Talmud Tales: Ilana Kurshan's new book is inspired by 'Daf Yomi' studies

Kurshan’s Daf Yomi memoir is a testament to how ancient wisdom continues to resonate across generational, gender and cultural divides.

If All The Seas Were Ink: A Memoir By Ilana Kurshan. (photo credit: ST. MARTIN’S PRESS)
If All The Seas Were Ink: A Memoir By Ilana Kurshan.
(photo credit: ST. MARTIN’S PRESS)
What happens when a highly literary and intelligent woman who has just emerged from a traumatic divorce decides to start studying “Daf Yomi” (the internationally synchronized practice of studying one page of Talmud per day and thus completing the entire Talmud in 7.5 years)? A unique memoir like “If All The Seas Were Ink” emerges.
The book opens with the day on which writer, editor and translator Ilana Kurshan, then just short of 30 years old, decided to start studying Daf Yomi. Kurshan had moved to Jerusalem from New York with her new husband for his required rabbinical school year in Israel. But within a few months the couple had become estranged and her husband said he wanted a divorce. Kurshan could have gone back to New York, but she already had a job in Jerusalem and was too shell-shocked to disturb whatever stability was left in her life. What followed were a few years of depression and shame, as well as a loss of faith in love and in herself. She remained in Jerusalem even after her ex went back, and a significant part of what got her through that harrowing period was sticking to her Daf Yomi routine.
Her Daf Yomi learning (and daily morning run) is what pulled Kurshan ‒ a Harvard and Cambridge graduate who memorizes poetry while she runs and swims ‒ out of bed each morning. “I am first and foremost a reader and a lover of texts,” she writes. The reader senses on every page how alive these, and all, texts are for Kurshan, and how she derives her own life force from them.
As others might see signs in nature or dreams, Kurshan experiences the texts she is studying each day as a form of Divine communication. When one reads a text ‒ be it poetry, Bible or Talmud ‒ certain aspects of it resonate depending on what one is experiencing at that time and what other remembered texts are recalled by the words being read. A Divine voice comes through one’s unconscious attraction to certain elements of the text and thus illuminates a new path or perspective. It is this illumination in Kurshan’s mind that we witness.
As Kurshan writes: “Scholars of Talmud consider how the text is informed and often even changed by its contexts; the same is true, perhaps, of the personal contexts in which I have encountered these passages. The text seems to change with each encounter because it resonates in new ways, and I, in turn, am transformed by each encounter.”
Addressing the issue of women’s accessibility to the Talmud, she explains how the Talmud, which was written by men, was not taught to women for 1,500 years. It was only in the past few decades that women have been able to study Talmud and reach levels of scholarship equal to men.
“It soon became clear to me that by the Talmud’s standards, I am a man rather than a woman if ‘man’ is defined as an independent, self-sufficient adult whereas ‘woman’ is a dependent generally living in either her father’s or her husband’s home,” she writes. “In some ways, this was a relief because I could regard the Talmud’s gender stereotypes as historical curiosities rather than infuriating provocations. The Talmud did not offend me because I was defying its classifications through my very engagement with the text. So many of the classical interpretations of the Talmud reflect gendered assumptions, and these texts have the potential to take on radically new meaning when regarded through feminine eyes.”
This is what is most uniquely beautiful about this book: how we, the readers, witness a woman living her life infused with rabbinic textual wisdom, but filtered through her experience as a woman. And this, of course, is the best one can do given the limitations of this text, which was written by men and for men.
Kurshan sidesteps the issue of the Talmud being a male-only text by saying that by rabbinic standards she is a man because she is financially independent and, I would add, highly educated, as well. Had Kurshan been living in Talmudic times, would the rabbis have accepted her as a student? Surely, her sex would have prevented that. Perhaps Kurshan would have been a “Yentltype” figure, but then she would have had to pass up remarrying and birthing her four children.
As a reader, I could not help but feel this tension, this loss of the feminine (on the part of both men and women). Can becoming a “man” possibly solve the inherent problem of sanctifying a text written exclusively by and for men? And, does encouraging women to become or see themselves as “men” devalue the feminine voice, or does it just reinforce the patriarchal premise?
The Talmud was written by men only, and any women’s voices we hear are filtered through men, as Kurshan herself points out. It is also a text that was meant to be studied only by men, and is the product of a patriarchal society at that. Its wisdom should be studied, but only while keeping in mind its flaws. Our critical eye, the voice of the one studying the text, must be of equal importance to the words themselves. The text is no more sacred than the reader, nor is it more sacred than other wise and important texts, even some written (and being written) by women.
