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09/04/2013 09:10 am ET | Updated Nov 04, 2013

How I Became the Accidental Talmudist

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In March of 2005, I went to buy a gift at 613, a Jewish bookstore in Los Angeles. I'd been there before, and I always noticed the long shelves of Talmud -- those big beautiful books of ancient Jewish wisdom. I'd heard rabbis refer to the Talmud many times, but lacking any formal Jewish education beyond my bar mitzvah, I was completely intimidated by it. The Talmud is three times bigger than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Where does one start? How do you read it? What exactly is it?

For some reason, however, on that day in 2005 I thought, "What am I afraid of? They're just books. I majored in English at college. I went to law school and film school. There must be a book one of the Talmud -- I'll just get that and see what it's like."

So I found the first book, Berachos 1, and took it to the counter.

The kid at the register said, "You're doing Daf Yomi."

I said, "What's Daf Yomi?"

He looked at me strangely. I thought, "Oh boy, I was right to be afraid of the Talmud. You probably have to be a rabbi just to touch it. Maybe you need special permission to buy one. I must look like such an ignoramus right now."

The kid said, "Daf Yomi is a worldwide program for reading the whole Talmud. Everyone reads one page a day on the same schedule. It takes seven and a half years to read the whole thing, and today is day one."

I said, "Oh. Ok. I'll take it."

I walked back to my car, and calculated the odds against this little "coincidence." Two thousand seven hundred and eleven to one.

I said, "Ok, God, I get the message. I'm doing Daf Yomi."

Many people start Daf Yomi. Not so many finish. It takes about 45 minutes a day, every day, for seven and a half years. In August, 2012, I was blessed to attend the Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium in NJ. The event marked the completion of the Daf Yomi cycle, and there were 93,000 Jews in attendance. I couldn't help but think of my grandfather, Imre, a Hungarian Jew who was murdered in the Holocaust.
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"Nazis once filled a stadium to celebrate their plans," I thought. "They tried to burn all our books, and then they tried to burn all our bodies. Now they're all gone, and we fill a stadium to celebrate the continuity of both our tribe and its ancient wisdom." I felt profoundly grateful to be there.

The vast majority of those present were very religious Jews. Only about a tenth of us were actual Daf Yomi finishers; the rest came out in support, including my brother, my son, and a close friend. We all prayed, sang and danced together. In my white fedora, I was bit of a unicorn amid the sea of black hats -- the Accidental Talmudist.
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A few weeks ago, I attended a family reunion where my cousin asked, "How did reading the Talmud for seven and a half years change you?" I've answered this question many times, and I usually talk about connecting with the unbroken chain of learning that stretches 3,300 years from Moses at Mt. Sinai to us. Within those teachings we find the passion of our Sages: members of our tribe who spent their entire lives, and even gave their lives, in the effort to comprehend and perform God's will. They did all that work in order to help us do God's will, so that each of us might live a life of blessing for our families, our community and the world.

It's a good answer, and I usually get some sort of pat on the back for it. But when my cousin asked me how I changed, I couldn't say it. I couldn't say anything. All I could think was, "I read all those books and I still act carelessly, thoughtlessly, and regrettably. I'm not such a blessing to the people around me. I'm stiff-necked, and maybe I read all those books just so I could say I did it."

Who am I to call myself a Talmudist of any sort? Our Sages of blessed memory were not just gifted teachers, they were also tzaddiks -- righteous individuals who could be counted upon to do the right thing always, and to treat everyone with kindness. I'm a reasonably nice guy, but God knows I don't always do the right thing, no matter how much I try.

It was in this frame of mind that I began my preparation for Rosh Hashanah this year. Not so many Jews read the whole Talmud, but everyone who's been to synagogue on the Sabbath is familiar with the weekly portions of the Torah -- the first five books of the Bible. As we approach the end of the Jewish year, we find Moses delivering his final words to the children of Israel in the wilderness.

