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The Torah of TikTok

The following is a transcript of Episode 88 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, President of Shalom Hartman Institute North America. This episode contains a little bit of explicit language, listener discretion advised. 

So what exactly is this thing that we call Torah, that so many of us Jews seem so obsessed with? Torah is a delightful word, actually, it’s a noun. Derived from the verb to instruct or to teach, but it’s much more than the object that is a Torah, like a Torah scroll. Torah is supposed to encompass all of the stuff that we care about, the knowledge that defines Judaism and that exists both in fixed forms, in cannons and in books and in stories and interpretations, and it exists through knowledge that is still yet to emerge that can only come into the world through our absorbing what already exists and then formulating new Torah for our time. Torah is, as our tradition says, our life and the length of our days.

Now, traditionally Torah comes in two well-known forms. There’s the written Torah which yields five books, and then there’s the really proprietary piece of Judaism as it differentiated itself in antiquity and evolved over time. What we know as Torah she ba ‘al peh, the oral Torah, or perhaps the Torah in the mouth. Come back to that mouth Torah. In the New Testament and in Josephus, in trying to characterize or describe the people who became the predecessors are ancient rabbis, they use the Greek word para dosas, which means they were the people who were kind of fixated on tradition, a gift, something that was passed down from one generation to the other. That term kind of sounds right to me. And it rings familiar because tradition is not just another set of books, those things we know as Talmud and Midrash, that emerged orally and then took fixed forms. The oral Torah is a habit of mind and heart, a practice that takes responsibility to inherit stuff that’s transmitted to us, and then give it over to the next generation with our modifications and our edits along the way. 

The most famous oral tradition texts that we have, I think, is the first Mishna of the tractate of Avot. Moshe receives the Torah from Sinai and then transmits it to Joshua. Do you notice the change in verbs? To receive something is not the same as to transmit it in that moment, between the time where you get it and the time where you give it to someone else, is where innovation kicks in, the process of trying to figure out how to convey wisdom to others.

And in the process, it becomes a different wisdom than the one that you received. As a teacher of Torah professionally, and I think also as a parent, I think about this all the time, what am I inheriting? And what am I transmitting? This way of thinking, being part of an oral tradition over time. I think it both keeps us humble because you’re not always supposed to be an inventor, sometimes the most important thing we do is to preserve the past, things that are greater than us that are supposed to outlive us, but it also makes us feel responsible to lay the foundation for what comes next. So oral Torah, the Torah of the mouth. For a long time, Jews have been both scared of losing this chain of Torah and also scared of codifying it or calcifying it in fear that it will lose its life force.

We get anxious today as Jews, when not enough people know enough Torah. And then we also get anxious that the way to get more Jews to know Torah, the things that you’d have to do to popularize it, will turn something from sacred to profane. Enter Miriam Anzovin. Miriam is an artist who works professionally as a content creator for

And she’s also just a person with a gift for making Tik Tok videos. And Miriam took to Tik Tok to start chronicling her journey through Daf Yomi, the practice of studying a page of Talmud everyday for seven years. A couple of weeks ago, Miriam achieved that ambivalent status moment for internet content creators of going viral.

I say ambivalent because I think that’s what generally content creators want. And then at the same time, everyone has an opinion about you and about what you’re doing. There’s no version of my describing Miriam’s videos that will help you understand them. We’re not going to play a clip of them because they don’t really make sense merely as audio pieces.

So please go watch them, um, or find a teenager who can send it to you. The videos are learned and subversive at the same time. With summaries of the main ideas of the page of Talmud, they’re all quite short, even though Talmud pages are long and complicated, but they are delivered with periodic profanity, the use of a lot of contemporary online idioms, and they are gussied up with high quality production values.

Since one of those videos went viral. So did Miriam, and her approach to teaching Talmud generated multiple thought pieces as usually happens in the Jewish world, including one from our producer, my colleague, Dr. David Zvi Kalman, as well as a feature on Israeli television, introducing Miriam to Israeli audiences.

So Miriam and David Zvi join us today to talk about the new modes that it needs, what it means to teach Talmud on Tik Tok, what are the boundaries of legitimacy around Torah, and what the future of Torah study will look and sound like. 

So, Miriam, thanks for being on the show. And just before we get into the bigger philosophical questions that I want to talk about, just tell us a little bit about what the last couple of weeks have looked like, because I’m sure going from a kind of niche Talmud teacheron Tik Tok, maybe doing this for yourself to actually like a kind of household name among people who are talking about Talmud, must have been a little bit strange for you. 

Miriam: Yes. Thank you, first of all, to both of you for having me on the podcast today, I’m really excited to be here and talk to you about this. Indeed, completely surreal experience. I will say that at the beginning of December, I started creating these Tik Toks. I was doing the Daf anyway. Right. I’m going to be doing it for another five years as well.

