Sunday, September 24, 2017

Q&A with Ilana Kurshan

Ilana Kurshan, photo by Debbi Cooper
Ilana Kurshan is the author of the new memoir If All the Seas Were Ink, which recounts her experiences studying the rabbinic teachings found in the Talmud. She also has written the book Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?, and has worked as book review editor of Lilith magazine. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tablet and Hadassah. She lives in Jerusalem.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and what do you hope people take away from it?

A: I never set out to write a memoir about the Talmud. When I began learning I was in the throes of a painful divorce. I was living in Jerusalem, thousands of miles from my family and closest friends, and I was awfully depressed. I felt like time stretched ahead of me inexorably, and all I had to look forward to was the prospect of growing older with every passing day.

I had a friend I used to jog with, and one morning, on one of our runs, she mentioned that she had started studying daf yomi, Hebrew for “daily page,” an international program to complete the entire Talmud in seven and a half years at the rate of one page a day.

Immediately something lit up inside me. I thought about how if every day I learned another page of Talmud, then with each passing day, I would not be just one day older, but one day wiser. I thought about how moving on is about putting one foot in front of the other, or turning page after page. And I told myself that if every day I turned a page, then eventually a new chapter would have to begin.

And so for a runner like me, daf yomi was like a treadmill, pulling me ahead with each passing day and eventually showing me the way forward.

What I discovered about the Talmud surprised me. Unlike later works that followed from it, the Talmud is not a law code intended to tell Jews how to behave, but a record of rabbinic legal conversations in which the questions are left open and resolved. It is a text for those who are living the questions, rather than those who have found the answers. I found myself drawn into the rabbinic discussions, following the lines of the rabbis’ arguments and adding my own voice into the conversation.

In the classic printing of the Talmud, the Talmudic text appears in the center of the page, and it is surrounded by later generations of commentaries. Soon I began adding my own comments in the margins of my volumes of Talmud. When I had more to say than could fit in the margins, I wrote journal entries and blog posts.

All that writing became the basis for my book. The rabbis teach in tractate Sanhedrin, “Even though one’s ancestors have left us a scroll of the Torah, it is a religious obligation to write one for ourselves.” And so that is what I did – my book is my Torah, my response to seven and a half years of daily Talmud study, and my journal of those years.

Each chapter in the book corresponds to another tractate of the Talmud, and so essentially I seek in the book to provide readers with a personal guided tour of the Talmud.

I hope some readers may be inspired to pick up the Talmud for themselves after reading my book, but perhaps more importantly I hope that readers will take away from my book an appreciation for the power of learning to make the world endlessly interesting. There is always more to learn, so there is always a reason to get out of bed in the morning, no matter how bleak it all might seem.

Q: How did your study of daf yomi change how you think about yourself, and also about religion?

A: Daf yomi transformed my life from the outset. When I began learning, it was a very solitary pursuit – I would listen to podcasts of the daily page of Talmud alone in my apartment.

The Talmud teaches that “One who is walking on his way and has no companion should occupy himself with Torah study” (Eruvin 54a). That’s how it was for me in the beginning – daf yomi was my companion during what was otherwise a rather lonely stretch of life.

But as I soon realized, daf yomi is never really solitary, because it is essentially the world’s largest book club. Tens of thousands of individuals learn daf yomi worldwide, and they are all quite literally on the same page—following a schedule fixed in 1923 in Poland by the founder of daf yomi, Rabbi Meir Shapiro.

For Rabbi Shapiro, the whole world was a vast Talmud classroom with students connected by a world wide web of conversational threads. Invoking a similar image, the rabbis of the Talmud described the Talmud class as a vineyard, with students seated in rows like an orderly arrangement of vines.

Daf yomi was a way of inhabiting a virtual classroom, sitting in a seemingly empty row and learning by myself while at the same time sensing the ghostly presences of those in the rows in front who had studied those same passages in previous generations.

And there were other presences too, because further along in the row where I was sitting were fellow daf yomi learners on the other side of Jerusalem, in Bnei Brak, and in London, Manhattan, Monsey, and wherever in the world there were people of the book.

