Sunday, March 13, 2005

There is Glory in the Jewish People

There is glory in the Jewish people in the completion of the ArtScroll English-language edition of the Babylonian Talmud and there is glory in the Jewish people in the Siyum Hashas, the completion of another seven and one-half year cycle of daily study of a folio page of the Talmud that was celebrated last week by tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden and other locations. Linked as they are in time, these two magnificent occasions give each other spiritual sustenance, as Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and head of Agudath Israel graciously noted in his speech at the Siyum Hashas. The spiritual excitement generated by each completed cycle brings additional people to daily study and ArtScroll's masterwork makes such study more readily accessible.

We are witness to the fulfillment of the words sung as Torah scrolls are returned to the Ark. The Torah "is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy." Torah study is life-giving and the daily study of the Talmud provides an oasis of time that is life-transforming, transporting those who study into the lives of the transcendent Sages whose teachings comprise the Talmud and the great commentators who in each generation have explained and added to these teachings.

When we pray, for many - myself included - it is often difficult to concentrate fully on the text, to expel thoughts about what is going on elsewhere in our lives. Talmudic study is different. There is concentration, as the mind is focused - often intensely - on understanding and challenging what is being studied. We are engaged, as it were, in a conversation with the giants of the intellect and spirit who are our links to the heritage that extends from Sinai to the present.

The Talmud is an ancient work, completed about 1,500 years ago. Though its precise words are fixed, unlike classical works it remains an open document. When it is studied, students do not say that the Gemara (the main body of the Talmud) "said" or that a great authority "said" or "ruled." Their language is in the present, as in the frequent expression "Abaye says" or "Rava says." So it is with the commentaries: Rashi says and Tosafos say. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik beautifully captures this thought in his comment that during his period of study, Rambam and other great authorities are in the room with him.

The two coalescing occasions are instrumentalities for promoting religious Jewish unity, itself a paramount goal, for the ways of the Torah are pleasant and "all of its paths are peace." The program for the Siyum Hashas lists more than 600 daily study groups in North America across the spectrum of Orthodox life. The number has grown in the last week.

Each completed cycle commemorates the murder of our six million, more than one million of them children. Those who persecute Jews rightly view the Talmud as a source of our distinctiveness and survival. Twenty-four wagonloads containing thousands of volumes of the Talmud were publicly burned in Paris in 1242 and this was followed by centuries of additional burning and censorship that went hand in hand with other acts of persecution. Each Talmud cycle expresses the eternity of the Jewish people, of Am Yisroel Chai.

ArtScroll's achievements constitute an epic chapter in Jewish life, although astonishingly not a word about ArtScroll is found in Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism. The Stone Chumash is a monumental work. For good reason it has become the standard text in Orthodox synagogues and homes. I do not mean to denigrate any other English-language edition of the Talmud when I say that ArtScroll towers over all of the rest. The late Jerome Schottenstein had great vision and creativity when he endowed the project and family members who have provided continued support, including for a Hebrew-language edition and an English language edition of the Jerusalem Talmud, can take pride in what has been accomplished. The Schottensteins have pulled off one of the great coups in the history of Jewish philanthropy.

The seventy-three volumes of ArtScroll's Talmud are a model of clarity in language, high intellectual purpose and elevated aesthetics. The volumes are attractive and user-friendly and this for a text that is obviously arcane and often very difficult. Students with widely varying capabilities can make use of this edition. This is obviously true of those whose familiarity with the Talmud is limited, and it is true of those who are far more proficient as they come into contact with sources that would elude most of them, if only because of the limited time available for study.

Words of appreciation are too tepid an expression of gratitude to Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, ArtScroll's founders and creative force. What they have given the Jewish people is a blessing that shall continue to be heard in Jewish homes for generations. Of course, great praise is due to the many scholars and staff members who contributed to this magnificent project, as well as to the Yeshiva deans and eminent Rabbis who provided encouragement.

There are critics who contend that ArtScroll provides a crutch, that it eliminates the heavy lifting that is essential for growth in Talmudic proficiency. Ever since books have been printed, there have been religious Jewish reference and legal works that have been labeled as crutches and so ArtScroll has impressive company in this regard. For every person who uses its Talmud as a shortcut, there are many more for whom it is a stepping stone to consult other works, to grow in knowledge and skill and to add to the time devoted to Torah study.

When the Talmud is studied, we read a text read by Jews 100, 500 and 1,000 years ago and we ask questions that they asked and give explanations that they gave. One-hundred, 500 and 1,000 years from now, Jews will be studying the same texts and ask the same questions and give the same explanations.

There is glory in the Jewish people.