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“The bottom line is that what unified the Jews originally is the only thing that can unify us in the future: the Torah,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the Aguda’s director of public affairs.
Shafran acknowledged that the majority of Siyum attendees will be Orthodox Jews. But he argued that Daf Yomi not only unites the many diverse strands of Orthodox Judaism, but also increasingly appeals to Jews from outside the Orthodox world. Launched in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro at the First International Congress of Agudath Israel, in Vienna, Daf Yomi “was devised to enhance the sense of unity among Jews worldwide through the study of Torah,” Shafran said.
Enormous photographs of the seventh, 10th, and 11th Siyum HaShas events decorate the halls of the Agudah’s Manhattan headquarters. The last event, held in 2005 at Madison Square Garden, drew a crowd of 50,000 people.
In addition to the main event, smaller Siyums are held around the world. This year, an estimated 60,000 people are expected to take part in these other gatherings, bringing the total of the 2012 celebration to 150,000 people, according to the Aguda.
Even those Jewish leaders not attending are in awe of the Aguda’s achievement in bringing together so many Jews for a religious celebration. “I think the Siyum HaShas gathering is terrific,” Jacobs said. “I hope that it is richly rewarding for all who participate.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi, said that Shafran’s claim draws on a widespread belief that three “ideals” are able to unify the Jewish people: “Am Yisroel,” the people of Israel; “Eretz Yisroel,” the Land of Israel; and “Torat Yisrael,” the Torah.
Today, while many Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Agency for Israel, have embraced Am Yisroel, or Jewish Peoplehood, as a panacea against assimilation, the Agudah continues to emphasize the Torah. According to some observers, at least within the Orthodox world it appears to be working.
Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, said that although the Agudah is an ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization, every Modern Orthodox synagogue he knows of has a Daf Yomi program. He estimated that about one-third of attendees at the Siyum will be Modern Orthodox.
“There’s no question that of the 90,000 people who come, a large percentage will be people not institutionally affiliated with Agudah or members of Agudah but affiliated with the process of Talmud study,” Weinreb said.
As for Jewish unity: “It unifies a certain slice of the whole pie,” Weinreb said. “But unifying all the Jewish people? That’s a tall order.”
The Agudah’s attempt at reaching out to an audience broader than the Haredi world is apparent on the landing page of the Siyum organizers’ website. There, a video shows a man who has obviously married into a more strictly religious family talking to his wife. “I couldn’t have done this without you,” the man says before haltingly reading in Hebrew from the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud.