There is more to Judaism than just gefilte fish

The pandemic has made true Talmud study available to everyone - we must embrace it

April 23, 2021 13:42

The pandemic has allowed me to do something I never could before: study Talmud with the rabbi of my home community. Growing up, I didn’t have access to the text skills needed to decipher a page of Talmud. Even if I had, other, practical concerns would have intervened: it would have been difficult to learn together without violating the laws of yichud, which forbid seclusion of a man and a woman.

By the time I’d learnt enough Aramaic, there was another problem: I was in yeshiva in New York, while my rabbi was thousands of miles away in Edinburgh.

Until last March, there were almost no opportunities outside the Charedi world to learn Talmud, especially for women. An occasional class in London, the rabbinical programme at Leo Baeck College, the odd podcast — that was it. Not in a major Jewish hub? Good luck. In London, but looking for something between an evening class and becoming a Reform rabbi? The UK has seen a steady exodus of committed Jews moving to America and Israel in search of the Torah learning that our small community couldn’t provide.

Or so we thought. Now, everything has suddenly changed.

Institutions have opened their learning to Jews around the world, no matter what their background or how far they live from a kosher butcher. You can study Gemara with an Orthodox shul in the morning, midrash with the Hadar Institute over lunch, and join SVARA’s Queer Mishna Collective in the afternoon. Jewish learning has become global, just a click away.

People are seizing this chance. Limmud has found that its online events are more popular than anything they’ve run in person. British Jews are attending yeshiva remotely, joining classes, learning to leyn. We want to learn, it turns out — even in a pandemic.

It’s not only small communities who have benefited from the virtual opening of the beit midrash. People who struggled to leave the house before, whether due to disability, childcare or work hours, are also experiencing an unprecedented level of access. Those who cannot afford traditional Jewish learning programmes have been able to take advantage of offerings posted online for free, where an in-person equivalent would have been unaffordable. Virtual learning has levelled many obstacles.

Open Talmud Project recently ran a Sunday of Talmud learning, the sort of event that in normal times would attract a few dozen participants. To our astonishment, we’d barely started advertising before we sold out. Our attendees were Orthodox and progressive, rabbis and alef-bet learners. And the most common feedback we received? That people wanted more. On our survey, all but one respondent asked for a Talmud skills class.

Learning is essential for a healthy community. It empowers people to own their Judaism, to not be reliant on second-hand Torah from others. Learning draws in those at the margins of our community and fosters future leaders. There’s more to Judaism than gefilte fish and mumbling strange words in shul — there’s a world of complex and poignant thought.

We must not lose this beautiful world when we go back to ordinary life. It would be easy to return to shul and let yeshivot stay inside the yeshiva doors. But if we do, we waste one of the most exciting trends in recent Jewish history.

Instead, let’s build on the progress that we’ve made, adding to online offerings with in-person classes, accessible resources, and intensives. Why have a brain drain when so many people want to learn at home? The future of our community depends on it.

Jessica Spencer is a Masorti student rabbi and a founder of Azara, a new cross-communal UK yeshiva

April 23, 2021 13:42

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