Josh (desh) wrote,

Explanation of my yeshiva summer to my company

[I spent this summer in Yeshivat Hadar in New York while on sabbatical from work. As part of the sabbatical process, after I returned, I was to explain my sabbatical at an all-staff meeting. I gave that explanation today. Here's what I said.]

Hi. I'm [personal profile] desh, and here's what I did on my summer vacation.

So first of all, I want to start off by apologizing. I don't normally like talking about religion at work very much. I try to never bring it up. So I want to apologize, but this is the one time I'm going to bring it up, especially to anyone who has particular distaste for religion for whatever reason. I'm always happy to talk about it. If you want to ask me and start a conversation, great. But this is the only time I'm going to bring it up.

So I spent two months this summer in the exotic, tropical land of New York City. I attended a yeshiva called Yeshivat Hadar. A yeshiva is an old, traditional model of Jewish learning for its own sake. It's not with a goal of earning a degree or becoming a rabbi or even learning a particular body of work. Learning is considered a value for its own sake. Yeshivas are usually all men; sometimes all women. This is, I think, the only egalitarian, men and women learning together, yeshiva outside of Israel. When I was there for, I did the math, I think 54 hours a week, I was there learning and praying, doing community service, and basically living this lifestyle for two months.

Most mornings, the primary thing we learned, we spent 3 hours or so every morning studying talmud. This is a page of talmud. [Throughout the presentation, a page of gemara, Sanhedrin 45a, was on the projector.] Talmud is a Jewish rabbinic oral tradition, after the bible, that was transmitted orally from scholars to scholars, and was eventually codified and written down about 1500 years ago or so. It's not even in Hebrew. So Hebrew, is, you know...I'm bad at languages. My Hebrew is not very good, even though I've been involved in the Jewish world for a long time. This is mostly in Aramaic, which no one speaks now. It's a dead language. It was the common spoken language among the people who were writing this, but now it's only used for scholarly purposes like learning this. The talmud is giant; I think there's like 2 million words or something in it.

This is one page, though this isn't a page we studied. We studied law regarding self defense when someone is breaking into your home, good Samaritan laws regarding chasing down someone who is pursuing someone else to kill them, and the very problematic law regarding whether it's OK to have your child murdered if he's being disobedient.

[In response to a question "So IS it OK?"] It's complicated. The torah, the bible says "yes". And this spends pages and pages on, "What does 'yes' mean? Can we restrict it?"

The Talmud doesn't codify law at all. It just discusses it, and people weigh in with their opinions, but it doesn't actually finalize what the law is. Jewish law can be analogized to American law, and I spent all summer thinking about: What does the Talmud compare to in American law, with the different texts we have? The best thing I could come up with is the U.S. Federal Code as it applies to things like Medicaid. A lot of us are familiar with this. The Federal Code doesn't talk about implementation rules for Medicaid in particular states. It just sets down guidelines, and the states have to figure out how to implement their laws within those guidelines. So this is kind of that big picture stuff.

[In response to a question "So is the Constitution analogized to the Torah?"] Yes, exactly. It's imperfect, but that's what I've been working on.

So this was our mornings. And then in the afternoons, there were a bunch of other classes. We had more Jewish law, but this time on the more concrete side, the more policy side if you will. And also classes on prayer, music, philosophy, and a whole bunch of other things. There was also a direct service component: Every Wednesday afternoon, we were in a nursing home in New York City visiting residents and interacting with them, having conversations with them. That's the first and most obvious connection that I could think of in terms of how what I did this summer relates to my work here. Just the idea of service to the community.

Some other connections are: In the end, a legal system is a legal system. A set of laws functions like any other set of laws in the world. The analogy I was building before is not just for the sake of argument and explaining to you what Talmud is. Really, studying this is similar in a lot of ways to studying the stuff that the Research department puts out or looking at actual laws, code, and policy. I really think it helped me get a different perspective on the same kind of work that's a part of my job here.

And in terms of the big picture, I really think of Judaism as being primarily about social justice and supporting the underprivileged in our world, and working and advocating for big picture societal justice issues. Which is what we do here.


Q: "It's a system of law without authority, without civil authority."

A: "True. A lot of this, especially the part about killing your disobedient son, probably never had authority at any point in history."

Q: "Can you tell us how to read that thing?"

A: "Very briefly, sure. So the middle section is..." [I don't think it would help anyone much to type this out, but if you really want me to, I can.]

Q: "So this is the original hypertext?"

A: "Maybe the original wiki? It's very much an appropriate analogy"

And several other questions about the talmud itself, the layout and the age and who decided who gets onto the page (esp. stuff on the outside) and who doesn't.

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