And I figured, you know, Tik Tok is such an interesting place. You get to learn all types of things and see content from all different types of people. Maybe there’s a niche for Daf Yomi Tik Toks among people of my own generation, who might be thinking about it and speaking in the same way that I do. And I’ll say that what’s in my videos is very much how I communicate with uh, my study partner.

This is how we converse about the day’s Daf. So I started it. Like you noted, uh, you know, a small niche audience for this until my Moed Katan nine video, which perhaps was the most impassioned, shall we say, of all the dafs at that point, and overnight it seemed like all of Israel was messaging me.

And first of all, I was like, wait, how do you guys know? How do you guys know about me? And I discovered that I had gone viral in Israel and suddenly I had so many messages in my inbox from news agencies and television personalities and podcasts and websites and all types of things, synagogues around the world, not even just America or Israel, who wanted to talk to me about this, what I was doing or to say, Hey, can you come and talk about, uh, talk about your approach and talk about Talmud to our audience, our group. And to be honest, even though that video went viral two weeks ago, to this day, I’m still sorting through, um, the notifications and contacts.

I think that day there was a confluence of things that happened. First I did an accidentally viral tweet that morning where I said I existed at the intersection of Sefaria and Sephora, and that really resonated with a lot of people. 

Yehuda: Hm. Yeah, that worked. Yeah. 

Miriam:The Forward article about me dropping. That was the first article about me.

And that video, Moed Katan nine, dropped that same day. So it has been absolutely a whirlwind to have suddenly become not just one human being, but an idea, uh, more of a concept really than a person, that people are speaking about in the mode that you would speak about a famous person. And to me, this is truly mind boggling.

So I’m sitting here and I’m listening to this intro and I’m just laughing because it’s so surreal. 

Yehuda: Yeah. What are your theories as to why this, like, there are a lot of different things that I think this activated, but what is it that activated the kind of, um, the ways in which it was jarring to people or why Israelis would have kind of glommed onto this? What do you think are the key pieces of data about this that made people respond the way that they did? Cause you’re not the only Jew on Tik Tok. There are, there are rabbis with larger followings.

There are a lot of people who have used the internet and different apps and different media to kind of teach Daf Yomi. But something about this activated a different kinds of response. What do you think those the variables are? 

Miriam: Yeah, So firstly, I would like to make an important distinction that I always think of myself. And again, this is just my perspective. I know people externally view it differently. I am reacting to what I encounter. I am not approaching it as a way of teaching. I am sharing my authentic and real reactions.

That’s part of it. I will say from what I have read, the the factors that really got people in that video were severalfold. You mentioned one. I am a woman. I’m blond. Apparently that really mattered. I don’t know why. Three, the fact that I was reacting in a very impassioned way that used profanity and I do not retract that one iota.

And I was speaking about something that happened so very long ago, but had made me feel very viscerally, anger. And also pride. And in that conversation that I was encountering in that Daf. And I also believe that having it done so briefly and in the way that I was doing it, that might’ve been a bit of it too.

It was such a bite size. And that’s the thing about viral content. If it’s more than 30 seconds, you’re screwed. That’s really it. If you can get to 30 seconds, it’s a miracle. But from what I saw the feedback was, why is a woman doing this? Two, does she know what she’s talking about? She appears to be blonde and she’s wearing makeup and she has a red headband on.

And three, Oh my God, she’s swearing. She has desecrated the entirety of Judaism. Uh, she’s going to gehenom now. And I think then people were very intrigued and wanted to find out wwhat was in this video. And I also know. That I have to give credit to the Israeli viewers, because this may be an oversimplification, I’m sure it is, but they seemed to have a real sense of humor about it in a way that I really appreciated that not necessarily has been echoed in the States. 

Yehuda: Yeah, I think the speed thing that you mentioned is a part of it. These are short videos. They’re not super short, right? They’re not like the nine second Tik Tok dance move videos. But they are short, I get the impression sometimes when I watch this, when I first watched your video, it was a little bit of like, wait, what the hell did I just see?

Like, what just happened? Did that really? What was that really like a discussion about Rav Hisda? And I think that there’s something jarring about just the speed by which you kind of enter into this very different type of encounter with quote-unquote traditional text and traditional ideas. And then it’s over.

And it’s not prefaced by here I am, a rabbi, who’s coming to teach you something. It’s like, Daf reactions. Here we go. And we’re kind of in it. And then immediately out of it.  

Miriam: Yes. And in fact that one was 90 seconds. I don’t like to do one’s over two minutes because, I share them across platform and Twitter does not allow videos beyond two minutes. So I got to keep it short.

Yehuda: Got it. 

Miriam: And there’s no time to preface by explaining anything other than I’m reacting to the Daf. Now I will say that video generated quite a few interested parties on Tik Tok, who said I’m not Jewish, but I’m riveted. I don’t know what is happening, but I’d like to know more, the more puzzled they were, the more entertained they were. They truly had no idea what on earth I was talking about. And that was possibly part of the allure. I’m not sure. 

