October 18, 2018

The World of Do-It-Yourself Judaism


The Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, takes up more than 20 volumes and, for the past 2,000 years, legions of scholars assiduously dissected every word in it. That means for every sentence of Talmud, there are paragraphs — if not pages — of commentary to learn in order to understand it. Consequently, studying it properly takes time — a lot of time. If you do the express thing and study one page a day, with no breaks for Chanukah or Passover, you should get through it all in, oh, an easy seven years.

But applying yourself so diligently, like many people, might be a thing of the past, now that Rabbi Aaron Parry, formerly the education director of Jews for Judaism, recently wrote “The Complete Idiots Guide to the Talmud” (TCIGT) (Alpha). In a little more than 300 pages, Parry parses those tricky pages down to their bare essentials, making the Talmud palatable to all those complete idiots out there who previously felt shunned by those weighty tomes. Now, you probably won’t get the authentic Talmudic experience from reading this book — there is really no need to read it bechavrusa (with a partner like traditional Yeshiva students learn it) — but you will acquire enough of the lingo to name-drop your way quite respectably through any Talmudic dinner table discussions. Should someone bring up “Mar Shmuel” for instance — instead of staring blankly at your salad plate, desperately hoping the conversation will revert back to Ashley Simpson’s lip-synching skills — you can say, with authority, “Ah yes, that second century Babylonian sage. Did you know that he’s Rabbi Judah’s doctor?”

Parry’s is the latest Jewish book in the “for idiots” genre. It follows TCIGT “Understanding Judaism,” “Learning Yiddish” and “Jewish History and Culture” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech; “Jewish Spirituality and Mysticism” by Michael Levin; Jerusalem” by H. Paul Jeffers; and, finally, for smaller idiots, “The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Judaism,” by Dan Cohn-Sherbock, adapted by Amy Zavatto. The “complete idiots,” it seems, are better served than the “dummies” out there, who if they want to learn about Judaism can only choose from “Jewish Cooking for Dummies,” by Faye Levy; “Hebrew for Dummies” by Jill Suzanne Jacobs; or “Judaism for Dummies” by Ted Falcon and David Blatner.

Despite the difference in monikers the books give to the intellectually unfortunate, both series of books follow a similar format. They are written in a breezy, chatty, writing style; have two of three subheadings per page; boxed texts; and icons like check marks (in “Dummies”) and men with lightbulbs coming out of their heads (in “Idiots”) to alert the readers to salient points. The “Idiot” books make better use of graphics than the “Dummies” books (perhaps the idiots aren’t as textually acute as dummies are). In “Idiots,” lightbulb-man is joined by genial-looking yarmulke-wearing rabbi, happy woman with empty speech bubble and studious man immersed in books.

So is it possible to squeeze 5,765 years of history, culture, law and food into a 380-page book? Yes! While academics might snub their noses, the books actually can teach both the idiot and the dummy quite a bit about Judaism.

In “TCIGT Understanding Judaism,” Blech starts with God and works his way down from there. He touches on the various secular theories of how the world was created, such as the Big Bang Theory, and then moves right back to describing how the patriarch Abraham smashed his father’s idols and started monotheism. The book goes through all the basics — holidays, Shabbat, various laws such circumcision, mezuzah and tefillin — but it throws in a whole salad of extras. Want to know the difference between Chasidim and Mitnagdim? No need to work through volumes of philosophy, because Blech already has, and in this book he summarizes the main arguments into three sentences. (“The chasidic movement chose the heart. The mitnagdim … sharp[ened] one’s intellect.”). He uses the same approach to get to the heart of those philosophical brain twisters like “Why do good people suffer?” and “Does God really care?” (Apparently He does.)

But perhaps you want to know less about the religion and more about the history — in which case “TCIGT Jewish History and Culture” is for you. The book, also by Blech, acts as a confidante and toastmaster instructor to its readers, offering them “Yenta’s Little Secrets” (“Lost is lost, but maybe some of the 10 lost tribes were found…”) and “Pulpit Stories” (“Moses Mendelssohn fell in love with a beautiful, wealthy woman. The match seemed highly unlikely, especially in the light of Mendelssohn’s severe physical deformity…”) The book not only elucidates Jewish history from biblical times through today, but it also explains to its readers (and this, of course, falls into the cultural, rather than the historical, section of the book)

Q: “Why there are so many Jewish doctors?”

A: They want to do tikkun olam.

Q: “Why there are so many Jewish comedians?”

A: Because those who have the most reason to weep “learned more than anyone else how to laugh.”

It is probably one of only books in print that enlightens the reader on the cultural significance of both King David and Jerry Seinfeld.

In “TCIGT the Talmud,” Parry has perhaps a more difficult task than Blech, because the Talmud is so vast and hard to categorize. Parry starts off by explaining what the Talmud is (the codification of the Oral Law of the Torah), how it got written and some of the famous people associated with it. Then he summarizes the Talmud’s major tractates. He also delves into the spiritual, mystical and philosophical questions that are found in the Talmud’s pages. However, the famous arguments that epitomize Talmud study are missing from these early chapters, which slash away anything possibly extraneous leaving only the bare minimum (i.e. “Challah — when one separated bread, it was required that a portion be given to the priests.” How much dough should be separated is discussed in this tractate). But there is a chapter on “Studying the Talmud” in which Parry explains the best ways of getting everything you can out of the original text.

The best thing about the “Idiot” books is that at the end of every chapter, it gives you a little box that shows “The least you need to know” about the chapter topic. It makes it easier for people who find reading a whole book chapter too tiring; this way they only have to read a list.

“Judaism for Dummies” has no such list, which makes reading it more mentally taxing than the “Idiots” books. The book tries to combine both the history and the basic laws into one volume. It also has an appendix of “A primer of basic words,” which is, to this reader, a fairly random list of words that you might (or more likely might not) come into contact with in discussions with other Jews, such as “Ladino,” “Ellis Island” and “Righteous Gentile.”

It is unlikely that these books will ever replace genuine Torah learning or academic study, but they do something else. They make Judaism — which so many people find foreboding or uninteresting — fun, palatable and easy, which means maybe these books aren’t so stupid after all.