Friday, February 03, 2006

Oy Vey, and Appreciation Wednesday (on Friday)

Oy. So much to think and write about, so little time.

The evacuation of Ammona. Oy! On so many levels, I don't know where to start! (And before anyone comments with long tirades . . . please leave it for your own blog. I can't deal with it right now.)

The death last night of Treppenwitz's neighbor in a tragic parachuting accident.

Should MoChassid and family try to adopt The Baby they've been fostering? Or try to arrange to get permission for her Israeli aunts to take her?

Closings at border crossings, and tons of fruit and vegetables rotting . . . echoes of The Grapes of Wrath . . . oy . . . whatever Israel's reasons are (and their stated reason is a reasonable one), the idea of all that food going to waste is just so awful. This is a sad world.

Last night there was a thunder-and-hail storm in Jerusalem. Living alone during a thunder-and-hail storm is a little scary and depressing.

Singles Shabbaton coming up. Thank God, a friend of mine is coming with me! But still . . . oy.

But, it is time for Appreciation Wednesday, so here goes:

One thing I'm incredibly grateful for is that I grew up in a subculture that not only allows, but encourages, girls to learn Gemara (the Talmud). I started learning Gemara in 7th grade, and by 12th grade we had Gemara class 9 periods per week -- much less than in traditional boys' yeshivot, but far more than teenage girls get just about anywhere else. After high school, I studied Talmudic texts just here and there - a chavruta (established learning with a partner) one year that fizzled, a summer at Nishmat, random classes every so often. But now that I'm at Pardes, I'm taking a Gemara class 3 days a week. We study the texts b'chavruta (in pairs) for about 2 hours, and then have a 1-hour-plus lecture.

The fact is, I adore learning Gemara. The reasons are personal and I'll explain them in a minute. One thing that bothers me is the idea thrown around in yeshivish circles that women who learn Talmud are only doing so to make a feminist point, because why would they learn Talmud if they have not yet comprehensively learned what they should be studying, which is Tanach (the Old Testament) and Halacha (Jewish Law)? I cannot claim to know everyone's reasons, and I'm sure there are women who do study Gemara just to satisfy a chip on their shoulder, though anyone who has ever learned Gemara before can tell you that it's an awfully difficult endeavor to take on just to make a point.

But anyway, there are two reasons I love Gemara, which are wholly my own and have nothing at all to do with making any sort of social or political "point."

The first and most immediate is that I love the way Talmud forces you to think. Remember, I'm a lawyer's daughter. What is called, in educational circles, "Logical-Mathematical Intelligence" happens to be one of my strongest areas. I got an almost perfect score, if I may be so bold as to mention it, on the logic section of the GRE. I considered going to law school for fun, and would have done it were law school tuition, say, $5 per year. For me, understanding the development of a law, analyzing the situations in which it applies and does not apply, finding loopholes in it, and understanding the philosophy behind it is a tremendously satisfying experience.

I'm sure there are yeshivish people reading this and saying "fine, Sarah, learn Tanach and play logic games on the side, or study American or Israeli law -- why do you need Talmud?"

What the question fails to address is that everyone feels religious inspiration in different ways. For me, using my brain in a way that comes naturally to it is not only intellectually satisfying but also spiritually satisfying. Yes, I feel the presence of God in all sorts of experiences, from praying or simply talking to Him, to sitting in a quiet woods, to Shabbat meals, to dancing on Simchat Torah and sitting in the sukkah. All of those things help me keep God in my life. But the fact is, on a day-to-day level, there are few things that help me feel as happy to be a Jew as learning Talmud. Could it simply be that I'm happy to be part of a religion that feeds my intellect so richly? Perhaps. But, the bottom line is, learning Talmud makes me really really happy that I'm Jewish.

Beyond the intellectual-spiritual connection is an emotional one. When I learn Talmud, I feel connected to the rabbis of long ago, and in today's world of reason and doubt, keeping that connection is one way of stopping myself from doubting my way out of the system. Just when I start to wonder what this very difficult Orthodox lifestyle is all for, I sit down with some rabbis in ancient Babylonia, and we talk. Yes, they lived in a very different sort of world. A lot of things they said sound strange, enigmatic, or even offensive now. But when you meet them on their terms, they are infinitely fascinating. They are also, in many ways, much less dogmatic than (some) Orthodox Jews of today, which gives me a lot to think about. When I read a tannaitic text, and then an ammoraitic one, and then the rishonim, etc etc (that is, earlier texts and then later ones that build on the earlier ones) through texts of the Middle Ages and today, it's like seeing the entirety of Jewish History flashing before my eyes. All the rabbinic Jews who ever lived, sweeping before me in a matter of hours, or minutes. A connection to previous generations who, for all their differences, did a lot of the same things that I do and had a lot of the same ideals that I have, and a comforting knowledge that generations after me will be learning these same texts . . . and that perhaps I, someday, will flash before their eyes.

So, today I appreciate Rabbi Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik, zt'l, who founded the school in which I grew up and created an environment which nurtured my first introduction to gemara.

I appreciate my first gemara teacher, Rabbi Zalman Stein, who to this day patiently (oh, so patiently) inducts new 7th and 8th grade students into the world of "hacha," "hachi," "mai taama," and "taiku." The difficulties of studying in Aramaic when even Hebrew is a foreign language! Oy!

I appreciate my current teacher, Leah Rosenthal, who inspires me three days a week with her brilliance, sensitivity, clarity, and facility with the texts.

And perhaps most of all, I appreciate my very good "friends": Marcus Jastrow, author of the Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud, and Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, author of The Practical Talmud Dictionary. Without them I'd be sitting in a Bet Midrash three mornings a week wasting my time. Their books are valuable gifts to the English-speaking Jewish world. I appreciate that they spent the time and effort to create them.

Shabbat shalom.

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