As a rabbi who has spent many years learning and teaching Talmud to life to students of all ages and backgrounds, many people have asked me to comment on Miriam Anzovin’s Daf Reactions on TikTok.
As I thought about my response, I recalled the story about the Baal Shem Tov which took place in the early days of the Chasidic movement. The Baal Shem Tov began his novel approach with a close circle of disciples called the Chevraya Kadisha. In those days, Kabbalistic thought was still the domain of a learned elite and the ideas were taught to lay audiences with great caution and trepidation. The secrets of Chasidic thought were couched in parables and stories, and when speaking to the masses, the focus was on the practical aspects of the Baal Shem Tov’s ideas, such as engaging Judaism with joy, devoting greater time to prayer, and the equality of all Jews, irrespective of their Torah knowledge.
Rabbi Dov Ber, “the Magid” of Mezritch, is generally considered the Baal Shem Tov’s successor. His approach differed immensely to that of his teacher. He too gathered an elite cadre of disciples, but rather than keeping the focus inward-looking, he sent his disciples far and wide to spread the message of Chasidism. His students became leaders of the Chasidic movement across Eastern Europe and thus began the tradition of locale-based Chasidic dynasties.
Not all of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were pleased with their colleague’s style. One particular critic was Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz who insisted that the Magid’s approach was diminishing the honor of Torah. One day, the Magid and Rabbi Pinchas were taking a stroll through the streets of Mezritch, accompanied by one of the Magid’s disciples, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Baruchovitch of Liozna.
Suddenly, their esoteric conversation of the deep secrets of the Torah came to an abrupt halt. There in the gutter lay a piece of paper with Hebrew letters. Rabbi Pinchas bent down to pick it up. Sure enough it was a page of Chasidic thought. Rabbi Pinchas held it up for all to see.
“This is what I’m talking about, my dear friends. When Chasidus is a free-for-all, it ends up in the gutter! It’s time we put a stop to this hefkerus, this chaos and disorder! The esoteric realm of Torah must be reserved for those who are worthy of receiving it, as the name ’kabbalah’ implies!”
Rabbi Shneur Zalman turned to his teacher the Magid and asked his permission to respond. With the acknowledgement of the Magid’s nod, Rabbi Shneur Zalman began:
“A king had an only son whom he loved more than anything in the world. One day the prince took ill. They summoned all the finest physicians from near and far, but nobody could cure the young man. Finally, one doctor approached the king with a suggestion.
“I have heard of a cure for this illness, but it is hard to come by and far from guaranteed to work. There is a certain gemstone which, when combined with herbs and aged wine, is said to treat this malady.”
“Then we shall try it!” declared the king. They searched all over the kingdom but the single gemstone to be found was embedded in the king’s crown.
“We’re sorry, your Majesty,” his advisors sighed. “We haven’t found the gemstone. And it’s simply not worth risking the crown jewel on this experiment. It probably won’t work and then you’ll have no son and no crown.”
“I command you,” the king responded unflinchingly, “to grind up my crown jewel immediately and prepare the medicine for my son!”
As they prepared the mixture, one could hear a pin drop in the room. Would the formula work? By this stage, the prince was so weak that it would be a miracle if they could even get a few drops into his mouth. With one hand, the doctor held open the young man’s mouth, with the other he slowly poured the medicine. Most of it ended up on the prince’s clothes, his bed, and even on the floor. But it was clear that a tiny amount had made its way into his mouth. Lo and behold, the prince spluttered and began to open his eyes!”
“My dear teachers,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman concluded, “right now Hashem’s beloved child, the Jewish people, is languishing in pain, barely showing signs of life. They are so far removed from spirituality that they are only hanging on by the grace of Heaven. It’s time to reveal the secrets of Torah to them. Will it save our people? Nothing is guaranteed. Are we running a huge risk? We are. Might the spreading of the wellsprings of Torah lead to some ending up all over the floor? Perhaps. But it’s our only hope. And the King would want his crown jewel to be sacrificed to save the life of his child.”
The next day, the Magid called Rabbi Shneur Zalman into his study. “Thank you for saving my life. Last night I was taken before the heavenly court and it was revealed to me that a decree had been invoked against my methods. The court had passed judgment against me. But then an angel appeared and retold your parable. And I was vindicated. Yasher koach!”
If the era of the Magid was one of spiritual peril, one can only imagine how our forebears would view our generation. We are losing brothers and sisters to assimilation at historically unprecedented rates. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman explained, desperate times call for desperate measures. Thank God, we have been blessed with unparalleled tools for the dissemination of Torah. The internet, combined with modern, understandable translations have made Torah more accessible than ever.
Just like chasidic thought, the Talmud was previously the domain of an elite cadre of our people. But now, it has become “morasha kehilat Yaakov” – the heritage of the entire congregation of Jacob. And for the first time in history, Jews of ALL backgrounds are learning Talmud and the numbers of those who are taking interest in Torah learning are increasing.
That’s a blessing, but it’s also very dangerous. Might the promulgation of the Talmud lead to some of it falling into the gutter? Perhaps. Might people misinterpret or mistreat it? Very possibly. Nevertheless, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman taught, we have no choice. It’s a risk we must take.