When I realized this—that I was essentially inhabiting a virtual classroom—I was inspired to join a real daf yomi class that met at 6am at a local Orthodox shul. I was the only woman in the class, but the rabbi welcomed me with a warm smile and a twinkle in his eye, and soon I became one of the guys. And so slowly my community began to form around daf yomi.

A year after I started daf yomi, I began dating again – just when I got up to the order known as Nashim (Women), a large section of the Talmud encompassing seven tractates that deal with issues of marriage and personal status. Over the course of Nashim I fell in and out of love several times.

Four years after my divorce I met the man I would go on to marry—who also began studying daf yomi—at a class on the weekly Torah portion, the section of the Torah that would be read in synagogue on the upcoming Shabbat. And so Torah became a companion, but it also brought my companion into my life.

Daniel and I married just a few months after we met, and by our third anniversary we had three children, a son and twin daughters. When I finished my first daf yomi cycle at age 35, our son was two and a half, and our twins were approaching their first birthday.

And so the Talmud followed me through the various twists and turn my life took – through divorce, Aliyah officially moving to Israel, dating, marriage, pregnancy and motherhood, all of which unfolded against the backdrop of my daily Talmud study.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock— I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. I have measured out my life in Talmudic tractates—I remember various experiences in my 20s and 30s based on what I was learning in daf yomi  at the time, and I associate Talmudic passages with what was going on in my life when I learned them.

Part of what I discovered in my years of daf yomi study is that living a life of Torah is not necessarily about religious observance, but about a way of reading Jewish texts against the backdrop of one’s life experiences, such that one’s life is transformed by the text, and the text is transformed by one’s life.

Over the course of my years of Talmud study, I engaged in conversation with the ancient rabbis while cooking Shabbat meals, composed sonnets about my favorite Talmudic passages to court the man I eventually married, and sang passages aloud to my children while pushing them in the stroller. I discovered that no two people read the same text in exactly the same way.

And here it may be useful to invoke the rabbinic analogy between Torah—a general term used to refer to Jewish learning—and water. Just like water, which takes the shape of its container, Torah takes our shape when we learn it. All of us become vessels for what we learn, and our learning takes on our shape. In my book I try to show how we, as readers, give shape to the text, and how the text can shape us into the people we seek to become.

Q: You combine a discussion of your studies with a discussion of your personal life. What did you see as the right balance between the two?

A: This was a real tension for me, not because I struggled to find the right balance, but because I was so reluctant to reveal anything about my personal life at all.

The rabbis of the Talmud speak of the notion of hezek re-iya, the idea that being seen constitutes a real form of damage. For me this has always felt very real. I grew up as a rabbi’s daughter, From an early age my siblings and I learned never to reveal more than we needed about our family, and I’ve always been a private person.

There are things I was terrified to share in this memoir, and yet I wrote the book initially for myself, never dreaming it would be published, so I guess in the early drafts I was more open and more bold. And then when it came time for publication, these sections had already become so much a part of how I understood the Talmudic text that I could not possibly omit them.

I shared details in spite of myself, because I felt that either they illuminated the text or made an argument for a way of reading the text in which the text is a commentary on life, and life is a commentary on the text. This way of reading necessarily required a certain degree of exposure.

There’s a Tamudic story I love about an encounter between a wise sage, Rabbi Joshua, and the daughter of the Roman emperor. Rabbi Joshua was a great Torah scholar but he was also a very ugly rabbi. The daughter of the Roman emperor took one look at him and said, “How can such beautiful wisdom be contained in so ugly a vessel?”

Rabbi Joshua, the ugly vessel for beautiful Torah, came back at her with a question of his own. “Does your father store his wine in clay vessels?” “Of course,” she said, doesn’t everyone? “But he’s the emperor,” said R. Joshua. “Shouldn’t he store his wine in the finest gold vessels?” She acknowledged that he had a point. So she transferred all her father’s wine to gold vessels – where immediately it spoiled.

This story speaks to the relationship between who we are and what we learn. All of us are vessels for the Torah we study, and the Torah we study fills us and assumes our shape – much as wine and all liquids take the shape of their containers.

And there is a chemical reaction that takes place between who we are and what we learn – we are transformed by the Torah we study, and the Torah we study is transformed by our encounter with it. And so that is why my book is as much about myself as it is about the Talmud, and as much about Talmud as it is about myself.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The rabbis teach that even if all the heavens were parchment, and all the forests quills, and all the seas were ink, it would be impossible to record all the glory and majesty of God’s Torah.

