Something big is happening on Sunday. Something epic and momentous, that you won’t want to miss.
If you’re in the New York area the entire Jewish community is coming together for a solidarity rally under the banner “No Hate. No Fear.” The Jan. 5 event comes in the wake of the brutal and deadly attacks in Monsey, Jersey City and Brooklyn over the past 10 days.
But that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m referring to the monumental the 7-and-a-half-year cycle of what is often called the largest book club in the world, which on this Sunday will begin anew. Jews all over the world will begin re-reading the Babylonian Talmud, one page a day in the tradition known as Daf Yomi – a daily page of Talmud.
There really is no coincidence or correlation between the two events, and my focus here on the Talmud instead of anti-Semitism does not mean that we turn a blind eye to the terrifyingly increasing number of attacks and incidents, nor shall we stand down in the face of what feels like open season on identifiable Jews.
But, neither shall we be defined by it.
As Rabbi Donniel Hartman wrote this week:
“I hate when anti-Semitism takes over all Jewish discourse. I hate to talk about anti-Semitism, because I want to talk about what Judaism can learn from and contribute to the modern world, and not merely how we can survive it. I was raised on the belief that contemporary Jewish life, whether in Israel or North America, had a critical choice to make between Auschwitz and Sinai, as to which was to guide our lives and shape our core identity. Auschwitz was to be remembered and mourned, but it is Sinai and the teachings of the Jewish tradition over the millennia that give Jewish life meaning and value, and consequently, a future.”
It is the teachings of Jewish tradition that give Jewish life meaning, and here we have an opportunity to learn them together, each with our own background, our own agenda, and our own interpretation of those teachings.
The Daf Yomi cycle began in Poland in 1920 at the behest of Rabbi Meir Shapira of the Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin. Some say it was a way to unify the Jewish people, as proposed by R. Shapira, some see it as an attempt to combat assimilation, and others see it as a way to give renewed exposure and authority to the central corpus of Jewish life, ritual, and theology, the Talmud.
The first cycle began with tens of thousands of Jews in Europe, America and Israel learning the first daf of the first tractate of the Talmud, Berakhot and completing the 2,711-page cycle 7 years later in 1931. And this Sunday marks the beginning of the next year cycle you won’t want to miss.
What does this have to do with Israel and Zionism you might ask?
1. In today’s world, Daf Yomi could be an answer to Israel-Diaspora relations. What better way to discuss bring us together and emphasize the concept of peoplehood than to literally be on the same page?
Yes, it is hard-going, tedious, at times monotonous, and requires a serious commitment. As the Yiddish aphorism goes, Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid. It is hard to be a Jew. But seriously, whether we see the Talmud as an instruction manual for ritual life or just a collection of stories and laws written by ancient rabbis reflecting the issues and logic of their time, I’ve never found a good excuse for ignoring its contents. This is an opportunity to learn together with Jews around the world, and specifically in Israel the wisdom of our tradition.
2. In Israel, there has been a debate playing out for the past century or so about the very essence of what Israeli Judaism would be. This debate has materialized by two giants of Zionist thought: Mikha Yosef Berdichevsky and Ahad Ha’am.
As explained by Dr. Micah Goodman “For Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky (1865-1921), the cultural aim of the Zionist project had to be the complete severance of the historical continuity that bound Jews to their past and its replacement with an altogether new identity.” However, Ahad Ha’am countered this with his vision, in which “the reborn Jewish home would sprout new academies of learning (batei midrash), new scholars, and new students. In no way inferior in talent or learning to the generations who had come before, this new generation would be thoroughly immersed in traditional texts but would relate to them less as sources of restrictive authority than as sources of expansive and vitalizing inspiration.
There’s little question that for the first few decades of the Israel’s existence the school of Berdichevksy won. But slowly, the polarizing dichotomy between religious and secular no longer answered the needs of the mainstream, and many Israelis developed an innocent curiosity about Judaism leading more to the Ahad Ha’am vision. This phenomenon of learning and appreciation for Hebrew culture has led to relatively new institutions such as secular yeshivot (Alma, Bina, Elul, etc…) and of course to the growth of the Reform and Conservative Movements as Israelis are increasingly interested in their own culture, narrative, and the richness of our tradition. There is a new “cultural movement that doesn’t undermine or displace secularism but actually fortifies it, albeit in a new mode. If for the first two generations of Israelis, secular culture was built on the negation and repulsion of Diaspora traditionalism, the burgeoning secularism of recent years is defined by a wholly different impulse. Berdichevsky is out; Ahad Ha’am is in. A new-old paradigm is taking hold: a secularism based not on the repudiation of Judaism but on the willingness, and the desire, to be influenced by it.”
3. Majority Rules:
As Rabbi Ethan Tucker commented about the 100,000-person gathering at the Met-Life stadium in New Jersey to finish the cycle of learning known a Siyum haShas:
“We are meant to be a majority (at least sometimes). So much of Jewish life in the Diaspora is built on the basic fact of being a minority. … This has its place, and you won’t find any negation of the Diaspora in my outlook on Jewish life. But it is also clear that we are meant to be a majority as well. And I don’t just mean that as a point of historical justice. The thickness of Jewish culture, learning, knowledge, and practice really need an environment defined by it. So much of contemporary North American Jewish life is like running a heat lamp outdoors in the winter. It is so inefficient, so attenuated by the entropy of contemporary society, and still overwhelmed by (post-)Christian assumptions and patterns of thought and behavior that define the West. To feel Judaism pulsing with full force as the majority culture in MetLife Stadium is to see a different picture of what it is like to define the ambient environment not just respond to it. I have felt that in Israel many times—this was the first time I felt something similar outside of the land of Israel, even if it was fleeting, artificial, constructed and yes, a bit commercial.”
As much as we want Israelis to understand the tribulations and triumphs of Diaspora life, we must also take the few opportunities to feel what it is like to be in the majority. If that is not a triumph against anti-Semitism, then I don’t know what is. Maybe on Sunday when you head out to march in solidarity take along a copy of the tractate Brakhot and try a hand at joining the largest book club in the world. The rest, of course, is commentary, now go and learn!