Contrasting cultures

The single largest gathering in American history in honor of Torah study will take place at the New Jersey Meadowlands (“MetLife Stadium”), home of the New York Giants football team and the New York Jets. It will be beamed by satellite to local gatherings the world over.

(New Jersey is a suburb of New York City although, for some reason, it has a governor, two U.S. senators, and some electoral votes.)

After our studying a page a day of Talmud for the past seven and a half years, the study of the entire Talmud now is wrapping up with the final folios of Tractate Nidah, the last Tractate of the Babylonian Talmud. To mark the moment, more than 93,000 seats have been sold out at MetLife Stadium fortonight.

Over the past 24 hours, there has been some discussion about Mitt Romney’s comments in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, complimenting Jewish culture. Democrats have found reasons to attack what he said, and Republicans have found reasons to love what he said. That is all politics. If it had been Obama who had said that (which it decidedly was not), then it would be the Republicans attacking it, and the Democrats applauding it. That is the cynicism of politics. But the reality is that there is no other people on earth, no other culture in all of human history, that ever has made the Study of Law, the Study of a Book or Books of Law and History and Religion and Culture and Geography and Ethnography so uniquely central to its existence, its very raison d’etre.

The reality is — and Saeb Erekat and all his “Palestinians” know it — that no Arab society is going to fill a stadium to celebrate the national enterprise of having learned a book or an encyclopedic compendium. Nor will — or has — any European society. Or African or Asian society. Nor any other society or peoples in the Western hemisphere, other than the Jews.

I guess our study of Talmud is somewhat a journey into “intellectual history” or “legal history” or “comparative law” or “legislative history.” On the one hand, we always have wondered ever-since we or any family members or friends became religious (either by birth or by becoming ba’al teshuvah later in life) “why” Jews do all these strange things. On the simplest level, we do them because our parents or rabbis taught us that these are the things we must do to serve G-d, and we believed them as children or came to believe them as we grew older. For lack of our own study or personally acquired knowledge, we eagerly accepted that they know, that they are right, and we all have come to see enough other people doing these things that we assume it is not a Nigerian-email scam or an April Fool’s goof. But we never learn the deeper “how it all came about” and “why we do it.”

Talmud study gives us a window into the “how” and the “why.” Why does the day start at night? Why do we recite the prayers in Maariv that the Siddur tells us to recite? Why do some recite those extra two pages before the night the centralAmidah prayer, while others skip them? Why, for that matter, is there a Maarivservice? And, while we are at it, why does the night start when there are stars? Why three? Why not some other demarcation? And why are we told that, if we do daven Maariv, sometimes it is acceptable to pray “too early,” but we therefore need to repeat Sh’ma at home? That is Talmud Study.

Meantime, Talmud Study is about history: I heard of Kohanim, descendants of the priestly class, and I know they get the first Aliyah to the Torah, and they bless us on the holidays. But I did not know they ate this unique donated food, which no one else was allowed to eat, and which the impure among them could not eat until they went to the city’s outskirts and spent the day there after immersing in amikvah ritualarium. Who could imagine such a thing? What a spectacle it must have been every day to watch several hundred or thousand Kohanim crossing back into the city at nightfall! No one ever told me that such a thing used to go on. Gee, in a time without clocks and wrist watches, they could almost have known it was nighttime just by their massive entry into the City’s gates as the stars came out. That, too, is Talmud Study. In fact, that is among the subjects in the first day of the new cycle.

So there is some of this and some of that. It is the blend of history of people, history of ideas, sociology, conversations and anecdotes, narratives about great historical figures and their failings and successes. Along the way, we gain a window of understanding into why we do so many of the things that encompass our lives and how those practices came about.

As for those who study the Talmud each and every day, a folio a day for seven and a half years, be assured that perhaps the two greatest records of consecutive achievement ever recorded — Lou Gehrig not missing a single baseball game from 1925 to 1939, playing 2130 consecutive games over fifteen years until he was stopped by the horrible ALS disease, and Cal Ripken’s record-breaking 17-year streak of playing in 2,632 games between May 1982 and September 1998 — pale in comparison to learning a Folio (Daf) a day (Yomi), with no off-season, no break in the action, no travel dates, for seven and a half years. It is a remarkable thing, and any culture that can make that undertaking a source of unique greatness to be attained by its medical doctors, attorneys, scientists, pharmacists, philosophers, accountants, university professors, entrepreneurs, mailroom clerks, information technology professionals, investment brokers, and delivery boys is a culture whose admiration rightfully is a source of great pride for those who live it.

Transcending all politics, it is a uniquely treasured culture of which we have every reason to take enormous pride as MetLife fills up tonight.