I am fortunate to have grown up in a time and place where Gemara learning was a standard part of my Jewish education. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, my school, Fuchs Mizrachi began teaching both girls and boys Gemara at the age of 12. At such a young age I was not able to fully grasp or appreciate what an amazing gift this was.
I still remember so much about my first year learning Gemara. My teacher, Bracha Krohn, constantly gave us vocabulary quizzes and many of the mnemonics I created that year I still use today. Bracha taught me that in order to be Gemara-literate, you need to put in the time. This is something that has stuck with me throughout my years of learning and has deeply impacted how I teach my students Talmud.
I have been fortunate to learn with some of the most amazing scholars who happen to be women. We must not take for granted the women who put in the work when learning and teaching Gemara was not an easy path. I am particularly grateful to and inspired by Rabbanit Devorah Zlochower, my Gemara teacher in my first year at Yeshivat Maharat. She is a brilliant teacher and set the tone for the energy and passion I hope to bring to my students.
I have always loved learning Gemara. I love the pace, the cadence, the logic and the arguments. I truly believe that there is value in learning Gemara. Beyond the logic, deductive reasoning, and knowledge one gains from rigorous Talmud study, the study of Gemara has some very powerful life lessons to offer as well.
One of the things I love the most about learning Gemara is the shakla v’tarya – the back and forth – of the text. The Gemara is not a bottom line book; it is just as interested in the road to an answer as it is in the answer itself. Machloket, disagreement, is a fundamental part of the Gemara. The Gemara does not simply record a ruling; it makes space for different opinions, logic and reasoning.
The Gemara is not afraid of disagreement. The Gemara does not shy away from healthy conflict. The Gemara does not erase or ignore opinions that are different, sometimes even radical. The lesson in this is that there is room for differing and even conflicting opinions on one daf (page). Similarly, we should not shy away from difficult conversations and healthy conflict. Just like many voices can exist on one page of Gemara, many voices can exist in our own communities and we should not be afraid of that.
Minhag or tradition is a very powerful tool in the Gemara. Minhag is so much more than how many hours one waits between meat and milk or whether or not one eats kitniyot on Pesach. Minhag is the people’s power in impacting Halakhic reality. In Masechet Brachot 45A Rabbi Tarfon says that one makes the blessing boreh nefashot after drinking water. Rava the son of Rav Chanan asks Abaye what the bottom line Halakha is on this. Instead of giving his own ruling, he says “פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר” “go out and see what the people are doing”, and act accordingly. Interestingly, the Halakha here is dictated by the people’s practice, not the other way around.
This is not to say that Halakha can change just because we want it to. What it teaches us is that our actions and practices are something that Halakha takes seriously. The nuances of our Minhagim might seem small but have the potential to have huge implications in what we call Halakha. Minhag is our partnership with Rabbinic authority in creating a Halakhic reality.
3.“O chavruta O Mituta”
A chavruta, or learning partner is a key element of studying Gemara. Of course, one is able to study on their own, Gemara is traditionally learned in pairs. The Gemara in Masechet Ta’anit 7A teaches, “Just as fire, it does not kindle by itself; so too words of Torah do not survive by oneself.”
Learning with a chavruta teaches you how to work in a team. Learning how to organize one’s thoughts and express arguments and opinions in a clear way is crucial to learning together. Maybe more importantly, learning with a chavruta encourages you to listen and not just speak and to sharpen one another’s ideas and in a constructive way.
I have been lucky to have had Rabbanit Alissa Thomas Newborn as my chavruta since year one of Yeshivat Maharat. Not only did we grow in our knowledge of Torah but we pushed one another to grow as people and as clergy. Rabbanit Alissa and I each brought our strengths and experience to our chavruta. My chavruta has strengthened my mind and my soul. She continues to push me to think deeper and has helped me discover parts of my soul I would have never found without her. A good chavruta is so much more than a learning partner. A good chavruta is someone who comes to know you more through text and grows into an integral part of one’s learning and growth.
Rabba Ramie Smith is a JOFA UK Scholar.
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