“If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir” by Ilana Kurshan.
The study of Talmud was the domain of men only for most of past years of Judaism. With the development of Reform Judaism and other egalitarian congregations, women with an interest in scriptural study began to participate in minyans and in various religious and scriptural study groups.
Ilana Kurshan was in her late 20s and a newlywed and new resident of Israel when she decided to undertake daf yomi, the traditional study of the entire Talmud, which takes seven and a half years. With 63 tractates and thousands of pages, just the idea of even reading all of it seems daunting.
Daf yomi breaks it down into daily portions, and, thanks to modern technology, there are now podcasts and recordings to assist students in their study. In addition, everyone around the world who formally studies daf yomi is studying the same section at the same time. A person does not begin by reading the first tractate in the Talmud, but joins in at the point in the process with the entire group.
Kurshan began study when she was dating her first husband, and while exploring both Jerusalem and the Talmud together originally was a source of bonding, in the end it was their different ways of approaching God and prayer that led to their divorce after only two years of marriage. The laws of mourning in tractate Moed Katan gave her insights into mourning the loss of her marriage, and dealing with a recurring depression.
Kurshan decided to stay in Jerusalem, since she had a good job in the publishing field, but it upset her that everyone seemed to think that all women wanted to be married, and single women were pitied. Men outnumbered women at singles events, and she felt that men had their pick and could demand almost anything they wanted from women, while the women had to accept anything they could get.
She noticed that the women had spent considerable time dressing well and putting on makeup, while the men often looked like they had just rolled out of bed. Some of the texts of tractate Ketubot seemed to reinforce this, where the woman was purchased by the husband, with a virgin going for a higher price. According to tractate Kiddushin, a man always acquires a woman, and the woman has always provided the missing piece, ever since Adam lost one of his ribs in the creation of woman.
Kurshan has always felt drawn to self-denial and serious commitment, and the tractate Nedarim, concerning the laws of vowing, gave her some insights to those tendencies. A helpful bit of instruction was that it is better not to make a vow, than to make one and not fulfill it. The overall sentiment is to voluntarily deny oneself something in order to deepen piety and religious commitment. Yet often the restrictions of Shabbat or a specific holiday are eased when there is a critical need, with pregnant women being given dispensation from many things that are otherwise required.
There are very few aspects of life that are not the focus in some text of the Talmud, and the author found herself a bit embarrassed to go to daf yomi class when the topics turned to seduction, undressing, and infidelity, since she often was the only woman in class. The seductive quality of food is not lacking, with wine, bread, and eggs mentioned as metaphors for sex.
Tractate Gittin considers divorce, and equates divorce with the destruction of the temple. Kurshan read these portions some years after her own divorce, and was able to compare her journal entries of that time period with the Talmud texts.
Kurshan eventually remarried and had three children by the time she was completing daf yomi. Her second husband eventually joined her in this study, and when they had three young children, including twin girls, they had to be creative in continuing their religious life, with her husband taking on some of the formal activities that required attendance at minyan and classes.
The author originally worked in book publishing, but over time, decided that her knowledge of Hebrew lent itself to becoming a translator, and she enjoys knowing that her translation of Jewish texts from Hebrew to English is making them available to a much wider audience of readers.
Something that strikes me is how different daf yomi is for someone who can study the Hebrew texts, in comparison to the many of us who would be studying a translation. The interpretation of Hebrew often includes the mystical meaning of the numerology of the letters, or, the possible different interpretations of a word because the original texts are not vocalized with vowels. This would inevitably be lost when studying a text only in English or another language other than Hebrew. The author is fortunate that she is fluent in both Hebrew and English.
As the book wraps up, she has already undertaken a new cycle of daf yomi, as is the tradition, where learning is never really complete.