To those who are in Yeshiva, learning Gemara for three sedarim a day is often a regular sight. To those who are actually learning it, it's often an extremely rewarding experience, and one in which those learning can often get so deeply involved in it that they completely lose track of time.

To one who knows what the Talmud is but has never actually learned it himself, this can be less intuitive: how is it that a bunch of guys can read those ancient squiggly letters, yell at each other for hours on end over what it's saying, and both of them enjoy the entire experience - and walk away best of friends?1

How does one answer these sorts of questions? How can I explain to someone why Talmud is so exciting, enjoyable, and rewarding (even in this world)? You can assume that this person has zero personal Jewish background (read: isn’t Jewish) but knows the basics about Judaism's beliefs and fundamentals.2

1Paraphrase of Kiddushin 30b

2Similar questions such as these have been asked before, so this shouldn't be off-topic (at least not for that reason).

  • The joy of intellectual stimulation, learning, problem solving, and religious satisfaction. – mevaqesh Sep 11 '17 at 17:48
  • While not an answer, this article: newyorker.com/books/page-turner/… might help a bit. – Avrohom Yitzchok Sep 11 '17 at 18:49
  • Why do some people spend so much time pouring over their favorite franchise (e.g. Star Wars)? – ezra Sep 11 '17 at 19:51

(1) Compare it to an intellectual pursuit they already know. And (2), show don't tell.

I've never had the benefit of full-time learning in yeshiva, but I've participated in some shorter programs that were also more beginner-friendly but no less engaging. Here's (approximately) how I explained the attraction to some non-Jewish friends who are geeks about something else (science fiction in this case, but many people are geeky about something):

"You know how you and Bob sometimes spend hours talking about how time travel works, many-worlds theory, butterfly effects, and the practicalities of going to the future and returning? And sometimes you disagree about how paradoxes would be resolved? You obviously get a lot of pleasure from those discussions, even though you can't directly use the answers. Well, talmud study provides the same kind of stimulation for me, exploring all the different ways to interpret something and what the implications of those interpretations would be, and even in the cases when I can't directly use the knowledge I still enjoy it. And then, on top of that, I get the joy that comes from knowing that I'm fulfilling an actual religious command by doing this. Pretty neat, huh?"

I once enthused at some length to some friends about a visit I'd just had to a beit midrash where I joined a chevruta of two rabbinic students. They were working from shas, no English translation, but because I was a visitor they gave me a pointed text. Then they proceeded to treat me -- someone way below their level of knowledge -- as an equal, including taking my turns at translating (not always correctly and with Jastrow at hand). The idea that while we all have different levels of knowledge, we all have seats at the table and are encouraged to try really made an impression on me, and my excitedly talking about it made an impression on my friends.

Let them see your joy, and even if they don't understand the details, they'll still get the general idea. If you can relate it to something they're really into, that helps.

  • 2
    The end of your 3rd paragraph about how people with different knowledge levels are treated equally is, I think, your most critical point. The Talmud itself, even encourages such equality. You may be familiar with the debate between Hillel and Shammai regarding who should learn. Thank goodness, we follow Hillel in this. It's said that Hillel's student Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai was the "least smart" of all his students. But, because Hillel treated him equally, look what he became and view what tremendous knowledge and joy the world received for generations! – DanF Sep 12 '17 at 0:33
  • Bob sounds an awful lot like me... Is he patterned after someone you know? ;-) – Cort Ammon Sep 12 '17 at 1:34
  • @CortAmmon Bob sounds an awful lot like me too, actually. Perhaps we are all Bob. – Monica Cellio Sep 12 '17 at 1:50
  • "Maybe that's all BOB is. The evil that men do. Maybe it doesn't matter what we call it." - Albert Rosenfield – paquda Sep 12 '17 at 14:41

This is a great question, because I have been asked this from multiple people - Jews and non-Jews. My answer, of course, is different to each of them, but I'll mention the commonalities.

First of all, before answering, I think you really need to analyze well the intention of the questioner, as you would with any question. Only if the questioner is really willing to hear your opinion as is, even if he disagrees with your answer, in whole or part, should you attempt to answer. Someone who is hostile or is trying to test or trick you should outrightly be ignored, in terms of your answering.

Assuming a positive reception, I think your answer can be quite simple. The essential style of the Talmud is the Socratic learning method. Many people, today, don't learn this way, but it has proven to be a very effective learning method. (I'll see if I can include a link to an article about this, for your interest.) The idea behind the Socratic method is that someone makes a statement, questions are asked and proofs to support or refute that statement are made. Another answer is usually given, and this cycle repeats.

The joy of experiencing this learning method is demonstrated by the fact that almost everyone's opinion is valued. And, a statement is rarely taken and accepted at face value. People can question it, analyze it, argue with it, etc.

In current U.S. society, and much of the world, even though the media has a huge influence on forcing people to think a certain way, in reality, when you speak to the average person, they really treasure their own way of thinking, and like to debate an idea. If you want to go further, you can explain that the Talmud does not really subscribe to "political correctness", and, in a sense, that's probably the greatest pleasure. Not only does the Talmud, itself, encourage debate within its own pages, but, the study of their debate can be debated among the very people who study it.

In terms of answering the question, how can people yell at each other yet still walk away friends - that's exactly the very joy that the Talmud, itself, encourages. What's sad about today's society, esp. in business and offices is that knowledge is "compartmentalized". The way people get ahead is by keeping knowledge to themselves and not sharing it with others. G-d forbid, if someone should know more than you, they will outmaneuver you and you might lose your job. (Whether this is true in a specific job, is not my point, here. Often, this is a fear than reality.) The Talmud, has no such notions of such "knowledge competition". When two friends sit together learning toegther and debating a page of Talmud, they are sharing knowledge. This, in itself, is one of the most visible demonstrations of unselfishness and friendship that I can think of! Each person is willing to share his knowledge with the other with the full intention of making the other more knowledgable.

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