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Celebrating the Talmud Means Reflecting Its Diversity

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We are just a couple of weeks away from the 12th Siyum Hashas, which is a truly great moment that deserves to be celebrated by the entire Jewish community.

A siyum hashas literally means "completion of the Talmud." What this colloquially refers to is the completion of a course of study that marks the reading of every singe page of the Talmud.

The Talmud is an enormous amount of mostly legal writings that were collected and published in Babylon around the sixth century. (There is another Talmud known as the Jerusalem Talmud, but most references to the Talmud are to the more popularly studied Babylonian Talmud.)

For centuries Jews have been studying the Talmud every single day as a way of service to God, but only a select few super-elite scholars ever finished the Talmud.

This began to change in September of 1923 when some visionaries in the Jewish community decided to take upon themselves Daf Yomi, or "a page a day."

In the standard text of the Babylonian Talmud there are 2,711 pages. If one studies a page of Talmud every single day then the entire Talmud will be completed in approximately seven and a half years.

To be sure, this course of study is usually just a cursory reading of the Talmud that does not really come close to touching the depths of greatness of the Talmud, yet it should be thunderously applauded, as it requires a tremendous daily discipline and consistent commitment to the spiritual value of Torah study. Studying a page of Talmud even in a cursory manner can take on average approximately an hour.

The first communal siyum hashas took place in Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, in Lublin, Poland, on Feb. 2, 1931 under the leadership of Rabbi Meir Shapiro. On a personal level, I will never forget one night a few years ago when I was driving in the middle of the night through Poand and I found myself in front of the yeshiva in Lublin. Fortunately, the caretaker was awake and he allowed me to tour the place. This once famous yeshiva is now a medical school, but its holiness remains palpable. I will always remember the feeling of spiritual history that surrounded me that night as I walked through the auditorium where the students sat and studied the Talmud day and night.

Fast-forward to August 2012 and the Talmud studying Jewish community stands ready to celebrate its communal accomplishments.

The Talmud does not belong to any Jew or Jewish community. It is open and accessible to all.

One camp of orthodoxy that is holding the largest gathering in celebration of the siyum hashas is the Agudath Israel of America, which has rented out MetLife Stadium in Meadowlands, N.J., for Aug. 1 and expects tens of thousands of Jews to attend in celebration of the community's completion of the Talmud. This camp is usually associated with "right-wing Orthodoxy" and although they will hold the largest party that does not mean that they will be representing and speaking to anywhere close to the largest number of Jews.

Their program for their party has not been released yet, but here is a blog post written by someone who was there seven and half years ago and discusses the problems with their programming and why he is not returning to their party this year.

Based upon their previous gathering from seven and a half years ago we can assume that all the speakers will be men and fervently Orthodox. Based upon previous gatherings, we can again surmise that their speeches will not attempt to be inclusive of other Jews who do not share their worldview. Their message will likely be a message of "let's circle the wagons. Let's use our knowledge of the Talmud to help protect us from the spiritual dangers of the modern world."

Since it is their party, they can program it however they want, but one can argue that it is not reflective of the incredible diversity contained within the Talmud itself. The Talmud quotes an enormous array of scholars and famously goes out of its way to give respect and quote even those legal opinions that it entirely rejects.

A true celebration of completion of the Talmud would be reflective of this ideology of scholarly inclusiveness.

On the other hand, there is another siyum hashas being spearheaded Rabbi Dov Linzer, the brilliant and dynamic Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. While this siyum hashas will have fewer people in attendance, it will ultimately speak to a larger segment of the Jewish community and it is also more reflective of the inclusive scholarly approach of the Talmud. This siyum hashas will take place on Aug. 6, in Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City.

A glance at the their program shows that they will include rabbis from across the spectrum of orthodoxy who are not monolithic in their approach to studying Talmud. Speakers that evening will be rabbis and non-rabbis, professors in universities and even (gasp!) women scholars as well.

So we should celebrate the fact that tens of thousands of Jews will be gathering at a football stadium in New Jersey in completion of the Talmud. That is a great thing. But I am far more excited about the alternative program that will take place the next week in New York City as it will be truly reflective of the scholarship and diversity of the glorious work known as the Talmud.