The book that can help you change your mind
A Progressive rabbi explains why she has embarked on a daily dose of Talmud study
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Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu
I think I’ve changed my brain. A year ago I read books, magazines, newspapers even the cereal pocket. I was lover of fiction, albeit with very little time for reading. A year ago, I, like tens of thousands of Jews around the world, started the Daf Yomi cycle — a seven-and-a-half-year commitment to learn a page of Talmud a day. Or more accurately, a folio, which has two sides.
Unlike nearly all of those tens of thousands, I am a Progressive Jew and a woman. The daily study of a page of the Babylonian Talmud was introduced in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, then rav of Sanok, Poland. He imagined that a Jew might embark a ship in the Land of Israel, continue his daily learning and, when he got off the boat in New York and walked into a yeshivah, everyone would be, literally, on the same page. The goal was worldwide Jewish unity.
Unlike his prototypical yeshivah scholar, I am not welcome in most places of learning, doubly or triply so, perhaps, since I am also a Progressive rabbi.
So, people ask me, what is it like? Surely, they say, it must be interesting. This is a difficult question. I find Talmud study the most gripping, even compelling, learning experience I have ever had. I look forward to the Daf nearly every day. I am learning the original untranslated text, together with the modern Hebrew commentary of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. In desperation, I will turn to Koren’s wonderful newly published English edition, complete with diagrams, photographs and maps. There is also the Artscroll series.
Each is available as an app, and there are a wealth of study guides available on the internet, just a Google search away. I look forward to the monthly Daf Yomi review session, which will take place at JW3 beginning in September. I am gripped by some of the topics, such as notions of purity, the divisions of time and space and the relationships of holiness to everyday reality.
Yet, on some basic level, “interesting” it is not. It takes a very special mind, for example, to enjoy tractate Eruvin, entirely devoted to the ownership of public, private and shared communal space. I don’t know how I did it.
So, how did I change? One obvious difference. I have not read any other book, unless I count completely essential works of non-fiction for my own teaching, for over 12 months. Having no time for anything else, I feel myself becoming culturally detached. I might be experiencing a kind of cultural deprivation.
Worse yet, I am not even sure that I can even read a work of extended fiction. Talmud study demands a different kind of thought. It is an active thinking; the reader is somehow in the page. You must hold on to several conflicting key thoughts at once — I think of it as suspending key ideas in three-dimensional space. As a passage develops, I think of myself moving them around until they finally fit.
Reading a work of fiction requires me to relax — to let go of ordinary thinking and be swept along by the narrative. I’m not even sure I have even the patience or even the interest. I wonder if this cultural detachment is a dangerous think, a loss of balance. Am I losing my ability to keep a foot in the present as I lean toward the past?
Neurological research is showing that the way we use our brains can actually change their shape. It is already well-known that London taxi drivers learning the Knowledge grow a bigger hippocampus, the part of the brain that engages with spatial navigation. Our experience certainly shapes us — not only our values or our thoughts, but on a physical level, who we actually are.
So what might this all mean, as a Progressive Jew, for me? I do not see the Talmud as a guide book for understanding the will of God. I love it, rather, for its imperfect human struggle to connect heaven with earthly reality. Unlike an Orthodox Jew, there is no straight line from Torah to the Talmud to the halachic legal codes to my every day life. They shape my life; they do not govern it. It is a window to a Jewish world where nothing yet is fixed. We hear this in the voices of the rabbis as they speak, and in the give and take of every argument. And I see it in myself, in my struggle with the meaning of this text. On a theological level, I see it as something bigger than I can ever fully understand. This is certainly the total opposite of religious fundamentalism.
Last Shabbat was the anniversary of the first of seven long years. The end is a long way off, and I hope I make it.
Shulamit Ambalu is rabbi of Milton Keynes Reform Synagogue and Kehillah North London