Judaism’s secret weapon

Some years ago, I had the privilege of teaching Torah to a large group in the original Chochmei Lublin yeshiva – it was then a nursing school; it now has been returned to the Jewish community.

Judaism’s secret weapon (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Judaism’s secret weapon
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I still vividly remember my first encounter with Gemara. It was in grammar school back in Chicago, when we were handed a small pamphlet with the first page of Bava Metzia – one of the famous “Three Bavas” – that began:
Two people are holding on to the end of a talit; each claims to have found it first. This one says, “It is all mine!” The other counters, “It is all mine!” They take an oath…and the garment (or its worth) is divided between them.”
And so began, for us preteens, the Great Debate that is known as the Talmud: the back-and-forth, give-and-take, stake-out-a-position-and-defend-your-viewpoint-against-all-comers intellectual struggle that is known, somewhat incongruously, as the Oral Law. This bird’s-eye view of the great sages of our history, engaging in holy battle to plumb God’s law is, in many ways, the heart and soul of all Jewish scholarship.
This week, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world have gathered in great celebration in synagogues, study halls and even sports stadiums to partake in the 13th global Siyum HaShas, completing yet another seven-year cycle of studying the entire six orders of the Babylonian Talmud – all 2,711 pages of it. The concept of studying “a daf a day” was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chochmei Lublin, one of the great Torah-learning centers in Eastern Europe. He suggested the idea at the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel in Vienna on August 16, 1923 as a way both of encouraging the study of oft-neglected tractates, as well as a pathway to unify the Jewish people. His concept was enthusiastically approved, and the study began on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5684 (September 11, 1923).
CHOCHMEI LUBLIN had a short-lived, tragic history. It was an innovative and beautiful institution, offering sleeping quarters for the students and a top-ranked staff of rabbinic scholars. 50,000 people participated in the opening ceremony of the yeshiva in 1924, and it promised to be one of the primary centers of Jewish learning, but the Nazi invasion changed all that. When the German army took Lublin, they stripped the school’s interior and burned the vast library in the town square. An officer who witnessed the event reported that a brass band played, while a Jewish throng loudly wept as the books burned. The building became the regional headquarters of the German Military Police.
I have my own personal and emotional connection to the yeshiva. Two of my great-uncles taught Talmud there. When the Nazis entered Poland, my grandmother’s family – 13 siblings in all – gathered together to decide what to do. Half of the family chose to escape into Russia; they ultimately survived the war. The others – including these rabbis and their families – did not want to desecrate the Shabbat by traveling over Shabbat, or live apart from the yeshiva; and so they stayed, and perished in the Shoah.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of teaching Torah to a large group in the original Chochmei Lublin yeshiva – it was then a nursing school; it now has been returned to the Jewish community and is an active museum – and I felt I closed a circle in my family history.
THE TALMUD – once transmitted solely by word of mouth, generation to generation – was finally transcribed at the behest of Rabbi Judah the Prince, even though this violated the prohibition of turning oral into written law. “Rebbe,” as he was known, was afraid that the vast sea of knowledge illuminating the laws of the Torah would be lost, and so he made a bold and controversial decision. History has shown that he acted wisely, and the study of the Talmud – sometimes, ironically, to the exclusion of the books of Tanach – has become the centerpiece of Torah learning.
The Gemara, however, is not just a book of knowledge. It is an art, a discipline, a unique training center for the Jewish mind. Alan Dershowitz once remarked that his exceptional grasp of the finer points of the law was a direct result of his studying Talmud; Toronto philanthropist Albert Reichman, when asked for his secret to being so successful in business, simply remarked, “I study Talmud every day!” The Talmudic – or Socratic – method of study is to attack every subject from all angles, to direct and dissect each aspect, until finally arriving at the Truth. Often, it is not so much the result, as it is the process which is paramount. One studies for the sake of studying, not just to come to hard and fast conclusions. Indeed, the rabbinic approach is that even diametrically opposing viewpoints can all be valid, as they are “words of the living God” in their own right.
Even the many non-legal stories in the Talmud – the Aggadata – are filled with brilliance and inspiration, and serve as a glimpse into the mind-set and moral stature of the sages. They can be deeply mysterious, humorous, even tragic – as in the saga of the 10 murdered sages – yet each has a profound lesson to teach.
In fact, I revisited that very first Talmudic lesson I learned, and realized how completely relevant it is, beyond its legal implications. When debating our presence here in Israel, one must always take the position, “It is all mine (or ours);” for to state any less is to abdicate our claim on the land.
With all the many challenges facing Judaism today, the surest sign of a bright future is the proliferation of Talmud study, across all boundaries and encompassing all sectors of our society. With apologies to the Byrds, there may be no greater prescription for our survival than the directive, “Learn, Learn, Learn!”  
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.