Aristotle, Shakespeare, and the Siyum HaShas
Do Greeks in the thousands gather early every morning to study the works of Plato and Aristotle? How many Britons study Shakespeare or John Milton every single day? Last month’s Siyum HaShas before 93,000 daf yomi supporters in MetLife Stadium demonstrated once again that we are a singular people. Several landmarks were reached.
1) It elevated the stature of Torah and Talmud. Millions now realize that Am Yisrael is truly Am HaSefer, and that our devotion to Torah learning is the real secret of our existence.
2) Ninety-three thousand Jews davened Minchah and Maariv together, recited Shema Yisrael together, and danced together in celebration of Talmud — 70 years after the Holocaust. Only a fool could have imagined this in 1945.
3) It affected millions of non-Orthodox Jews, who surely looked on with awe at what they once considered a dying breed of fanatic, benighted Jews who were out of tune with modern life. It made them think twice about who they themselves are and where they are going — and that maybe the Orthodox have a point.
4) It projected Orthodox Judaism as a powerful and dynamic force.
But transcending the impressive number of participants , this represents the culmination of decades of grinding toil and sweat, of relentless building of day schools and yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs and girls’ seminaries. The ground was hard and unreceptive; communities were suspicious, and often opposed day-schools outright as being too Jewish. But the intensive efforts, plus the help of the Almighty, has borne delicious fruit. The otherworldly conviction that Torah was fecund enough to take root even in the hostile soil of a hedonisticUSAhas been vindicated.
But a wise people dare not rest on its laurels. For there are “promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.” For example:
a) The great Rav Elyashiv ztz”l was niftar just prior to the Siyum. His 102 years of life almost paralleled the daf yomi cycle. He embodied deep Torah learning, studying 18 hours a day in modesty and simplicity. Had his achievements been highlighted more prominently at the Siyum, he could have served as a subtle counterpoint to anyone who might feel that Talmud can be mastered in one hour per day. It is not a derogation of the exemplary discipline and will power involved in seven years of daily Talmud study to note that one hour per day only scratches the surface of the surface. Authentic Talmud learning requires careful preparation, constant review (cf. Chagigah 9b), intensive grappling with new ideas — all not possible in the daf yomi system. Although the system is a superb way to arrive at an appreciation of Torah, Rav Elyashiv’s life underscores that one hour per day is only a beginning.
b) The Siyum speakers spoke of Jewish unity, noting that “all kinds of head coverings were present: shtreimlach, black and colored hats, kippot srugot, black yarmulkes.” But apparently the ideal of Jewish unity extended only to like-minded frum Jews, because some kinds of head-coverings were obviously not on the program. Even the inclusion of former Chief Rabbi Lau, with all of his credentials as a learned and pious leader, became a source of tension in certain circles. Jewish unity, even among the Orthodox, still remains a consummation devoutly to be wished.
c) Most painful of all: Millions of Jews were not present at all — they who wear no head coverings, never heard of Shas or siyum, are unable to read alef-beis much less Talmud, and are falling off the edges. Intermarriage, Jewish illiteracy, and Jewish ignorance are endemic. Their souls thirst for Torah, but we have not slaked that thirst. A powerful Orthodoxy can find creative ways to reach out to our brethren drowning in a sea of nothingness. Behind all the trappings of triumph — all richly deserved — there looms this dark cloud.
c) During the Siyum, the prophet Michah’s hatznea leches — walking humbly with G-d (6:8) — kept drifting across my mind. Amid the cameras and armed security men and general tummel — all unavoidable — I remembered that the essence of Torah scholars is to be quiet and self-effacing (like Rav Elyashiv). “Im lamadta Torah harbeh … If you learned much Torah, do not be proud, because for this were you created” (Avos 2:3). Pride and self-satisfaction at completing the cycle are understandable and deserved, but the second Ten Commandments were given without fanfare, and unlike the first set, they lasted. It does not diminish this magnificent event to dream about the apparently impossible: a magnificent, restrained and muted mass siyum, a gilu bir’ada, a rejoicing in awe (Tehillim 2:ll).
Bottom line: There is no daf yomi, l’havdil , for Aristotle or Shakespeare or even the sacred literature of others. “Mi k’amcha Yisrael … Who is like Israel, Thy singular people?” (Divrei HaYamim I 17:21)
This column is in memory of Moshe Esral z”l, whose discussion with me just before his sudden death on 18 Av was the catalyst for this essay. It first appeared in Mishpacha.