It is astonishing to me that I have lived long enough to write these words: Last Wednesday I covered an event in the Meadowlands Sports Complex at which 90,000 Jewish men and women gathered to celebrate a religious-slash-intellectual event. When I was growing up, such a prospect was unimaginable. Forty years later it is a reality, but still an experience which takes some digesting on the part of folks my age.
Let’s begin… way before the beginning. Fifteen hundred years ago, the greatest Jewish scholars of the time, based in Babylon (now Iraq), compiled the massive body of Jewish law – along with a sprinkling of its lore – into a series of volumes known as the Talmud. These laws are not listed one by one in the manner of typical law books. Instead they are presented in the context of a series of legal discussions cleverly designed to establish the legal principles which can be applied forward to any situation which may evolve.
For example, a debate rages for a full page over the question of whether loss of an object creates a presumption of loss of ownership. In the end, it is determined that the property rights of the owner are not vacated until he is aware of the loss and consciously acknowledges that the object’s lack of distinguishing features render the prospect of its return unlikely. Applying this to real situations, if you find loose cash you can keep it because a) people check their cash frequently and we can assume the owner is aware of the loss and b) since there is no wallet or distinctive mark the owner cannot prove he dropped it, so he gives up hope.
There are two thousand, seven hundred pages of discussions like this, divided more or less by subject. The Talmud covers ritual law (i.e. what constitutes a violation of the Sabbath), civil law as we cited above and even criminal law, although the Jewish courts do not practice criminal law in host countries. A rabbi will agree to settle your dispute over who should build the fence between your properties, but he will not stone you for adultery.
In the 1920s, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, Poland, conceived the Daf Yomi (literally Daily Page) program. This allows Jews around the world to unite in studying the same page on the same day, traversing the 2,700 pages alongside each other, in an effort to be both religiously inspired and legally knowledgeable. Many busy titans of industry and satraps of commerce accept the strictures of this structure, along with lots of Joe Six-Packs.
August 3rd marked the conclusion of the twelfth such cycle and the community, now much larger than its decimated post-Holocaust numbers, has reached Meadowlands proportions, outdrawing the Jets and the Giants and selling 90,000 or so tickets. All the rabbinic leaders and Yeshiva scholars were sitting at the dais while the event was celebrated in speech and song.
I could not share the achievement with most of these attendees, because frankly I have never had the discipline to undertake this commitment. This time my 21-year-old son is pushing hard to convince me to try doing it on the phone with him from Miami to New York City. The idea of spending an hour a day on the phone with my son has its appeal, but do I have the fortitude at age 54 to make a seven-year pledge?
Looking around me at so many really sincere people, joined in doing something for which there is no pay, no societal support and no public glory, it seems churlish to turn the kid down. Check back in this space in 2700 days and I’ll let you know how I made out… In the meantime, I am proud to have taken part in a huge peaceable demonstration of self-discipline and godliness.