No Child Left Behind

Last week there was an uproar in the Whatsapp list of my two-year-old’s Gan. One of the mothers wrote to notify the rest of the group that her son was accidentally left behind in the playground that morning, and was discovered missing only twenty minutes later, once the two teachers and the other thirteen children had already walked the two blocks back to the Gan. The child was fine – he had wandered off to a corner of the park to play with the water fountain – and he was returned to class unscathed. But the mother was outraged to learn of the incident, and she wished to inform the rest of the parents that she was pulling her son out of the class.

Her message, which was cogent, well-articulated and not merely the product of her initial fright and fury, triggered a flurry of responses. One mother wrote to say that she could not understand how such a thing could possibly happen, and she demanded that the Ganenet account for her negligence. Another mother requested that a meeting be convened immediately to discuss the incident and re-examine the playground policy. Another mother threatened to pull her daughter out if the Ganenet didn’t provide her version of the events to all the parents right away. I didn’t write back at all. I rarely write group messages– I am too concerned about how each and every person in the group might respond and whose feathers I may inadvertently ruffle.

If I had written anything, though, I think I would have just said I was sad. Sad that it had happened. Sad for the mother of the child who was left behind. Sad for the pain and panic of the Ganenet, whose heart surely stopped beating when she realized that one of her charges was missing. Sad for the other children in the room—including my daughter—who may have sensed the acute distress of their caretakers in those moments before their classmate was found. Sad for the concern of the other parents, who, like me, may not always appreciate what it means to entrust our children to the care of others, and what is at stake the moment we let our kids loose upon the world.

That same night we heard from a family friend about a toddler who had fallen out a three-story window and hit his head. The friend told us that the parents of the child had been home, but they were downstairs and didn’t realize that their son had made his way upstairs to the third floor of their new house, where the window panes had still not been placed in the windows. They heard their toddler scream to his brother outside, “Wait for me, I’m coming,” and they both dashed up the stairs – but they were too late. The child remains in the hospital in critical condition.

I pray for that child every day, invoking his name and his mother’s name – the traditional formula seems especially apt in this case, since I am as concerned for her distress as I am for his health. I pray that the mother will be able to forgive herself, to look herself in the mirror, to know that she has done the best she can. I know how easily I could have been that mother – how often I fail to come when my children call me, to follow them when they wander off, to look back once we start crossing the street to make sure no one is left behind. No matter how closely I watch my kids, it never seems enough.

“There are things that have no measure,” the Mishnah teaches in tractate Peah in a passage recited every morning as part of the daily liturgy. The Mishnah then proceeds to list various commandments that have no minimum or maximum limit according to the Bible. For instance, it is a mitzvah to leave the corners of one’s field unharvested so that the poor may come and glean, but there is no minimum or maximum amount that must be left. Likewise, it is a mitzvah to perform acts of kindness and to study Torah – but we are not told how kind we must be, or how much study is too much.

I think about how the care of children is also something that has no measure. I cannot watch my children enough, because no matter how vigilant I am, kids fall and get hurt and wander off. But there is also no minimum measure. “Leave me alone, Ima,” my seven-year-old has started telling me – he wants me to stop urging him to do his homework, and stop badgering him to get ready for school. Then I feel like I can’t ever give him enough independence, and that between freedom and vigilance, I will never strike the right balance or find the perfect measure.

The reward for caring for children has no measure, too. “These are the things whose fruits a man eats in this world, but whose principal remains intact for him to enjoy in the world to come,” the Mishnah goes on to teach, enumerating commandments such as honoring parents, performing acts of kindness, and studying Torah. All of these activities yield benefit in this world, but the real reward comes in the world to come. I might add being a Ganenet to this list. Yes, there are rewards. One is remunerated for one’s labor both financially and in terms of the emotional satisfaction of watching children grow and play happily. But there is no measure of compensation that could ever possibly be adequate for the safe delivery of my daughter into my arms at the end of the day. I could never possibly pay any caretaker enough for sparing my daughter from harm. After all, how much do I actually pay for someone else to care for my daughter eight hours a day and ensure that she stays safe? And yet is there any sum I wouldn’t pay to receive her back safe and sound if something were to go wrong?