Yehuda: So David Zvi, in your piece that you published in JTA about this, you said, quote, a new way of talking about Jewish texts and holy scripture has come of age with the internet, despite flying under the radar for many traditionalists, this form of communication about Torah is already fully developed and it’s time for it to be taken seriously as a genuinely new way of engaging with Jewish ideas.

So maybe you could help describe what you think that is, cause your observation is this is not simply one individual who’s doing something interesting on Tik Tok. This actually represents a much larger shift in terms of how traditional texts are engaged with that needs to reshape how we think about Jewish traditional texts, with the availability of this media. 

David Zvi: Yeah. So I think there’s a couple of ways of approaching that. One is to tell the story of Jewish text in the 20th and 21st century, as one about increasing and radical availability. There has been a huge amount of work put into making sure that as many Jewish texts as possible are available, not just to people who have access to Yeshivot and years of study and happened to be male and all that stuff, but can access it in any language that they can from anywhere that they can.

And I think this is, um, it’s not just that every religion has been doing this. I think Judaism in particular has spent quite a bit of time merging technological prowess and traditional Torah study, such that it is now possible for literally anybody who has access to English to go online and access any part of the Talmud.

And that has had a huge impact on the availability of these texts. It’s not just on the internet, it happened before the internet as well. But it means that there has been a kind of radical, decentralization of authority. And it’s not, it’s not just a story of the internet, right? Like every time there’s new technology that comes around rabbis get worried that their authority is going to get lost and they’re always right.

And it happens anyways. So that’s part of it. The other piece of it is that, you know, the internet is, I dunno, 30 years old, something like that. It’s pretty new in the grand scheme of things. And because of that, I think a lot of the Torah content that we’ve seen on the internet so far is content that is still kind of an attempt to translate something that existed offline into something that can exist online.

I think you see this, I’m sorry to say it in a podcast, but you definitely see this in podcasts, right? People who were trained to teach in classrooms, adapting their content for an online platform. You see that in the length of the materials, you see that in like, you know, 

Yehuda: Are you talking, are you talking to me?

David Zvi: How did like a 40 50 minute show become a standard in the industry, right?

Like there’s a reason for that. Um, it’s also the reason that like, even today, like the top 10 Jewish podcasts are all either exclusively hosted by men or hosted by a man and a woman. So there’s a reason for that. And I think what you’re seeing right now is ways of speaking about Torah that really could not have existed offline.

And that is very exciting. And I think like, I think it exists on Tik Tok. It exists on Facebook and Twitter and other platforms as well. It is somewhat jarring to see that development, but there is a narrative here that I find really exciting to follow.

Yehuda: So Miriam, I guess I’m curious because the way you frame this and I’m suspicious of it, the way you framed it is all I’m doing is reacting to the Daf, right. It’s just there and I’m there reacting and David Zvi is suggesting actually something far more radical, which is the construction of a totally new way of conveying and teaching Torah.

So I’m curious about, like, whether and how you see yourself as part of an intentional reshaping, not just of, Hey, I’m just a person who has, who’s good at Tik Tok, who is being confronted by this Daf, and then speaking it to the world. But I’m actually an active participant in the kind of reshaping of, um, of cultural literacy and Jewish knowledge through these media.

Miriam: I think that I may just be indicative of something that’s already going on, as David Zvi has mentioned, this is just the way I talk on a day-to-day basis. This is exactly it. That’s the way I talk in the videos is the way I, and everyone pretty much that I know actually speaks to each other. We don’t use profanity as profanity.

It’s an exclamation. It is a feeling, and I felt so very passionately about that Daf, that that’s why it came out in the way that it did. But I think a great point that you made in your article David Zvi was about how this is not necessarily new. People have been thinking about Talmud in this way, making memes about it.

There’s many meme groups on social media devoted to Daf Yomi that I’m a member of. I don’t necessarily believe there’s anything revolutionary in the idea of approaching it through meme, millennial culture. That I feel I’m at home amongst peers. Just because I have not encountered the exact same thing on Tik Tok. 

And I indeed looked before I started this because I didn’t want to be repeating somebody else’s style or copying in any way. I was like, is anybody doing this. Nope. Great. But there’s other forms of meme and millennial culture that have already plugged into this, um, that I’m aware of and that I’m just a part of.

Someone did suggest to me in the comment, oh, you’re just doing this for the likes. You’re raking in the likes. And I’m thinking to myself. Yes, because we all know this is a tried and true method of getting famous, talking about Daf Yomi. It’s not. But, I truly do believe that there is an audience.

And I know that now because they’ve all reached out to me. Every single one of them. Hello friends, um, to tell me, not only, uh, when they tell me they have criticisms, but when they say. This is exactly what I thought when I read that Daf, but I didn’t want to say it cause I didn’t think it was okay to say, or I encountered this other Daf, wait till you get to get to this one.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in two years, when we get to that Tractate. People are already thinking this way. They may just not be voicing it in a public manner. Like I’m doing very, very, very, uh, upfront with my own face. Speaking these words. Um, another thing that I will note is the number of positive comments I’ve received, positive comments I’ve received from inside the Yeshivot.