Kurshan invokes Virginia Woolf ‒ who dreamed of a room of her own for all women writers ‒ placing her copy of “A Room of One’s Own” on her bookshelf alongside tractate Ketubot (the Talmudic tractate that deals with Jewish marriage laws). Can reading the Talmud alongside Virginia Woolf save it from its own patriarchy? Is Kurshan suggesting that by placing these two voices side by side, a more integrated, balanced voice will one day emerge? Is Kurshan’s book itself such a voice?
I must admit that there were points at which I took issue with Kurshan’s forgiving attitude toward this patriarchal text and the system it represents. Kurshan, like all of us feminists, is in negotiation with the patriarchy, and that is sometimes hard to read about. For example, Kurshan, who grew up the daughter of a rabbi of a New York egalitarian congregation, reflects on the way she and her second husband, Daniel, who grew up Orthodox, negotiate their differing Jewish communal involvement and affiliation – she in an egalitarian synagogue, and he in a non-egalitarian one.
She writes: “As a feminist, I considered it important that both my sons and my daughters be exposed to egalitarian prayer; I was as concerned about my daughters being excluded as I was about my sons taking part in that exclusion. And so we decided that we would take turns bringing our children to synagogue with us. The Talmud in Avodah Zara (19a) cautions that ‘anyone who learns Torah from only one teacher will never see a blessing.’ We like the notion that our children will have multiple models of how to live a meaningful and committed Jewish spiritual life, and we feel fortunate that we live in a city that has made this possible.”
While reading this section, part of me wanted to laud Kurshan’s sentiment as a stunning example of this new, integrated voice. Hers is a nonjudgmental voice, a pluralist voice that sees both sides of the story, that recognizes the humanity in all humans. Yet, is excluding women merely a different model, or is it an oppressive one that perpetuates a misogynist status quo in the name of God? Would those who exclude women consider her egalitarianism an equally valid voice as theirs?
Kurshan says she is not a political animal, that she did not think of herself as having moved to Israel when she declared Israeli citizenship, but rather as having moved to Jerusalem, where “Torah comes forth from Zion.” Yet, it is wishful thinking to imagine that we scholars and artists can be totally detached from the politics of oppression.
Is participating in Daf Yomi as a woman a radically subversive act, or is it a form of perpetuation of a body of knowledge ‒ and a system built upon that body of knowledge ‒ that was created in the intellectual and sacred equivalent of a gentlemen’s club? The participants may be the cream of the crop, but they were only selected from one portion of society that was privileged by being in a position of power, born and bred with certain cultural assumptions, expectations and constructions.
I wondered if the memoir was suggesting that privileging some women to become men solves the problem of a hierarchical and unjust society. In the synagogue where Kurshan’s current husband prays, no matter how many cycles of Daf Yomi Kurshan completes, the men will still not count her in a prayer quorum or let her lead services or read from the Torah scroll.
Perhaps the assumption of this book is that if the author and others like her continue to study, this will one day change. I pray this is true. But if the texts they are reading are only these Jewish male texts, the synagogue itself and its mode of prayer also will not evolve, nor will Jewish ritual or the halachic system, which is why Kurshan’s being so well read in general, even before starting her Daf Yomi cycle, is so crucial to the power of her experience.
If this memoir raises such vital questions, that is only further proof of how its author is so deeply influenced by her beloved Talmudic model of disagreement and questioning for Heaven’s sake. This book is truly an amazing feat and a great contribution to Jewish feminist scholarship. Kurshan’s memory for text is uncanny, and her love for the written word is palpable as we see her life infused with deeper and more directed meaning, depending on what page she is on that day.
Kurshan’s Daf Yomi memoir is a testament to how ancient wisdom continues to resonate across generational, gender and cultural divides, and how, when stripped away of the things that divide us, certain basic elements of being human can bridge the chasms that separate us.
Putting “A Room of One’s Own” alongside Tractate Ketubot is a powerful act of feminist rebellion, but only if we give Virginia Woolf and the rabbis of the Talmud equal footing. I suspect this is a question with which Kurshan would enthusiastically grapple as she swims laps or runs those challenging Jerusalem hills. Perhaps she will ‒ during her second cycle of Daf Yomi, which, she tells us at the end of this memoir, she has already begun.