The Mishnah’s list of things that have no measure includes only commandments that human beings perform to honor one another and to honor God. But of course the true thing that has no measure is God, the infinite, the One who is beyond measure. When it comes to the care of my children—whether they are in my care, or whether I entrust them to others—I can really only pray. I pray when I wake up in the morning that they will lie down safely in their beds that night. I pray when I put them to bed that they will wake up breathing, their souls restored to their bodies. I know that at times I must entrust them to the hands of others, but I also know that I am entrusting them to human hands, and no human being can watch everyone and everything at all times. Who is to say that next time in the playground it won’t be my daughter who wanders off? “All is in God’s hands except the fear of God,” the Talmud teaches, and so as while I place my children in human hands, I place my fear in God.

When I think of the little boy who was left behind in my daughter’s preschool class, I’m reminded of Yehuda Amichai’s poem about God’s compassion for little children in the playground.

God has pity on children in Gan,
He has less pity on school children
But he pities adults not at all.
He leaves them all alone.

And sometimes they have to crawl on all fours
In the scorching sand
To reach the pickup point,
Streaming with blood.

But perhaps
He will have pity on those who truly love
And take care of them
And shelter them
Like a tree over the sleeper on the public bench.

Perhaps even we will spend
Our last pennies of kindness on them
Bequeathed by Mother

So that their own happiness will protect us
Now and on other days.

Often it seems to me that it is only by grace of God’s compassion that my children return home safe and sound at the end of the day. And so while I know that some of the other mothers in the Gan are indignant at the incident, I wish that instead of anger or outrage we could all try to bestow pennies of kindness on our caretakers and on ourselves. The care of children is frightful and awe-inspiring – none of us can keep our children safe at all times, and any one of us could be that mother whose child climbs too high and too fast. May God have pity on those who truly love their children and shelter and protect them so that all of our children can run happy and free – and may their happiness gird us, and give us strength.

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Cry

I have always had trouble staying focused in synagogue. All too often I put my prayer book aside and pick up a volume of Talmud, or even a novel, and read instead of praying. Somewhat surprisingly, my prayer life has improved since I’ve had children. When I’m already so distracted in synagogue, I don’t need to seek out additional distractions, and so ironically I concentrate better with my children underfoot. These days I generally don’t even bother bringing a novel to synagogue anymore, since what is the likelihood I’ll have a chance to open the prayer book, let alone all my ancillary reading material?

This year on Rosh Hashanah, though, it was different. Daniel and I prayed in a synagogue that had two services, one at 5:30am and the other at 8am – and so each of us had our turn to pray. The kids sat with us for parts of both services and managed to hear the shofar blasts on multiple occasions, but for the most part we were each alone. In fact, I think my four hours in synagogue each morning was the only time I spent alone during the entire Rosh Hashanah holiday – and so, yes, I brought reading material.

I was reading a newly-published Hebrew novel about a young couple in their first year of marriage. Their names are Yonatan and Alisa, they are deeply in love, and they are desperate for time alone– but everyone around them seems to be competing for their attention. The book was very absorbing, and although I didn’t pick it up until I’d completed the long silent prayer, I found it hard to tear myself away by the time the prayer leader got up to the U’netaneh Tokef, a stirring liturgical poem in which we ask, “Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?” The prayer is attributed to a medieval rabbi who, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, was told by the local Catholic authorities that he must either convert or die. He chose death, but only after hesitating – which then caused him tremendous guilt and remorse. According to the legend, he composed the U’netaneh Tokef and recited it with his last breath.

The prayer is by no means the most important part of the high holiday liturgy – it is included in the prayer book as a poetic introduction to the Kedusha, the blessing in which all the angels proclaim God’s glory. But because of its weighty imagery and its haunting melody, it has become one of the centerpieces of the high holiday prayers. And so I probably ought to have put aside my novel and opened my prayer book again – except that I couldn’t. Alisa, four months pregnant, was panicking. She thought she was having another miscarriage. Suddenly we were transported back six months earlier, to the trauma of Alisa’s first miscarriage – the blood, the rush to the hospital, the ultrasound with no heartbeat, the tears. Was it all about to happen again? Alisa was crying. Yonatan was crying. And suddenly I was crying too, bawling into my novel which was hidden inside my prayer book, the tears falling freely onto its pages. I felt like I was right there with Yonatan and Alisa, experiencing their devastation first-hand.

