90,000 celebrate completion of page a day Talmud study

More than 90,000 people packed MetLife Stadium in New Jersey for the Siyum HaShas, celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi page-a-day Talmud study cycle, Aug. 1, 2012.

URIEL HEILMAN, JTA

what she was learning.

“The Talmud, for someone who has a diverse range of interests, is the most incredible text because it has everything in it,” Kurshan told JTA. “There’s nothing as exciting as the next page of Gemarah because it’s so discursive. There could be a wild tale. For me that’s so exhilarating. Every daf is uncharted territory.”

ADVERTISEMENT
MERS Goodwill ad


Kurshan also writes essays about her studies, including reflections on how the dafs correspond with her life – like a horoscope, she says. When she was pregnant, Kurshan ruminated on how her baby’s upcoming journey through the birth canal was paralleled by a Talmudic discussion of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt through the “birth canal” of the Red Sea.

“My interest in learning has nothing to do with halachah,” Kurshan said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law. “For me, what’s exciting is that the debates were not resolved. You have everybody’s opinion, they’re all fighting with each other. It’s just a thrilling intellectual experience.”

For Yedidah Koren, who is working toward a master’s degree in Talmud at Tel Aviv University, Daf Yomi study has provided a harbor of stability in a life filled with constant change.

“It’s been the most steady thing in my life for the last 10 years,” said Koren, 27, who began while a student at a Jerusalem seminary and continued through her national service, college, a year abroad in Sweden and married life. Sometimes she learns the daf over breakfast, on the bus or during prayer services. She’s on her second Daf Yomi cycle.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who was ordained by the Conservative movement and co-founded an independent egalitarian yeshiva in New York called Mechon Hadar, says Daf Yomi is beginning to catch on in non-Orthodox circles.

“Daf Yomi in particular is a real commitment, a daily commitment for seven-plus years that I think only now is gaining some traction outside Orthodoxy in a meaningful way,” Kaunfer said.

A Conservative synagogue in Newton, Mass., Temple Reyim, has had a Daf Yomi group for more than seven years, according to one of the participants, Carol Stollar. When the group’s six participants completed the Talmud cycle this week, they attended a Siyum HaShas celebration at an Orthodox synagogue in nearby Brookline.

Kaunfer says there is growing interest in Talmud study among Jews not steeped in Torah scholarship because once they have the intellectual tools to learn Gemarah, they are empowered to access one of Judaism’s most difficult and central texts without the filter of another’s perspective or ideology.

“I think there’s something very appealing about opening up a mysterious text, and I think people want to experience a text unmediated,” he said. “In the Internet age, where everything is open, one of the last things that’s uncracked are the sources of Jewish wisdom and culture.”

Edgar Bronfman, a prominent businessman and Jewish philanthropist, convenes a weekly Talmud class in his office taught by rabbis.

“The Talmud belongs to all of us,” Bronfman said. “Studying Talmud, there’s so much wisdom there, and it also gives you a chance to argue, and that’s very Jewish.”

Daf Yomi is not without its critics.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says the pace of Daf Yomi is overly focused on getting through the Talmud rather than studying it deeply.

“The question is how much depth does one really get into with a Daf Yomi kind of approach,” Wernick said. “It’s breadth over depth. The Conservative approach to Jewish study tends to be more depth-oriented.”

Instead, his movement encourages learning one Mishna per day. Though the Mishna is the foundational text for Talmudic discourse, it’s much shorter and simpler: The Mishna is to the Talmud what the Constitution is to constitutional law.

Koren, the master’s degree student at Tel Aviv University, defended the Daf Yomi approach against the sort of criticism offered by Wernick.

“A lot of the claims against Daf Yomi is that it’s not deep and it’s not rigorous and you don’t really remember what you learned,” she said. “But how many different topics do you come across that if you learn just classic, regular yeshiva Talmud, you’d never come across?”

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism, says Talmud study is not a priority for his movement, which assigns the same authority to contemporary Reform rabbis as it does to Talmudic sages.

“Text study is very important to us, but we focus on the Ur-text, on Torah in particular. Talmud, the Oral Law, is not our core text,” he said. It “certainly doesn’t rise anywhere to the level of a daily study encouragement for us.”