The second post in our series on Daf Yomi comes from field notes taken by Dr. David J. Landes, an anthropologist who has worked on Orthodox Jewish study culture. David was present at the central Siyum held at MetLife stadium last Wednesday night.
Over the past several decades a new ritual has taken hold within the Orthodox community, the daily learning of a prescribed daf, or double sided page, of the Talmud Bavli. The nature of this ritual, though, has yet to be fully investigated. On the one hand, it would seem to be purely a matter of study, of acquiring knowledge of God’s Torah. However, the pace of the learning and the limited amount of time that participants in the program generally allot to it – as far as I know, no daf yomi shiur exceeds one hour in length, and 45 minutes seems to be the preferred “shiur” (measure) – makes it impossible to retain much of what is studied. Talal Asad has written that the original sense of “ritual,” before the adoption of the term by modern anthropologists, was “the apt performance of what is prescribed” which involves “abilities to be acquired according to rules that are sanctioned by those in authority.” According to Asad, ritual presupposed “no obscure meanings, but rather the formation of physical and linguistic skills.” Daf yomi would seem to fit Asad’s understanding of ritual quite well: for many it seems to be more a matter of performance akin to davening (daily Jewish prayer), than the acquisition and retention of knowledge. In any event, the performance of the ritual is particularly demanding of one’s time and intellect, and the day of the completion of the cycle was awaited with great anticipation and excitement.
“Achdus” (“unity”) was the major theme of Wednesday night’s spectacular siyum has-shas celebration at the MetLife Stadium thrown by the Agudath Israel of North America. At the beginning of the evening the Jumbotrons displayed the many locations throughout the world where other siyum celebrations were taking place, as well as videos of daf yomi classes from all different types of Orthodox communities. The refrain “ke-ish echad be-lev ached” (“like one person with one heart”) was repeated many times over the course of the long evening, especially by the representatives of the Agudah who addressed the crowd. The daf yomi program of study was declared to be the great unifier of ke’lal yisrael, with Yidden of every stripe studying the same page of the Talmud on the same day throughout the world. As one speaker put it, no matter what headgear the learners of daf yomi may wear – a black yarmulke, a kippah serugah, a streimel, or a baseball hat – they are united in the great project of learning through shas together, studying the very same text on a daily basis. The daf yomi program is built on an insight made famous by Benedict Anderson, that the reading by disparate individuals of the same text on a daily basis – for Anderson it was the daily newspaper – can be a key factor in generating the sense of an imagined community.
Emphasizing unity, the organizers were careful to avoid controversial, divisive issues. The evening’s master of ceremonies declared that we care for Jews everywhere, no matter where they may be, whether “in Postville, Bulgaria or North Carolina.” The many speakers did not stray from safe themes, such as love of learning and the miracle of Jewish continuity. The only speaker who touched on a political issue was Rabbi Malkiel Kotler who passionately reiterated that Jews who are committed to learning constitute the “tziv’os ha-shem” (“the army of God”) – an indirect comment on the efforts being made to draft yeshiva students into the Israeli army that probably went mostly unnoticed.
A genuine feeling of community was felt within the stadium. It was easy to strike up conversations with complete strangers, everyone seemed eager to share with one another where they lived and whether they were being me’sayem (completing the Talmud). The crowd was laid-back and comfortable. People mostly sat quietly and listened to the speeches, but there were many quiet conversations going on. On the playing field, where I was sitting, the aisles were filled with people milling about, chatting on their smartphones. Everyone seemed to be taking pictures. In front of the dais there was a constantly changing cluster of people jockeying for position in order to snap shots of the various gedolim.
With the vastness of the crowd and the captivating pageantry, which included live performances by popular chazanim, singers and bands, and slick videos on the huge screens, the feeling that one was part of something much larger than oneself, a collective that spans the globe and transcends time and earthly existence, was palpable. Through videos, speeches, and an el maleh, the martyrs of “churban europa” (the Jewish European holocaust) were repeatedly invoked. Those martyrs, we were told, were celebrating together with us, as were the neshamos (“souls”) of all of the past generations of Yidden. After Rabbi Kotler recited the hadran, and Jay Schottenstein, patron of the Artscroll edition of the Talmud, said the kaddish, a “collective effervescence” (to use Durkheim’s term) broke out. The band played, the chazzan sang, and for a good twenty minutes everyone who was lucky enough to have a seat on the playing field (which I did thanks to the generosity of my brother, a siyum-celebrant who flew in from Chicago) danced, and those who were sitting in the stands swayed together, arms around each other’s shoulders.