It’s too late friends. I’m already inside the Yeshiva, I’m in their phones. That’s the thing. They enjoy it because people of my generation, they do encounter communication this way and they experience it this way. Even if within some of the settings that they’re learning, they are not allowed to use that mode of communication, but they know it’s authentic because it’s their mode too. 

Yehuda: That’s super interesting because when people who are inside the system of learning and knowledge, see something like this, right? This kind of phenomenon, what they experience is we are the insiders. We are the curators and caretakers of this body of knowledge.

And this person is kind of a gatekeeper. On the outside, opening this out and sending it out into the world in ways that make us uncomfortable. Right? The profanity is a piece of it. The democratization is a piece of it, but what you’re suggesting is it actually moves in both directions.

This is actually feeding the way in which knowledge is consumed inside the world of Talmud study. I’m curious whether it’s beyond just Yeshiva kids seeing this on Tik Tok, but also what, what consequences in the long run it has for how people engage with Talmud. I’ll be curious to see your take on that and David Zvi’s as well.

Miriam: Yeah, one of the most powerful things about this whole experience as an off-the-derech Jew myself, you know, I was raised Orthodox. I’ve put in my time. I really have like, it’s been a truly life journey for me with Judaism. And even though I’m not practicing now, these things are deeply, deeply ingrained in me to the point where it is so profoundly part of my identity, uh, that it feels almost weird to be described as an external person, even though I have intentionally placed myself outside of, uh, what I would term general orthodoxy, because, because of my experiences as being a woman, in that world, that’s what forced me out. And people are coming to me and saying, I’ve always wanted to learn Talmud, but I’m a woman, or I’ve always wanted to learn, but I’ve been dissuaded for XYZ reason.

They didn’t think I was appropriate for this. Now my question is why are we, or is anyone trying to gatekeep the heritage of all Jews, they can’t make a decision about if they want to engage in mitzvot, if they want to live that life, unless they’re informed. So why would we be holding back information that could be profoundly impactful on how a person lives and engages with not only Judaism, but Jewish peoplehood.

So I understand that it makes a lot of folks uncomfortable to think about something that they feel is absolutely sacred, discussed in this manner. But on the other hand, I don’t believe that those feelings are more important than the people who have been historically disenfranchised from engaging with this content.

I would just mention, for example, somebody who I dearly care for and who I studied with is deaf. We’re reading Tractate Megillah and we got to the part about how deaf people can’t read from the Megillah. That’s literally spitting in the face of somebody who is trying to learn, trying to engage with the oral Torah.

And they are then smacked with something like that, that says you are not good enough to be this and live this way, even if you want to. And I know I’m not saying that everything that’s in the Talmud is how we live now. Obviously it is not. But. That hurts and people who don’t understand the pain that certain people can experience while engaging in studying of these traditional texts, do not understand why people would like me and my approach more than a perhaps quote, unquote, traditional approach that doesn’t acknowledge these realities. 

David Zvi: uh, Miriam, a lot of what you say resonates and one thing that, I feel like I’ve been in Tik Tok forever. And one thing that’s, that’s been clear for a while now is that it is the least gate kept platform for Jewish ideas that has ever existed. Even as like the number of people on the platform is I think who are doing Jewish content is still relatively small.

If you look for Torah content on Tik Tok, you’ll regularly see a lot more women, a lot more Jews of color, a lot more queer rabbis, than you will see anywhere else. It feels like whenever I see people who are visibly Orthodox, like they’re just doing dance trends. Like they’re not actually teaching Torah.

Um, and I think like part of that is a kind of, once you open the flood gates, that’s what appears, I think what you said about, um, about how this comes out of your chavruta, makes a lot of sense to me because the kind of the other place where I have experienced that method of talking about Torah is when I’m learning with a chavruta, which I am trying to puzzle out something that’s really difficult.

I like come across a new line and like, I have my first reaction that doesn’t have all the layers of censorship of like, this is how I’m supposed to talk about because it’s like, actually like what in the world is going on in this piece of Torah. And like, it bothers me. It upsets me. It makes me happy in various ways.

And that’s, that’s really exciting to see. And this happens with like every time there’s a new media, you kind of like delve into these layers of experience that have always existed, but have never been recorded before. I feel like I see this in research, uh, inside the Cairo Geniza, where like, you don’t just get like amazing documents.

You also get literally kids learning how to write Hebrew. And they’re like writing Hebrew letters. And then they’re also like scribbling little pictures of camels along the side, or like doodling. You also get like these stories that like don’t fit a standard narrative of Jewish history.

Like there’s this. One of the texts that I love to teach more than anything else is this Geniza letter where a person is like writing, like, did you hear that like, in my synagogue, on Yom Kippur, these two men were making out in the back of the shul and then they had to call the police and it’s like, what? Like, there is no story of Jewish history or of Torah that like I learned growing up in Yeshiva that like explains that as being a piece of it, but it was there all the time. It’s always been there and it’s just that now we have the ability to capture that experience in ways that we didn’t before.

