Torah is eternal, encapsulates the word of G-d and, therefore, exists beyond time and place. For this reason, Torah was delivered atop a lonely mountain in a barren desert, far away from human civilization. Likewise, the actual date of Torah’s delivery isn’t overtly mentioned. Even though it is possible to decode the date and to identify the location- the message remains clear- Torah isn’t tethered to any particular setting but transcends reality.
Yet, the uncontainable word of G-d was delivered to a human community and “comments” upon the human condition. The Midrash chronicles the opposition of Heavenly angels to the notion of delivering Torah to fallen and flawed humans. In response, G- then justifies His decision by mentioning Torah sections which address death, illness, character flaws and moral failure. As angels are incapable of these conditions, they are unsuited for Torah. Though Torah lies beyond the human realm, it is very much integrated within human experience
Shavuot is a perfect moment to assess how Torah has unfolded within the human “world” during the past year- a “Year in Review” for Torah in our world. This past year included two (so far) tumultuous events, which focused and shaped our perspectives about Torah.
- Concluding the Daf Yomi cycle
The conclusion of the 13th Daf Yomi cycle was celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Jews across the globe. The energy of these celebrations created forward momentum arousing even greater interest in the 14th cycle. The prolific success of daf yomi showcases the enduring centrality of the Oral Torah. Our resettling of Israel had revitalized interest in Tanach study- an area of Torah which was relatively neglected for centuries. Our return to the land of history has rejuvenated the study of the book of history. Yet, alongside the growing popularity of Tanach, the depth and sweep of Talmud remains compelling and inalienable. This world of Talmudic analysis and halachik evolution forges a core Jewish identity which can exist independent of history or geography. Furthermore, the world of gemara underscores the critical function of tradition or masorah in perpetuating Jewish continuity. Sadly, our tradition of residence in Israel was interrupted for 2000 years; our tradition of halachik observance surged uninterrupted.
The daf yomi experience also has punctuated the growing “integration” of the Jewish world. The concept of daf yomi was conceived in the 1920’s as world travel expanded and the dispersed Jewish world “shrunk”. In previous eras, Jews from distant countries would rarely interact personally. In the new era of transportation, Jews became more aware of the global Jewish community. Joint study of the same page of gemara provided a common language for Jews who rarely spoke the same tongue and who lived in different cultures. Daf yomi has both been driven by the integration of world Jewry and has, in turn generated even created greater commonality.
Of course, the more seismic event over the past year has been the corona epidemic. Firstly, this crisis has demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability of halacha. Torah is delivered for a world which sometimes slips into dysfunction. Yet, Torah and halacha can adapt to abnormal and even previously unimaginable circumstances. Creative solutions were developed for some halachik quandaries, while other predicaments were so insoluble that no compromises could be struck; full adherence to health guidelines were upheld even at the cost of suspending important religious activities -primarily davening and studying in public arenas. Halacha isn’t ossified or inflexible but possesses enough internal elasticity to shape itself to many different scenarios. Whatever suspensions of religious activity occurred during this period should not be seen as collapses of halacha but, instead, as triumphs of halacha or halacha applied in non-conventional fashion.
A second reality of Torah which emerged is the public nature of our study. Many religions mandate “public” prayer but Judaism is unique in encouraging public learning experiences in study halls and Batei Midrash. Our yearning to return to these communal settings of Torah study, helps us appreciate how unique and enriching public Torah study is compared to private learning. Jews do not merely read Torah information or pursue Torah education. We study in groups as an affirmation of our mutual commitment to Torah. Being distant from these settings has magnified their importance during normal conditions.
Lastly, there are two elements of Torah experience which the daf yomi celebrations and the corona crisis have jointly highlighted. The past 30 years has unleashed a dizzying technological revolution as we now communicate in a rapid and unrestricted information highway. This information overflow is worrying to some, as the torrent of interaction can overwhelm religious spirituality. Too much exposure and completely unfiltered encounter can erode religious identity. Some choose to quickly adopt the power of modern technology while others are more cautious- citing the immense risks. Either way, technology shouldn’t be demonized. It provides tools and it empowers humans to transcend their previous limits just as it also presents great hazards. How would our “corona experience” have unfolded without technology aiding Torah study and facilitating substitutes for many religious and communal experiences? Had the pandemic erupted thirty years ago our quarantine would have been more isolated and decidedly less religiously interactive. Daf yomi’s popularity was fueled by the internet which enabled availability of shiurim to those who would otherwise never attend formal shiurim. Technology is a tool: we can choose to utilize it or to avoid it, but it shouldn’t be demonized. The past year has confirmed the manner in which it can serve the purpose of Torah.
Finally, both the daf yomi and the corona crisis demonstrated the central role of community within Jewish life. The resilience of Jewish communities during the health crisis was unmistakable, as we discovered novel ways to recreate our communal interactions. Similarly, daf yomi is popular, in part, because it generates communal identity surrounding shared Torah learning. Jews are G-d’s children and we are meant to live as a community pivoted around our national embrace of the word of G-d. The two major episodes of the past year each highlight the communal role of Torah and of Jewish identity.