These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 22: Aramaic, Women, Meditation, and Other Foreign Languages

Posted on February 4, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

I decided to challenge myself this semester, to fully take advantage of my time here by trying new Jewish things and getting outside my comfort zones. Since every subject of Torah has its own special jargon, world view, sources, legends, authorities, inside jokes, the result has been that all day I’m learning new Jewish languages.

In its most literal sense, the new language I’m learning is Aramaic for my Gemara class. I moved from Hebrew level bet to gimel this semester, meaning I now have Gemara three days a week and Chumash two. As though studying Gemara in Aramaic for the first time wasn’t challenging enough on its own, its made even more complicated by the fact that we’re studying Tractate Bava Kama Chapter 8—the Rabbinic chains of reasoning proving that, in Prof. James Kugel’s terms, “’Eye for an eye’ really means ‘not an eye for an eye.’” Seeing a page of Talmud before you for the first time is intimidating, but even before coming to Pardes, a few friends at Shaare Torah told me not to worry since, as they put it, “Nobody actually knows Aramaic.”

“Really?” I challenged them. “Even the guys who study Talmud all day?”

One of them turned to a guy in shul who studies a lot. “Hey, does anyone actually know Aramaic?”

He said “No” without second thought, before returning to his page of Gemara. My friends went on to say that most people know enough of its structures and basic words to kind of fudge their way through it, but very, very few people actually know it fluently. This reassurance was repeated my first day of class when returning students went around the room offering their advice for us newcomers, and most of them also said something like, “It’s okay. We struggle with it, too.”

So while on the one hand, I knew I knew not to panic, on the other, all these reasons for not panicking made me panic that, as soon as I so much as looked at the Gemara before me, I would have no choice but to panic.

“What’s wrong with you, we told you not to panic!” they would all yell me once I came-to. Then I’d always be the kid from level bet who panicked even after everyone told him not to, and I could never become a talmid chocham. Little chance he’s ever going to understand Rabbi Dostai’s gezera shava in the second sugya, he can’t even get past the first Aramaic word (אמאי) without having a heart-attack.

Thankfully, that’s not what happened. Not only have I not panicked so far, but I actually think I’m getting the hang of it. Of course it helps that my teacher, Meesh, makes things so clear and that my chevruta Sam is brilliant and really knows what he’s doing. Besides “don’t panic,” the advice I would give to someone about to study Gemara for the first time would be, “Never have a Gemara chevruta with someone who doesn’t have an iPad.” Or even better, “Never have a Gemara chevruta with someone who isn’t Sam Rotenberg.” Any lingering fears I had that I wasn’t fully understanding what was going on in that class were eased Thursday afternoon when, just to be sure, I read the chapter in an Artscroll Gemara and was relieved to discover the arguments made as much sense to me in English as in Aramaic.

As someone who loves both women and mitzvot, the Women and Mitzvot class with Rahel Berkovits Mondays and Wednesdays from 12-1 sounded perfect for me. I thought many other guys would feel the same way, and was almost shocked when I ended up being one of two dudes in the class of around 20. But it’s their loss. As foreign a language as women might be to me, historically they have been at least 100 times more so for deciders of Jewish Law, and I think that is what makes this class so exciting, infuriating, and, above all, relevant—as anyone who’s been following the news in Israel (or reading my blog) knows, the status of women in society is one of the most defining issues and divisive points of departure in Jewish life today. In all seriousness, I took this class to because I think it’s vitally important to be a knowledgeable part of this conversation, to see what our sources actually say about women so I could cut through the all polemics and plaque of tradition and see what women’s roles in Jewish life and in mitzvah observance really are, and, more importantly, really can be. After only four classes I realize how little people from across the spectrum seem to actually know about women and mitzvot. By the time this class is over, I am going to be able to win so many arguments with people!

More alien to me than even Gemara or women is what we do in Self, Soul, and Text, a class that combines text study with meditative techniques and discussing our feelings. While I certainly do have a more mystical side (yes, that’s me on the right), I am not a meditative person. I prefer my spirituality practical and rational, insofar as possible. My attitude was always, “You hippies can have fun doing your whole Kaballaistic touchy-feely-meditatey thing over there, and in the meantime, I’ll just be over here watching the Steelers game until you’re done, thanks.” That’s why I took Rambam last semester in this time-slot, and I could almost feel him rolling over in his grave as I even pondered taking SST this semester over Rambam II. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I decided I should make the most of my time here and try something different.

Before I settled on taking this class, though I realized didn’t take a Halakha (Jewish law) class last semester either, so that would be something different for me too. So last week I decided to take one of each class to find out which one I liked better. I went into the first Self, Soul, and Text class with my arms folded wondering why I was even wasting my time and looking forward to Wednesday when I could get back to real Jewish stuff, i.e. Halakha. That class our teacher, R. James Jacobson-Maisels taught us a meditative technique developed by the Piasetzener Rebbe called quieting, where you slow yourself down and observe your thoughts, not judging them or acting on them or worrying about them, just passively watching them as they flicker through your mind then disappear, and I try my hardest not to bust out laughing while everyone else is meditating. I may not have been able to reach a fully meditative state, but I must have done something right because on our way out of class, my social worker friend Carolina told me she could see in my eyes that as much as I might not want to admit it, the class had already won me over. I tried real hard to pretend she hadn’t just read me like a book again when I told her I still needed to go to Halakha on Wednesday before I could make my final decision.