Except, of course, I wasn’t right there. I was standing in synagogue before the Holy Ark on Judgment Day, and everyone around me was crying too. “On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed. Who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time, who will experience tranquility and who will suffer.” Surely several of the people around me had lost those they loved in the past year, or were worried about losing loved ones in the year ahead. They were worried about their parents or their children, or their financial security, or the difficult decisions that might have to make in the year ahead. They felt their lives hanging in the balance. They were crying in hope, or in fear, or in anguish. Whereas I was crying for Yonatan and Alisa.

For a moment I felt guilty. I remembered the midrash in which God criticizes the Israelites for crying out of fear when they heard the ten spies’ negative report about the land of Israel. “You’re crying for no reason?” said God angrily. “Well, just you wait. I’ll give you a real reason to cry.” On that day, the decree of the Temple’s destruction was sealed (Taanit 29a). Maybe God was going to punish me with a real reason to cry, instead of my crocodile tears. Except that they weren’t really crocodile tears, because I wasn’t just crying for Yonatan and Alisa. I was reminded of a favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins about a man who espies a young girl crying:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

The poet, a somewhat patronizing older man, asks Margaret why she is crying. “Are you crying because the leaves are falling from the trees? What a sensitive heart you have, crying for the foliage.” The poet knows that the leaves will fall every autumn and fill the trees again every spring, but perhaps Margaret—like Adam HaRishon—does not yet have the confidence that the sun always rises. Perhaps the branches will be forever bare? And even if the trees will bloom again in the spring, how sad that they are falling now!

The poet tells Margaret that she will have many more real reasons to cry when she gets older:

Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.

The mansplaining continues, but now with new levels of profundity:

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

The poet tells Margaret that she will cry many times throughout her life, but when it comes down to it, she will always be crying about the same thing: “Sorrow’s springs are all the same.” When we human beings cry, the poet is telling Margaret, we are not just crying for any single loss. We are crying for the human condition, for the “blight that man was born for” – for how difficult it is to live in a world of transience and imperfection, where so much of what we love is fleeting, and where so many of our dreams fall short.

Crying for Yonatan and Alisa is like crying for Goldengrove unleaving. Do I really need to cry about fictional characters who suffered an imagined loss? Does Margaret really need to cry for the falling leaves? The poet’s answer is that it doesn’t really matter. The wellsprings of sorrow are all the same. We cry because we live in a world where leaves fall from trees and turn to smoke in every lane, where babies die in the womb, where parents get sick and need to be cared for, where children go to sleep hungry, where we do not always feel equipped to confront life’s challenges with dignity and grace. We cry because the blight that man was born for is to come from dust and return to dust. Each of us is a broken shard. A passing shade. A dissipating cloud. A vanished dream. Each of us, Margaret, is a falling leaf.

Forgiving Our Children

(published in The Forward, 4.9.2018)

I always assumed that my children would be early and eager readers too. I began reading to them from the moment they were born – I breastfed them for their first year, and always read to them while they were suckling. I had no patience then for children’s books, and merely read aloud to them whatever I was reading at the time. When they were old enough to sit up beside me, I began reading them picture books, and now that they can sit at the table for a proper meal, I read aloud during mealtimes in the hope that they will be too distracted to fight with one another. These days I read them stories at bedtime while they jump up and down on the bed like monkeys, until invariably one falls off and nearly breaks his or her head. Then I sigh, close the book, and turn out the lights.

My children enjoy hearing stories, but they are equally happy — if not happier — to play interminable card games, or build houses out of Magna-Tiles, or scroll through photos of their cousins on my pilfered smartphone. I was a precocious reader, but they are not. Three of my kids are now school-age; so far none of them is comfortable reading independently. My son still stumbles over nearly every word, and my twins are morally outraged by any book that does not have illustrations. At the public library recently, I found myself looking wistfully, even a little enviously, at other parents trying to tear their children away from their books, making them promise to read just “one more page.” I wonder whether my children will ever be like that.

But as I try to look more deeply within myself in advance of the High Holidays, I am increasingly aware that the flaw is not with my children, but with my own expectations as a parent.

As parents, we expect and dream so much. We want our kids to have the experiences we most treasure from our own childhood, as well as the experiences we wish we’d had when we were young. We want our passions to become theirs — our love of music, or basketball, or reading.

