The tie that binds
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 1, 1997
More than 100,000 Jews around the globe gathered this past Sunday to celebrate the completion of the tenth seven- year cycle of daf yomi learning. Satellite hookup connected 70,000 at Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum, and 30 more sites around North America. For six months, seats at the sold-out Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum have been the hottest tickets in New York.
Such a large gathering of Jews is remarkable enough. But even more remarkable is the fact that no other group of Jews protested the gathering, as if in silent proof that Torah learning remains the most powerful unifying force for world Jewry.
Such unity was Rabbi Meir Shapiro's explicit goal when he proposed an international program of daily study of a folio of Talmud at the First Knessiah Gedolah of Agudath Israel in Vienna in 1923. The 36-year-old rabbi painted a vision of a Jew travelling anywhere in the world able to find a group studying the same page of Talmud as he.
The idea caught on like wildfire. Prior to the destruction of European Jewry, more than half-a-million Jews were learning daf yomi. Many Holocaust survivors, who never dreamed of witnessing again the vibrant Torah learning of the pre-War Eastern Europe of their youth, wept openly at the sight of 26,000 Jews assembled in Madison Square Garden.
Though there is inevitably a degree of superficiality in learning a folio of Talmud a day - advanced scholars can easily spend a week or more on the same material - there is nothing superficial about the commitment involved. Most participants in the program either rise early in the morning for an hour-long class before work or gather in the evening after a full day as lawyers, doctors, accountants, nuclear physicists or businessmen. Many spend another couple of hours reviewing what they have learned.
These daily study groups foster an unparalleled intimacy. Though members often have no contact with one another outside the confines of the study group, they forge an intense bond. For each of them, the hour spent together learning is the focal point of their day, and all else must be pushed aside if they are to keep up with the relentless pace. One does not drop out of such a group, or even miss a few days, without feeling as if he
deserted comrades in arms.
Jews involved in the study of Talmud are not only connected to their own study group and others around the world, but to other Jews across the millennia. They are in an ongoing discussion with the scholars of the great academies of Babylonia, with Rashi, the premier commentator on Talmud, who lived in 11th-century France, and with the Maharshah, a 16th-century Polish super-commentator, among many others.
IMPRESSIVE as the explosion of daf yomi learning is, it has, until recently, been largely confined to those with at least some yeshiva background. Of even more revolutionary potential is the impact of modern technology on access to Torah knowledge.
As Jewish literacy has declined rapidly, the classic Jewish texts have become closed books to almost all Jews without yeshiva or seminary training. Many who desire to study those texts find the way barred by their lack of knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic. Others hesitate to seek out teachers because they fear - wrongly – that they will have to commit themselves in advance to dress a certain way or to a particular level of observance.
These barriers are all tumbling down. We have witnessed in recent years a proliferation of translations and commentaries in English. By the time the next cycle of daf yomi is completed, the 70-volume ArtScroll translation and elucidation of the entire Babylonian Talmud will be finished.
It is possible today to dial-a-class on any page of Talmud, and to listen at one's own pace. A newly available CD-ROM allows the user to click on a class by one of the world's premier talmudic scholars on whatever line he wishes.
Through the Internet, those who are far from stepping through the portals of a yeshiva, or prevented from doing so by their life situations, have access to a plethora of Torah information. One leading Website devoted exclusively to Torah material offers nearly 20 ongoing classes in the weekly Torah portion, ethics, philosophy, Halacha, and Talmud, and receives 600,000 'hits' a month. Over half the subscribers to these courses describe
themselves as something other than Orthodox, and only a quarter have had any post-high school yeshiva training.
Ohr Somayach's 'Ask the rabbi' page receives 500 E- mail inquiries a week on every aspect of Jewish law, custom, and philosophy. Each question is answered within a day by a team of scholars.
Today any Jew in Israel can turn on the radio and hear Rabbi Mordechai Neugershal or Rabbi Yosef ben-Porat discussing the most esoteric issues of Jewish philosophy based on the Zohar, or the writings of the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, or the Vilna Gaon.
On Rosh Hashana, Jews pray to God to make us 'one united whole to do [His] will.' We are one people because our ancestors stood together on Sinai and heard God speak to them as one. And we continue to be bound together as one people by virtue of the Torah He gave us then.
May we all be blessed with a New Year of spiritual and material bounty.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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