Berowne: What is the end of study, let me know?
King: Why, that to know which else we would not know.
I just finished a weekend at the Open Talmud Project, an annual community-run weekend aimed at Talmud study for everybody. It was a bit of a shock as I haven’t done Talmud properly for a few years, since my hardcore phase just after university when I was missing academia.
What I like best about Talmud study is that it’s very difficult lifelong learning that doesn’t have a point.
My current job is in the public sector, which is greatly in favour of lifelong learning – as long as the benefits are known and established, and spelled out. Even if work isn’t paying for it, we’re encouraged to make a note of any study we do, and of how it will help become a better all-round public employee: this holiday French course will help me communicate better with international colleagues! this archival research day will help me be better at filing! etc.
Talmud is quite difficult. It involves unpicking not one but two fairly knotty ancient languages (Hebrew and Aramaic), learning a set of dense rhetorical conventions in both those languages, understanding the social context – which usually involves understanding the religious-textual context (why exactly is Yalta so ticked off when Ulla quotes Deuteronomy at her?), and using all that to work out the details of discussions of everything from weirdly specific petty property disputes (if an injured, one-legged bird lands on one side of a boundary, but then keels over and dies onto the other side, who is responsible for clearing it up?) to how to deal with great trauma and joy. And there is no end goal – not a Talmud C1 certification or graduating with a specific skill – just the pleasure of learning.
The structure of Talmud study is also sort of the opposite of the way some education is going, towards a MOOC format, where knowledge is transmitted in one direction from a single knowledge-haver to a group of relatively passive knowledge-receivers. Instead the model for Talmud study is chavruta, two people with roughly equal skills and experience working through the text slowly together. You are expected to challenge and disagree with the text, and probably your partner, as you go along, and what happens at the end is not a nicely completed tick-box of Knowledge Achieved, All Done!, but just (‘just’) that you’ve worked out something you didn’t know before. Which might be a new word, or a new way to argue, or a new way of thinking about friendship or public infrastructure or grief.
(I was sort of joking by quoting Berowne at the top of this post, who is mainly arguing about the point[lessness] of studying because he wants to have lunch and chat to ladies instead. But having thought about it, actually a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost set in a yeshiva would be amazing. Love’s Labour’s and Talmud study are basically about how there is no separation between truthful study and living life, so don’t waste your energy pretending.)
The huge impression the weekend left on me was how casual and accessible this kind of intense obscure pointless learning is in my London Jewish community, and how lucky I am to be here. I had really forgotten how pleasurable it can be to get stuck into detailed study that isn’t For Something.