LONDON - "They think they have an Olympic torch? We have the real Olympic torch, it's the Torah hakedosha (the holy Torah)," thunders Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff at the end of a seven-year daily study of the Talmud.
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Rabbi Lieff, a popular ultra-Orthodox orator from Brooklyn, has crossed the Atlantic to perform as the guest speaker at the Siyum Hashas, a ceremony marking the completion of seven and a half years of daily Talmud study at the Royal Festival Hall in London. This is the twelfth time that religious Jews around the world are completing the Daf Yomi, the daily page cycle, but the first that has ever coincided with the Olympic Games.
So when 3,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox men gathered Monday night in the center of the British capital to celebrate Talmud learning, some of the speakers just couldn't resist comparing the two events.
Ultra-Orthodox lawyer and chairman of the Siyum committee Rapahael Bergman, who also served as the master of ceremonies, opened the evening saying that "not far from this prestigious building there is a lot of activity which probably needs a lot of stamina, a lot of running. It fits the description of anu ratzim vehem ratzim (we run and they run)." Everyone present in the vast hall knew what he was referring to – the prayer said by some Jews after Torah learning, comparing the studious with those who while away their days in empty pursuits. The prayer ends with the sentence "we run and they run – we run to the life of hereafter and they run to damnation."
That was not his last sports analogy. "We run a much longer marathon," Bergman said, "a marathon unprecedented in history. That is the avoda (work) of the yid (Jew)."
However, the Olympic Games were not only present in the words of the speakers. The London ceremony may not have been the biggest in the world, with 90 thousand gatherers in New York and 12 thousand in Tel Aviv, but it must have been the only one where the younger Talmud students, bored by the mainly Yiddish speeches, could nip down to the hall's lobby and join the hundreds of tourists coming in from the south bank of the Thames (the river that one of the rabbis compared to the learning of Torah - "always flows, never stops") and watch Olympic swimming and gymnastics on a giant screen.
"I couldn’t understand a word any of them was saying and the simultaneous translation was no help," said one young man in a black suit, "So I came downstairs and learned about synchronized swimming instead."
Meanwhile, upstairs in the hall, speaker after speaker emphasized how those who study Torah are set apart from the rest of the world, or as Rabbi Lieff put it: "We Jews don't belong to this world, we are transplanted from a different place for 120 years."
Not all gathered there would agree with such characterization. "Not everyone are Haredim here," says Mark Eckstein from Golders Green, "We are just a group of thirty guys who come in, tired from their day's work - lawyers, accountants, property managers."
Eckstein says that his Talmud teacher, Mendy Bude, does not even look like someone who teaches Torah. "If you saw him on the street, you wouldn't think he's a rabbi… he leaves work early in the afternoon everyday to prepare the shiur (lesson) and is a huge inspiration to us. I have been coming for four years and we have all become friends and help each other out on business deals, it's another way of networking."
According to the booklet published for the event, there are daily shiurim (teachings) in no less than 46 synagogues across north London. Some of them hold multiple sessions and the number doesn't include many who study the daily page on their own, or with a havruta (a study partner).
Whatever the social makeup of Talmud-learners in London, the event is very much an ultra-Orthodox affair, organized by the British branch of the Haredi party - Agudath Yisrael - and all rabbis speaking are affiliated with the movement. Women, for instance, were not in attendance. They held a gathering of their own in a hall miles away and watched the speakers over a satellite link.
Moreover, Britain's most famous rabbi, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, did not attend the gathering. Ironically enough, he was also absent from the rival event in December, the annual Limmud conference, where 2,300 Jews of all streams joined together for five days of lectures and workshops over the Christmas break. If Sacks was to attend the Limmud, he would anger the Orthodox rabbis he has to work with due to the presence of Reform and Liberal rabbis. Both Limmud and Siyum Hashas underline how British Jewry is split between two worlds - in both, the Chief Rabbi cannot find his place.
The guest of honor from Israel, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Halberstam (also called Sanzer Rebbe) who is the reader of the last words of Tractate Nida, completing the Talmud cycle, lectured the audience in Yiddish. The rabbi talked about the evils of Liberalism and Freiheit and said that learning Talmud is the remedy to the evil plans to draft Yeshiva students into the Israeli army. He also called for mishma'as (discipline), insisting that the only true way of Judaism is that of obeying the orders of the rabbis "even if they tell you that right is left and left right."
Some listened with rapt admiration; others were busier looking at a young bearded man, whispering among them: "Did he get married in the end?" The object of their interest was a young Hassidic Jew who appeared in a BBC documentary series, Wonderland. The episode on the Haredi community of Stamford Hill was entitled "A Hasidic guide to love, marriage and finding a bride."