Miriam: I do wonder how much of what people think is appropriate versus not appropriate conversation throughout our history is just people censoring everyone’s real reactions in the moment and be like, Nope, Nope, Nope. Not a kosher reaction. We’re not going to tell anybody you said that. And there wasn’t any cameras at the time.

So it was very difficult to record what somebody had said and keep that for posterity forever. But I think that’s actually very, very interesting about the Geniza because it is a time capsule. You’re seeing a moment in time and how people of that time interacted with this. And even within my own life, I see how generational conversations are shifted.

You know I for example, I’m very close with my grandmother and she does not, understand the way I communicate all the time. And that’s okay. And sometimes I translate it back to her and then say, Well, this is what I’m saying, but this is what I mean for her. And I understand that, there’s all types of ways of communicating about that and not everything is for everybody.

And I completely understand that, but to pretend that these are not the real thoughts that people are having, when they encounter a Daf would be disingenuous.

Yehuda: Well, I think it’s more than that, and I would give you more credit for this. When you taught that piece in your, in the viral video about Rav Chisda and Rav Chisda’s wife and the debate between two sages about whether or not she can wear makeup, what you granted to the learner was a humanizing of a set of male characters, that is hard for two, cis, straight men chavrutas, learning in a traditional Beit Midrash, to access. To think about what is going on on a human level between those two people. What’s the relationship with his wife and where you really humanize is that Rav Chisda’s wife is hanging out in the story.

She’s actually a character in the story who is invisible in the context of a legal dispute, unless you actually surface it and name it. It’s not just how do I create these texts to be accessible to a new body of learner. It’s actually, how do I awaken certain aspects of these texts that have always been there, but for a whole variety of reasons that are related to both how it is transmitted and who is doing the transmitted, the text itself can’t fully unfold in the way that it’s supposed to. 

Miriam: Well, I want to give credit to Rav Chisda here. First of all. Because when I first read the initial critique of his wife, my first words was, oh my God. But when I got to his response. The first words of his response are, oh my God. And I was like, oh, very little, actually separates our response here. And if you look at what I actually say, the speech that I give in that video about even if your mother is standing at the edge of her, that is from his actual words.

The only things I really added to that speech was the profanity and the words, you know, misogynistic and agist. That was it. Everything else, Rav Chisda said. And that’s what really made it like an immediate, ah, I know this so well, how dare a man speak about another man’s wife? She’s right there, dude.

This is so incredibly rude. So everyone who’s writing to me saying, oh, you’re so rude the way you speak about these great men. And I’m like, no, no, he disrespected this lady. Okay. She is just as worthy of respect as anybody else. And so Rav Chisda is jumping to his wife’s defense and I felt the same way. 

Yehuda: Yeah, it seems to me like there are, there are like kind of two crises that motivate new types of learning online. One of them is a crisis of, there’s not enough Jews who study Torah and who find the pathway to realize that, like, as you indicated with your own story, my religious choices, one way or another are about personal journeys and choices, but that doesn’t make me closed off to access to this tradition as my heritage, it belongs to me, I own it.

So how do we create more pathways and more openings for people to be able to articulate that heritage in ways that are good for them? That’s good for the Jews. There’s a totally different crisis that I think has surfaced in, in your presentation, by the critics, which is a crisis of what’s gonna happen to this heritage when it is allowed to be treated in this way.

In other words, when it is allowed to be rendered in these terms. I wonder if you have any empathy towards that second piece, right? Of like, what is it that people are trying to, are trying to protect, right? Cause we’re dancing here around sacred and profane. And I don’t just mean profanity.

I mean, that fear of what happens when this is just taken out of our ability to cherish and protect something that we think actually requires a role of us. 

Miriam: I think sometimes what I’ve noticed is  a tendency to be more defensive about the Talmud than the Torah. And that may be about Christianity. I don’t know, but it’s true, which is ironic. But I understand the fear of losing something or having something you love be disgraced or insulted. But I think that does not quite grasp what I truly feel about it or what people may discover about it. That fear says to me, we don’t trust Jews enough to engage with this and not disrespect it.

Which is kind of a weird thing to say. We want people to engage with it, but not really, because then you might have opinions about it and we don’t want that to happen because if your opinions don’t agree with our opinions, we’d rather you wouldn’t learn at all. We have to believe that this is strong enough to outlast someone’s look at it and someone’s critique of it to find within it, the things that are holy and within the Talmud itself, it already contains the profound and the profane. It already contains things that I know people don’t want me to talk about because they are hurtful because they are things that we don’t recognize as acceptable behavior in today’s day and age.

I understand that. And I do understand the importance of placing things in their historic context and not extrapolating outwards to Jews of the modern era, no matter what level of observance or a group they have affiliated with. But I do believe that we can trust that there is enough in here of profound substance and meaning that you can look at in the face, see what we would now think of as flaws and individual thinking amongst the sages.

