On Sunday I participated in an amazing gathering of women to celebrate the completion of the 7 1/2 year cycle of the Talmud. But first, a bit of background about the Talmud. While Christians and Jews share a love for the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, Christians are not usually familiar with the Talmud, a huge set of books that were completed some 1500 years ago, but remain central to Jewish religious experience.
From the time we received the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, Jews studied the Bible. Indeed, the various books that came after the Torah, often include references and interpretations to the books that preceded them. The Torah includes laws and prescriptions that instruct a Jew in how to lead his daily life, who G-d is and how to worship Him. But the laws are often general and do not include specific instructions applicable to each age.
The Bible is also a book of teachings, of lessons to be learned from the actions of our predecessors, of prophecies and criticisms from the prophets that instruct our way of thinking and believing, that inform our history and provided us with expectations for our future. Throughout the centuries, but particularly during the Second Temple Period, Jews studied these words and explored their meaning. The sages applied the instructions to their own time, using reason and orally transmitted teachings, some dating back to Moses’ time. All this was studied and transmitted orally until the second century, when the sages of that time feared the disappearance of the oral tradition as persecution and exile took their toll upon the Jewish people. After great deliberation, much of the tradition was recorded in what became the Mishna and later on, the discussions that grew out of the Mishna, were recorded as well in the Talmud.
The language of the Talmud is mostly Aramaic, the spoken language of most Jews in the early centuries of the common era, with a sprinkling of Hebrew. But, unlike the literature of most ancient nations, the Talmud is not a book of analysis, stories or conclusions. It is all of these and more. It is a book that records live conversations, associative discussion and tangential comments, arguments, legends with amazing depth and a message for all time. It is a volume of literature that cannot be read. It must be studied, analyzed. The arguments must be understood, the protagonists become your study partners, the language becomes your own.
The study of the Talmud is actually a continuation of the arguments in the Talmud itself. Over the years, commentaries were added to the printed page of the Talmud, to help the learner understand the text. And then later on, other commentaries were written, often printed in the back of the volume, sometimes in separate books, more recently in scholarly articles. But every student of the Talmud is actually creating his own commentary, making his own connections and in so doing, making the Bible a part of his daily life. For the Talmud is actually the most comprehensive and ongoing interpretation of the Bible and of the way of life, beliefs and conduct the Bible expects of us.
For centuries, scholarly Jewish men studied the Bible. But in 1923, Polish Rabbi Meir Shapira initiated an idea of the daily page of the Talmud, that Jews all over the world would study the same page of Talmud each day. In that way, he opened the study to every man and enabled Jews from all over the world to study together, as they would be studying the same Talmud page at the same time, much as Jews read the same Torah portion the same week. The idea took off and this week, the Jewish world completed the 13th Talmud cycle, of the 2,711 pages (each page is both sides of the paper) of the Talmud.
Until recently, women were not welcomed to the study of Talmud. Indeed, it was only about 100 years ago that women began studying the Bible seriously, as the Jewish world was no more progressive than the rest of the world in recognizing women’s abilities to study. But the first groups of women began studying the Talmud about 40 years ago and today there are dozens of study programs for women, both young and old in Talmud study.
On Sunday, 3,300 women gathered together for an event in the Jerusalem Convention Center, to celebrate women who completed the Talmud cycle. There were women there who were veteran students of the Talmud and who had completed their second or even third cycles. There were women who do not participate in the daily page but have studied Talmud in depth for years. There were renowned women teachers of Talmud who paved the way for the hundreds of young women, from Israel and from around the world, who were there, having just tasted their first Talmud study while spending this year studying Bible in Israel. And there were people like me, who study Talmud on occasion, or who have never studied it before, but who studied a page of Talmud to collectively finish the full 2,711 pages, each woman or group, taking a page.
A group of 40 women stood on stage, representing the women who had personally studied the daily page themselves each day for 7 1/2 years, and recited the Kaddish prayer, sanctifying G-d for giving us His holy word and providing us with the tools to study His word, and to make it our life. And I wept, tears of joy and tears of gratitude to G-d for bringing us back to our Land, where we are flourishing as a nation, reveling in G-d’s word like never before. Men and women!