Sunday Feb 03, 2008
Some years ago, by some remote chance, I survived a series of operations which implied total anesthesia followed by a rather long coma. When I woke up just by some Providence, I had faced death and was told that some 10 years earlier I would simply "lig'n in a kever - repose in cemetery". Things were new and this "ad shaarey hamavet - till the gates of death" experience looked like a renewal with some losses. Repeated and prolonged anesthesia - the operation is still a questioning accident because I was not sick - affected my memory, except for specific things which had been stimulated in various contexts. On the other hand, I am awfully grateful to the daily studying of the daf yomi (the Talmudic daily page) since my early age. It sustained my memory and humbled me a lot about "knowledge" changing it into a series of life experiences. I met a wonderful a professor of Talmud who, just before World War II began, had the insights to make a journey through the Lithuanian yeshivot, a world that was unknown to him. There he did experience the importance of what his own father had repeated along his adolescence: "laernen, laernen, tumid laernen - to learn, learn and learn always more". God protected him in a way and he became a forced worker/prisoner in a German farm during WWII . The farmer wanted to take some care of him and often gave him some thick Bockwurst (pork sausages) that the talmudist faked to take into his mouth and was quick to spitting out. When he came back and started to teach the Mishna and the Gemara, he used to apologize: he had forgotten everything and was "discovering" the subject with new eyes and a partial absence of correct language and memory. In this context, he was a true survivor. Thus, in a different way, I felt after all these sleeping hours, that waking up was a miracle and that the pedagogy of Talmud had allowed me to impulse some neurons and jog how to track back my memory knitting past and present through this special training.
Talmud Yoma 10a ascertains that before being delivered a Jewish child has a perfect knowledge of the Torah and the Mitzvot (Commandments), the Jewish traditions and the Oral Law, i.e. the Talmud. After his birth, he forgets all that and has to acquire it again in order to be able to go through his life. As if all spiritual and century-long tradition was inscribed in his ADN system as a son of Israel before his birth and disappears when he enters the world in order to make no difference with other people, except the duty to be a subject of the Law (Pirkey Avot 1:1; Galatians 4:4).
This is why Judaism is firstly and resolutely focusing on learning and teaching, which has been considered for centuries as a sacred and long-life educational system to cope with faith and discover a wealth of spiritual gifts and joys. Knowledge about Godly matters doesn't come out of some green cheese or blue moon. This requires a lot of time-tiring training hours, consistency, patience and perseverance. The Jewish world of knowledge is not related to some aesthetic wisdom method or technique. It does not include aerobics, fitness (maybe it should?), Japanese tiny sand gardens for meditation with seeds of reduced bonsais. To begin with, Jewish teachings flow naturally like a river that grows into channels and connect oceans of Aramaic and Hebrew words - without vowels - that may be read in different ways, traditions (massorah) or "fashions". Again, the vowels are the colorful vocalic "helps" or "neshamot - souls" that allow to utter "consonants = bones (etzamot)". It is quite probable that this is what Paul of Tarsus meant when he said "the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). And when he declared that each believer is "a letter", this positively echoes that each Jew has to write a Torah, at least a letter to be interpreted in numerous ways. A letter is "ot - pl. otiyot" = miracles, signs, marks" that encompass the many possibilities or opportunities to govern one's life and to help the others.
"Learning" is definitely and "professionally" Jewish. In Israel, people will speak at length of their "limudim - studies" that are often considered as a minimum, could be better etc. Still, there is a real thirst for knowledge that come from the positive Commandments.
The Jewish life entirely relies upon the world of the Mitzvot. It is a bit brusque and stated too shortly. But the whole of the Jewish life consists of a self-evident respect and joyous accomplishing the test to achieve the realm of the Mitzvot; from before the time of a birth till burial and faith in the resurrection of the dead. Then it is undoubtedly a humble task overshadowed by spiritual substantial principles that may penetrate our lifestyles in order to make us free and occasionally heal others.