They’re not right on everything all the time. That’s just a fact, people. And say, there’s still something here that’s so great and so powerful. I’m going to learn it. 

Yehuda: Yeah. 

Miriam: And my feeling is I feel for those people who are afraid. But I don’t feel for them so much that I don’t feel more for the people who are missing out because of their fear. 

Yehuda: David Zvi, I’m curious for your take on this, because you made your case in defense of this, you made what I found striking as a kind of modern argument. This is a new form of discourse. This is where Torah is in the world, but you didn’t quite go as far as what I think Miriam is suggesting, which is, this is the old way of Torah, right?

Shitposting predates the internet, right. 

Miriam: Well. Yeah, this is, this is exactly Right. I think looking at it and finding inside through the reflection of what I’m doing now, if you look at it, it’s there. 

Yehuda: Right. So Rav Chisda’s response to his interlocutor is his own form of shitposting. So I’m curious, like how does that work in terms of your analysis of this, is this merely an adjustment of modes of teaching a traditional text to a new mode of discourse? Or do you see this as kind of awakening some aspects of the discourse itself, even though those have maybe been suppressed by the primary custodians of this tradition for a long time who are the traditionalists. 

David Zvi: It’s probably a little bit of both. There’s been a long tradition of criticism. I think it is different now because people are actually quite angry with lack of representation, with perceptions of homophobia and misogyny, and that is bringing out responses to the tradition that maybe actually did not exist before.So I think it’s a combination of the two.

The other thing that I saw in a lot of the responses to, Miriam, to your videos is a kind of confusion between, pedagogical content and kind of substantive content people saying like, well, how do we think about this in terms of like the way one is supposed to talk about Torah, if one it’s trying to get others interested in the topic, versus how is one supposed to talk about Torah if one is like, actually just trying to talk about it. Cause like they’re trying to think through the issues. And I think a kind of confusion of those two different modes of discourse is I think becoming a big problem. And if one focuses exclusively on pedagogy, to the exclusion of actually talking about substance, then I think what sometimes happens is like, you actually don’t know what you think.

You just know how you’re supposed to talk about it. I think like you see this, for example, quite a bit today in Jewish theology. There’s like ways that people think they are supposed to talk about God. Whereas if you actually ask any Jewish educator, like, what do you think about God? Like, what are your basic things?

Like, they may actually hesitate a little bit to tell you some things, because there isn’t actually a well formulated mainstream Jewish theology today, it’s actually like kind of fragmented. But that is hidden by the fact that we talk about it in pedagogical terms. So I think saying, you know what, this is not about pedagogy.

It’s about, what do we actually think here, its really important. And I think Tik Tok helps facilitate that because, the people who view Tik Tok videos are so, so sensitive to the difference between what is this person actually trying to do, and what is this person trying to make me think they’re trying, like how to, what degree are they like trying to, um, to make me think something that is not true.

And to what degree are they actually being sincere? It’s a platform that I think promotes and celebrates sincerity. And so that pedagogical mode, I think is a lot weaker in the platform and the substantive mode is a lot stronger.

Yehuda: Right. I think that’s right. I think if you Miriam had set out and said, I’m going to be a teacher of Talmud on Tik Tok, I don’t think it would have worked the quite the same way. There’s something arresting about a human being studying Gemara and, and noting about how weird and hilarious it is.

And the fact that there is some amount of moral instruction that emerges in some of the videos that I’ve watched. Probably not every Daf, but there are messages that you’re conveying. Certainly the empathy with Rav Chisda and Rav Chisda’s wife, was a moral message that you were surfacing.

But it just didn’t feel like the heavy handed, I think that’s another way of saying the pedagogic choice, kind of, I’m going to curate a message for some audience that’s trying to cultivate in them something that’s supposed to change them besides being kind of odd by how wacky and amazing the Talmud is.

Miriam: Yeah, I’m not setting out to influence anyone’s thinking. I am merely out here to share my own authentic hot takes on this, but it has, and this has been a bit surprising to me. It has influenced people to tell me, I can’t even count how many people have said, wow, I never thought I could do this. I’m really interested. You can do it. You’re doing it. You have thoughts about this and how many people say, how do you know that? 

I’m doing the Daf Yomi and I’m studying it every day. That’s how I know like, there’s work that goes into, and that’s why I can’t do a video every day. I have a job and they would love to do a Daf video per day, but while I do offer my own personal takeaways at the end, for example, the most recent one I did two days ago is about where at the point in the Moed Katan, we’re talking a lot about mourning and we’re talking about how to not rip open someone’s emotional stitches after something really traumatic, after the death of a parent and having been through the death of a parent myself that spoke to me very, very, very deeply, and really there’s nothing really that has changed about the human experience of grief since that time to now. 

