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The secret that talmudic scholars have to teach every student

Student blogger Asha Sumroy on a late night revelation that every student needs to know about

    Studying a degree where literally every day I'm reading a different theory on the way humans interact, societal structures and the causes behind all of it, has started to get really stressful.

    More often than not the ideas I'll read today — which it has been someone's life's work to prove — will completely contradict those I read yesterday, which when I read them had me completely convinced.

    Just as I've managed to readjust the way I see the world in line with the latest thing I've read, another journal article comes along and makes me question everything I've ever thought all over again.

    I'm sure it's not helped by the fact that at this stage in my degree no one’s really interested in what I think, just that I can summarise and discuss the ideas of, more often than not, old white men.

    But it got to the point last week where I felt like everything I'd read was simultaneously so right and so wrong and that I had no idea whatsoever what I personally felt or thought about anything. And, more importantly, it felt like that didn't matter anyway, because what do I really have to say that someone hasn't already said?

    One night last week, at a time that no 19 year old should still be sitting in a hospital-lit, basement library, I was attempting to skim-read, yet somehow still understand, Weber's theory of the 'Iron Cage'.

    I came across a page in a library book, the binding of which was frayed from years’ worth of caffeine-fuelled essay attempts that caught my eye. Around the main text of the page someone had pencilled in the margin a criticism of Weber’s evidence, suggesting he had it all wrong. And underneath that, scratched in biro, another late night coffee drinker had corrected the pencil-writing student, calling them ignorant and saying that their point didn't contradict Weber's at all.

    It's hard to explain how this anonymous handwriting on one page of a tired book in a tired library suddenly made me so much calmer. But as soon as I saw it I thought of pages in the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic discussion on central Jewish laws and practices, the oldest full manuscript dates to 1342).

    In the Talmud, the middle of the page contains an extract which describes a law or practice and is surrounded, in a spiral outwards, of small commentaries and arguments between rabbis discussing the focus text. This can often go on for pages and never really reach a conclusion. For me, it's undeniably a perfect example of how continuous contradiction and discussion can hold meaning in itself, without it being necessary to decide who's right.

    Maybe it was partly reminiscing how confused I was the first time I had to try to decipher a page of the Talmud, and partly feeling the solidarity of these two, and all the others, who must have travelled through the same pages trying to summarise Weber’s theory in 1500 original words. But more than that, I couldn't help feeling like I was supposed to find this hidden Talmudic discussion.

    The rabbis demanded to share their thoughts and thousands of years later they are still read and heard and studied. Not just because of what they say, but how they say it - unapologetically and knowing that their voice should be valued as unique. Pencil and biro wouldn't have been left in that margin unless two students thought the same and this really grounded me. Almost like they left the message to remind me to feel the same about myself; even if I do spend the next year working out how to regurgitate arguments yet avoid plagiarism, the fact that I have written these thoughts in my voice gives them an inherent and unique value.

    A friend of mine said to me over lunch today "sometimes it's like secular society wants us to think we have nothing original to offer, to not value ourselves except as a cog in the machine".

    Which is funny, because that's basically what Weber's 'Iron Cage' is. And I'm not under the impression that religion is the only way to break that (though Weber implies it might be). But I know that the way in which Judaism has grown to underpin my life means that a conversation in the margins of a library book can keep me grounded at 1am when university is trying to convince me I have nothing to say.

    Asha Sumroy is in her first year at Durham University, where she is studying Sociology. She is a member of Maidenhead Reform Synagogue. She is one of the JC's 2017 team of student bloggers: 

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