Okay, I feel like this is the first real, substantive post on here. Rubber-hits-the-road time. Looks like I’m going to answer a relatively simple question with an indefensible detour into a technical discussion of the history of Jewish law. This may portend poorly for this blog…
Neither Debbie nor I grew up as Orthodox Jews. Coming to it as adults, we’ve missed out on a lot of education. In particular, by the time I got interested, I was already working as a lawyer, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for playing catch-up. I squeeze in some classes and chavrusa (one-on-one) learning at night and on weekends, but real progress in Torah study requires the kind of focus and time that only can be done full-time. As much as I’ve tried to do what I can, my skills are still rudimentary. My secular legal training is actually helpful in many ways, but when I’m learning with a chavrusa, our relationship is inevitably more student-to-teacher than peer-to-peer. My goal for the year is to reach peer-to-peer status.
What is so hard about learning Torah? Isn’t it just the first five books of the Bible? You read it, you read some commentaries, and there you are. Right?
When Orthodox Jews talk about “learning Torah,” we almost always mean the Oral Law, i.e., the Talmud. Generally speaking, the Talmud contains: (a) Divine Law that, in our tradition, was received orally together with the Written Law; (b) additional laws enacted rabbinically, pursuant to authority granted by the Torah; and (c) assorted other material, ranging from historical material, to elaborations on the accounts of events described in the Bible, to inspirational stories of tzaddikim (righteous individuals), to health advice.
Originally, the Oral Torah was to remain just that – transmitted in oral form only. But, under Roman persecution, the integrity of its transmission was under threat. About 1800 years ago, it was redacted into the Mishna. Although it was written down, it was recorded in a very terse and cryptic form, the full meaning of which could only be understood by studying it from someone already well versed in it. This preserved the necessity of oral transmission, with the mental acuity it demands and confers. The Mishna turned out to be a little too terse to accomplish its goals, and written commentary on it – called the Gemara – was redacted some 200-300 years later. The Talmud consists of selections of Mishna, followed by the Gemara on that Mishna. There were actually two Talmuds, one redacted in Israel (the Jersusalem Talmud, or Yerushalmi) and one in Babylonia (the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli). The one that we primarily study today is the Bavli.
What’s so intense about studying Talmud? Although it expanded considerably on the Mishna, the Gemara remains terse and often cryptic. It was designed to deliver a lot of information in a carefully structured way, working on many levels at once. Often, what seems like a fairly straightforward exchange gets tough in a hurry when you apply some analysis. Keeping in mind that they didn’t record stupid questions, you often have to puzzle out what a particular Rabbi had in mind when he asked his question. Wasn’t the answer obvious? Once you realize what he was really asking, the formerly simple answer is now a mystery. You unlock that, and you’re on to another mystery. Nothing is simple. On top of it all, the Talmud never just lists the canons of its own interpretation. You often have to figure them out from the recorded exchanges themselves. Imagine knowing nothing about baseball,then listening to the radio account of a baseball game, and trying to infer the rules from that alone. Sometimes learning Talmud is like that.
On top of this, the Mishna is in Hebrew and the Gemara is (mostly) in Aramaic. I’ve got a little of the former, and virtually none of the later. Fortunately, there are lots of stock words that get used over and over, so there’s not a huge vocabulary to learn, but still… For those of you who have some familiarity with Hebrew, you’ll also appreciate the extra degree of difficulty in that there are no nekudot (vowels) provided. Oh, and did I mention that the essential commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos – which are printed right there on the page of Talmud – are written in a different script that you also have to know cold?
After years of plugging away in my spare time, I can now do some of this. But I have a long way to go. I don’t know that I would ever get there without doing something like this, taking the time to work at it full-time for a time.
But this trip is not (I hope) just about me. For Debbie… well, I don’t want to put words into her mouth, and I hope she’s also going to blog here, so I leave it to her to say what she wants. But suffice it to say that being in Israel should present her with plenty of opportunities for her own spiritual and intellectual growth. For the kids, it is a chance to internalize our commitment to learning Torah. We can talk all we like about how important it is, but that won’t compare to them seeing their father leave work and take the family across the globe to do it. They also get a major boost to their education, immersing in Hebrew and an entire country that lives on a Jewish calendar. I also hope it will form the foundation of their lifelong connection to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Strengthening our connection to the people, language, and land is something of great value to Debbie and me, too.
We’ve been talking for years about doing this, and we’re enormously grateful that we have the opportunity to do it now. I’m especially grateful to my firm for being amazingly understanding — more about that in future posts, I expect. If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and I hope this made things a little bit more clear.