Everyone danced or swayed in their rows, except, of course, the women who were sitting very still in their seats high up in the third tier. The work of establishing solidarity is inevitably partial and obscures the work of exclusion that is its complement. It was a given that no women could participate in the learning of daf yomi – they were thanked, though, for making it possible for their men to learn — and there were no women in the program or in the videos, including the historical footage from pre-War Europe. While Modern Orthodox men were welcomed and the Agudah speakers marked their inclusion in the celebration and their participation in daf yomi learning, I have heard that Yeshiva University’s efforts to have one of their roshei yeshiva speak were rebuffed. The crowd was actually quite homogeneous, made up mostly of clean-shaven yeshivish ba’ale-battim (orthodox laymen). There were very few chasidim and a small contingent of Modern Orthodox. Jews of other denominations were not recognized in any way. The Noveminsker Rebbe stated in his speech that the continuity of the Jewish people was due solely to the merit of Yidden who learn Torah.
A sense of hierarchy was also subtly conveyed. Finishing shas by learning a daf a day was certainly celebrated as a great accomplishment, but at the same time some of the speakers hinted that real learning requires a good deal more than a quick run through a daf of gemara. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky urged those who were being me’sayem now that they do it again, but this time with tosafos. Rabbi Yitzchak Steiner implored everyone to learn more deeply and with greater fervor, offering his recently-deceased rebbe, Rav Elyashiv, and Rav Elyashiv’s son-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, as persons to emulate. Another speaker suggested that people consider being regularly tested on their learning in the next cycle (which was met with audible shudders by many around me). It is noteworthy that none of the speakers gave a shiur or “spoke in learning,” which would seem to reflect an assumption that many in attendance either would not be interested or not be able to follow. While the daf yomi program was feted for being a great equalizer, unifying Jews of all types, the distinction between real talmidei chachamim and ba’ale-battim was maintained.
Establishing a sense of identity as a people committed to the study of God’s Torah also requires differentiation from without. The sharp words of the hadran, “anachnu mashkim, ve-hem mashkimim … anachnu ratzim ve-hem ratzim,” (“we awake, and they awake… we run, and they run”) were invoked, and the holding of a siyum ha-shas in a sports stadium was pointed to more than once as a demonstration of this difference between Jews and non-Jews. The venue being a stadium and it being Olympics season, the siyum was depicted as “sweet revenge” for the Olympics held in Berlin in 1936, which Hitler used as a platform to spew his anti-semitic venom. It would not have been appropriate, apparently, to explicitly make reference to the games going on in London, but the contrast was understood: while the non-jews were competing over there, God’s Olympics were being held here in the MetLife Stadium.
Nevertheless, despite the differences being drawn between Yidden who devote their lives to the study of Torah and worship of God, and the non-jews who “waste their time” in idle endeavors, it obviously took a great deal of familiarity with the “goyishe velt” (non-Jewish world) to pull off this kind of event, including intimate knowledge of stadium economics. Corporate sponsorships were prominently advertised and I am told that luxury suites were sold for over a hundred thousand dollars each. And it was apparent that for many of those present it was not their first time in a football stadium: a few rows in front of us a boy sat on a souvenir seat cushion from a recent Superbowl – after a few hours on a very hard seat I was quite envious. The financial and technical resources required to make this event possible are considerable and one cannot help but be impressed by the material power and worldly sophistication of the American Agudah community (it is hard to imagine an event of such scale being undertaken by the Haredi community in Israel.)
One of the functions of daf yomi is to redeem this immersion in non-Jewish culture and society. Participants in the daf yomi program take their gemaras with them when they leave for work in the morning, learn during their commute or during lunch and other free moments, and they take their gemaras with them when they go on vacation and even to ballgames. The glossy commemorative booklet that was distributed to ticket-holders contains an article on the planning of this “historic simchas hatorah.” The article relates that “Thomas M. Steinberg, President of Tisch Family Interests (owners of the New York Giants), once remarked that he finally understood why it had been necessary for him to devote 12 long years to the planning, design and construction of this brand new billion dollar stadium. It was so that tens of thousands of Yidden would have a place to gather for an unprecedented demonstration of kovod haTorah.” With daf yomi, everything in this world exists for the study of torah. Going to work or on vacation enables one to learn; the true purpose of a football stadium as a giant beis medrash is revealed. And on this muggy night in August, with 90,000 people filling the MetLife stadium, the Agudah made it all very believable.
David J. Landes is an independant academic living in the New York area. His dissertation, which he wrote in Princeton University’s Department of Anthropology, is based on fieldwork that he conducted at Yeshiva University and in the Modern-Orthodox community.