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Talmud for Dummies


I do not waste my time on TikTok ( indeed I have all but cut myself off from any social media simply to save my time for more important things). But now and again someone sends me a clip, usually for amusement. One I received recently was of a pretty young lady called Miriam Anzovin who delivers herself of a highly amusing and irreverent riff on the daily page of the Talmud known as Daf Yomi.

In August 1923, at the First International Congress of the Agudath Israel World Movement in Vienna, Rabbi Meir Shapiro proposed uniting the Jewish people worldwide through the daily study of a page of Talmud.  The Talmud is a massive text that was compiled some fifteen hundred years ago from documents and traditions going back to the end of the Biblical era. It contains a thousand years’ worth of law, commentary, and folklore that has become the primary source of Judaism today. In some ways, more so even than the Bible. There are over 2,711 pages in the Talmud. Each study cycle takes about seven and a half years. It ends with what is called a Siyum HaShas, completing the Shas (another term for the Talmud). This is now celebrated by huge gatherings across the Jewish world sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands who come together to glorify the majesty of the Talmud and intense Jewish religious scholarship. 

In my youth, Daf Yomi was looked down on. In Yeshivas, Talmud is the core curriculum. Each page has many commentaries on it, accumulated over more than a thousand years. They are pored over, analyzed, and debated so that to cover one page may take a week or more of full-time study. So that a quick run-through of half an hour or so is like taking a casual walk rather than running a marathon. Daf Yomi was not taken seriously at first. It was for amateurs and was highly criticized by the established orthodox world as trivializing the study of Talmud. Nevertheless, it took root mainly amongst the Chassidic community where the idea originated for those who had to work and could not devote themselves to in-depth study. 

But now thanks in no small measure to modern technology, and more leisure, the idea of studying and the internet, have made Daf Yomi accessible to absolutely everybody. Instead of just being the esoteric pursuit of a small number of highly committed. You can find hundreds of different classes daily in many languages, styles, and levels to choose from. So that Jews of every persuasion and non-Jews too are making use of this to study the Talmud. But like all things that enter the public arena and are exposed to everyone, they lay themselves open to being trivialized. 

Miriam Anzovin, a formerly Orthodox young woman posts Daf Yomi videos on TikTok. She chooses a topic from the daily page to entertain in an irreverent style, interspersed with crude, intemperate curse words. She makes fun of ancient folklore and superstitions in the text, that were current thousands of years ago and gives no sense of proportion or context. As they say, she makes a living. Unsurprisingly, this has led to both rave reviews, criticism, and furious countercriticism. What’s wrong, people have asked, with using filthy language? At least she is also talking about Torah! And it shows how far women have come in their mastery of traditional texts that they were previously not encouraged to pursue. At first, I was inclined to think it an amusing if an irreverent way of bringing Talmud to people who otherwise might not be at all interested.

Why shouldn’t one try to popularize some of the magnificence of our culture to make it easily accessible to the ordinary person? Kabbalah was seen by some as a dangerous, subversive evil plot the Jews have concocted to control the world. Many Jews were scandalized by false kabbalist messiahs. But all of a sudden, Kabbalah centers, which trivialize and popularize comic book Kabbalah to Hollywood stars and euro-trash, sell themselves as new age therapy. They attract followers both Jewish and non-Jewish who find conventional Judaism rather daunting and dry. In theory, this could be a way of introducing them to the real thing. Even if it rarely does because as soon as people learn that some serious work needs to be done to experience anything of significance they soon give up. Nevertheless, there is so much anti-Jewish stuff out there and so much ignorance about Judaism that there is a case to be made that even this trivialization has some benefits in de-mystifying Judaism. If it does anyone any good, it is no worse than any other placebo. 

Having said all this for the defense, I turn to my objection. What is wrong with our society, how low have we sunk that we cannot manage to talk and communicate without profanities and dirty words? Everyone swears sometimes, especially if we drop a hammer on our toe or bang our heads. But we have a principle in Rabbinic Judaism of thinking before we speak and speaking without offending. It is called Shemirat HaLashon. Guarding the tongue. According to the Psalms (34:14) “ Who is the person who desires a long and good life? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceit.” To which the rabbis added the prohibition of  Nivul Peh, an ugly mouth, referring to someone who uses dirty language.

Much is written about foul language being offensive both because it reflects poor education, a limited skill for self-expression, a lack of self-control, and consideration. Someone who professes to be religious should not be using swear words any more than cheating. It demeans them and the religion. And if they are not religious it shows a lack of respect for others who are. All of which is in short supply in the prevailing mad rush for notoriety and money.

A religious way of life is supposed to stand for self-control, modesty, and sensitivity towards others. It is one of the Ten Commandments not to take God’s name in vain. Sadly, everyone does it all the time now. Profanity, once confined to the less well educated, is a dominant feature of speech, in the workplace, entertainment, and everyday conversation. And respect, for elders or parents, even one’s own body, is no longer fashionable in society. 

You can popularize something without demeaning yourself. This is precisely why the Charedi world tries so hard to protect itself from the profanity and filth of secular culture. I hope it will pass and the novelty will wear off. There are nuggets of real study in Ms. Avzovin’s clips if only you can ignore her foul mouth. But of course, there is no substitute for studying the text seriously.