A play on the title of Edith Wharton’s 1920 serialized novel, ‘age of indifference’ was the title of a Pew Center report of a year or so ago that suggested the younger generation was less concerned with the news, with what was going on in the world around them, and more concerned with their own lives, their ‘inner circle.’ I am not convinced. Anecdotally the young people I come into contact with have a sense of what is happening in the world, probably even more so than I did at their age. In my day the challenge was to find the information. Even if I was interested it in, I couldn’t always track it down. Today, a young person’s challenge is separating out the wheat from the chaff. There is so much information, so much news available, so much detail about anything and everything, how do you decide what to actually read, what to spend time with, what is worthwhile? It is less the age of indifference and more the age of information overload. We’ve been talking about compassion fatigue for some time now. Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about information fatigue.
There are two traditional ways to study Talmud. One, ‘bikiut,’ means something like ‘survey course style (technically the word means ‘expertise’). The idea is to get through a lot of material, as many pages as possible, with a decent level of competency, and along the way you become somewhat ‘expert’ in Talmud. But then there is ‘b’iyyun’ study. This is a study of depth, of digging deep into a short section of text, of going through level after level of analysis on one idea. Peeling away the layers. Imagine wringing the washcloth out, squeezing and squeezing it until every last bit of moisture has been extracted. That is the way ‘b’iyyun’ study works.
There is pleasure in both kinds of study, and either approach to the text can help one to grow Jewishly and humanly. But I’ve always felt it is the ‘b’iyyun’ study that most accurately reflects the approach of the talmudic sages themselves. There is something meditative about it, prayerful even. A way to access God’s presence, to open up a sense of higher consciousness. From Ben Bag Bag in the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 5:22): Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn from it, and never move from it, for there is no better portion. We are living in a time of ‘survey’ learning. Snippets of information pass quickly before our eyes, even more quickly into short term memory and out again. But what about cogitation? Mulling over a problem, an issue, taking the time to actually think all the way through something? That is the kind of thinking Talmud study requires. A skill I would argue that we need more than ever.
So it is for this reason (and a few others) that I am starting a Talmud class. We will work slowly, taking our time, word by word, idea by idea. Hoping to meet regularly, once a week or close to it. Work in the original Hebrew or Aramaic or both. Student’s will need to be able to read Hebrew, although translations will be available. It is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. Years even. But, as they say in Hebrew, היגיע הזמן, the time has come. And then you have this, also from the Mishnah, also Pirke Avot, this time from Rabbi Tarfon: You don’t have to finish the work, but you have to at least get started!