By: Rabbi David Benovitz  | 

Redefining What it Means to Learn Gemara (Vol. 58, Issue 12)

I was privileged to learn with the Rav for four years, from 1967 to 1971. I was not a very good note taker. As a result, I rely largely on others to reconstruct the details of the shiurim I heard, and my recollections are more qualitative.

The Rav had two styles of giving a shiur. In one, for which he is renowned through his public shiurim, the result was a carefully-built construction that progressed, often breathtakingly, from contradiction and confusion to reconciliation and understanding.

But in the more intimate setting of his regular shiurim at Yeshiva his style was usually quite different. He would develop his thoughts right in front of us, considering many possible approaches, and rigorously analyzing each until it was either disregarded as a result of some flaw of logic or tentatively accepted. Infrequently, no acceptable analysis emerged, and he would be visibly shaken.

The only authority he tolerated was that imposed by his own mind. This process, which took hours or even days, bared his thinking to us in a way that I never, before or since, saw a Rebbe or teacher have the confidence (and courage) to do. Although the immediate effect of following his tortuous analysis often had elements of confusion and frustration, it ‘ultimately provided something more valuable than a specific P'shat on a specific Sugya. It redefined for us what it means to learn a piece of Gemara. 

One further recollection. I along with many others, learned-in the Rav’s Shiur while doing secular graduate work, The Rav was never critical of us for trying to carry what, in retrospect, I now suspect was an impossible load; nor did he express favor for those who learned exclusively. On the contrary, we always sensed his strong encouragement of our attempts to continue to actively bridge our worlds. This encouragement remains with me and continues to provide direction in an environment that often pressures us to follow some other course.

Mr. Benovitz is a partner at the actuarial firm of Kwasha Lipton and a former talmid of the Rav.