For me and Talmud, it was love at first sight. Like Yentl, I remember walking through a crowded room of learners that was loud and buzzing with a sense of organized chaos. I sat at the table, across from my chevruta, opened up the masechet that I had purchased earlier that day (though I didn’t know what a masechet was—I had read the name of the book off of a book list I had been given), and I fell in love. I was immediately captivated by the swirling fonts on the page, which wove together like a holy combination of tapestry and tetris game. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. I loved the minutiae, and the opportunity to find equal parts meaning in the tiniest of letters and the biggest of philosophical questions. I felt like I was coming home to something, or like something was coming home to me. It was a magical whirlwind of new relationship energy, and it carried me through my first few years of learning, during which I wanted to spend as much time with Talmud as I could.
At the same time, I could not have told you what the Talmud was, what it was trying to do for or through us, or what the rabbis intended when they created it. I knew that Talmud was a vast canon—one that I could never “master,” but that I could always learn—and I knew that it was hard, weird, and fun. I knew that I loved it, but I didn’t know why. And I knew that while I was learning, I felt a kind of contemplative presence, freedom, and flow that I had only known as a young person when being enthralled in a fantastical story.
In one of my favorite meditations about the practice of learning, SVARA Faculty R’ Elliot Kukla writes:
“… Talmudic texts are so complex and intricately woven together that just following the flow of the arguments takes total concentration in the present moment. I spent years trying to meditate and struggling to find mindfulness in the midst of intrusive thoughts from the past and nagging worries about the future. But when I sit down to learn a page of Talmud I am wholly in the present – there is simply no room in my mind for past or future concerns. I am utterly caught up in the complex and strangely beautiful flow of the arguments. The Talmud follows the ‘order of the heart’ not the ‘order of the mind.’ Thus to follow its flow it must be read from deep within our own hearts, a post-cognitive place where the past and the future slip away.”
Talmud touched every edge of my imagination, bringing me into an alternate world that somehow made me feel more present and not less.
I celebrated my tenth gemara-versary this week, marking that I’ve been learning Talmud, and learning myself through Talmud, for a decade. Talmud has been one of my longest relationships, and loving it has been one of the most fruitful and heart-filled pursuits of my life.
Throughout my 10 years of loving and learning gemara, I’ve formally learned and siyum-ed a number of full masechtot of Talmud and full sedarim of Mishnah. I’ve learned full dapim (pages) and full perakim (chapters). I have favorites that I come back to and that find their way back to me. But as I celebrated yesterday, it felt important that I hadn’t really completed anything.
Earlier this week in a class they taught, SVARA Fellow Sarit offered an anecdote to the folks in their bet midrash who were unpacking the slow, careful practice of studying Talmud in SVARA’s method. They told a story about a friend who had asked them about their Talmud learning. What are you studying for? their friend had asked. The gift of Talmud—as a practice, as a text, and as a way of being in relationship to ourselves, each other, and tradition—is that we aren’t learning for anything. There’s no degree that comes at the end of learning, no particular material prize or thing to acquire.
Our tradition has a phrase to describe this orientation to learning that runs so counter to what many of us have internalized about study: Torah lishmah, which is often translated as “Torah for its own sake.” In the Mishnah Collective’s second cycle through the sixth chapter of Mishnah Avot, Torah lishma has taken center stage. The chapter opens with a declaration from Rabbi Meir:
רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ
Rabbi Meir said: Whoever occupies herself with the Torah for its own sake, merits many things; not only that but the entire world is thus for her.
Rabbi Meir’s statement continues, listing a powerful litany of blessings that come to those who learn with no other agenda. A journey into the word לִשְׁמָהּ, often translated as “for its own sake,” gave me some language to articulate what’s been so powerful about my decade of learning for learning. When we break it down, we get לִ + שְׁמָ + ה (“to/for” + “name” + “hers”). The root שום —which is the three letter root for שם/name—gives us something like “mark,” “title,” “value,” “approximation,” carrying with it the sense that names are only approximate articulations of who we are. I love this queer and fabulous root! I’m always so moved by the idea that our names attempt to communicate something about who we are but they are mere attempts, unable to fully communicate our essence.
So it is with Torah! In the same way that our names enable people to access who we are but acknowledge that we can never fully get there, all the more so with Torah. Learning Torah lishmah, for her own name, may be a humble statement about what it means to learn: even in our fullest attempts, we can only grasp an approximation. I’m not really able to do anything now as a “result” of these 10 years of learning… other than keep learning.
Through its big-ness, Talmud reminds us that even if we wanted to, we could never learn it all. Loving something this big, vast, deep, and complex for a decade has helped me tap into and practice a kind of love that is about perpetually and intimately touching a sense of knowing and unknowing, of becoming comfortable sinking into familiar stories while understanding that there is so much I’ll never see. May we all merit decades to come of presence and homecoming into our learning and loving the Talmud.