BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: The last car on the 7:46 a.m. Long Island Rail Road train from Far Rockaway is far from typical. Rather than reading the newspaper or taking a nap, 20 commuters gather each day to engage in Talmud study. Rabbi Pesach Lerner has taught this class for 14 years.
Rabbi PESACH LERNER (National Council of Young Israel): It teaches us human psychology, what our morals are, what our vision has to be. Maybe in a certain sense, in the world we live in today, with the lack of morality and the lack of vision -- maybe it's more important than ever before.
ABERNETHY: Their study is part of a worldwide Talmud reading program called Daf Yomi, which literally means "a page a day." The Talmud, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, is a compilation of rabbinical commentaries on the Torah -- the five books of Moses -- and Jewish law that spans thousands of years. Reading one page per day, it takes seven and a half years to complete the entire Talmud, 2,711 pages in all.
At Drisha Institute of Jewish Studies in New York, women from various religious backgrounds study Talmud. The process is academically challenging. Usually "hevrutas," or partners, read the text and discuss the various commentaries. There's usually lots of debate.
LISA BENNETT (Student, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, New York): What we have to decide is how an ancient clay oven in its various forms has anything to do with a modern electrical stove, and so you make those comparisons, and it's an intellectual process. It has practical relevance because we believe at the core of it there is a sacred seed that you are working with, that you are watching grow through history and because you make it relevant.
ABERNETHY: Devorah Zlochower teaches a Talmud class at Drisha, but as a girl from a strictly observant home, Talmud study was discouraged.
DEVORAH ZLOCHOWER (Talmud Teacher, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, New York): Growing up in my school, Talmud was not part of the curriculum for girls, although it was a major part of the curriculum for boys. So I was always intrigued by these big books that I wasn't really given permission to open.
ABERNETHY: As an Orthodox woman, Devorah sometimes struggles with the Talmud's teachings.
Ms. ZLOCHOWER: I view these texts as sacred and extremely meaningful and very much part of who I am. But that does not eliminate the possibility I can have my own take and feelings and reactions to them. Certainly the laws of marriage are not egalitarian and don't fit in, kind of, with my modern American way of thinking. And I need to figure out how to balance those two images together and be true to both of them at the same time.
ABERNETHY: March 1 was the largest celebration of the completion of reading the Talmud. About 100,000 people from sites around the country and around the world were connected via satellite to sold-out events at New York's Madison Square Garden and New Jersey's Continental Arena.
For the participants, the ancient wisdom found in the Talmud is relevant to their lives today.
DAVID LOBEL (Leveraged Buyout Manager): If I'm faced with an issue that has a moral or ethical or personal or any kind of question, I can superimpose what I think I've learned or what the sages might say about how to deal with such a situation.
Dr. AARON GLATT (Infectious Disease Specialist): The Talmud tells us how we are supposed to act, how we are supposed to treat people, how we are supposed to treat ourselves, what our priorities should be in life. The Talmud tells us everything.
LEAH GELERNTER (Accountant): Throughout the years, we've been survivors, and I believe it's the Talmud -- it's the Torah that has kept us alive and flourishing.
ABERNETHY: The evening culminated when the last few verses of the Talmud were read, and the entire Madison Square Garden [audience], young and old, broke out in celebration. Those dancing will begin the first book of the Talmud once again the following day.