Borderline Views: The original globalization

The 12th cycle of the Siyum HaShas, has come to an end, and hundreds of thousands of Jews are celebrating.

DIRSHU’S CELEBRATION of completion of Daf Yomi 370 (photo credit: Dirshu)
DIRSHU’S CELEBRATION of completion of Daf Yomi 370
(photo credit: Dirshu)
Tens of thousands of orthodox Jews attended mass gatherings last week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Yad Eliyahu, the home of Israel’s premier basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, the home of the Betar Jerusalem football team, were both full to capacity. Over 90,000 filled the Mets Stadium in New York. Additional gatherings at the Binyanei Haumah National Convention Hall in Jerusalem – one for the religious-Zionist community and another for the English- speaking community, along with a host of other locations throughout the world.
Wherever there is a major Jewish community, there has been at least one event, if not two or three. In some of the locations, tickets became a sought after commodity, exchanging hands through inflated prices or through special favors and “connections,” a bit like the quest for tickets for the Super Bowl, the FA Cup Final or the final stages of the Olympics.
The 12th cycle of the daily study of the Talmud, the Siyum HaShas, had come to an end, and hundreds of thousands of Jews (mostly, but not exclusively, orthodox) have gathered to mark the joyous occasion. The irony was not lost on the organizers – for years they fought fiercely against the construction of a sports stadium in Jerusalem, while they view all forms of competitive sport as part of a Hellenization process which is directly contrasted with the world of “holiness.” And here they are, having filled up the major sports stadiums in North America and Israel, to celebrate the completion of the study of the Talmud.
SINCE THE inception of the Siyum HaShas idea by Rabbi Meir Shapiro at the First World Congress of the Agudath Israel convention in Vienna in 1923, the project has expanded like wildfire. Each end of cycle celebration attests to a larger and larger percentage of world Jewry who participate in the daily learning cycle, as groups or as individuals.
Where they can’t get together as a group in the early morning or late evening in their local synagogues, they may be meeting in their downtown workplaces over lunch, or as individuals, may be using the many Internet resources and aids which have been put together in recent years.
It is not uncommon to pass through a major airport or rail station somewhere in the world and encounter an individual Jewish traveler pouring over the daily page of Talmud in order not to miss out. He can walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world, on a business trip or as a tourist, sit down with people he has never met, and know exactly which page is being studied, what was discussed yesterday and what will be studied tomorrow, as he continues on his travels.
It is a remarkable global event, which has been in operation long before modern theories of globalization were invented by post-modern sociology. It is a process of global standardization which predates McDonald’s and other commercially recognized franchises.
Today it is disseminated through the internet, on DVD’s, PC’s, iPads, and iPhones for those who are unable to have the printed text with them.
For some it may be an intellectual exercise, but for most it is a religious obligation, one which has turned into a powerful social phenomenon for Jews from almost every type of community and ethnic background – Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Zionist and anti-Zionist, as evidenced by the diversity of communities which held celebrations during the past two weeks.
EVEN DAF Yomi and the study of Talmud has its political tensions, as reflected in the diversity of texts offered to the student. The Steinzalts Talmud, a labor of love – which has taken almost 30 years to complete, bringing together the traditional commentaries in a fluent and understandable language – has not always been accepted in the haredi community.
The fact that Rabbi Adin Steinzalts was also the recipient of the Israel Prize for his monumental life work of over 30 years, and that he occasionally draws on contemporary Talmudic research to help explain Talmudic concepts and ideas, has made him automatically suspect among large sectors of the haredi world, some of whom ban the Steinzaltz Talmud from their yeshivot.
But Steinzalts can be credited with having opened the world of Talmud study to tens of thousands of people for whom the study of the traditional Aramaic text was difficult, or may have lacked the necessary background for such study if they had not grown up within the world of religion and orthodoxy.
During the past decade, the even lengthier Schottenstein Talmud (two pages for every page in the original text) has captured the market as an alternative method of study for those who require additional explanatory texts. Unlike the Steinzalts version, the Schottenstein version has received the approbation of the haredi rabbis, even if many still prefer that their Yeshiva students only use the traditional texts and layouts.
The Schottenstein family were the honorees at last weeks massive Siyum HaShas which took place before 90,000 participants at the New York Mets stadium.
Whichever method of study – the traditional layout, the Steinzalts or the Schottenstein – there are enough alternatives out there for any budding Daf Yomi participant to find the version which can assist him in his daily study of the allotted page.
THE STUDY of Talmud has its limitations, especially within the Yeshiva world. It is an approach which focuses on the meanings, transparent and hidden, of the text, as elucidated by the many commentaries. It does not raise existential questions of belief, and there is always the expectation that there is an answer to every problem, even when the argument appears to be unresolvable.
Where such an answer is not apparent, it will wait for the traditional Talmudic answer, the “teiku,” for the Messiah to answer when he eventually arrives.
This contrasts strongly with the critical study and open-ended analysis of Jewish texts within a university environment. But in the battle for minds, it is the former which has been winning out – and in a big way.
People flock to Daf Yomi sessions, while the Jewish Philosophy and Talmud departments at the universities suffer from a dearth of new students.
True, it is not quite the same thing – one requires a daily commitment of an hour, while the other requires three years of full study towards a degree. But the discipline required for an individual, who has other employment, family and social requirements, to find that hour every day for seven and a half years – with no promise of a degree or a salary increment at the end of it – is a remarkable social phenomenon which touches upon the concept of “limmud lishma,” study for the sake of study, which is central to the Jewish experience, past and present.
And no amount of study of the same text can ever be perfect – it has to be repeated and repeated, because there may always be a new insight, a new interpretation, or something forgotten which can be refreshed.
From the completion of the 12th cycle, the 13th cycle has commenced immediately, without even a day’s break.
New students have joined up, desiring to be part of the challenge of keeping at it for seven and a half years, until the next round of celebrations. And so it will continue for as long as the Jewish people focus on this unique compilation of oral law, the Talmud, as one of its religious and cultural foundations.
The writer is the dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his own.