Courtesy Drisha
Study session at DrishaCourtesy Drisha
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An Elegy for a Beit Midrash

Saying goodbye to Drisha’s Manhattan study hall, where I and so many other women were first introduced to the Talmud

Rachel Rosenthal
December 20, 2017
Courtesy Drisha
Study session at DrishaCourtesy Drisha

A little over ten years ago, I walked into the Drisha Institute on 65th Street for the first time. At the suggestion of my then-roommate, I was going to spend the summer there learning Talmud, something I had never done before, but which Drisha specialized in imparting to young women. I don’t generally believe in love at first sight, but if such a thing existed, that’s what happened to me with the Talmud. Even though I had no idea what was going on, I was instantly enthralled by its twisting logic, intergenerational conversations, legal debates, and enthralling narratives. By the end of the week, I had decided to devote my life to learning and teaching this text that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

The Talmud might be a strange choice for my unyielding love and loyalty. It is a terse yet complex mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, full of conversations that establish rules and then break them at the next turn. It is sometimes xenophobic or misogynistic, often difficult to understand, and distressingly lacking in punctuation. And yet, since the first time I opened a tractate, I have never been able to turn away from it. And while on some level I think the Talmud and I are soulmates, I have no doubt that my love of learning stems, in large part, from the place where I first encountered rabbinic text.

It is impossible to list all of the gifts that Drisha has given me. The place changed my life in too many ways to count. It was where I learned how to learn, from some of the best Jewish scholars and thinkers of our generation. It’s where I got to teach Torah for the first time and discovered that I loved teaching Talmud even more than I loved learning it. It gave me many years of beloved students, irreplaceable chevrutot (study partners), and dear friends. It challenged me to think beyond my world about what Torah could mean and be. It’s where I made a friend who not only taught me Torah, but who would later give me another amazing gift: Introducing me to the man who will soon become my husband. With its funding for full-time women’s learning, it allowed me to sustain my body and my soul while learning Torah daily, a tremendous gift that I will never be able to fully repay. It’s where I laughed and cried and grew up and became the person who I am today.

But now, it is time to say goodbye.

At the end of the month, Drisha will be leaving the space it has occupied for the last 14 years, and for the first time since its founding almost 40 years ago, it will not have an established home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In certain ways, the Drisha that I first knew has been gone for a long time already. When its full time learning programs for women shut down a few years ago, I mourned deeply, for myself and for all of the women who would not get the chance that I did, to come to Torah learning after college and still get to immerse themselves in the Beit Midrash. While everything must change and evolve and sometimes end, the loss was deep, and is something that stays with me. So I was surprised by the degree to which walking into the space this week and seeing empty shelves broke my heart again.

Yesterday morning, I taught my last class in the space where I first learned. In the same classroom where I opened a gemara for the first time, my students and I completed the fifth chapter of the tractate Ketubot. When I think about that young, scared, but exhilarated version of myself, I wonder if she would even be able to believe who I have become, and what I can do now. The fact of the matter is that my heart feels broken. But I am also full of gratitude, because without this classroom, these walls, these books, this place, I would not be anyone like who I am today.

When one finishes a chapter of Talmud, as we did yesterday morning, one traditionally declares “hadran alach v’hadrach alan”—”we will return to you and you will return to us.” I would like to think that all of the Torah that has been learned and taught at Drisha will keep returning to us as we return to it, if not in this physical space, then all over the world. This place, which has changed the minds, hearts, and lives of so many, will live on through the Torah we learn and the Torah we teach, rippling out beyond what we could ever see or imagine. Last night, in what is a time of real darkness—the darkest time of the year at the darkest time of the month, as the moon is just beginning to show again—we lit eight candles for Hanukkah. The flames danced and reflected against the window, multiplying themselves over and over and bringing small sparks of light to a space of darkness. I can only hope, and believe, that the Torah that has been learned at Drisha for the last 14 years, will continue to do the same—to multiply and grow infinitely and forever.

Rachel Rosenthal is a David Hartman Center fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She holds a PhD in rabbinic literature.