Daf Yomi 4 Kids: A Simulacrum of a Simulacrum of Talmud Study- Guest Post by Yoel Finkelman

dafyomikids1Recently, my seven-year old son was invited to his friend’s house on a Shabbat afternoon for a siyum. I asked this child’s father what the siyum was on. “Oh,” he responded, “He finished Berakhot in daf yomi.” My jaw dropped. He’s a bright kid and all, but I hadn’t realized what kind of a rare talmudic genius my son was playing soccer with.  No, the father explained, he’s doing the daf yomi for kids.  I nodded politely, but underneath I was pretty dismissive. Daf Yomi… for kids?! Seriously!?  I mean, I am all for teaching kids directly from primary sources.  No need to give them a watered-down The Little Midrash Says. But Gemara?!

Surprisingly – or not – two versions of daf yomi for kids have appeared in the past few years: a Hebrew version, created by religious-Zioinists in Israel that comes in several hardback volumes, and an English version, linked to the moderate American Haredi (or yeshivish) community, which appears in a monthly magazine format. The two versions have much in common, but they differ from one another in significant ways.

Each offers a kid-friendly presentation of something related, either directly or loosely, to what appears on the daily daf. The books might offer an explanation of basic ideas in the Oral Law, summarize a dispute, or explain how the Talmud derives a law from a biblical verse. They offer summaries of core concepts in Jewish law or simplified versions of stories that appear in the day’s daf. They share inspirational messages that, with a bit of creativity, can be seen as deriving from the Gemara, or cute cartoon drawings to illustrate an idea. Mostly, they speak with the vocabulary of intelligent elementary school children and assume that parents and children, or at least fathers and sons (more on that, below), will share a few minutes each day while absorbing its wholesome messages.

But there’s no shaqla vetarya – the argumentative back-and-forth that gives the Talmud its polyphonic style, whimsical character, and disputatious tone. Nor could it, since the constant changes in speaker, the jumps back and forth between generations and places, the intricacies of the arguments, are precisely what make the Talmud an adult book. After all, “Fifteen years old for Talmud (mAvot 5:21),” is how the Mishna puts it. So, daf yomi for kids may be a bit oversimplified, but ten or fifteen minutes a day and your third-grader can participate in daf yomi in a carefully constructed kid-friendly way.

The Israeli version has been published by Yediot Aharonot, the publishing house linked with one of Israel’s largest secular newspapers.  While its primary audience is religious-Zionist parents, it also aims for a secular readership, as part of religious-Zionism’s ideological attempt to “Judaize” Israeli secular culture. The books are designed, according to the authors’ introduction, not only to allow observant Jewish parents to gain some one-on-one learning time with their kids, but for religiously ignorant and non-observant parents to learn the basics of Judaism together with their children.  In fact, the books’ title is, somewhat audaciously, “Talmud Yisraeli,” [Israeli Talmud] which rhetorically (though perhaps unintentionally) sets it up as a triad along with the Bavli and Yerushalmi. More importantly, it focuses on the relevance of the Talmud to all of Israeli culture. “The Talmud Yisraeli is another layer of the Jewish and Israeli identities which are being created in our generation,” explains the ideological introduction.

For this reason, the Israeli version treads with lighter feet. It assumes less background in Judaism. It respects its readers a bit more, genuinely trying to offer background and basics in a user-friendly way. Its inspirational messages focus less on rabbinic authority and less on isolationism from a dangerous outside culture. The books offer no rabbinic approbations that might scare off secular readers. The drawings show kids who look like a typical Israeli youngsters, albeit observant ones. Perhaps to satisfy a more general audience, it even makes some attempt to contextualize the Talmudic rabbis within history.

The English version – cutely entitled Daf Yomi 4 Kids – assumes that its readership already comes from the American-style yeshivish community. It assumes familiarity with Judaism and wields a somewhat blunter instrument, hitting its readers over the head with isolationist and ideologically pure inspirational messages. “To get closer to Hashem… we have to remove ourselves from a less holy environment.”  It has more of a focus on miracle stories than the Israeli one, and the depictions of kids look “Yeshivish.”

In both versions, the daf yomi for kids is a lot like the daf yomi for adults, only more so. Daf yomi for adults is a very serious enterprise indeed, a critical and important development that has blossomed in the last century. The phenomenon plays a significant role in centralizing the place of a particular kind of yeshiva-style Torah study. It helps canonize the Bavli, strengthens the religious authority of rabbis, constructs community solidarity, and forms and reforms gender differences in the religious sphere. Daf yomi for kids does all this, too.