But of course, our offspring are not our clones. They may (or may not) be genetically ours, but they are shaped by different environmental and generational forces than we were. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” as per the adage, but as Andrew Solomon showed in his monumental book that plays off this title, often quite the opposite is true. Solomon writes about children with severe physical and mental impairments, but his basic premise speaks to universal aspects of the parenting experience. “There is no such thing as reproduction,” Solomon writes, explaining that in spite of the fantasy that our children will be just like us, in reality our children are often veritable strangers: “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger…. We must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own child is an exercise for the imagination.“

Fully loving our children requires imagination, yes, but it also requires acceptance and compassion. Just as we did not become our parents—and indeed we often defined ourselves in opposition to our parents—our children are doing the same. If we hold that against them, we are not being fair to them, or to ourselves. We owe it to our children to accept them with compassion, and the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is an annual reminder of how we can, and why we must. The high holiday liturgy speaks often of the metaphor of God having compassion on us like a father is compassionate on his children. Underlying this metaphor is the notion that a parent’s compassion for a child is elemental. The Hebrew term for compassion, Rachamim, comes from Rechem, meaning womb – suggesting that a parent is, by definition, one who is compassionate. In Aramaic, the root word also means “love,” a reminder that love and compassion are semantically entangled. To love our children, we must be able to accept them for who they are, and forgive them for who they are not.

Avivah Zornberg offers a beautiful exploration of this idea in her analysis of the Garden of Eden story in her book, The Murmuring Deep. She notes the root word etzev and its variant form itzavon (generally translated as pain, sorrow, or toil) appear in the punishments of both Adam and Eve after the two eat from the tree of knowledge. First, God tells Adam, “Cursed be the earth because of you; by toil [itzavon] shall you eat of it all the days of your life: thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you” (Genesis 3:17-18). Zornberg explains itzavon as the discrepancy of sowing grains and vegetables only to reap thorns and thistles.

This meaning of itzavon is reflected in Eve’s punishment too: “I will greatly intensify your pain [itzavon] and your pregnancy; in sorrow [etzev] shall you bear children” (Genesis 3:16), Rashi explains that God is not just referring to the pain of labor, but also to the pain of childrearing.

Itzavon, then, may also be understood as the discrepancy between what we dream of for our children, and who they become. “Parents raise children as projections of their own desires, only to discover that children develop desires of their own. Here, the planting may come to bear very little resemblance to the yield,” Zornberg explains.

The punishment of itzavon is an appropriate one, since Adam and Eve disappointed God by n failing to obey His command. God created Adam in His image, and then Adam went off to become his own person, with desires and a will that differed from those of his Creator. God’s experience of itzavon continues in the Noah story, where, as Zornberg notes, the same term appears, this time as a verb: “God saw how great was man’s evil on earth and how every thought devised in his heart was sheer evil all day long. And God regretted that He had made man on earth, and he was saddened [va-yitatzev] to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). God’s children have failed to become the creatures He envisioned when He created them in His image. And so this time, God doesn’t just mete out punishment — He destroys the overwhelming majority of humanity.

The story of Noah’s flood is included among the verses recited during the Rosh Hashanah service:As our lives hang in the balance, we want God to remember that He nearly destroyed all of His children once, and then regretted it. “Our father, our king, forgive us… have mercy on us like a father has compassion on his children,” we tell God, even as we know that fathers are not always compassionate, and sometimes accepting one’s children is the most difficult task of all.

Perhaps part of the reason it is so difficult to accept our children is because in order to do so, we have to forgive ourselves. Our children were once a part of us, and it is hard not to think of them as extensions of ourselves. If our children are not like us, then surely we have failed to impart of our values. If I bring books to synagogue for my children to read during services, yet all they want to do is sit there and eat candy, then surely I have done a poor job of transmitting my excitement about literature (let alone prayer). It’s hard not to see it that way. And yet, as the Torah teaches us, the discrepancy between expectation and reality — itzavon — has been a fundamental aspect of our world since the dawn of humanity. Even God could not create a likeness that was an exact replica.

Just recently, while I was reading Charlotte’s Web with my son in the park after school, I noticed he wasn’t paying attention. He was holding a stick and poking at something in the dirt. “It’s a dead spider,” he told me. “I know it’s dead because on a dead spider, the legs always turn inwards, because there’s no more blood holding them up. That’s how you can tell. Right?”

I hadn’t known that. If my son were exactly like me, he would have been entangled in the story of Charlotte and her web. Indeed, it’s thanks to the fact that my son has elected to spin his own web that he has so much to teach me. It’s taken me a while to learn this lesson, and I can only hope that he — and all my children — will forgive me for that.

