNA: From when, that is, from what time, does one recite Shema in the evening? From the time when the priests enter to partake of their teruma.

On the basis of what prior knowledge does the tanna of our mishna ask: From when?

Tractate Brachot 2a

Talmud begins with a question about beginnings. It’s a fitting start for such a desultory text. Unlike a standard law book or really any textbook, the Talmud is filled with tangents, assumptions, digressions, and unspoken considerations. It begins that way as well. The Talmud asks when we read the nighttime shemah, but glosses over the daytime shemah and, more fundamentally, the obligation to read the shemah altogether. I imagine for most who began their Talmud study along with the fourteenth Daf Yomi cycle, the worldwide program that completes Talmud every seven and a half years by studying one page of Talmud a day, it was an inverted beginning as well.

Thousands were inspired to wade into the sea of Talmud following the worldwide coverage of the siyum, the celebration of completing the Talmud, at Metlife Stadium on January 1st. The ending prompted many to begin. And here we are sixty-four days later, about to complete the first Tractate Brachot. But this beginning felt different. In 2020, the medium of Talmud study had evolved–embracing the ever-changing platforms and instruments of modern-day content distribution. Podcasts were started, apps were developed, infographics were designed, hashtags were trending, and memes were circulating. And many Talmudic newcomers were confronted with the very question on the first page, tanna heicha ka’ei, on the basis of what prior knowledge do these novices feel adequately prepared and proper to enter the reverential world of Talmud study? M’aimasai, from when was it considered appropriate to have a queer Daf Yomi, or Daf Yomi memes, or Daf Yomi swag? Did we, some wondered, construct the entrance to the beginning of Talmud too broadly?

It was taught: On that day that they removed Rabban Gamliel from his position and appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in his place, there was also a fundamental change in the general approach of the study hall as they dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter. Instead of Rabban Gamliel’s selective approach that asserted that the students must be screened before accepting them into the study hall, the new approach asserted that anyone who seeks to study should be given opportunity to do so. As Rabban Gamliel would proclaim and say: Any student whose inside, his thoughts and feelings, are not like his outside, i.e., his conduct and his character traits are lacking, will not enter the study hall.

The Gemara relates: On that day several benches were added to the study hall to accommodate the numerous students. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the Rabbis disputed this matter. One said: Four hundred benches were added to the study hall. And one said: Seven hundred benches were added to the study hall. When he saw the tremendous growth in the number of students, Rabban Gamliel was disheartened. He said: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, I prevented Israel from engaging in Torah study. They showed him in his dream white jugs filled with ashes alluding to the fact that the additional students were worthless idlers. The Gemara comments: That is not the case, but that dream was shown to him to ease his mind so that he would not feel bad.

Talmud Brachos 28a

Can someone explain to me, one wrote on Twitter, why there’s so much resistance to younger generations wanting to study the Talmud? Tired of the incredulous remarks from seasoned Talmudists (“let’s see how long this keeps up,” “when Tractate Shabbat comes, rest comes”), she compared the reverential gatekeepers to gym-regulars waiting for the post-New Year’s resolution rush to end. She writes:

It reminds me of all of the dweebs I used to work out with who wasted their Januaries complaining that the gym was crowded…I *WAS* that dweeb in the gym—angry that the January rush inconvenienced me – feeling smug about my continued presence in the gym. Recently I started to look at the gym like a shul service – Kabbalat Shabbat is always better when the room is stuffed. Now I try to frame a crowded gym that way. Maybe the crowded gym is a blessing—maybe I can draw on the increased energy it brings. Come to the gym. But for the love of God, don’t do rack pulls with the Texas Power Bar—that’s just sacrilegious.

Tractate Brachot features a similar debate. Rabban Gamliel, the first-century Jewish leader, only allowed those whose inner character matched their outer commitment to enter the beit midrash to study. After he was deposed from his position, the gates were opened and all students, however dissonant, were allowed to enter. Others, much like Rabban Gamliel, are more sensitive to the requisite reverence and sensitivity that ostensibly Talmud study should demand. One rabbi respectfully responded on twitter to the aforementioned gym analogy:

