I am who I am today because of the Talmud.
This could simply be a statement of fact regarding Jewish continuity. After all, the Written Law and the Oral Law are the two pillars on which my Judaism stands; they have been passed down, unchanged, from generation to generation. Judaism in 2019 would not be what it is today without the Talmud.
However, I mean it more personally. I, Karen Turitz Wasserstein, would not be who I am today without the Talmud, and more specifically, without having learned the Talmud.
I was very lucky– I had parents who sent me to a middle school, high school and Midrasha that prioritized Talmud study for all students. I had teachers who taught me the vocabulary and the methodology, how to “spit back” the facts of what I learned as well as how to synthesize and critically understand the material.
I find that my background in the study and the methodology of the Talmud has taught me how to think, how to reason, how to turn an idea around in my head.
I have a solid grounding in the ability to learn Talmud, but I am nowhere near a great Talmud student. Others from my class have gone on to become Talmud teachers, heads of midrashot, have written books, and one is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. I, on the other hand, have chosen the career path of a psychologist. I study once a week b’chavruta – which I love – but admittedly it often takes a lot of work for me to understand the sugya at hand.
Yet I find that my background in the study and the methodology of the Talmud has taught me how to think, how to reason, how to turn an idea around in my head. It has taught me how to see various sides of an argument and the merits of both. How to ask, “What is the Nafka Meina?” or the difference between the two options. It has pushed my abstract reasoning— what it this Agaddata, this story, with its twists and turns, really there to teach us? Why is it taught to us in this way?
Studying Talmud has made me want to search for more. I often encounter ideas and I ask as the Gemara would, “Mai taima?” What is the reason?” or “what is this solution trying to resolve?” It has taught me how to be open to a machloket and not necessarily believe in right and wrong when there is room to understand.
Studying Talmud has helped me learn to listen to nuance. The way an idea is expressed is as important as the idea itself. As a therapist, I try to listen to what someone says and to help them see behind their words. When I relate to family and friends, I hope I do this thoughtfully as well. And when I read a news article or a commentary online, I hope I employ my critical thinking skills as I try to understand what I am reading.
I feel truly blessed that I have been taught “how to think” through the lens of the Talmud, and this has crossed over into every arena of life.
In school, we learn content and skills. The skills cross over from one subject and study area to another. I am grateful that I have had many opportunities to learn Judaic content through study. But I feel truly blessed that I have been taught “how to think” through the lens of the Talmud, and this has crossed over into every arena of life.
Is it possible I would have become a critical thinker without the Talmud? Maybe—I certainly know many other people who have. But what a wonderful prism it has been! I bless those who have taught me and thank my parents for the opportunity.
Dr. Karen Wasserstein is a psychologist licensed in Maryland and Virginia. She specializes in working with individuals and couples undergoing fertility challenges.
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