Saturday, March 3, 2007

Daf Yomi

I have never been a fan of daf yomi, nor do I understand what its architect was thinking, when in 1923 the program was instituted by Rabbi Meir Shapiro at the first World Congress of Agudath Israel. To the uninitiated, daf yomi is exactly what its name says: One page of Talmud is studied every day. It is intended to be a seven and a half year cycle, a uniform, universal standard, something akin to the annual cyclical torah reading completed every Simchat Torah. Everyone studying it is on the same page, literally.

Initially, in Europe it wasn’t designed as an hour run through, but intended for the learned to study a daf daily. It was a means by which war torn European Jewry could coalesce around something unique and that could be quantifiably measured. A time limit wasn’t put on it. For some groups it could have required a few hours, for others a little more or less depending on the depth of understanding and background of the party studying. In the states, however, daf yomi morphed with the advent of McDonalds and other fast food chains. As our taste and choice of foods changed we Jews also underwent change. We too substituted quality for quantity. Agudath Israel’s answer to fast food was fast learning in the format of daf yomi. This quickly became the learning program of choice and most favored by the great lamdonim on the LIRR early morning rush hour commute. The resemblance to fast food is remarkable. Just like fast food has no tam, so too, daf yomi has no tam. Just like fast food isn’t nutritious but give you a false sense of feeling satisfied, so too daf yomi has no intellectual value and only provides you with a false sense of accomplishment.

Anyone who has studied Talmud knows how daunting it is to study a page a day and is probably a somewhat frustrating experience trying to compress in a short hour what it normally takes hours maybe days to work through. For those unschooled in studying Talmud participating in daf yomi is really a futile and meaningless experience. To the unschooled in Talmud how do you explain in one hour, (the average time spent on daf yomi, ) difficult concepts such as takfoo kohen, chardal, yiush shlo midaas, bitool, edim zommim etc. How can issues such as shtei mayanos be understood when the magid shiur is in a race to beat the clock. How do you even explain principles of logic and reasoning applied in the study of talmud. And for the initiated and seasoned students of Talmud, how difficult must it be to let a good question pass, or an interesting observation go by the wayside, or the desire to check out what the tosafot might be saying. After all the methodology of the Talmud is designed for that kind of give sand take. Not to participate on that level would seem to me missing the whole point.

So what is the point of the daf yomi if one covers ground without really understanding it or being able to grapple with its key concepts? How does it add to the quality of ones life any more than reading a real good book? I can’t imagine how it can enhance one’s life given the present format of daf yomi. It is akin to students unfamiliar or vaguely familiar with world literature, and determined to read the classics of world literature over the course of a couple years, allocating approximately one hour per folio per day. What will the student derive from it if he has no true instruction which would include lectures, discussion, and the ability and opportunity to compare motifs in literature from different periods? How can the literature be appreciated without analysis and serious thought and discussion with others of a like mind. That, I don’t think can be accomplished in one hour per day. Without this, what value is there in reading the great works. How has it enriched ones life is the measure of its value. Just to say that one has red all of Greek mythology without understanding it and how it influenced culture and society is silly. It is the secular version of bikius.

There is no intrinsic value in bikius as there is in amkus (iyun), yet it has been ranked as a significant value. Otherwise why put out the effort to attend daf yomi class? It reminds me of the mindless assignments as students in grammar school when we had to memorize portions of one text or another. I can’t think of any redeeming value to that kind of exercise. Quality and not quantity is what ought to be stressed. It ought to be understanding and appreciation of the text and how it enhances and contributes to our lives. It would appear that daf yomi is a throwback to that time when pedagogy was measured in bikius and recitation of passages not well understood but memorized.

To be perfectly candid, daf yomi was instituted some 70 years ago in Poland probably for the purpose to help revive jury that had some serious organizational problems as the unfortunate result of World War I. One of the gimmicks chosen was daf yomi. It was seen and understood as a method by which to amalgamate the Jewish world. The United States in 2006 isn’t Poland of 1922, thank G-d, nor should standards of then be applied to Jews of today. However, when reviewing the glossy promotional commemorative book put out by Agudah after the world sium of daf yomi at Madison Square Garden last year you’d think we were back in that dark, dreary, monochromatic Eastern European culture that in so many ways was intolerant of new ideas (chadosh asur min hatorah). The photographs of the magedei daf yomi, appearing in the commemorative edition of last years siyum all looked like their ancestors in europe before the war. Those pictures look like the year book of the yeshiva Chochmei Lublin. If that’s what the promoters of Daf Yomi want to accomplish than they are successful. But they are out of touch with American Jewry and are missing out on some of the most important segments that make up the great bulk of our community.

There is a need for study and believe we could take an example from the commitment of those participating in daf yomi. The Jewish community ought to initiate a program of daf yomi of Tanach. But for the serious only who prepare prior to class and attend a daily lecture / discussion where the text is illuminated and elaborated upon either by traditional commentators or by non conventional commentators. This would only work if those participating would be prepared for the coming lecture by having become acquainted with the text prior to the lecture. Perhaps the best way this could be accomplished is if the instructor hands out material at the end of each lecture for preparation of the next class. Either way the point would be that everyone would be on the same page, studying the same text, perhaps with different methods or approaches. A study of tanach would serve to educate and enhance the Jewish mind no mater if he was a torah scholar or a layperson.

In my limited experience I have discovered that most yeshiva graduates aren’t all that familiar with classical Jewish text such as niveim or ketuvim if they aren’t integrated in the service such as maftir or a megilla. If there is a familiarity with the text than it is usually out of context. Thus a program of educating ourselves would be enlightening and beneficial in that it would provide us with a contextual background to our Jewish roots. For so many, the decision to study daf yomi is inappropriate, based upon their lack of basic and fundamental knowledge of Tanach. It would seem that a solid foundation in our basic and sacred texts should precede attendance at daf yomi-something akin to taking accounting 101 before accounting 201. But we’re American, and as such we need immediate gratification. Why spend time shopping for high quality food ingredients and prep time in the kitchen when we can go down to the local greasy glatt falafel joint for crummy but filling meal. After all, who’s got time when you’re in a rush to make it for the quickie daf yomi?