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, winner of the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Read more:

Green Clementine in September

With that first bitter taste of green clementine in September
I suddenly remember the rain
How it catches me unawares, and how
The heavens will open again

The days are still long and hot
The peaches not over and gone
But summer in all of its splendor is ending
The heavens will open again

The bitter green fruits of September
Will ripen to sweet yellow suns
Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat
The heavens will open again

Summer and winter, day and night
The fruit fills my palm like a rainbow of promise:
The days will blow gently, the shadows will flee,
The heavens will open again.

The View from the Halakhic Castle

I am not particularly interested in halakhah. I enjoy studying Talmud because the emphasis is on the questions rather than the answers; I am less interested in how Jews are supposed to practice than in the values and considerations that animate the discussions about Jewish religious observance. I think of Talmud and halakhah in terms of Schroedinger’s Cat Paradox. According to this thought experiment, by now a quantum mechanics cliché, a cat is placed in a box where there is an equal probability that a deadly poison is or is not released. Only when the box is opened is the state of the cat established with certainty. Talmud fascinates me because the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead, with all the interpretive possibilities still open, whereas halakhah collapses the dancing wave function into a static mode of practice.

But perhaps the time has come to reconsider. In his new book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman argues that halakhah is so much more than just prescriptive law because it plays both a regulatory role—governing Jewish religious practice, and also an educational role—serving as the object of devotional study. Jews study halakhah not just to learn how to behave, but also because halakhah serves to communicate social and religious meaning. And so while much of the content of Talmud study is similar to what is taught in American law schools, for Jews it is regarded as one of the purest forms of divine worship. Rabbinic case studies—when Reuven’s ox falls into Shimon’s pit, for instance—are not just precedent-setting, but value-laden. This is true of the Talmud, but it is also true of subsequent halakhic works such as the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh, which are not merely laws to be applied, but discourse to be studied. Thus legal ideas are pursued to further broader social and cultural aims. As Saiman puts it, “Halakhah is not only a body of regulations, but a way, a path of thinking, being, and knowing.”

In his opening chapter, Saiman responds to Jesus’ critique of halakhah as an obsessive preoccupation with legal minutiae by arguing that halakhah consists of a discussion of the central questions of religious life through the lens of legal norms. Saiman demonstrates how broader ethical and philosophical concerns inform even the most seemingly obscure or technical halakhic matters. Questions such as “what is justice” and “what is beauty” are anchored in discussions about particular commandments. As Saiman contends, Jesus failed to understand that the Talmud’s seemingly obsessive legal commands are the prism through which weightier issues are refracted and revealed. Historically this may have been an attempt to infuse deep significance into laws that often seemed, even to the rabbis, arcane and irrelevant, but however it happened, halakha became the language for probing and articulating foundational Jewish questions. Halakhah, then, is not merely a legal code; it is the language of Jewish thought.

Saiman, a law professor at Villanova, frames his book by showing how halakhah is different from American law, or German law, or any other state-based legal system. This approach enables him to discuss halakhah in the terms of Western jurisprudence—concepts such as legal formalism, Aristotle’s idea of corrective justice, and Antonin Scalia’s understanding of the “rule of law.” And yet perhaps the more apt comparison to halakhah is not state law, but other systems of religious law, such as Muslim Sharia and Buddhist Dharma. True, Americans are unlikely to gather together to study the Constitution for their personal enrichment; but do Muslims and Buddhists regard their religious legal codes as objects of study? How unique is halakhah as a system of religious law? These questions obviously fall beyond the purview of Saiman’s book, but they raise questions about the author’s point of comparison.

As Saiman sees it, the ideal of Talmud Torah, in which Jewish law is an object of religious study, is one of two ways in which halakhah differs from state-based legal regimes. The other is that halakhah, which emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple and the collapse of Jewish sovereignty, is the law of a people rather than the law of a state. For nearly all of its history—until the foundation of the State of Israel, whose implications for halakhah Saiman explores in his book’s final chapter—halakhah could not realize its full regulatory scope because Jews were living in the diaspora, governed by the laws of the countries in which they resided. As a result, halakhah often speaks the language of “as if,” detailing regulations about crime and punishment as if the Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, still functioned in Jerusalem, and detailing sacrificial law as if the Temple were still standing and operational. In this sense halakhah is timeless, hearkening back to a sovereign past and to a messianic future. Many of the laws that are part of the halakhic system have been irrelevant in terms of practice throughout the history of halakhah, and yet, as Saiman notes, “neither the remoteness nor even impossibility of applying halakhah does anything to dampen the rabbis’ ardor for legislating and debating its rules and procedures.”

