Thursday, August 2, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts on the Siyum HaShas

When I tell many people I went to the Siyum Hashas they first ask me, “Why?” which makes sense. I mean, look at this hilarious picture that now, numerous people have sent to me. (I was not profiled we all got a nice pat down,) I look completely out of place. Though it would require another longer piece, I didn’t feel out of place at all, which felt like a religious victory for numerous reasons. Regardless, I enjoyed myself and found it to be an illuminating night on many fronts. I didn’t stay for the whole event so I can’t give a rundown on what happened though I did live tweet it so you can find that under my twitter name @josephwinkler. So here are some thoughts from the night. Please keep in mind that if you do want a more positive glowing review that praises what a glorious and unified night it was you won’t find it here, not because I disagree, necessarily, but because so many other people covered that part of the event I would have little to add. So here are five points I don’t think would receive much notice.
1. The pervasiveness of technology  
Now, depending on your standpoint and values you might think of this as a bad turn of events, but everyone there from yeshivish to hasidic sported a smartphone. I even saw numerous people charging their smartphones at the station. During prayers many people took out their phones and everyone used their phone to take pictures and videos. Consequently, I find the whole conversation of whether or not to embrace technology as obsolete. Even in the ultra-religious world it is there and has entrenched itself into the deepest strata. It is no longer a question of using it or not, but how to use it. To that extent, I felt impressed by the Agudah extensive use of important technology without any polemic against technology.
2. The relative impressiveness of the Agudah
Though the event is an inherently political event, the Agudah divested many of the explicit comments of any political tinge. For the most part they really worked hard to create one coherent message of unification in an attempt at all-inclusiveness. Now, a cynic might say that their inclusiveness only went so far as their comfort boundaries, and when you hope to sell 90,000 tickets you literally can’t afford to exclude people, but given that the Agudah made a real attempt to depoliticize the event, to make everyone feel comfortable there, again to the extent that they could. I think they deserve some applause regardless of your religious stance. (In that vein, I didn’t expect any mention or display of recognition of the Israeli state, but they had Rav Lau there, and they even showed a picture of a daf yomi shiur in an Israeli air force base. Progress? Maybe.
3. Some of the demerits of the Event
Of course, even given number 2, some of the aspects of the event felt embarrassing to downright shocking. I can’t argue much with the, again, relative mistreatment of women because by now that cannot be shocking, but other parts were just beneath this type of event. Despite thanking all of the non-Jewish (even the phrase non-Jewish makes me feel uncomfortable as it places Jews at the center of the human universe) staff for their help, many of the rabbis then went on to disparage the non-Jewish world as striving for the wrong goals, as having the wrong values. Not only is this a sort of elitism bordering on racism, but to do so when hundreds of non-Jewish people can hear is downright thick. Do we really need to emphasize how they run to empty pursuits while we run to the transcendent pursuit of torah learning? Have we not grown past that?
4. The Haredi obsession with the Holocaust
In a similar vein, I find the yeshivish/chareidi obsession with the Holocaust painful, outdated, and inappropriate. To state it bluntly, as many academics have noted, the Haredi world creates a narrative in which they serve as the saviors the lost world of the Holocaust. Hitler attempted to destroy our beautiful world of thriving Yeshivot and now we have wrought revenge on that monster by creating more and more yeshivot and bringing back to life the shtetls we lost in our Haredi enclaves. The fact that every speaker felt the need to make this point time and time again either goes to show how far reaching this narrative goes or the extent to which these speeches were calculated and thematic on purpose. I don’t think that I need to completely delineate the both the danger and falsity of this narrative, but simply, it simplifies the holocaust and creates a fake straight line between then and now that gives the Haredim a justification and a hero complex that allows them, without any critical thought to perpetuate their lifestyle and this myth of the Haredi life as the purest form of Judaism. (In that sense, it is also a false note for a celebration. We need to outgrow the shadow of the holocaust as well as suffering. Even those who live a more haredi life than me noted that the song they choice struck a plangent note in an otherwise celebratory event. The song beseeches god to look how much the Jewish Nation suffers but still learns torah.)
5. An onslaught of awesome people.
This being a night of endless Jews, some stereotypes were fulfilled and some were broken. I found it kind of hilarious to see Jewish people filling Metlife stadium only to see a throng standing in front of a Cheesesteak sign trying to buy brownie bars and rugelach, or someone asking where this gate was and the person responding, well that is the budlite gate, just find the big picture of BudLite... In that manner, seeing people smoking cigarettes in front of a no smoking sign made me wish I brought a camera. A guy who sat next to us, Hasidic, kept on making the weirdest jokes to us, then when the press guy came to our section to take pictures he would not stop hounding him, begging him to take a picture then asking to see other pictures. Marvelous. In the train station, a hasidic man cut me off, to which I say to my friend, shocking a Hasid cutting me off. The Hasid then apologized. A yeshivish person wearing his suit like a 1950s mobster with a cigarette in his mouth asked me if I had a lighter. I said no, but I said that I was the right person to ask. We both laughed.

1 comment:

  1. I consider myself a traditional Jew (probably conservadox) and I went to the Siyum last night. Although the crowd was mostly Haredi, and I did not have a lot in common with them culturally, I truly felt a sense of Actus.
    After the last lines of the talmud was read the crowd was ecstatic. There was singing, dancing, swaying and incredible energy. It was a very positive event.

    I believe that the Agudath tried very hard to make all segments of the observant world feel welcome. Contrary to what Mr. Winkler wrote, I did not feel that the event was political. In fact, it was apolitical and focused exclusively on Jewish education, adult learning and personal growth. There was no mention at all of any political issues. Kudos to the Agudath.

    I was also very impressed with the quality of the Haredi children at the event. They were very well behaved and respectful and I was amazed at their attention span and ability to stay in their seats. In fact, many of the children had better attention spans than I did. Children as young as 7 were able to listen to hours of speeches and singing. Very impressive.

    Speaking of children...
    I was surprised to see how many Masamid Talmud their were and hear about their accomplishments. Kids as young as 7 learning blots of Talmud. Although Mr. Winkler questions the Haredi obsession with the Shoah, I was extremely moved by the ceremony in which the children received awards and the Emcee stated that the children were revenge against the Nazis who murdered 1.5 million children. It literally brought me to tears.

    I thought that the event was extremely inspirational and I cannot wait to go to the next Siyum HaShas. Although, I will not be doing to the Daf Yomi, I will take Rabbi Frand's advice and commit to a certain amount of learning a week.

    I would urge any Jew regardless of their background to attend the next Siyum.