When the literary critic Adam Kirsch began the regimen of daily Talmud study known as daf yomi (“daily page”) seven-and-a-half years ago, he did not do so in “the spirit of a believer,” and he concluded it earlier this month still a confirmed secular Jew. Reflecting on the experience—very different, as he notes, from that of the thousands of Jews around the world who concluded the Talmud along with him—he ponders its larger significance:
Jews who don’t know the Talmud take their ideas of it from Western culture, which reflects Christianity’s view of the Talmud rather than Judaism’s. After all, when the Apostle Paul said, in 2Corinthians, that “the letter [of the Law] killeth but the spirit giveth life,” it was halakhah that he had in mind. Ever since—and for secular, “enlightened” Western thinkers as well as religious ones—the Talmud has been synonymous with arid legalism. In English, the word “talmudic” connotes perverse over-analysis. This is one of the main reasons why I wanted to do daf yomi—so that I could understand how Jews themselves thought about their law, rather than how others defined it for them.
The still unanswered question is whether a Judaism cut off from its roots in the Talmud can keep thriving for long. Much has been written about how the future of American Judaism is Orthodox, an idea that would have greatly surprised the American Jews of the mid-20th century. Demographically, this is because non-Orthodox Jews are assimilating, intermarrying, and having few children, while Orthodox Jews are doing the opposite.
But that demographic reality rests on a deeper spiritual reality, which is that Orthodox Judaism offers something other denominations do not—and that offer has everything to do with the Talmud. Traditional Judaism insists that the rigors of living according to halakhah are justified because they bring the Jew into contact with God. Indeed, the rigors help to convince the believer that he is following God, since why else would he take so many pains and sacrifice so much freedom?
But the ideal Jewish life, for the rabbis, involves more than obeying God’s law at every moment. Above all it means studying that law.