Through a series of close readings of Talmudic passages, Saiman shows how the two defining characteristics of halakhah – halakhah as regulatory and educational, and halakhah as the law of a people rather than a state – account for many of its unique and distinguishing features. Discussing the first Mishnah in the Talmud, about the time for the recitation of the evening Shema prayer, he questions the conventional dichotomy between halakhah and aggadah, i.e. the legal and literary parts of the Talmudic text. He show that by framing the laws of the evening Shema in terms of a discussion about cosmology, the Talmud subordinates regulatory clarity to religious phenomenology. Halakhah regulates by educating, thereby functioning as aggadah rather than merely standing in opposition to it. Elsewhere Saiman cites this same Talmudic passage to explore another feature of halakhah—what the Kabbalist Gershom Scholem referred to as halakhah’s “eternal present.” The Talmud teaches that the time for the evening Shema is specified in terms of Temple ritual, thereby conflating past and present and applied and non-applied law.

In offering close readings of Talmudic passages to explore the rabbinic idea of law, Saiman’s Halakhah joins other books that seek to explain the workings of Jewish law to a broader Western audience, including several published in the past few months: Barry Wimpfheimer’s The Talmud: A Biography, Ayelet Hoffmann Libson’s Law and Self-Knowledge in the Talmud, and Leon Wiener-Dow’s The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law. All of these books share, to an extent, Saiman’s avowed goal of “explain[ing] halakhah as experienced from within (or at least the view from within one room of the halakhic castle) to an audience standing outside it.” But although Saiman writes that his book is for outsiders, his perspective on halakhah—as someone who knows it intimately, but reads it as a legal scholar through the lens of legal theory— may well stimulate many students of the halakhic corpus to view it in a new light. He calls our attention to the oddity of much of what traditional students of Jewish law take for granted – that imagined legal realities are interspersed with daily practices, that discussions that appear merely technical are pregnant with philosophical and existential meaning, that the Talmud “reverse engineers” broad halakhic ideas from specific regulations. Saiman masterfully succeeds at once in clarifying the unique discourse of halakhah for those who have never encountered it, while clarifying to those most familiar with halakhah just how unique it is.

Following his exploration of the nature of halakhah and his close Talmudic readings, Saiman shifts in the third and final part of his book to post-Talmudic discourse, examining the literature of halakhic responsa and the medieval codes of law that distilled the Talmud’s freewheeling discourse into standardized legal rulings. In the medieval period, areas of Torah formerly explored through the aggadic sections of the Talmud—liturgy, philosophy, mysticism, ethics—evolved into separate disciplines, and the Talmud became associated with the more regulatory aspects of halakhah. This section of the book serves as an accessible introduction to medieval halakhic literature for the uninitiated, though it is less intellectually engaging for knowledgeable Jewish readers than the section on Talmudic readings (or perhaps I’m just revealing my dead cat biases here).

Saiman then concludes, as does Wimpfheimer in his “biography” of the Talmud, by considering the resurgence of interest in Talmud among contemporary Jews of diverse backgrounds, for whom Talmud study is becoming an increasingly popular path toward building a positive Jewish identity. He observes that “these developments have not only reinforced the imprint of halakhah in its traditional strongholds, but have pressed the Talmud into conversation with Western philosophy and literature, academic scholarship, and the arts—sources previously excluded from the beit midrash.” In this sense, as Saiman might have noted, halakhah has come full circle—from the embedded nature of halakhah and aggadah in the Talmud, to the emphasis on rule-based formalisms in the medieval codes, to the explosion of creative and artistic responses to the Talmud in the twenty-first century.

