Monday, December 26, 2016

The Purposeful Journey through the "Eternal Abyss" - Gemara Study as an Exercise in עבודת השם

By: Rabbi Akiva Block, Judaic Studies Faculty

"במחשכים הושיבני כמתי עולם (איכה ג:ו)" - אמר רבי ירמיה, זו תלמודה של בבל. (סנהדרין כד.)

"God has made me dwell in darkness like the eternally dead (Eicha 3:6)" - R. Yirmiyah said, this refers to the Babylonian Talmud. (Sanhedrin 24a)

I remember vividly the first time in my life I was able to understand a passage of Gemara on my own. Not because of how smart it made me feel or how hard I worked to master it - though both were true - but because of how palpably I felt God's presence during the experience. No Artscroll, no dictionary, no teacher there to hold my hand through it; just me and my chavruta (study partner) alone in a beit midrash. Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences became arguments and questions and answers -- and then, voila! We had ourselves a sugya, an entire passage. Admittedly, what took me literally hours then would probably take a matter of minutes today. But for as long as I live, I'll never forget the euphoric feeling I had when I finally "got it." I'd swear that, at that very moment, I could almost feel God's hand on my shoulder.

As a teacher of Torah Sheba'al Peh, I constantly struggle to make the case to my students that God is to be found in Talmud study. To be sure, there is much that stands in the way of an enjoyable high school Gemara experience, let alone a spiritually meaningful one. Whether it's the constant back and forth without ever arriving at a conclusion, the seeming irrelevance of the subject matter, the language barrier that Talmudic Aramaic presents, or the simple and inescapable fact that the words of the Gemara themselves are multiple steps removed from the revealed word of God, in contradistinction to Chumash - finding God in the convoluted and unwieldy texts of Gemara is an elusive goal indeed. 

This challenge is compounded in the mission-driven environment of SAR. In our community's unending pursuit of the Grand Conversation, one of our most sacred tasks is indeed making the case that all our learning contributes to a fuller spiritual life; that my English class can be a place for spiritual growth just like any Judaic studies class can. In many respects, we've been successful. Even if not always in practice, students at SAR understand at least in theory the concept of the Grand Conversation, and the term is bandied about in classroom discussions all throughout the building. Faculty, parents and students are attuned to the concept, which leads inexorably to our question in an even more pronounced form: what contribution can Gemara make to my religious and spiritual make up? Where is God in the study of Gemara? How is learning Gemara עבודת השם?

This question is different from the equally important question of why study Gemara. Many good answers can conceivably be given to that question that do not involve God. We can talk about how Gemara study cultivates and sharpens our critical thinking skills; we can show how Gemara trains us to look at virtually every issue from multiple perspectives, even ones that we would intuitively think are clear-cut; we can mention how understanding the inner workings of the halakha, instead of just the perfunctory dos and don'ts, immeasurably enhances our performance; we can even speak of the Talmud as informing our mission as Modern Orthodox Jews today, what Yaakov Elman incisively calls "a microcosm of Torah society in formation." But do any of these help me find God in its study?

Now that we've sufficiently developed the question, you may be surprised to discover that I have no good answer. Moments of transcendence are, by their very nature, personal. But as I think back to my experience in the beit midrash all those years ago, I am moved to ask what it was about that experience that caused me to feel God's presence.

On the one hand, perhaps, our ability to sense God in our study, any study, can be directly commensurate with our desire and willingness to do so. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously once asked his students: where is God? When they responded, "Why rebbe, God is everywhere," the rabbi said, "That is incorrect. Where is God? Wherever you let God in." If we truly wish for learning to be what Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein calls, "a dialogic encounter with Ribbono shel Olam," then the nature and extent of that encounter will be a function of our attitude. I'm not sure it had ever occurred to me before that I could feel God's presence in my learning, and therefore I had never attempted to let God in and make that a reality.

Beyond this however, what characterized that experience was that more than at any time in my life I felt as though I was a part of something larger, deeper, and richer. Although in that beit midrash on that day I didn't (yet) love learning Gemara, I realized then you don't need to love something for it to be spiritual. You do, however, have to invest in it. You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to care about it. 

And on that day, I cared. I cared enough to work hard at it, and to reflect upon the experience. There I was, having mastered a small portion of a text that has been the birthright of my people for the better part of two thousand years. I was taking my place, and have since continued to firmly entrench that place, among centuries of learners who immersed themselves in this text and made the pages of the Gemara their spiritual and intellectual home. I was learning what Jews who learn learn, what they've always learned. Even if I didn't then understand why, the sense of perspective and context that moment provided, that my world was part of a larger world that extended forth both vertically and horizontally in either direction, was more empowering and inspiring than anything I had ever felt.

And I continue to feel that way. Not all the time, perhaps not even most of the time, but on occasion, I am able to recapture the euphoria of that experience, and see yet glimpses of it in others. Aside from in my own learning, I feel it when I see students' faces light up as they finally understand a challenging passage in the Gemara, a line in Rashi, or a difficult conceptual question, all through hard work and toil. I feel it when I see and hear of parents studying Torah with their children. This, in my view, is the essence of עבודת השם.

In accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Bush in January 1993, Ronald Reagan said of America that, "this is the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming." As a Gemara teacher, I have the same wish for my students; that they never become anything, but continue to engage in the act of becoming. Care about the endeavor. If learning Gemara is frustrating, keep at it. It may be hard, but, to quote Tom Hanks, it's supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. 

Are God and spirituality to be found in Gemara? Definitely. How? That I can't definitively say. Like many of my life's most basic and fundamental truths it is rooted more in intuition, and can't really be proven. But it's there. Would that our students care enough to keep looking...

במחשכים הושיבני. The prospect of a life of Gemara study is daunting indeed, like, R. Yirmiyah teaches us, being placed in a dark abyss. But the thing about a dark place is, when you care enough to find your way out, when you work hard and get to a point where you've let in just a bit of light, the reward and sense of accomplishment are immeasurable.

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