Our technology may have changed, but our emotions and relationship to that loss haven’t. So sometimes I do include a personal takeaway about how I want to live in the world, but it’s not like these are the laws that I want you to take away from this. These are the ideas I want to take away from this. And I agree that if I had set myself up as a teacher that also would have been a bit disingenuous. I don’t place myself in that role for several reasons. One is out of respect to the many, many women who have worked so hard and are still working hard to be accepted as a Talmudic instructors.

And I do not want to take anything away from that real difficult work that is still ongoing. Um, every time anyone asks me, I talk about how every morning I listen to Rabbanit Michelle Farber’s podcast on this issue because her insights inform me before then I go into Sefaria and do the actual reading myself.

And I encourage anybody who does, is listening to this and has watched my Tik Toks. You know, if you are interested in Daf Yomi, I’m delighted that you watch my videos and, on top of that, would recommend if you’re interested, check it out from somebody who is far more knowledgeable and invested than I, who does this as a real profession, because I think there is space, both for reactions that are somewhat entertaining, and for that real learning. 

Yehuda: We’ve touched a little bit on gender throughout here, but it’s it courses throughout the public reception of this, you alluded to at the beginning, people saw you a certain way. They responded to the color of your hair. They responded to the makeup, as a piece of the story here. Um, so physicality is part of this physicality as part of the story.

I don’t even know what my question is, but I’m stuck with some, yeah. 

Miriam: I just want to, uh, I was going to make a point at the irony, the irony of them coming after me about that, when in that video, I am literally going after somebody else for attacking a woman’s makeup. 

Yehuda: I know it’s amazing

Miriam: That many, you know, hundreds and hundreds of hundred years ago. 

Yehuda: You can’t write this stuff.

Miriam: That’s the irony. No. 

Yehuda: No, there’s something, but there’s something about the physicality that’s so interesting because it’s a two dimensional medium. So there’s like something weird about like the response around embodiment and response about gender. When in fact this there’s something so incredibly flattening about a media where this is possible.

So I, I’m just curious if you or David Zvi, if you have thoughts about this. I think a lot of it for me, my initial reaction was like, oh, okay. The big thing in orthodoxy, that one foot fault of orthodoxy is transgressing gender lines. You can do whatever you want. You can believe whatever you want, but the minute you transgress gender lines and suddenly something is not kosher.

That was my initial response. But the more I thought about, I said, no, there’s actually a lot more going on here around the presentation of physicality, as a means of as both a means of engaging the sacred and the profane. There’s something weird here. I just can’t, I can’t totally disentangle about the, the, the videos themselves and the kind of reaction to that they’re in gendering.

Miriam: This has been the most perplexing thing to me about these responses, first of all, wearing makeup and an affinity for makeup is totally normal and totally normal within the context of Tik Tok especially when so many videos are makeup tutorials.

There’s nothing weird about that. But the way it has been interpreted as being sexualized when that is not actually why I’m wearing makeup. And the fact that I’m blonde is not to entice you over here. It’s not it. 

However, the feedback I’ve gotten and I’ve seen from both men and women, I should say is, not even talking to me, but actually about me, they’re like, no, she’s, this is from a woman, no, we can’t learn from her. She’s too pretty. Well. Thanks. I thank you. Thank you. I guess. Yeah. Like this is, it’s not tznious. It’s not tznious to learn from somebody who is this attractive. Firstly, what does Rabbi Yochanan say about that? Excuse me, go apologize to him talking about disrespecting our sages. 

And from men it’s, she’s awful. She’s destroying everything, but I want to fuck her. That is the sad reality of the messages that I receive. And I’ll say that last Shabbat, I was so relieved because the Orthodox men had stopped saying that to me. And they picked it up again once Motzei Shabbat rolled around, but for Shabbat, I had a break and like, guys, I am not interested in you, not you guys, the world. That’s not why I’m doing this. It’s not about me enticing you and being sexual in any kind of way. And using my face to get you to study Talmud. But it also speaks to diminishing women because of their appearance. You can’t win, either you’re hideous and no one wants to look at you or, yup, nope, too pretty. We can’t take anything you’re saying seriously. Also I would like to send a message back to my younger self with very low self-esteem. There was a point in college when I would hide my Jewish star. I had very, very low self-esteem at that point.

I didn’t want people to think Jews were ugly like me, like, so now here at this age, when people are telling me be less, do less, be less pretty because you can’t be this Jewish and be pretty, That’s rude, to say this to Jewish women is obscene, to have Jewish women to say it to me is, is even more a dagger in the heart than it is coming from men. 

Yehuda: Yeah. And it’s worth also just acknowledging this is a secondary, maybe more minor point, but when, when this kind of thing happens, it ignores the fact that like a male rabbi with a beard is also embodied. Masculinity is a form of embodiment, right? And so like, to pretend like the emergence of, um, of a blonde woman, wearing makeup is suddenly physicalizing or gendering the encounter with another human being, teaching Torah ignores that any time a human being is teaching or presenting something to you, they are also embodied and they are also gendered.

And that’s the weird turnaround here of, it surfaces something without providing for any sort of, um, self-awareness about what exists in the world already. 

