Throng Celebrates 'Jewish Unity' at Talmud Reading

90,000 Pack Stadium, But Some Question Narrow Focus

Reason To Celebrate: Orthodox youth in Jerusalem celebrate the completion of the page-a-day reading of the Talmud.
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Reason To Celebrate: Orthodox youth in Jerusalem celebrate the completion of the page-a-day reading of the Talmud.

By Paul Berger

Published August 01, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
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“Whoever learns laws every day is assured that he is destined for the world to come,” the man translates from the Hebrew. Then, the video reveals that the room is full of family members applauding his achievement. Another section on the site profiles women who have spent time studying the laws of tzniut, or modesty, and how to keep the Sabbath.

Talya Fishman, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, asserted, “What was once just an Agudah phenomenon… all males all studying Talmud, has now been broadened.”

Fishman, author of the 2011 book “Becoming the People of the Talmud,” said that many Haredi and Modern Orthodox women are “studying Talmud — and teaching it — in unprecedented numbers. There are even talmudically learned women who serve as halachic advisers on certain legal matters of particular relevance to women.”

While Modern Orthodox women do study Talmud, Shafran said he did not know of any Haredi women studying it. “There will be many women at the Siyum, of course, but they are there to be honored as encouragers and enablers of their husbands and fathers, and as celebrants of the accomplishment,” Shafran said.

Women in the New York area who want to play a more active role in the Siyum will have to wait for August 6, when an alternative event is planned at Congregation Shearith Israel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, said he hopes the event will attract about 400 people.

Though Linzer applauds the Agudah’s Siyum — he will be in the crowd August 1 — he said it was “critical” to show that a more modern version of the Siyum is possible. His Siyum will be addressed by male and female speakers. “The message implicitly communicated, which we internalize, is that real Torah learning is only in the Haredi community,” Linzer said, “and that’s why I felt it was so critical to do something.”

Anecdotally at least, there is evidence that Talmud study has spread even more broadly.

Rabbi Judith Zabarenko Abrams, who has made a living out of teaching Reform, Renewal, Conservative and secular Jews about Talmud for almost 20 years with her Maqom online school, said, “Talmud study has increased in popularity and people’s acceptance of it as a basic Jewish activity.” Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school, said he had noticed an increased desire to study primary texts across the Jewish world.

Jonathan Sarna, a leading American Jewish historian, said that when American Jews look back historically, this year’s Siyum will seem an “an astonishing celebration of the Talmud.” But it should not be forgotten that Talmud study has branched out much further than the Haredi world. “Talmud study today is not just confined to men with black coats and long beards,” Sarna said, “and that is truly something to celebrate.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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