Two weeks ago something remarkable happened in the Jewish religious world which has no equal. While millions of people are used to flying off to different cities around the world to watch the Olympics and other games, witnessing the most prestigious sportsmen and sportswomen performing the most spectacular exercises in large stadiums and sports fields, hundreds of thousands of Jews, women, men and children flew last week to Israel, Jerusalem, New York and many other cities from nearly any part of the world to dance, sing, and get excited about something entirely strange in our modern world.
And all that as if their lives were depending on it and which not even the Olympics can beat. It took place in some of the largest sports arenas (!!) in the world, such as New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, which were all filled to capacity, while not even one famous sport hero was to be found among them. Instead men, old and young, with long beards, women with wigs or modern hair coverings, or none at all, boys with peyot, side curls, and girls with long sleeves, Reform and Conservative Jews and even many secular Jews sat in the seats of sporty men and women watching a game.
What world transforming event had taken place that made them leave their families, work and even old age homes, missing major business meetings, university lectures of the greatest minds in science or philosophy and spend their hard earned money to celebrate an event which seems to be the pinnacle of their lives?
A rock star? A mind boggling scientific discovery, a peace treaty making an end to all wars, or a prodigious child who broke all records?
No, none of those. Not even close!
They came to something which not even the Guinness Books of Records is able to chronicle. They came to study the last page of an old book with the ineffable anticipation to start studying it again immediately from page one and not to lose a minute.
These Jews, many far over eighty years old, came together with their children, grand- and greatgrandchildren wearing large black yarmulkes or knitted head coverings, including numerous babies to celebrate the completion of probably the most bizarre book in all of human history: the Babylonian Talmud.
They were dressed in their Shabbat clothes, as if they were going to a royal wedding! And indeed an illustrious wedding it was. As no other. The symbolic wedding of a 4000 years old people with a book, probably the largest in the world, about 1600 years old. With tens of thousands of guests among whom even many women not just participated, but some, like real brides, finishing the Talmud themselves. (One of my daughters was one of them!)
Both in the past and at present time, Jews from all religious and not so religious backgrounds have managed to study one “daf”, talmudic page, a day and so completed the Talmud, about fourty volumes, in seven and a half years. This book is said to have 2711 pages, but this is far from true. Since this book is written in a cryptic language where most of the words are missing as in a secret code, it would, by the standards of our present books cover something like 10.000 pages if not many more. It has a nearly infinite amount of commentaries and sub-commentaries and has caused the creation of so much highly scholarly literature of all sorts that the many commentaries on Shakespeare and Spinoza are naught compared.
This kind of celebration is unparalleled in the entire world of secular scholarship. That all sorts of people, not only scholars but even laymen and youth finish an encyclopedic work by studying it every day without exception, is the strangest celebration human beings know of.
Did you ever see hundreds of thousands Shakespeare or Goethe lovers including scholars, laymen and even young people and kids coming together in a huge stadium and dance and sing when they finished the last page of Hamlet?
Many of the ‘finalists’ live in old age homes, chained to a wheelchair, or are partially recovered from a severe illness, or still in severe pain, or on vacation on Hawaii, or coming home from a long day of hard work longing for their bed but instead, whatever the hour of the day, force themselves to finish one more page. Every day without exception for seven and a half years. And only to start all over again, because they can’t get enough of it!
The world may come to an end, they may have lost all their money in a business transaction, have a severe headache but nothing will stop them from opening the Talmud and wrestling through another page, which is often harder than the most difficult summersault at the Olympics.
Studying Talmud is harder than a chess game. The text is nearly impossible to decipher. You find yourself in a labyrinth where discovering the exit is a near hopeless exercise. Not only for a layman but even for the greatest scholars.
And how strange: while western students are pleased to have completed a book, having (for most of the time) no intention of returning to it again, it is the Jew who has difficulty in parting from this very book she or he just completed.
In fact, it is not the completion of the work which hundreds of thousands of Jews celebrated in these stadiums but above all the anticipation of returning to page one of the old book, as soon as possible!