That Wednesday in Halakha, they were discussing laws of theoretical kashrut: If you have a mixture that’s 50% kosher meat and 50% kosher milk, how many units relative to its size of another substance—either meat or milk—must you submerge it in in order to nullify its trayfness and make it edible? The answer is that since either meat or milk can be nullified in something 60 times its size (a Halakhic concept called “beetul sheeshim”), and since an equal milk-meat mixture forms a new Halakhic thing called “milkmeat,” such a milkmeat substance could then only be nullified in a kosher meat or dairy substance 120 times its size—60 to nullify the milk half and 60 to nullify the meat half. Were the mixture of pork or some other unkosher meat and milk, you would only need to immerse it a meat substance 60 times its size since, as something inherently unkosher, the pork component counts as neither milk nor meat, and therefore, only the milk needs nullified.

While all this is fascinating, and a great workout for the brain, I ultimately decided I needed a class that would make me less neurotic, not more. Almost as soon as Halakha ended, I hugged my Self, Soul, and Text chevruta and told her I would be staying in that class over the rumble of the Rambam turning over in his grave again. A week and two classes later, I have no doubt I made the right decision.

In truth, I get to have my Halakha cake and make the appropriate brakha over it, too this semester, since Wednesday nights from 7:30-9:30 I’ll still be learning the language of Halakha in Thinking Like a Halakhic Sage with Rav Elisha Ancselovits. Less a class in practical Halakha than an exploration into its underlying philosophy, process, assumptions, and history, with class titles like “Beyond Formalism,” “Beyond Postmodernism,” and “Reasons to Maintain Forms,” this class will still twist my brain into knots, start some great discussions, and help me to be a more savvy, knowledgeable Jew, all while (hopefully) inculcating a minimum of fresh neuroses.

Even Jewish languages I thought I knew I’m learning new dialects of this semester. Chumash Gimel with Levi is a whole different world from Chumash Bet with Meir.

I’m getting so much deeper into and seeing whole new sides of Jewish philosophers I only thought I knew from last semester in Seminar in Modern Jewish Thought with R. Zvi Hirschfield. This time, instead of studying individual thinkers, we’re studying ideas. This approach puts thinkers diverse as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Art Green, Mordechai Kaplan, and Joseph Soloveitchik, among many others , into conversation with each other and us over little things like God, the origin of the Torah, authority of Halakha, Jewish chosenness and peoplehood, the role of the State of Israel, and feminism.

If there was one language I thought I was an expert in, it’s that of storytelling. The concise, cryptic narratives in the Talmud and Mishna, however, are one dialect of storytelling I’ve never quite understood. Until now. In Talmudic Personalities, by taking us deep into the stories of the Sages, showing how a deceptively simple description of a rabbi, like “flowing spring” or plastered cistern,” seen in one part of the Talmud contains a whole world of depth that sheds so much light and gives so much perspective on his subsequent sayings and actions over all the rest of the Talmud, Leah Rosenthal is uncovering their tremendous depth, beauty and subtlety. It amazes me how one or two very intentionally ambiguous words in a narrative can lead to two or more radically different readings, not only of a text, not only of a person’s life and personality, but of the whole endeavor and philosophy of Rabbinic Judaism. Like any new dialect, the storytelling methods and philosophies I’m seeing in these classes seem vaguely familiar, yet amaze me with where and how they differ from the one I’m comfortable in.

One language I hope I am never fluent in is the language of good-bye, which, unfortunately, this new semester has already seen its share of. So far the most painful good-bye has been to my friend מיכאל (pronounced “mee-kha-el”), who left Monday to go exploring through India and China before starting grad school at Yale in the fall. More than just a friend, מיכאל hosted a huge Thanksgiving dinner, our 29 November Pizza and Partition party, several fantastic Shabbat meals, had a big ice cream party the night before he went away, introduced me to his awesome roommate, Jonah and mother, Rabbi Laurie, and took me along to his Cheredi cousin’s son’s upshearnish. Above and beyond that, we had some great conversations together and he taught me how to cook. This means that no matter what or how much I cook for the rest of my life, I’ll always be indebted to him as the one who, with great patience, taught me how and made it fun. But most of all, I’ll remember him as the one who taught me that sometimes Reform rabbis choose to grow payos on their sons.

If you’re reading this, I miss you already.

All this, and I still really need to work on my Hebrew.

Quote of the Week: “A logical argument [only] ceases to sound like nonsense when it matches your view of reality.” – Rav Elisha

Hebrew Word of the Week: שפה (“safah”) – language