Law as love at the 13th global Siyum Hashas

Reflections on the MetLife Stadium event with 92,000 people

JEWS SING and dance during the 13th Siyum HaShas at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on January 1. (photo credit: JEENAH MOON/REUTERS)
JEWS SING and dance during the 13th Siyum HaShas at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on January 1.
(photo credit: JEENAH MOON/REUTERS)
On January 1, 92,000 Jews gathered in MetLife Stadium to celebrate the completion of the seven-and-a-half year Daf Yomi (“daily page”) cycle of studying the Talmud. Hundreds of thousands of others will join in from satellite locations around the world, and then together, immediately, they will all turn back to the very first page and start the whole process over again.
For those who have never studied Talmud, it might be hard to understand why we do it, and why the joy of finishing such a project is matched only by the enthusiasm to redo it.
It is true that Jewish people are commanded to study Torah day and night, and that the Talmud connects us across oceans of time and space by concentrating that study in a formalistic way which allows for everyone to participate. But there is more here as well, because for those who study it daily, the Talmud is not just a means but also an end unto itself.
Judaism is often misunderstood as a religion based on law instead of love, with a legal system that is overly attentive to detail. The first part of that caricature is not true, for reasons that make the second part so necessarily accurate. The Talmud tells that once a man came before the great sage Hillel and said, “Teach me all of Torah while standing on one foot.” Hillel answered, “What is hateful to you don’t do to others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is all just commentary, go and learn it.”
The authoritative Rabbi Akiva echoed this sentiment: “Love your neighbor like yourself – this is the essential rule in the Torah.”
The problem that confronts the Talmudist then is much more complex than a simple love/law dichotomy. What happens when you move from an ideal to a systemic translation, from an ethical to a legal imperative? What does it look like when you try to ground a principle like love in practical day-to-day legislation? Naturally it has to become bound by practicality and immediacy.
Jewish law, or Halacha, is law, but it is also our way of expressing the Divine commandment to love in practical, finite terms. It is our way of taking the mundane and making it holy. The study of Talmud is the quest to find spirituality in a law book, and like many other disciplines, it must be understood from within.
The following is based on an idea I once heard from a Talmudic teacher of mine, Rabbi Mendel Blachman.
It is very common for beginners learning Talmud to start their studies with Tractate Baba Metzia, one of the tractates that is part of the section of Talmud called Nezikin, “damages,” which is largely based on laws derived from the tort passages in Exodus. The very first teaching they study, for many their first foray into the world of Talmud, begins with the following case:
“If two people are holding onto a piece of cloth, this one says I found it, and this one says I found it, this one says it’s all mine, and this one says it’s all mine, what do they do? This one swears that he owns at least half of it, and this one swears that he owns at least half of it, and they divide it.”
That seems, at first glance, frankly uninspiring.
But if you just keep on reading a little further, you’ll begin to understand the ancient casebook method of the Talmud; it will become clear that this teaching is just an example to illustrate a greater truth, an underlying principle throughout the whole tractate, i.e. that if a doubt arises between two parties the money in question should be split. That case with the cloak is just the meat of the metaphor, so you can see how it looks in real life.
KEEP ON learning and turning pages and you’ll soon find that this principle itself is just a way of fleshing out the real idea behind the whole order of Nezikin: a meta-legal principle which states that the power of compromise is even greater than the power of strict justice. Splitting the money is just a way for us to concretize that notion, because splitting money when emotions are high is an example of a practical compromise.
This deep in the Talmudic scholar might just begin to feel the pulse of the Talmud, to hear the heartbeat of the Halacha. Keep on going and gathering in all of the other meta-principles that crisscross the Talmud underneath and between the lines and you will see that taken together they are all just an illustration for one much greater truth, the idea that peace, harmony, is the ultimate blessing that God will give His people. Compromise is just a way for us to make that peace something finite and real, to bring it into existence.
That is the truth behind the Talmud and all those layers underneath those laws. The great truth that all of these laws connect us to is the concept of shalom, peace.
And now take just one more step back, and recall the secret treasure hidden in the Talmud Tractate Shabbat, which tells us, Shem Gufei Ikrei Shalom – God’s Name itself is Shalom, Peace.
For the committed Talmudist, when they get up early or stay up late at night to do their daily quota, it is because the source of energy that they just plugged into is God Himself. It is intentions they are intending to bring into their every interaction His love that they are trying to express. That is why the minutia does matter so much because when God is talking you should really take very careful notes.
And when you ask them, how does this esoteric Shalom, Peace, enter into our world of tangible physical reality? The answer is simple: it happens all the time, in the form of a compromise, when you split the money, because there were two people holding a cloth, and you told them to divide it. The Talmudist lives life on that spectrum, constantly trying to peer through the lattice and see what God would say in any given case, and how far between practical principle and the meta-law we have to look to find the appropriate level of abstraction.
Of course this oversimplifies a complicated labor of love, in particular because it is almost never the case that the answers are so clear. That is why the Talmud spends more time debating wrong answers than right ones, and why before we ever get to a conclusion we must first go through all of the reasons why I might have thought or should have thought something else would be the case, and in fact (being that I would have thought it initially) why at first glance that other answer might even have seemed a bit more logical, all before explaining why things are not that way.
The reason that we do this is because in the Talmudic view there is rarely a right answer or a wrong answer. There is usually an answer that is mostly correct and a little bit wrong, and one that is a little bit right but mostly wrong, and so we take the one that is more right as the correct answer, after having explained why the others are not correct in this instance, but always holding the previous thought in our minds because in the real world there are always multiple values in dialectic tension. A good leader needs to know that context matters, that an answer correct in one situation or time or place might be different in another, when the previous answer that you discarded now becomes the one that is, on these facts, for these people, more correct.
The details of how to do this properly are, to the Jewish people, as expressed in the Talmud, the very practical and very finite expressions of God’s Name in this world. That is why so many people this week are celebrating completing a cycle through it, and also why they cannot wait to start again.
The writer was founding editor of the Cambridge University Press Series on Law and Judaism. He teaches law and religion at universities around the world.