Finishing is a reason for simple thankfulness, but having the opportunity to begin all over again is the greatest of all excitements and requires an inaugural party.
Western civilization reveals a preoccupation with “getting matters over with”, Judaism is dedicated to infinite beginnings. It is a protest against a culture which is dedicated to the necessity to end.
With good reason all these ‘finalist Jews’ say the following ‘personal’ words to the Talmudic Tractate they just finished: “Hadran Alach”, “(Do not worry), we will return to you, Tractate (so and so) And you will return to us, our mind is still on you! We will not forget you.”
And even more surprising are the words reflecting the feeling of the text towards its students: “Veda’atach alan”, “Your mind is on us (your students), we know that just as much as we will never forget you, you will never forget us – not in this world and not in the world to come.”
This is the language of a love affair between the student and his text, in which the text becomes a living being to be cuddled, cared about and caressed. The text itself, reciprocates in kind. Not for nothing does the Jew sing while reading the Talmudic text! It is the song of lovers who can’t get enough of each other.
And so it is when two Jews accidently meet and one will say in the spirit of the Talmud and often in Yiddish, to the other: Nu, sogt mir a stickel Toire. Quick! Tell me a new insight in the Torah or Talmud!
Did we ever hear two people meet and one asking the other to tell him quickly “a stickel Shakespeare” because there is no greater joy?
Why does this text invoke such an unusual and highly emotional approach only to be compared to the affection between lovers? Why cannot the Jew part from such a text like any other human being, once he has finished studying a book?
It is the realization that one never even began to fully understand the text in the first place and its great wisdom. The text is multifaceted. It carries layers upon layers of meaning. It invokes images and insights which were not yet revealed at a first or even second reading. Just as the lover will constantly be surprised by the ongoing outpouring and revelation of new facets of his or her beloved one, so does the student of the Talmud realize that he has not even started to grasp the text and not even on a superficial level.
It is like unpeeling an onion without ever reaching the core.
In learning Talmud one can only be a perpetual beginner.
Carefully studying its text reveals a diversity of ideas and philosophies, often compared to the ocean. There are storms and waves, silences and noise, rebellions and deep faith, colors in every combination, music in every setting. It is a work which cannot be characterized, eluding all definitions. There is no limitation set on any subject; problems run into one another; they become intricate and interwoven. Legal and theological towers are built which crumble to pieces through one analytic and often razor-sharp statement, to be replaced by a hypothetic deductive method which gets nowhere or hits the nail on its head.
It is therefore impossible to dogmatize the text and to finalize its meaning or conclusively determine its intention or outlook. Doing so, as is sadly the case in some religious circles today, is a terrible mistake.
While many issues of theology are discussed there is no finalized doctrine to be found in all of the Talmud. There are no final articles of faith as known in Christianity, although a great amount of debate concerning certain fundamental beliefs is discussed. But as many commentaries have abundantly shown, nearly all of them are open to heated debate and disagreement. True, there are certain guidelines and not everything goes. One needs to approach the text in awe, as a religious document which touches the soul and not as a work of literature using literal criticism.
It is clear that there is an inherent dislike for finalized positions. It is part and parcel of the prohibition not to create false images. Only the existence of God and the divine nature of the Torah are (somewhat and only partially) beyond discussion. As such the Talmud is an honest reflection of the Torah itself.
What the Jewish people received at Sinai was not dogma but a spirit and a deed to live by, deeply rooted in ethics and a religious experience. It does not overly emphasize what needs to be believed but what categorically needs to be done in order to create an ideal religious ethical society. The subordination of dogma created the possibility of interpretation and allows for many views.
Judaism did not create monuments out of stone but out of fluid words. It is this fact which makes Judaism stand out and why so many intelligent people have been attracted by it. (See the observations by the famous Jewish French secular philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in his The Genius of Judaism, Random House, New York, 2017.)
So who have been and still are the real the winners at the Olympics for thousands of years? The old Jew or the young athlete? The human spirit or just the human body? That is the question of “to be or not to be.”