As someone who engages creatively with the Talmud, I have moved beyond the analogy of Schroedinger’s cat to another scientific metaphor: Halakhah as DNA. DNA is the language of life. Parts of the sequence of nucleotides in DNA code for proteins, and other parts—known in molecular biology as “junk DNA”—serve no coding function. Likewise, part of halakhah codes for aspects of Jewish religious observance, and other parts consist of ethical and theological discourse, non-applied halakhah, minority opinions which are not followed, and laws which are interpreted out of existence. Just as “junk DNA” is not really junk, but serves to increase the possibilities for recombination, so too the non-coding aspects of halakhah serve to allow for increasingly creative readings and re-interpretations of halakhic discourse. I am still drawn to the non-coding aspects, certainly when it comes to the Talmud. But I’ve come to appreciate that halacha is the two-thousand year old language of Jewish life, and, like Hebrew, one’s Jewish education will always be limited until one becomes conversant in it.

Read more:

The Morning After

I wonder how much my children understood about last night’s book prize. When Daniel first told them that my book had won in a contest, Matan immediately asked, “Will she get a medal? Can I keep her medal?” Earlier in the year I’d run in the Jerusalem marathon and received a medal, and this was his association with winning. At the time I had tried to explain to him that I had in fact run only the half marathon, not the full, and that everyone who participated in the race got a medal – I was no more a winner than any of the tens of thousands of other runners, as I tried to explain to Matan. But he was just excited about the shiny medallion with the blue and white ribbon, which he wore around his neck for several days and which now hangs above his bed. Naturally he now assumed that if my book had won a prize, then perhaps he’d receive another medal to add to his collection.

The morning of the prize, the kids climbed into my bed and begged me to read them the next chapter of the “Kind Family” books. We were up to the chapter in which the family travels to Coney Island in a streetcar on a hot summer day, and Henny gets lost in the crowds. At some point in the middle of the story, my excitement and nervousness got the better of me, and I reminded the kids that I would be receiving my prize that night. “Read, read,” they urged me – they knew that when the clock turned seven, they’d have to get dressed for camp, and they wanted me to finish the story first.

In the afternoon, Daniel picked them up at camp and brought them to the cocktail hour preceding the ceremony, on a patio overlooking the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. My son was dressed in a button-down shirt that he’d clearly buttoned himself – I fixed it for him as soon as he walked in—and my girls were all in their fancy Shabbat dresses with hot pink and bright purple socks beneath their sandals; it is always clear which parts of their outfits they insist on selecting themselves. When they came running to me, I felt my cup running over – as if all of this good fortune could not possibly be my lot. Once again I found myself trembling and overwhelmed. I knew that grace far outstripped merit; God had shone his countenance upon me, and I could only pray that the radiance would extend to so many others in the room as well – my girlfriends who were still painfully single, my divorced friend whose children were struggling and who was so eager to remarry, my former teacher who was now out of a job. I knew there was so much pain and sadness and longing in that gathering of those who had come to celebrate my achievement, and in spite of myself I winced.

But as I watched my four beautiful children run toward me, my prayers were for myself as well: “May these moments of joy and awe gird me so that I am strong enough to retain my dignity and stand tall on the overcast days, when the dark thunderstorms block out the sun. May I have the faith to remember always that the sun is still there behind the clouds, even if there comes a time when I may never see it emerge again. May I always remember the thrill of this moment, even in greatest pain.” This was a prize ceremony, not a wedding; but I understood more profoundly than I ever had why a groom breaks a glass under the wedding canopy.

My son was the first to reach me, and then the girls clung to my legs too. I’d been in the middle of a photo shoot, and I was standing next to a large poster featuring my book jacket. My son does not yet know how to read in English, but he recognized the image. “This is Ima’s book. And I am in it.” He pointed to the small print of the subtitle. “Is this my name?” I remembered a day when he was home sick and the proofs for the book were due. He had sat at my side as I read through several chapters aloud – I’d charged him with the very important job of pressing the “page down” button every few minutes. I reminded him of that day. I told him that he’d helped me write the book, and I could not have done it without him. He beamed.

The kids did not stay for long. We let them drink Sprite, a rare treat, even though it meant they would have to brush their teeth again when they got home. I promised that since the dessert would be very late, we would bring them home chocolate which they could eat when they woke up. The kids, of course, did not forget. When they woke up in the morning, they ran straight to the kitchen to search for their chocolate. They were dazzled by the waffles dipped in rainbow-colored sprinkles. “Get dressed, and then we can have our treat for breakfast,” I told them. I knew it would be fun to watch the chocolate drip down their chins, to witness their smiles of glee at the rare opportunity to eat sweets in the morning. But the real delight, for me, was when they asked me to read them the next chapter in the Kind Family books before they left for camp, and we curled up on the couch together. These are the moments of smaller joy that I can bear. This is the happiness that does not make me wince and tremble. I doubt that my kids will remember that they came to my prize ceremony, but if they remember our reading together, that will be prize enough.