IMO, there needs to be a general balance between what something is intended to be and what something has become. The latest daf yomi phenomenon is a perfect example. The Talmud itself is an incredibly intricate (and yes, messy) treatise on a large percentage of Jewish law. Talmudic analysis comes with an idiosyncratic methodology, language, and decision making process. Many spend years honing their skills to develop a profound understanding of and everlasting connection to the laws that shape their every moment. To these people, the idea that Talmud study should become a form of popular Jewish culture is scary and dangerous, and I totally appreciate that fear. It is the fear that the Talmud will lose its essence, and that the focus and seriousness that it deserves will be lost. The essence being the theory and process behind our halakhic system, the Torah values that are at stake in every Talmudic debate, and the Jewish philosophy that is communicate through aggadic allegory. On the other hand, the Talmud serving as a tool of engagement for thousands of Jewish souls is a beautiful thing, no matter the degree of commitment or depth of study. However, it should be noted that using the Talmud as comedic fodder is by definition an affront to its essence and its special place in our culture, religion, and history. There is a real danger there and I cannot blame anyone for being concerned.

Whichever side one finds themselves in this debate, it’s hard not to appreciate the Talmudic quality of this modern-day argument. That Jews are even arguing about the boundaries of Talmudic interpretation is a comforting indication of the Talmud’s continued relevance for American Jewry.

Rabban Gamliel preserved Talmudic integrity by insisting that only the most sincere could study. A guard was placed at the door to ensure that those with those with less than pure interiority were prevented from entering. Let’s talk about this guard for a moment. What good is a gatekeeper, asks Rav Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900), if their job is to know the intimate depths of a person’s motivations? How could that information ever even be ascertained? Rav Tzadok, a modern chassidic thinker of sorts, explains that the guard in this story need not be literal, as the most effective gatekeepers are not physical guards, but are rather manifest in our idioms and language. Reminiscent of Kurt Lewin’s 1943 theory of gatekeeping such policies seem to persist. If Talmud is only preserved exclusively in expert terminology and insider jargon, chas v’shalom, God forbid, we should rightfully ask ourselves, perhaps we “prevented Israel from engaging in Torah study.” That doesn’t mean the concerns of Rabban Gamliel are without merit. But our efforts to preserve reverence shouldn’t be at the expense of the rightful owners of Talmud, knesset yisroel, the collective body of the Jewish people.

it was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira would say: Matters of Torah do not become ritually impure and therefore one who is impure is permitted to engage in Torah study. He implemented this halakha in practice. The Gemara relates an incident involving a student who was reciting mishnayot and baraitot hesitantly before the study hall of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira. The student experienced a seminal emission, and when he was asked to recite he did so in a rushed, uneven manner, as he did not want to utter the words of Torah explicitly. Rabbi Yehuda said to him: My son, open your mouth and let your words illuminate, as matters of Torah do not become ritually impure, as it is stated: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29). Just as fire does not become ritually impure, so too matters of Torah do not become ritually impure.

-Talmud Brachot 22a

Words of Talmud make some stutter. Every individual act of study, the Talmud teaches, is a continuation of the initial revelation of at Sinai. Just as Sinai, explains the Talmud, was with reverence and fear, so too contemporary Torah study should carry the same emotional import. Approaching a page of Talmud like the mountain of Sinai is bound to cause angst. But rifling through the topics in the first tractate, Brachot, it is striking at how seemingly mundane the subject matters seem. Sleeping schedules, table manners, dreams, bathroom protocol, the blessing on rice—all receive detailed discussion within the Talmud. Hardly the momentous matters of Mount Sinai.

I remember when I was in ninth grade, my rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky began by asking, “what is the significance of the Talmud.” The fact that this question even needs to be asked—and given the chaotic structure and quotidian topics, it surely does—is worth thinking about. He told our high school class of rambunctious ninth graders that the Talmud was the mind of God. That may be true, but I see it a little bit differently now. Talmud is the collective mind of the Jewish people—our historic and continuous attempt to find divine meaning and purpose in the seemingly ordinary and common. As we stutter from the banality of life, Talmud beckons us, b’nee psach picha v’yaeeru dvarecha—my child open up your mouth and let your words illuminate. We illuminate our meals, we illuminate our dreams, we illuminate our routines. However impure the cadence of our lives may seem at times; the words of Torah remain holy. Talmud is our opening question, asking us each day how divinity can be apprehended even during the dusk of meaning.

הדרך עלך פרק הרואה

We will return to you Chapter Haro’eh

וסליקא לה מסכת ברכות

And tractate Berachos is concluded

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.