Friday, August 10, 2012

Modern Orthodox Siyum haShas

This past Monday evening, August 6th, I attended the Modern Orthodox Siyum Hashas which was held at the Spanish & Potugese Synagogue on the Upper West Side.
All in all, it was a beautiful and inspiring evening. There was no sense of “We’re modern & proud!”, just a sincere celebration of Limud Torah.
Everyone was handed a program as they came in, together with a sample of the new Koren English Talmud, which contained the first few pages Masechet Brachot, I think up to Daf 8. I flipped through it and I have to say I’m quite impressed.
There were several hundred participants – I’m terrible at judging crowds, so don’t ask me how many exactly. I was pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Chasidim at the Siyum.
There were three 40-minute time slots, each filled with a choice of several lectures. The ones I attended were all excellent.
The one I enjoyed most was by Wendy Amsellem, a brilliant young woman who teaches at Drisha.  She very animatedly taught about the evolution of aggadita, specifically using the story of the death of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, which appears in several versions in midrashim and in the Bavli and Yerushalmi, with both subltle and huge differences. One interesting thing she pointed out was the appearance of his students at his side as he was being killed by the Romans. This detail is absent in all sources other than the Bavli. Wendy pointed out that this is a common theme in the Bavli, to insert students into stories about Rabbis, since it was unimaginable to them that the students wouldn’t be there.
After the three classes, everyone joined together in the main sanctuary. (There was mixed seating, so no $250,000 mechitza was needed.)
There were several excellent speakers, both men & women, including Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva at Chovevei Torah. They all spoke about the importance of Limud haTorah, and of the maginificence of the accomplishment. There was no “politics”. One of the best speeches was Charlie Hall’s (frequent commenter in the JBlogosphere) moving account of his journey from conversion just 9 years ago, to finishing the full cycle of Daf Yomi.
At the end they asked all the mesaymim (those who had actually completed the Daf Yomi cycle) to come up to the front. I have to admit that I was disappointed by the small percentage of the crowd who actually were mesaymim, only around 20 or 25, but as I wasn’t one of them either, I don’t have much of a right to complain. Around a third of them were women.
The Hadran was read all together by the mesaymim, while we followed along. Afterwards, a band struck up music and we all danced (separate circles, but no mechitza, for those interested in those sorts of details.) Then a couple of speakers took us through the beginning of Masechet Brachot, and we all followed along in our Koren samples.
Afterwards, there was pita, vegetables, spreads, and cheese for the seudat mitzvah. There was also a table selling the Koren Talmud, who were one of the sponsors.
That’s it – not exciting to tell, but very inspiring to be there. It inspired me to do daf yomi, though I’m not sure how long I can keep up – I’m already behind.
Shabbat Shalom!
Update Aug 13, 3PM: Additional observation about the purpose of the siyum, from a comment I wrote on another blog.
They were purposely having their own perspective on study and inclusion of women, but not to be “davka”, but just because they sincerely believed that women’s participation and a more academic approach are integral parts of the world of limud torah.