Miriam: I think David Zvi, you were mentioning this earlier, but it’s a really good point that there are a lot of male, Orthodox, social media stars, but people are very high profile, huge follower accounts. There’s these two guys I follow and they do dance videos, but they’re tzitzit out and like they’re very openly, proudly Orthodox, and there’s nothing wrong about this, but I have my doubts, although who knows I may be wrong. And if I am wrong, I do apologize, that people are saying stop. You’re too attractive. Stop, stop embodying things, be a nebulous voice, actually don’t have a voice at all, but be just a nebulous entity with no gender and no human body. 

David Zvi: There’s also something just so disingenuous about the idea that, that Judaism, that Jewish culture is supposed to be literally blind, that it’s supposed to be about like the letters and nothing else. There is like a pretty strong, pretty clear Orthodox Jewish aesthetic.

Like if you go to Orthodox synagogues, like there was a type, there’s like a thing g’vir culture. There was like literally a magazine dedicated to like, what is Orthodox Jewish culture look like in America? So like these things already exist. And I think there is a kind of a front of having the look be different from what they expect, even beyond the gender piece of it.

Yehuda: Last comment, last question for both of you is, um, I don’t want to make you skip ahead Miriam, but I do want to like study a little bit of Talmud together with you and get your live, real-time Daf reactions. Talmud Brachot 62A. This is like a meta text to this whole discussion. Everything I read, I was like, oh, this is the text that all of us are implicitly referencing. 

It was taught in a baraita, a rabbinic text, that Rabbi Akiva said, I once entered the bathroom after my teacher, Rabbi Joshua, and I learned three things from watching him. I learned that one should not defecate while facing east and west, but rather while facing north and south, I learned that one should not uncover himself while standing, but sitting. In parentheses, I guess, for modesty reasons, but we’re not told, and I learned that one should not wipe with his right hand, but with his left. Ben Azzai, a student of Rabbi Akiva said to him, wow, that is so rude. You are so impertinent. Like, why would you follow your teacher into the bathroom and watch him going to the bathroom? And his answer is famously,  

Miriam: It is Torah. And I must learn it. 

Yehuda: It is Torah, and I must learn it, right. The more famous version of this comes later because the student goes into his teacher’s bedroom. 

Miriam: The under the bed situation. 

Yehuda: and listens to his teacher having sex with his teacher’s wife. And they’re like, what are you doing there? And he says, this is Torah and I will learn it. But the real shitposting text is this one. Of going into the bathroom and watching it happen. So it just felt to me like the whole meta text to this whole thing is there’s no version of talking about Torah that is rooted in really understanding the human condition than this one, nothing you could do on Tik Tok could beat it.

Miriam: Thank you. Thank you for making my exact point when everyone’s like, oh my God. And I’m like, have you read the Talmud, guys? Cause that sounds like you haven’t. Brachot, especially, when we start the Daf cycle, it starts with a bang, right? It really starts off good. It gets into the demons. It gets in the bathrooms. It really has some hilarious and amazing things, but that is the part. It is Torah, and I must learn. This is the thing I always come back to. This is the thing that so many people come back to when they’re doing something in a slightly different way, or they’re doing something that other people frown upon.

And they’re like, well, no, I’m not going to the bathroom after you’ve gone to the bathroom to find out the way that you’ve wiped your butt. I’m not doing that, but I’m somehow going too far? I find this an inauthentic response. I, look, I love Brachot because it is just so in your face with that content. 

And that’s when I knew I was going to do this for the next seven and a half years. I was sure. After that Dad, how could I not?

David Zvi: Um, one thing that, um, I feel like I keep detecting in the criticism is, um, the question of like, Torah is always gonna be bathroom Torah now, like it’s not gonna be anything else. And, sometimes I think like, it’s, it’s being set up as a kind of straw man, but I think one thing that people miss is that the existence of this kind of Torah does not negate the continued existence and the importance of other kinds of Torah. Like I, you know, I experienced this now with my kids and trying to talk to them about swearing and like using potty language, literally, that like, they’re confused. Like, how come we hear you guys, are you here, like, you know, me and my wife’s swearing sometimes, um, like, why is it not okay for us to do that?

And the response, and I’m sure I’ll get mail that this is not the right response. The response that like I give to them is like, it is okay, sometimes to use this language, you know, you have to learn the right way to use it because like they’re powerful words, they affect people differently. And there is different kinds of registers of speech and like part of what it means to grow up and live in society is learn the right register of speech for the right moment.

But I think like gaining a new register of speech in Torah is an incredibly powerful thing. And I think it’s something we should be excited about. 

Yehuda: Well with that. I want to thank you all for listening to our show this week and special thanks to our guests this week, Miriam Anzovin and our producer, David Zvi Kalman. 

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbs with special thanks to Cory Choy, assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz, and music provided by Socalled. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online

We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about, or if comments on this episode, which I’m sure will be here, please write to us [email protected], you can also rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find the show.

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