Learning Talmud in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and Blogs

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This week, whilst sitting in Israel, I wrote a story about a house that turned into a woman, for an artist in London, after a meeting on Skype, in the name of Talmud study. How did this come to be?

In 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro came up with the idea of the Daf Yomi Cycle. The idea was to institute across the entire Jewish world a daily regimen of Talmud study, in which participants would learn one page of the Talmud every day. By organizing a schedule for the cycle, Rabbi Shapiro's hope was that on any particular day, Jews all over the world would toil over the very same page. Every seven years, increasing numbers of participants complete the entire 63 volume corpus of the Babylonian Talmud.

As technology advanced, so too did the study of Talmud and the aides available for the thousands of Jews who take part in the Daf Yomi Cycle. For those who didn't want to use the old technology of books and daily classes, the first innovation was dial-up audio classes on your phone. Then came CD ROMs, and then Web resources, and then aps for your smart phone.

And, as history has advanced, more and more people from different walks of life have begun to march along to the rhythm of Daf Yomi. It used to be the preserve of Orthodox men. But now that women's Talmud learning has taken off - at least to some extent - in the Orthodox world, Daf Yomi is no longer the preserve of one gender of Orthodox Jew. Nor is it the preserve of one particular stream of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Secular Jews and others have increasingly found themselves joining the bandwagon, enthralled by the idea of viewing the entire landscape of the rabbinic imagination.

The latest cycle began in the summer of 2012, and with it Daf Yomi entered a new phase. The world of today is a radically different place to the world of 2005, when the cycle before began. Sure, there was already such a thing as Facebook and MySpace. But there was no Twitter. And, though the social media that did exist were powerful, they were far from a ubiquitous feature of everyday life. In 2005, Facebook had around 5 million members. It now has more than a billion. So, this is the first Daf Yomi Cycle to start in the age of emboldened social media.

This time round, there seems to be a real ground swell of Daf Yomi bloggers. Daf Yomi's presence on the Internet, until now, had been dominated by educational/religious-institutions providing resources for those who wanted help in learning the page of the day. But now, we're in the age of user-generated content; the age of grass roots Torah content. People are no longer surfing the web for helpful rabbinic resources; they're creating their own content, sharing their own experiences.

This has been a wonderful revolution. I can mention two blogs with which I've been particularly impressed. Elie Jesner's Thinking Daf Yomi  is a great example of this phenomenon. Here is a blogger sharing his own impressions on each page of the Talmud, bringing to bear a remarkable degree of erudition and emotional depth. And because he isn't a rabbi of some community, and isn't doing this on behalf of any educational institution, there's an ideological freedom in the thoughts that he shares; he's not afraid to grapple aloud with the fundamentals of the texts, the fundamentals of his faith, and his own relationship with the page at hand.

The second blog is Draw Yomi, by Jacqueline Nicholls. Jacqueline is a very fine fine-artist and has a tremendous degree of Jewish literacy. She brings these skills to bear in her gargantuan project of drawing one sketch for each page of the entire Talmud. It's a prime example of the sort of raw creativity that is only now being unleashed upon Daf Yomi as it enters the information age. She had the idea of inviting other voices to learn with her on certain weeks of the cycle and to draft some words to stand in conversation with her images. I have now done this on two occasions, and I've tried to get into the spirit of the project. Instead of writing conventional blogs, or philosophical essays, I've tried to use my words more creatively and engage the texts in a new way.

Personally, other than the weeks I've joined Jacqueline, I don't learn Daf Yomi. It goes too quickly for my taste. Sometimes I feel like the whole culture of rushing through these pages is like taking a stadium full of people on a mass run through a beautiful pasture. The pasture gets trampled upon instead of savoured. Sometimes the words of the sages seem so brutal, offensive, and out of date; sometimes they simply are. But sometimes the distances in time and culture make it hard to appreciate the real significance of their words, especially if you gulp them down too quickly.

But the commitment of those that stick by it day in and day out for months on end (some of them for the full seven years), and the sense of community that the journey inspires in those that share it together, and the new lease of life that people like Jacqueline and Elie are breathing into it, helps me to find a new found appreciation for Rabbi Meir Shapiro's inspirational project.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

A Draw Yomi illustration.Credit: Jacqueline Nicholls

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