He knows he will soon be gathered unto his ancestors. The people know they will soon lose their beloved teacher. They'll have to enter a new land without him, a land full of promise, but also of danger. Moses speaks to them intimately and urgently, transmitting not only God's laws but also his own ethical will. He says:

I make this covenant and this oath, not with you alone, but rather with both those who are standing with us here today before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today. (Deut. 29:13-14)

My friends, Moses is talking to us. A little later in the portion, he continues:

Surely, this commandment that I command you today is not beyond your understanding, nor is it distant. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heaven and take it for us and teach it to us, so that we may do it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and take it for us and teach it to us, so that we may do it?" (Deut. 30:11-13)

Now, as a writer, I love this set-up. Moses is not only a passionate teacher who wants us to get it, he's also a master of language, using just the right images to grab his audience, and convey one final, deep truth before he has to go. And then he says:

For this thing is extremely near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deut. 30:14)

"That you may do it." He's telling us how to live when he's gone, how to perform God's will, so that we will avoid calamity and live a good life. But what exactly did he say?

I'm identifying with those Jews in the desert. They've got to be feeling like I was feeling when my cousin asked me how I changed. They've just spent forty years hearing the Torah directly from Moses, with God visibly present in the classroom as a pillar of cloud and fire! And yet, time and again, they blow it, acting carelessly, thoughtlessly, and regrettably. Stiff-necked like me.

And if that's the way they act, with Moses right in their midst and God visibly present, how on earth will they do what's right when Moses and the Pillar of Cloud are gone?

Moses says, we can do God's will through our mouths and our hearts. "Our mouths and our hearts?"

Isn't that a surprising? Shouldn't he have said our hands and our feet? Aren't those the instruments of "doing?"

My mouth has spoken millions of words, and yet I still do the wrong thing. That's why words are cheap. And as for my heart, how do I control that?

In the ancient world, the heart was understood to be the center of both thought and feeling. Can we control the thoughts and feelings that pop into our hearts? Aren't we supposed to do the right thing, even if we're feeling or thinking something else?

And yet, this is the crown jewel of Moses' teaching, the final word -- spoken in simple words so that it would last. It is in our mouths and our hearts so that we may do it.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory, brings down a wonderful piece of Talmud to help us understand Moses' teaching. In tractate Eruvin, we hear a story from the great sage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, who says:

Once I was walking down the road and I saw a little boy sitting by a fork in the road, and I asked him, "Which is the road we take to the town?" He answered me, "This road is short and long, and this one is long and short." And I went down the road, which the boy described as "short and long." When I approached the town, I discovered it was surrounded with gardens and orchards that blocked me from reaching the town. I turned back and I said to the boy, "My son, did you not tell me that this road is short?" He said to me, "And did I not also tell you that it is long?" I kissed him on the head, and I said to him, "Praiseworthy are you O Israel, for all of you are very wise, from your old to your young!" (Eruvin 53b)

According to Rabbi Schneerson, the shorter longer way to town, the path that looks straightforward but ends up blocked, is the Nike way. Remember the commercial? "Just do it." That's the wrong way. Just doing the commandments, without endeavoring to understand them, will leave us fighting an endless, fruitless war against our stiff-necked evil inclinations because such observance does NOT change an individual. Simply following the law is not enough.

The longer shorter way, the wise way that leads slowly but surely to transformation and blessing is the path of learning and teaching. Through our mouths we engage our hearts when we learn and teach. The more we do this, the more we'll naturally do the right thing.

So how did reading the Talmud change me? It gave me the courage to stand before wiser, more learned, more righteous people than myself, and teach. It gave me the courage to publish these words in the hope that they will touch someone's soul. And I hope that you'll comment, and we'll exchange questions, and together we'll learn something that neither knew before, because that process is the Oral Torah, the living Talmud that Moses transmitted to us.

The more we engage in it, says Rabbi Schneerson, the more we will comprehend God's Will, and that understanding will impact our thoughts and feelings. We will grow stronger, so that we will not give in to the urges of that stiff-necked evil inclination. And eventually, we will dedicate ourselves to doing God's will all of the time.

That is the longer shorter way to town, through our mouths and our hearts, that we may do it.

My friends, on this Rosh Hashanah I wish you a year filled with health, meaning, joy, and prosperity -- and lots of learning and teaching! L'Shanah Tovah!

To view other posts in this series, please visit AccidentalTalmudist.com. To receive a short email when Accidental Talmudist posts something new, please click here.

Salvador Litvak wrote & directed the Passover comedy and cult hit, When Do We Eat? His new film, Saving Lincoln, explores Abraham Lincoln's fiery trial as Commander-in-Chief through the eyes of his closest friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. All of the sets and locations of this unique independent film were created from actual Civil War photographs. Learn more at SavingLincoln.com.

Photos courtesy of Lionel Leventhal