Sami Rohr Prize — acceptance speech

Every Shabbat afternoon my husband Daniel and I try to learn another mishnah from Pirkei Avot with our kids. We think of it as part of their moral education, as a way of introducing and reinforcing our core values. Chief among them is the study of Torah as an intergenerational experience – one that binds parents and children and links us to all those who have studied the text in generations before. Pirkei Avot famously begins by recounting a line of transmission: Moses received Torah on Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, who passed it on to the elders, who passed it on to the prophets. Moses describes Torah as a “morasha,” an inheritance passed down through the generations. My children don’t know how to read yet, but whenever we learn together, I pass out copies of the text to each of them. I want them to feel like they are receiving Torah, that it is becoming theirs.

But for Torah to become theirs, they have to feel not just that they are inheriting the text, but that they are discovering themselves in it. One of the most oft-quoted lines in Pirkei Avot, is “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it.” I recently learned that the earliest reliable manuscript version of the Mishnah actually renders this line differently: “Turn it over and turn it over, for all of it is in you, and all of you is in it.” When we study Torah thoroughly, turning it over and turning it over and leaving no stone unturned, we find ourselves in it. We realize that the text is speaking the language of our experiences, that even before the text becomes a part of us, we are a part of the text.

I came to this realization only gradually. My book emerged out of the notes I took in the margins of my volumes of Talmud. As I was writing, I thought of the book as my own commentary on the text, trying to make sense of what I was learning by reading it against the backdrop of my life experiences. I was startled when my editor referred to it as a memoir. Memoir? Since when had I written a memoir? “The book is about you,” she told me. “It’s about Talmud,” I countered. But when I turned it over I realized that in writing about the Talmud, I was writing about myself, because all of me was in the text. I understood that when we read ourselves in the texts of our tradition, then commentary and memoir become, in a way, one and the same. The text begins to tell our story, and we begin to see ourselves as if we, too, have gone forth from Egypt.

This is true of writing about Talmud, but it is true about Jewish literature more generally. All Jewish literature is a commentary on what came before. There could not have been Rashi if there were no Talmud; there could not have been Tosafot if there were no Rashi. But there also could not have been Philip Roth if there were no Saul Bellow, and there could not have been Rebecca Goldstein if there were no Cynthia Ozick. As Ozick might have put it, we all dip our ladles into our ancestors’ wells, and what we draw up is ours but it is also theirs.

And so it is not just text study, but also Jewish literature, that is an inherently intergenerational experience. Daniel and I study Pirkei Avot with our children for much the same reason that we read aloud to them – because the core of Jewish tradition is about the transmission of ideas and teachings from one generation to the next, and for hundreds of years, books have been the vehicle for doing that.

This is something that Sami Rohr z”l, whose memory we celebrate this evening, understood very well. Sami Rohr was a voracious reader who read widely and across disciplinary boundaries, and he transmitted his love of reading to his three children, who grew up in Bogota in a house lined with books. The Sami Rohr Prize is a testament to the power of books to forge generational bonds, linking parents and children, our ancestors and our descendants. The Prize reflects an awareness on the part of George, Evelyn and Lillian and their spouses and children, as well as the Jewish Book Council, that Jewish books and Jewish writing matter. I am so deeply honored to be among those who have benefited from their commitment to Jewish literature as a vehicle for Jewish continuity.

The Talmud has been the foundation for all major codes of Jewish law. But the Talmud is not just a legal tract; it is also a work of literature, filled with puns, intertextual allusions, and a rich cast of characters – primarily rabbis, but also learned heretics and Roman matrons, angels and demons, unicorns and sea monsters. Like all great works of literature, the Talmud reads differently each time we encounter it – no two people read the text the same way, and no one person reads it the same way at different points in his or her life. When we engage with the texts of our tradition – when we teach them to our children, speak of them when we are at home and when we are on the way, when we lie down and when we rise up—we begin to tell our story through them, and those stories become the next generation of commentary, and of Jewish literature. The line of transmission continues, the inheritance is passed on, and we are all so fortunate to be its heirs.