Torah is eternal, encapsulates the word of God and, therefore, exists beyond time and place. For this reason, Torah was delivered atop a lonely mountain in a barren desert, far away from human civilization. Likewise, the actual date of Torah’s delivery isn’t overtly mentioned. Even though it is possible to decode the date and to identify the location, the message remains clear: Torah isn’t tethered to any particular setting but transcends reality.
Yet, the uncontainable word of God was delivered to a human community and “comments” upon the human condition. The Midrash chronicles the opposition of Heavenly angels to the notion of delivering Torah to fallen and flawed humans. In response, God then justifies His decision by mentioning Torah sections that address death, illness, character flaws and moral failure. As angels are incapable of these conditions, they are unsuited for Torah. Though Torah lies beyond the human realm, it is very much integrated within human experience
Shavuot is a perfect moment to assess how Torah has unfolded within the human “world” during the past year—a “Year in Review” for Torah in our world. This past year included two (so far) tumultuous events that focused and shaped our perspectives about Torah.
- 1. Concluding the Daf Yomi Cycle
The conclusion of the 13th Daf Yomi cycle was celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Jews across the globe. The energy of these celebrations created forward momentum arousing even greater interest in the 14th cycle. The prolific success of Daf Yomi showcases the enduring centrality of the Oral Torah. Our resettling of Israel had revitalized interest in Tanach study—an area of Torah that was relatively neglected for centuries. Our return to the land of history has rejuvenated the study of the book of history. Yet, alongside the growing popularity of Tanach, the depth and sweep of Talmud remains compelling and inalienable. This world of Talmudic analysis and halachic evolution forges a core Jewish identity that can exist independent of history or geography. Furthermore, the world of Gemara underscores the critical function of tradition or mesorah in perpetuating Jewish continuity. Sadly, our tradition of residence in Israel was interrupted for 2,000 years; our tradition of halachic observance surged uninterrupted.
The Daf Yomi experience also has punctuated the growing “integration” of the Jewish world. The concept of Daf Yomi was conceived in the 1920s as world travel expanded and the dispersed Jewish world “shrunk.” In previous eras, Jews from distant countries would rarely interact personally. In the new era of transportation, Jews became more aware of the global Jewish community. Joint study of the same page of Gemara provided a common language for Jews who rarely spoke the same tongue and who lived in different cultures. Daf Yomi has both been driven by the integration of world Jewry and has, in turn, generated even greater commonality.
- 2. Corona
Of course, the more seismic event over the past year has been the corona epidemic. Firstly, this crisis has demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability of Halacha. Torah is delivered for a world that sometimes slips into dysfunction. Yet, Torah and Halacha can adapt to abnormal and even previously unimaginable circumstances. Creative solutions were developed for some halachic quandaries, while other predicaments were so insoluble that no compromises could be struck; full adherence to health guidelines were upheld even at the cost of suspending important religious activities—primarily davening and studying in public arenas. Halacha isn’t ossified or inflexible but possesses enough internal elasticity to shape itself to many different scenarios. Whatever suspensions of religious activity occurred during this period should not be seen as collapses of halacha but instead as triumphs of halacha or halacha applied in non-conventional fashion.
A second reality of Torah that emerged is the public nature of our study. Many religions mandate “public” prayer but Judaism is unique in encouraging public learning experiences in study halls and batei midrash. Our yearning to return to these communal settings of Torah study helps us appreciate how unique and enriching public Torah study is compared to private learning. Jews do not merely read Torah information or pursue Torah education. We study in groups as an affirmation of our mutual commitment to Torah. Being distant from these settings has magnified their importance during normal conditions.
Lastly, there are two elements of Torah experience that the Daf Yomi celebrations and the corona crisis have jointly highlighted. The past 30 years has unleashed a dizzying technological revolution as we now communicate in a rapid and unrestricted information highway. This information overflow is worrying to some, as the torrent of interaction can overwhelm religious spirituality. Too much exposure and completely unfiltered encounters can erode religious identity. Some choose to quickly adopt the power of modern technology while others are more cautious, citing the immense risks. Either way, technology shouldn’t be demonized. It provides tools and it empowers humans to transcend their previous limits just as it also presents great hazards. How would our “corona experience” have unfolded without technology aiding Torah study and facilitating substitutes for many religious and communal experiences? Had the pandemic erupted 30 years ago our quarantine would have been more isolated and decidedly less religiously interactive. Daf Yomi’s popularity was fueled by the internet which enabled the availability of shiurim to those who would otherwise never attend formal shiurim. Technology is a tool: we can choose to utilize it or to avoid it, but it shouldn’t be demonized. The past year has confirmed the manner in which it can serve the purpose of Torah.
Finally, both the Daf Yomi and the corona crisis demonstrated the central role of community within Jewish life. The resilience of Jewish communities during the health crisis was unmistakable, as we discovered novel ways to recreate our communal interactions. Similarly, Daf Yomi is popular, in part, because it generates communal identity surrounding shared Torah learning. Jews are God’s children and we are meant to live as a community pivoted around our national embrace of the word of God. The two major episodes of the past year each highlight the communal role of Torah and of Jewish identity.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.