To begin with, the oddities in the notion of daf yomi for kids are actually magnifications of the characteristics of the very notion of daf yomi.  Both involve focusing on a particular idea of learning. Daf yomi of any kind is a consequence of the dominance of the Bavli in Orthodox Jewish life.  But more than that, daf yomi is a way of performing and constructing a particular kind of Eastern-European, yeshiva-style, Gemara-centered vision of Torah study that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Daf Yomi is not the halakhah-centered learning more popular in Sephardic circles. It is not the Tanakh and Jewish-thought centered learning of more liberal circles, nor the student-friendly introductions of Israel’s ministry of education textbooks on “Tosh’ba” [Oral Law]. It is not even the guide to practice that appears in halakha-handbooks like Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkheta. This is Talmud for its own sake, with or without any connection to halakhah lema’aseh [practical law], with or without much by way of systematic organization. This partakes in the notion articulated by R. Hayyim of Volozhin and exemplified in the Eastern European yeshiva movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries: namely that Talmud study for its own sake constitutes the highest form of worship of God. In adult daf yomi, you study today whatever happens to be on the page that comes after the one from yesterday, no matter how loose the connection between them, and in children’s daf yomi one gets no more than a few sentences on a single topic from that daf.

This points to three ways in which Daf Yomi for adults is quite similar to Daf Yomi for kids, and also three ways in which daf yomi differs from the ideology of R. Hayyim:  First, daf yomi remains very different from the vision of R. Hayyim of Volozhin, in that “the daf” generally involves neither a deep understanding nor a great commitment to memory. Most participants learn and remember things, but daf yomi is an inefficient way of gaining broad knowledge or mastery of Talmudic dialectics, at least if it is not combined with constant review and with a more analytical and in-depth learning.  Daf yomi is a balibatish [layman’s] way of partaking from a distance in the more ideal yeshiva-style learning.

The point is not to know all of the material in a systematic way – for that, regular study of Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah or some other textbook that organizes the material for the reader, might be a better choice.  Nor is the point to master Rabbinic argumentation and dialectics.  For that one would have to challenge, question, search for answers, and delve more deeply into the post-Talmudic discussions.  Plenty of daf yomi listeners understand the simple meaning. But that is all they set out to accomplish, skimming the surface of a rich and deep text. The suggestion that children of six or seven are participating in “learning the daf” when they absorb a cartoon or a few sentence summary of a rich talmudic story is only a slightly more extreme version of the notion that you can fully grasp a page of Talmud while wiping the cobwebs from your eyes, cup of coffee in hand in a train car of the Long Island Railroad.

Second, daf yomi is primarily an experience, a ritual act of lernen, in which the experience itself is more important than recalling the material learned.  In most cases, at least among adults whose full-time student days have passed, the goal of daf yomi is not the gaining of mastery, the attempt to become a talmid hakham [pious scholar], as was the center for the Eastern European yeshiva movement. Instead, the goal is “la’asok bedivrei Torah” [to be involved in Torah study]. Studying Gemara is an act of religious worship, of pious devotion. Its ritualized aspect is manifest in the routine way the learning is institutionalized. One learns each day and every day – for many people in the same place at the same time and with the same group. Parents want their children to gain that habit of ritualized learning – of service of God through “kove’a ittim laTorah” [setting aside time for studying Torah].  Kids taking out their books day in and day out educates them into that practice.

Third, when learning daf yomi, the student generally encounters a Gemara that is mediated by authoritative experts, who, unlike the students, have actually mastered the material. Teachers or ArtScroll Gemaras do most of the heavy lifting, and they stand in between the student and the text. The student becomes a more passive consumer of the learning rather than an active conqueror of the dense text. In this sense also, daf yomi differs from the old Eastern European yeshiva-style ideal. It is a simulacrum of that learning—what in another context I have referred to as “virtual Volozhin.”

Daf yomi, then, reinforces notions of strong rabbinic authority by celebrating the importance of Gemara learning as a source of authority while identifying “someone else” as the possessor of that authority. Daf yomi for kids does something similar, telling the young person that at this stage he does not gain access to the “real” thing, which is something that belongs to the more authoritative father and his teachers.

