Sharing the secret
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 13, 2005
The most important consequence of last week's celebration of the completion of the eleventh cycle of Daf Yomi learning had nothing to do with the nearly five hours of speeches at Madison Square Garden or at the Meadowlands Arena. Rather it was the hoopla that surrounded the gathering of 50,000 Jews at these two massive arenas in the New York metropolitan area.
At 80 sites around the globe, another 70,000 Jews gathered to view, by satellite hookup, the main speeches from Madison Square Garden and the Meadowlands. At those sites local speakers featured as well. Not since the days of the Temple in Jerusalem have so many Jews joined together in a celebration of Torah. The event received extensive coverage in the major metropolitan areas of the United States and in virtually every Anglo-Jewish weekly.
Why does that media buzz make a difference? Because many Jews who have never heard of the Talmud, and who have little conception of the centrality of talmudic learning in traditional Jewish society, now know of the Talmud and of the importance that Jews have always attached to its study.
I grew up in an intensely identified Jewish home. My family belonged to one of the flagship congregations in the Conservative movement. I spent a summer in Camp Ramah, and my Jewish education extended for another four years past bar mitzva. Yet Talmud was simply not on my radar screen.
I cannot recall a single reference to the Talmud during my 11 years of Jewish education, and I certainly never viewed a page of the Talmud. If I heard the word Talmud in my childhood, it was more likely as an adjective – as in talmudic casuistry – than as a noun.
By virtue of the excitement generated by this Siyum HaShas, there is an ever greater chance that non-Orthodox Jews will hear of Talmud and that their curiosity will be piqued. True, the initial beneficiaries of the excitement generated by last week's Siyum HaShas will be largely Orthodox. A friend of mine who teaches daf yomi (a folio per day) to young professionals on Manhattan's Upper West Side was greeted by 30 students eager to start the next cycle of learning, up from 10 for the previous cycle.
IN TIME, however, this news will filter down and influence the broader Jewish community. It is not by accident, for instance, that Jewish Unity Live, a program featuring such luminaries as Natan Sharansky, Elie Wiesel, and Senator Joseph Lieberman discussing the importance of studying Jewish texts, which played to largely non-Orthodox audiences in Phoenix, Atlanta, Ottawa, Newark, and Long Island, was timed to coincide with the Siyum HaShas.
The expansion of Talmud learning beyond the confines of the Orthodox world will be greatly facilitated by the completion of the 73-volume translation and elucidation of the entire Babylonian Talmud by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. The monumental Schottenstein Talmud offers those with no talmudic training a degree of access for the first time.
Gradually the recognition is dawning that the Talmud is the key to Jewish survival and transmission. Our enemies have always recognized this.
In a general directive to the German Occupation Forces in Poland issued November 23, 1940, the German High Commander I.A. Eckhardt warns that the ostjuden, the Eastern European Jews, must not be allowed to escape because they comprise the majority of the rabbis and "Talmud teachers," and if they escape they can bring about the spiritual regeneration of world Jewry, even American Jewry. These words would prove as prophetic as those uttered by another great hater of the Jews, the gentile prophet Bilaam.
When Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin first proposed the idea of all Jews learning the same folio of Gemara each day, at the Knessiah Gedolah of Agudath Israel in Vienna in 1923, he had no idea how his proposal would be received. But when the Gerrer Rebbe, leader of close to 100,000 Polish hassidim, began the first cycle of daf yomi learning the following Rosh Hashana, daf yomi learning was established. At the outbreak of the World War II, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews learning daf yomi.
By the time of the third completion of the cycle of daf yomi learning in the winter of 1945, most of those hundreds of thousands had fallen victim to the Nazi death machine. Yet a small number of Torah scholars and hassidic rebbes who escaped the inferno managed to rebuild in American and Israel the world of Torah learning that had been nearly wiped out. And a commitment to intense Talmud study was their tool.
Rabbi Yissochar Frand told the story at last week's siyum of the pious Jew who was the executioner of Adolf Eichmann. Many years after Eichmann's execution German TV wanted to interview his executioner. The man agreed, but on one condition: The interview must be filmed in the kollel in which he learned following his retirement. Why? So that the German viewers "might know why we prevailed."
It is time for all Jews to recognize that secret of Jewish survival as well.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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