Five years ago, following the seven-year cycle known as Daf Yomi, the literary critic Adam Kirsch began reading one folio page of Talmud every day, in his case in English translation. He notes what he, as an “unobservant” Jew without prior talmudic education, has discovered:
Because Jewish law is so encompassing, covering every area of human life, the Talmud deals with everything under the sun. Medicine and astronomy, architecture and geometry, cuisine and cosmetics—these facets of ancient life are captured in the Talmud in all their living reality. Then there are the major subjects of the various tractates: the prayer service; the organization and operation of the Temple; the holidays and their rituals; Shabbat and its many restrictions; marriage and divorce; real estate and commerce; contracts and court procedure. For the rabbis, all of these elements went to make up what they knew as Judaism. The Judaism most of us know in the 21st century is a very different thing; under the pressures of modernity, science, and assimilation, we have lost touch with that ancient heritage.
This is not simply to be regretted—we have gained as well as lost, and alienation from the past is not only a Jewish experience. But I think that many modern Jews feel a longing to give their Jewishness a deeper meaning, a spiritual and intellectual content. We know we are Jews—the world wouldn’t let us forget it even if we wanted to—but what does being Jewish mean? That is the great modern Jewish question, and much of our thought and literature is devoted to answering it. But there is no real way of understanding what Jewishness means unless we understand what it meant; and for that, the Talmud, the text that stood at the center of Jewish life for more than a thousand years, is essential. Without it, we can hardly expect to know what our ancestors thought, or even more importantly, how they thought.