Daf yomi for kids and adults also share other commonalities. They are both part of a socialization process into a community of learners. Part of the appeal of daf yomi for adults involves the sense of participation with a worldwide imagined community of participants, who learn apart but feel together, since they all study the same thing at the same time.  The international gatherings of hundreds of thousands of participants and onlookers at the siyyumim that take place every seven-plus years concretize the sense that the participant is a part of something much larger.

Nothing matters more to Orthodox Jews than socializing individuals to become upstanding community members.  Daf yomi for adults is such a powerful tool to make participants feel that they belong to something larger, and Orthodoxy desperately wants to offer that tool to children. Children may not “really” study the Talmud, but they too can feel part of the larger collective that “does” the daf. Daf yomi for kids adds an extra element. If the adult daf yomi connects the participant to the particular study-group in the shul or on the train, the children’s daf yomi allows for parent-child bonding time, creating for the child a sense that I am attached to my father, and we are both attached to the transnational community of daf-yomi-learning pious Jews.

Daf yomi is, of course, a gendered activity, and the relationship between these daf-yomi-for-kids books and gender is complicated. Talmud study has been a quintessentially male activity for much of Jewish history, central to the image of Jewish “scholar-sissy” masculinity.  The current daf yomi cycle includes a growing number of participating women (I’m very proud to say, including my own high-school-age daughter), but the overwhelming majority are men. Yet, Orthodoxy desperately wants to socialize all young people, boys and girls, into learning and observance.  Plus, parents certainly do not want to discriminate against girls when it comes to parent-child quality-time. And there is no reason to leave girls out of daf yomi for kids; it’s not like they are actually studying Talmud. Cannot girls also benefit from inspirational stories, pious cartoons, or background on basic concepts in Judaism? Gemara, according to many, may not be appropriate for girls, but can they take part in daf yomi for kids?

Both volumes fudge this. They both include drawings of women or girls. The Talmud Yisraeli depicts a cartoon of a young boy and girl in the cover page, hinting that a girl might participate, though none of the drawings or illustrations that accompany the text itself include girls or women, even drawings of the goings-on in the kitchen, even illustrations of stories about women, even in volumes that cover tractates in the mishnaic order of Nashim [women]. The Daf Yomi 4 Kids, at least the volume I examined, also shows drawings of girls and women, albeit one in the kitchen and the other of Marta, the Second-Temple-era widow who tried to purchase the job of high priest (Yoma 18). The introduction explains that “Anyone can study Daf Yomi 4 Kids…. young children, fathers with their sons, teachers with their students.” One cannot know whether mothers and daughters do not qualify as “anyone” or whether the author thinks that a female might also gain from this. Another haskamah [approbation] also mentions the value of fathers studying with sons. All of the inspirational vignettes involve boy characters. They don’t quite exclude girls and women, but they certainly keep them at a distance.

Daf Yomi may not involve the richest and deepest learning imaginable, but it is a phenomenon that has swept the Jewish world.  Something important is at stake, and it seems to me that the daf yomi for kids is important for many of the same reasons that daf yomi for adults is important.

Yoel Finkelman is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University and is author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy. He is currently working on a book tracing images of masculinity in contemporary Jewish culture.

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4 thoughts on “Daf Yomi 4 Kids: A Simulacrum of a Simulacrum of Talmud Study- Guest Post by Yoel Finkelman”

  1. I do not think this is a good idea. It gives a watered down, distorted version of the text that will only come to harm the children later in life. Talmud had to be engaged, and while listening to a rabbi is part of it, the students must grapple with it and understand themselves. YOu won’t get that from an Artscroll, you won’t get that from The Little Midrash Says, and you certainly won’t get that from this. Better to take time to learn Mishna with them. And when they are ready, they can learn Talmud with a clear lens and have a deeper, true connection to their heritage. Actual ‘Osek b’torah.

  2. A lovely article, although you seem to take Volozhin as somehow indicative of “Eastern-European, yeshiva-style” learning. Aside from the fact that not all Lithuanian/Polish yeshivot placed the same emphasis on independent study, you appear to be neglecting the venerable Hungarian tradition, in which the rebbe played a much larger role in presenting the material to his students.

  3. Well articulated article. You cover the various aspects of the subject in an objective way. It is a dilema wether it is a good idea to create watered down versions of real learning. The danger is that the children never graduate to the real thing. My experience with children is that they are more prepared for new intellectual challege than teenagers or adults. It is a pity to have them study a watered down imitation.

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