The Pirkey Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) are read for the better part of the year on the Shabbat and are included in Tractate Nezikin (Damages). Along with the Book of Job, they are one of the world's best-sellers because of their simple, incisive and profound wisdom. "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Elders (Zeqenim); the Elders to the Nevi'im (Prophets); the Prophets handed it down to the Anshey Knesset HaG'dolah (The Men of the Great Assembly = 120).These said three things: "Be prudent in judgment, raise up many disciples (ha'midu talmidim) and make a fence (va'assu seyag) for the Torah" (Avot 1:1).This means that we follow a series of commitments that trace back to Moses, though even Abraham did respect the entire Law because "he loved" (Tractate Berachot 56b). The essential teaching element is based on handing down, communicating, repeating and grooming disciples. This often looks like an exploit for a pack of self-centered or egoistic singletons. At the present, with a small team you can make quite a living promoting discs, CD's-DVD's and some lectures. It is much more difficult to really get to what would definitely help the youth, elders, newcomers, professionals in their lives. Before the Shoah, in a rather poor and needy context, the realm of the Mitzvot could help unveil some difficult aspects of our lives.
Rabbi Rabinowicz had written a perspicacious version of a Talmud text about mice and dogs that provided Louis Pasteur with some instructions as how to find his rage vaccine. The last Rebbe of Lubavitch, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was consulted about astronomic and geophysical issues. But the Chabad Lubavitch movement is one of the trendiest if not most up-to-the-minute groups which developed a strong pattern to teach how to practice the Mitzvot.
It can be only en vogue in the present to say a blessing including the words: "Asher kidshanu bemitzvotav - Who sanctified us by your commandments"; either religion is too present and on the verge of boring, either it enables to get closer to the meaning of words or traditions that need to be explained. In Hebrew and Aramaic, "teaching" and "learning" are close and lead to each other. The "Shema Israel - Hear Israel" (Deut. 6:4; cited three times in the Gospel) confesses and instructs: "Veshinantam levaneikha - You will teach/repeat/infuse to your children, vedibarta bam - and you will speak with and about these words, in your house, on the way, going up or down to bed". This makes teaching similar to conversations, activities, inserting faith and Godly into secular deals and changing the society to its betterment. Indeed, as Jews need to protect the realm of God by walls, fences and hedges for the sake of The Most High, these are not human or cement barriers, nor negative frames as in the ghettos or shtetlech. Universality requires encasement in order to emanate and come forth to full coherence. It is a back and forth, in and out movement toward everyone, in any place. "To repeat" = "shanah, sheni" implies that learning echoes to a "year (shanah)" time that can change us (shanot) and memorize good and bad, tragic and joyous events that make then sense over duration. Israel has created a special body: "ulpan" in order to allow the newcomers to learn Hebrew quickly. "alef - yelif" means "to get accustomed, to learn" (Avot 1:13 : to make a proper use of the learning of the Crown of the Torah). "Lamad - lamed" = "to study" which describes a process of training, practice: "I learned much from my teachers, more from my fellowmen, most from my pupils", states Tractate Makkot 10a.
Now, this constant learning/teaching system allows to question God and the world back and forth and find ways to resolve human cross-questions. Words are turned into permanent paradoxes and traditional inquiries (sheilot) in view to correct or envision reality with more insightful responses (teshuvot - responsae).
Some Jewish groups do or did not accept this tradition of handing down a tradition: the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection, the Samaritans, the Karaites who reject the Oral Law. Just as the Christians do not include the Talmudic tradition.
This may be a consequence of some questions about the times and delays in the Mitzvot and in the spiritual experience reported by the Gospel. The Christians often point out that Jesus gave "new commandments" (John 13:34; 1 John 2:7). The Jewish attitude toward the Mitzvot is that - either sichliyot (intellectually acceptable) or shimiyot (to be accepted only for the sake of God) - they exist beyond any real "taamei hamitzvot - reason or explanation". Learning allows the opening of the gates of future because history is more articulate than we can imagine.
God "mechadesh maasey vereishit - renew the acts of the commencement". Learning should sustain us in feeling such motions. "Not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law until all things have taken place. Thus, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven"(Matthew 5:17-19).