And this brings me to something interesting that I discovered about studying Jewish texts, which is that the more you learn and the more you know, the more you realize how much yet you have to learn and how much more you want to know.

Our tradition is infinitely dense – between any two lines of Talmud, or any two verses of the Torah, there are an infinite number of commentaries that raise more and more questions and suggest further interpretive possibilities. There is always more to understand, and always more to say.

My book is, in a sense, my attempt to set my quill to parchment to try and capture some of what I learned each day. But even though my initials are ink—my full name is Ilana Nava Kurshan—and even though I have been immersing myself in the Talmud for over a decade now, I am still haunted by the sentiment expressed by the Talmudic sage Rabbi Eliezer on his deathbed:  "I have skimmed only as much knowledge as a dog laps from the sea" (Sanhedrin 68a).

Perhaps that’s why I draw so much inspiration from the prayer traditionally cited upon completing a volume of Talmud, a prayer commonly known as Hadran. Hadran comes from the word for return, though in modern Hebrew is also the term for encore. This is one way the rabbis use the term, suggesting that the text continues to go on even after we have finished with it, since there is always more to learn.

According to this understanding, the prayer means “may we return to you, and may you return to us”: May we have the opportunity to study this tractate again (because inevitably we’ll forget some of what we learn), and may it come back to us (because we hope that some of what we learn with stay with us).

The prayer gives voice to my fervent belief in the power of learning to make the world endlessly interesting – there is always more to learn, which means that yes, even in life’s most difficult moments, there is always a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But in classic Talmudic wordplay, Hadran, from the word Hadar, also means “beauty and glory.”

So the prayer can also mean: “Our beauty is from you, and your beauty is from us,” which conveys the notion that we, with our own individual life experiences and our own unique perspectives, can beautify the study of Talmud; and Talmud can beautify us. I hope I succeed, in my book, in sharing some of that beauty.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I work as a translator of books from Hebrew to English. At present I’m translating a novel set during Talmudic times, a project that combines my love of literature with my passion for Talmud.

My next translation project will be another book in a series of biographies of the sages of the Talmud – I’ve been translating the books in this series for several years.

All along, though, I continue to study daf yomi—I’m now into my second cycle, which keeps giving me flashbacks to where I was when I first learned these pages. Recently my husband and I celebrated our daf yomi anniversary – we came to the page we’d studied on our wedding day seven and a half years ago.

We’ve been through a lot together – four children, 2,700 pages of Talmud, and now a house full of preschoolers. So that keeps me busy, too, but it also continues to furnish me with inspiration for my writing.

I’m not writing a new book, but I keep writing about Talmud as I learn it, so I suppose I’m writing the same book all over again. It’s a book I can’t imagine ever stopping to write, just like I can’t imagine life without learning. It just keeps returning to me, and I keep returning to it, which is what the Hadran prayer is all about.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What has it been like to study Talmud as a woman? As a modern woman reader of Talmud, it has been very exciting to encounter a text that for 1,500 years has been regarded primarily as the province of men – not to mention men who considered themselves experts in women’s physiology and psychology.

I am fascinated by the rabbis' assumptions about women’s attitudes toward marriage and children, and I wonder how many of these assumptions still ring true in an era in which women can live independently, support themselves, and have children out of wedlock without undue social sanction.

To give just one example – the rabbis said it was so important for a woman to be married that she would do so even if her husband were the size of an ant, because that way she will not lack for lentils in her pot. It seems that the Talmud could not imagine a woman who could be both happy and single.

When I encountered that line for the first time, I was single, and I wondered to what extent this was still true. Is there a sense that a woman would do anything to be married?

Around that time a friend bought me a vase and told me that the next time I had a boyfriend and he brought me flowers, I could put them in the vase. I said to myself, no, I think I'll use it for lentils, because I buy lentils by the kilo.

For me that was very empowering. I copied out that line from the Talmud onto a piece of masking tape and stuck it on the vase: She doesn't lack for lentils if she has a man.

I’m intrigued to see how modern women respond to statements like these-- these texts have been ploughed through by generations of scholars, but for Jewish women they remain fertile ground for gleaning new insights.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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