Tuesday, February 04, 2014

You never forget your first

A guest post by Y. Bloch
It's true what they say. It's been a quarter-century, but I still feel intimately connected to my first. I was preparing to become a bar mitzva, and my father felt that to become a man in the eyes of the Jewish world, I needed to make my first conquest: Sukka.
The height of Venetian fashion, in a fetching Daniel Bomberg typeset.
Sukka (rhymes with looka) is a Talmudic tractate which discusses Sukkot, the most important Jewish holiday most people have never heard of. Sukkot is light on the histrionics and historicity; instead, quite literally, it's "the time of our rejoicing." Sukka deals with the festival's three central mitzvot: a) chilling in a flora-roofed shelter; b) singing and dancing with the fruit and fronds of the Four Species; c) holding an OG House (of God) Party. Sukka has a great balance of lore and law, of history and hermeneutics. It's not one of those twiggy treatises that's an easy layn for those looking to seal the deal quickly, nor is it one of those intractable tractates that endlessly ponders arcana. Sukka, quite simply, has it all.

I bring this all up not only because of my own quadranscentennial, but because myriads of enthusiastic Talmudists will begin studying Sukka tomorrow, as part of the Daf Yomi system. The idea behind Daf Yomi (not to be confused with Daft Yomi, which involves silently studying Talmud while wearing metallic headgear) is shockingly simple: one folio, one double-sided page, every day of the year. Using this method, it takes about 7 1/2 years to study every tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (with some extras). This ancient practice dates back to the Coolidge administration, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland first noticed that many tractates were sadly neglected. Yeshivot kept coming back to the same few chapters in the same few treatises, leaving huge expanses of the Sea of Talmud uncharted and unknown. R. Shapiro, launching the project at a conference in Vienna, believed that Daf Yomi would unite and edify world Jewry, saving tractates like Sukka from obscurity.

But has it worked? On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of Jews participate in Daf Yomi at some point; on the other hand, if the point was to broaden the exposure of yeshiva students to obscure material, it has been an abject failure. Daf Yomi became so popular that it is viewed by the yeshiva elite as balebatish, fine for the common folk who only have an hour or so to dedicate to daily Talmud study, but not for the full-time scholars.

So let's review what we expect from a yeshiva curriculum. Scripture? Good luck even finding a volume of the Prophets or Hagiographa; as for the Pentateuch, that's for Sabbath sermonizing, not serious study. Halakha? Don't be silly; that's kid stuff, relegated to a half-hour of independent study before breakfast or supper. Even a rabbinical student preparing for ordination has no reason to open two out of four volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, and on each of the handful of subjects he'll be tested on, he'll only need to know a few dozen chapters out of the remaining 1,100. Philosophy? Most of it is probably heresy, so let's look at only a few pre-approved books; more than an hour a day will certainly mess with your mind.
Essentially, yeshivot, which are supposed to be institutions of higher Jewish learning, ignore three-quarters of Jewish writing. But what about the Talmud? That's their bread and butter, right?

Not quite. See, the Talmud has multiple components. There's the Mishna, the original second-century composition. Then we have the Gemara from a few centuries later, which uses the Mishna as a jumping off-point for discussions of law and lore, in the form of the earlier and more concise Jerusalem Talmud and the later and more comprehensive Babylonian Talmud. Neither the Mishna nor the Jerusalem Talmud are touched in yeshivot, leaving only the Babylonian Talmud, which covers only 33 1/3 (stay weird, Tamid) of the original 60 Mishnaic tractates. So, this quadrant of Jewish thought, further halved both quantitatively and qualitatively, is the overwhelming majority of the yeshiva curriculum. Stunning.

However, that would only be relevant if yeshivot embraced Daf Yomi or some other system that would aim to circumnavigate the Talmud of Babylon. They don't. Most have cycles of their own, which revolve around the six tractates that deal with mostly theoretical cases of torts, business, marriage and divorce. In summertime (zeman kayitz), when the livin' is easy, you might find a yeshiva studying Mo'ed, the division of the Talmud dealing with the Sabbath and festivals, which is chock-full of relevant Jewish law. But Mo'ed ain't ready for prime time.

That's how I got my heart broken, almost eight years after I first made Sukka's acquaintance. I was 19, fresh from my Israeli yeshiva and back in New York, ready to conquer the world. I had spent the previous five years going back and forth between Kiddushin and Ketubot, and I was ready for something fresh and new. I had my seat right in front of one of the leading Talmudic minds of the time, an alumnus of my Israeli yeshiva, known for his inquisitiveness and intellect. And what was on the curriculum that year, breaking all precedent? My beloved Sukka! Finally, a chance to delve deep into the treatise I'd encountered shallowly as a callow youth. The rabbi strode in on day one, a bemused expression on his face, and opened his lecture with "So we're learning Sukka this year." Pause. "That's in Mo'ed." There's your laughline! Ha ha, you've been great, he's here all semester, please tip your shtender.

When I decided to transfer out of this class (and apparently others shared this inclination), a veteran student pulled me aside to set me straight. "It's not his fault, y'know. I mean, it's Sukka."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the remarkably uninformed graduates that yeshivot are putting out these days. It's not their fault that only a tiny corner of Jewish thought is deemed worthy of study. But it is our fault if we let that ignorance set the agenda for all of us.

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