I’m a very smart guy. I’m fairly certain that even people who disagree with my blog posts would agree that I at least make cogent, knowledgeable arguments. I’ve read tons of material and held many an informed conversation with people several years my senior. Yet my inability to truly penetrate or gain from gemara study has been a constant source of pain and misery for me.
It was perhaps my misfortune that my first exposure to gemara study came when I had just come to Israel at the age of 11. Here I was, struggling mightily to learn a second language, and here I was expected to learn a third, one which was not in everyday use. Self-study was particularly awful; I could at least study prepared material with my father or a tutor, but I had no tools to deal with sugyot entirely on my own.
I distinctly remember that the one time I did succeed in doing so, the teacher made a point of telling the class how easy the sugya was. I was crestfallen. There I was, so proud of myself for finally conquering a mountain, only to be told it was a pitchers’ mound. This would set the tone for things to come.
My gemara-studying abilities sputtered and improved in fits and starts for years afterwards. I could never get the hang of it. I would find myself in seder boker covering maybe a third or a fourth of the mar’e mekomot while it seemed that everyone else was close to the finish line. No matter how hard I tried, I kept feeling like I was second-rate, an inferior Jew. All my ability to swim in the sea of Machshava or history or Tanach was as nothing compared to my inability to crack the Talmudic code, as it were. I cannot begin to express the feelings of dejection, hopelessness and worthlessness I felt whenever I tried, and failed, to overcome these problems.
Yet the great irony is that I don’t hate gemara per se. I hate the horribly restrictive way of teaching it, the insistence on a specific, inefficient method good only for geniuses (because only geniuses can overcome the inefficiencies). I hate that no-one has given any thought for how ba’alei batim, even brilliant ba’alei batim, can be taught to learn and enjoy gemara.
Most of all, I hate that even now, when I am completely free of any institution, that I lack the courage to learn gemara in a way that is best for me, whether it’s using Steinzaltz for the beginning stages or using my own way of understanding text. I have no patience for the present methods of instruction and study, and I know that I could swim in the Talmud if I let myself go my own way. Yet my psyche still shrieks that I must do things as they were done in Volozhin.
So the gemara just sits there, a permanently closed book to me.
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