Nearly two months ago, I wrote about embarking on a journey with the daf yomi (studying one page of the Talmud every day, a cycle that takes 7.5 years to complete). 64 days after starting this project, I, along with tens of thousands of other people around the world, have completed the first book of the Talmud, Masechet Brachot, the tractate of Brachot (blessings).
It’s been a truly transformative experience.
My day now begins with prayer and study. The blessings I say throughout the day have taken on new meaning, and my respect for the system of observant Judaism we follow today (which was teetering, at best, before) has increased exponentially. Sure, a lot of the ideas discussed in the Talmud are disturbing, and plenty of them make no sense to me whatsoever, but the amount of thought and debate that went into the development of many of the rabbinic laws we follow today is undeniable. (Plus, I am not personally bothered by discussions or ideas that are clearly happening within the context of the time when the Talmud was written, over 2,000 years ago—though I can understand how some people can find these discussions to be triggering or upsetting).
Throughout this experience, I’ve thought a lot about how and why the daf yomi has had such a big impact on my personal practice of Judaism. Something that keeps coming back to me is the parallel between observant Judaism and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
My personal experience with CBT has helped me overcome some pretty big obstacles over the years, and my discussions with experts on CBT have given me a good understanding of this approach.
CBT, which is one of the most heavily researched forms of talk therapy, is based around the interplay between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. As the theory goes, our feelings are a product of our thoughts and our behaviors, so if you want to change the way you feel, you need to change the way you think and behave. If you are faced with a difficult or painful situation, for instance, you may think something along the lines of, “I can’t do this,” which may cause you to disengage, which then makes you feel sad and more distant.
The practice of Orthodox Judaism is based around a similar interplay—in this case, around our beliefs, words, and actions. Our beliefs impact what we say and do, our words impact what we believe and do, and our actions impact what we believe and say.
This interplay between thoughts, actions, and feelings can get stuck in an unhealthy or unhelpful pattern, but if you want to get out of that pattern, CBT offers a systematic approach to making positive changes to that feedback loop—changing your thoughts from harmful to positive, and changing your behaviors to be more positively engaged. The combination of these two changes will shift the way you see yourself, and the way you feel. This is not a process that happens overnight, but rather, through daily practice which, over time, can foster tremendous growth (I can personally attest to that).
The practice of Orthodox Judaism is based around a similar interplay—in this case, around our beliefs, words, and actions. Our beliefs impact what we say and do, our words impact what we believe and do, and our actions impact what we believe and say. Masechet Brachot is all about our words—the prayers and blessings we say throughout our day and in specific circumstances—and incorporating more of those into my life in a mindful way has completely changed my feedback loop around Judaism.
My actions (learning the daf every day and engaging in prayer as a result) have impacted my words (the prayers and blessings I say throughout the day) and strengthened my beliefs. And the feedback loop works in every direction.
This is how traditional Judaism is supposed to work. It is clear from Masechet Brachot that we are supposed to understand and connect to what we do and say each day, and when done and said mindfully, those actions and words should be strengthening our belief in God and in His Torah. Unfortunately, for many of us, we might say, do, and even believe what we’re supposed to, but the connection between them is broken. Each part of the feedback loop is happening mindlessly, and our passion for our Judaism wanes. That is very much where I was a few months ago.
Masechet Brachot is all about our words—the prayers and blessings we say throughout our day and in specific circumstances—and incorporating more of those into my life in a mindful way has completely changed my feedback loop around Judaism.
I think that for many women in the Orthodox world, that disconnection between beliefs, words, and actions can be especially stark, if they have not had access to the texts that our practice is based upon. We might learn the parts of halacha (Jewish law) that we need to know for practical purposes, but without the understanding of why those laws were set up the way they were, our practice lacks the meaning it’s supposed to have. We might pray and say blessings every day, without any mindful connection to those words. The opportunities that women today have to engage with these texts means that more and more women now have the chance to correct that feedback loop and become fully engaged in a much more meaningful Judaism.
Learning the daf yomi might not speak to you in particular, and I wouldn’t suggest that everyone take on this particular challenge. But if you’ve been feeling less connected to God and to Judaism than you’d like, I urge you to think about that feedback loop. How are your actions, words, and beliefs working together? Is there a part of the loop where you could make an intervention that would impact the other parts of the loop? For me that was taking action by learning the daf, but there may be a better intervention for you. Finding the spark to reignite your connection to Judaism is so worth it—64 days later, I know that to be true.
Rachel Honeyman is a writer, martial artist, and world traveler. She’s an avid Torah learner, and a proud Orthodox feminist and advocate for female engagement and agency in the Orthodox Jewish community. She lives in Long Island with her husband Tzvi and their two rabbits, Tonks and Lupin.
Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.