I know BT's (baalei teshuva, newly observant Jews) who served in US Special Forces Units and saw combat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I know plenty of BT's in Israel who served in the best combat units. I too am a BT with combat experience, having served in one of the IDF's leading infantry units. We all have overcome extreme tests of fear to function under fire. We all took a lot of flak and met resistance from friends and family when we became baalei teshuva. Yet, many of us have this inexplicable fear of Gemara.
What scares us? The Aramaic? The logic, which is so different from modern way of thinking? Why do we lack confidence? Rabbi Lazer Brody, who taught me how to "attack" a page of Gemara, says that the Yetzer Hara - the evil inclination - will do anything to keep a person from learning emuna and learning Gemara. Why? Both purify a person's soul, perfect his character, and bring him closer to Hashem. They go together. When it comes to emuna, I'll pass the microphone to Rabbi Arush and Rabbi Brody. In today's essay, I'll share with you the uncomplicated methods I used and still use to overcome my Gemara phobia.
Image, above: IDF infantry sergeant learning Gemara during his off-duty time on a base near the Jordan border. Image courtesy of Emuna Outreach.
In all fairness, if you're a fluent Hebrew speaker and reader, learning Gemara is much easier. So for a start, strengthening your Hebrew reading and understanding skills will be very beneficial.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev teaches us in his famous discourse (Rebbe Nachman's Discourses, 76), that one should race through the Gemara even if he doesn't understand it. By repetition, he'll gradually learn the flow, the vocabulary, and the logic of the Gemara. Rebbe Nachman encourages us not to get bogged down by one word, but to look at the big picture. In other words, know that there's a forest in front of you and not just a bunch of trees.
Many in-depth Gemara learners go crazy in objection when they see Rebbe Nachman's above advice, but for the BT's like us, Rebbe Nachman knocks down our walls of fear.
Rabbi Brody taught me Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's system of learning Gemara, which in effect takes Rebbe Nachman's system of learning quickly and puts it into practice. Try this:
1. Read the Gemara page the first time briskly without looking at Rashi's commentary.
2. Read the Gemara page a second time a little bit slower without looking at Rashi's commentary, and try to understand.
3. Read the Gemara page a third time, and now read Rashi's commentary. See how your interpretation differs from Rashi's.
4. Now read the Gemara a fourth time, and add Tosephot's commentary. Try to understand where Tosephot disagrees with Rashi and why.
The Rashi commentary is always on the inside of the page, or the side closest to the center of the book. The Tosefot elaboration is on the outside of the page. Additionally, the outside columns provide further commentary and sources from the Torah, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, and other sources.
Don't feel overwhelmed by the Hebrew and Aramaic. Artscroll sells an English-Hebrew version of any Gemara tractate you desire, known as the Schottenstein Talmud (see sample page below). This makes Gemara learning not only much easier, but a lot more satisfying. You'll especially enjoy the introductions to each chapter, which tell you where the Gemara is taking you and what it seeks to learn, clarify, and accomplish.
Also, if you live in Arkansas, Montana, or Hong Kong - and you can't find some more experienced to learn with - don't be discouraged. Thanks to the internet (yes, there are good things on the web but you have to be really careful that the Evil Inclination doesn't hijack you on the way to looking at something wholesome), you can listen to a wonderful hour-long explanation of the Gemara you're learning by Rabbi Eli Mansour. In my humble opinion, this is the best English Gemara lesson on the web; Rabbi Mansour doesn't rush and every word is legible.
If you learn the Daf Yomi, the daily order of Gemara, then you'll have millions of other people learning with you. The advantage of Daf Yomi is that there are many other superb resources, such as Dafnotes.com, which offers daily synopses of the Daf Yomi that are really enriching.
If I can learn Gemara, with my Howitzer-powered evil inclination and butterfly-sized attention span, you can too! Don't let anyone or anything discourage you, for you can't imagine the blessing that a daily page of Gemara will add to your life. We know of people who began to see outright miracles once they started learning Gemara. The Gemara will take you to an entirely different level in your spiritual life. Opening the Gemara will be one of the best things you ever did in life. I love taking people on tours of our holy Land of Israel. This time, I'd love to take you on a tour of our holy Gemara; it's what makes us the "People of the Book."