I am often asked about my personal path towards observance. When did it begin and what circumstances inspired it? Where do I see myself on the Orthodox spectrum? With ahavat Yisrael in mind, I feel as comfortable at a Drisha lecture filled with Orthodox feminists as I have at a Kuf Alef Kislev celebration in the heart of Williamsburg where Satmar Hasidim commemorate their late rebbe’s liberation from a Nazi death camp.
Since moving to Kew Gardens Hills in January, I have committed to growing in my observance by attending shul daily and attending a shiur whenever possible. With so many opportunities to learn Torah in my neighborhood, there are simply no excuses. In those early days, my close friend Yitzi Borenstein introduced me to the Talmud Bavli, a page with a paragraph of Aramaic wrapped in commentaries by Rashi, with the Mesorah, cross-references and notes from the Tosafot generation of medieval commentators. Feeling overwhelmed by the text, I politely deferred, focusing at the time on my professional and personal goals.
A couple of months later, tickets for the Siyum Hashas were being sold at Kehilas Ishei Yisrael, a congregation of mostly singles and young couples, where my friend Josh Goldsmith encouraged me, “You don’t need to be a Shas Yid to attend, go and get inspired.” I bought the ticket, not knowing when I would begin formal learning, how much I would be able to cover, and ultimately, the importance of the Oral Law.
I sought a non-judgmental learning setting and found it this past Shavuot at the home of Brooklyn couple Rena and Mark Goldstein. With their three sons Sam, Ben and Josh, we studied Tractate Middot overnight in the basement of Young Israel of Flatbush, returning for lunch to honor Rav Papa and his ten sons, who always threw a banquet upon the completion of a tractate. In all likelihood, I am the first person in my family in at least four generations to complete a tractate and the lunch served by the Goldsteins was as much a tribute to Matan Torah as to my historic moment.
In Woodmere, there is a resident who personifies ahavat Yisrael through his philanthropy, volunteering and lecturing before thousands of people. And while Charlie Harary’s upbringing had more observance than mine, he also wondered about the importance of the Oral Law. Harary spoke to a group of mostly Russian-speaking baalei teshuva attendees at the Meadowlands Crowne Plaza ahead of the Siyum.
“Why does it have to be complicated? I finally got the answer I loved in law school,” Harary said. Growing up with legal shows such as Law and Order, Harary did not expect his education to be a thorough review of case law. “I wanted to see laws, but I was getting case after case, page after page and reading the testimony from the losing team. So I went to the dean.”
David W. Leebron, his dean at Columbia Law School, informed Charlie that anyone could purchase a book of laws and quote them, but a law school’s purpose is to apply the statutes to specific situations. “Like a robot, you can try to apply it. You’re paying us to understand the greatest minds of all time, how cases were lost on a point, how the law evolved, the principles behind the law and how to bring the law to the next phase,” Leebron told Harary, who then understood that the Talmud works in a similar fashion, with centuries of commentaries and specific examples that tested the application of biblical laws.
Harary said that the vagueness of many biblical laws was intentional and G-d wants the Jewish people to debate and struggle over their meaning rather than robotically follow them. “Talk about it and struggle over it. It was lively and real.”
In the roughly 1,400 years between the codification of the Talmud and the historic 1923 Agudath Israel convention, the Oral Law was studied by only a few dedicated scholars, without a set schedule. That was when Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a relatively young member of the Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages and head of the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, proposed a ritualized study cycle for the Talmud: Daf Yomi- a page a day. In total, 2,711 in a seven and a half year cycle. The Chofetz Chaim, the Gerrer Rebbe and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, who were the leading European Torah scholars at the time, enthusiastically received the idea.
Surviving the devastation of the Holocaust, each siyum has grown in attendance and venue, with the Met Life Stadium at the Meadowlands counting a sold-out crowd of 92,000 that included a wide spectrum of Orthodox Jews including a women’s section in the top tier. All around the Meadowlands, traffic was choked, even by New Jersey standards. The $1.6 billion arena, still widely called Giants Stadium or Meadowlands by many attendees, opened in 2010 and in contrast to the traffic jams, has a very spacious feel, with every seat providing a sense of closeness to the field and an unexpected cleanliness. It felt very ironic to host a Torah convention in an arena better known for the Giants and Jets of football, Bon Jovi and Monster Jam.
The event was a mix of masterfully produced tribute videos and speeches by leading rabbinic figures. Alongside a tribute to Rabbi Shapiro was one for Jerome Schottenstein, namesake of the 38-volume Artscroll Talmud Bavli, launched in 2005, that has enabled readers who do not possess a command of Aramaic or Hebrew to learn in English.
Not having a command of Yiddish either, I struggled to comprehend Agudah chair Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, and Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, who spoke at length before concluding the last passages of Tractate Niddah. As thousands of attendees dialed the phone number for a live translation of the speeches, I paused to appreciate the event, knowing that as I grow in my study of Torah law, I can always find myself on the same page as nearly 100,000 fellow Jews. No matter what type of hat or kippa we wear, we can always catch up to the Daf and find ourselves in the company of great scholars and commoners alike, examining historical insights on the Torah, and with enough perspective, adding in our own two cents.
Switching to English, Rabbi Perlow used analogies to describe Daf Yomi. “Learning Torah is nutrition for the Jewish soul. The world does not understand us. When all the empires of the past have perished and the Torah will not be forgotten,” Rabbi Perlow said. “It is the secret ingredient, the only ingredient that makes Jewish continuity possible.”
Mr. Kadinsky is a former Assistant Editor at The Jewish Star. He is an adjunct professor of history at Touro College and Community Liaison for Assemblyman Rory Lancman.