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Beiles: My teachers were right: studying Talmud was worth it

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Jerusalem Talmud

In my 12 years as a student in the Jewish day school system, rarely a day would go by without a teacher reminding me that studying Jewish texts, particularly the Talmud, was a valuable learning experience.

I was told that learning the Talmud would provide immeasurable benefits for my future studies and my career. In classes full of aspiring doctors, lawyers and accountants, these statements often felt like a half-hearted attempt to engage a group of teenagers in an ancient text. I always maintained a quiet skepticism about whether studying these winding arguments about goats and pits would ever have a meaningful impact on my life.

That is not to say I did not enjoy Talmud class. I appreciated the debates and discussions that stemmed from our studies, but I frequently found the text itself to be uninspiring. Eminent rabbis argued themselves in circles, often never reaching a conclusion, and to a teenager growing up in a world focused on quantitative results, this sometimes felt like a pointless endeavour. It was not until after high school that I realized the real value of studying Talmud.

I just started my second year at Carleton University in Ottawa. I am studying public affairs and policy management. In the first year of the program, all students are required to take a course on the philosophical and ideological backgrounds of modern political and economic ideologies.

It is a course that requires students to read the original works of great political and philosophical thinkers, such as John Locke, David Hume and Henry David Thoreau, as well as economists like Milton Freidman and John Maynard Keynes. These texts explore complex ideas, sometimes in very antiquated English, which can be a challenge for first-year undergraduates.

Many students are frustrated by these texts, as they sometimes seem pointless to young aspiring public servants. For me, however, years of studying ancient laws in Aramaic had perfectly prepared me for the task at hand.

Studying Talmud taught me how to be patient with a text. Some of the concepts that we studied at university required students to review the original source material multiple times. This was understandably frustrating and tested the resolution of many of them. I found that I was able to persevere, because I knew that fully comprehending multifaceted texts requires careful, and sometimes excruciatingly unhurried, scrutiny.

Studying Talmud also trained me in how to work through complex arguments and grasp new knowledge, even when the details of the debate seemed anachronous. In my political economics class, I learned about mercantilism, an ideology that is mostly disregarded by modern economists. While many students found this a pointless exercise, I appreciated learning about how economic ideologies evolved, even if the ideas are now considered obsolete. I understood that by learning the subtleties of historical debates, I am better able to comprehend modern concepts.

READ: MY GENERATION’S POLITICAL APATHY

In Talmud class, we studied in pairs. This trained me to approach texts in collaboration with my peers, which proved an invaluable skill in university. I learned how to express my opinions, while listening to the perspectives of others and maintaining a sense of humility about my views.

Talmud also taught me how to study conflicting perspectives and understand the merits of both sides. Just like the sages of old, political and economic philosophers had fierce debates and it is often tempting to side with one approach and disregard the others. Studying Talmud trained me to be aware of my biases and allowed me to appreciate multiple, conflicting perspectives.

I may have missed the value of my Talmudic studies while in high school, but as a university student, I began to appreciate the benefits. Honestly, out of all the courses I took throughout high school, it was the one that prepared me the most for my current academic challenges. I am sure that the skills I learned will continue to serve me in the future, as well.

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