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Talmud: At What Expense?

I came to YU this semester to continue my Jewish education, fully expecting a comprehensive treatment of the Jewish studies I had taken throughout my high school and Israel years. On the Talmud front, YU has been exemplary, challenging me with analytical and high-level shiurim. But there is a gaping hole in the YC Jewish Studies curriculum that has me feeling shortchanged in my continued Jewish education: a total lack of Chumash parshanut courses.

The lack of Chumash courses in YC is peculiar, especially considering the value that our university as a whole seems to give to Chumash as a discipline. The women at Stern College have a healthy choice of sixteen Chumash courses this semester, and the students enrolled in the Isaac Breuer College of Jewish Studies have the option to take advanced parshanut classes. Yet not a single Chumash with Rishonim class has been offered in the Yeshiva College Bible department since Spring 2008, when Professor Moshe Bernstein taught a parshanut class on Bamidbar. While the department does offer courses titled “Biblical Midrashim” and “Literary Approaches to the Bible,” neither is geared exclusively toward Chumash let alone parshanut. Of course, it would make sense for our university to compensate for the lack of advanced Chumash options in YC by offering such courses in all of its various Yeshiva programs. But, save for IBC, they are conspicuously absent from these programs as well. The Mechina Program is geared towards those who did not receive an extensive prior Jewish education, and its courses are more basic. The Stone Beit Midrash Program focuses on Talmud and offers courses on other topics, but none on Chumash. The Mazer Yeshiva Program, the most populated Jewish Studies program at Yeshiva College, focuses exclusively on Talmud.

The Jewish people have a long and storied tradition of studying Chumash. Indeed, our Rishonim thought it worthwhile to write extensive commentaries on the Chumash to explain pshat, the basic intended meaning of the verse.. Is it less worthwhile for us to delve into this analysis?  Chumash can be highly analytical and contribute to a person’s ethical and spiritual growth.   The curriculum at Stern College reflects this value; why doesn’t the curriculum at Yeshiva College?

One possible explanation for this notable omission is that the women at Stern are not required to take Talmud. Only a few Talmud courses are offered at Stern each semester, and Bible classes, among others, fill the void. At Yeshiva, on the other hand, the heavy emphasis is on Talmud. Even the programs that offer a much broader curriculum, namely the Mechina Program and IBC, require up to four semesters of Talmud study. SBMP focuses mainly on Talmud, and MYP focuses on Talmud to the exclusion of all else.

The emphasis on Talmud at Yeshiva is quite logical. Jewish Law is an outgrowth of the history of Talmudic thought and interpretation. Students planning on becoming rabbis have to have a firm grasp on Jewish Law, which entails understanding the Talmud and the development of Halachah. The Yeshiva Program in particular is excellent preparation for those interested in pursuing Semicha. The rabbinate, however, is an all-male institution. The women of Stern are not being trained for positions in the rabbinate. While Talmud may be an extremely valuable tool for appreciating the depth of Jewish Law and issuing decisive legal rulings, it is less vital for actually learning what the law is. Stern does offer numerous courses in practical Jewish Law, but the emphasis is on the bookends – the Written Torah and practical Halachah – and not on the Talmud in the middle. Perhaps Stern College students should be encouraged to take more courses in Talmud, but that does not explain why Yeshiva students not enrolled in IBC are not even given the opportunity to study Chumash with Rishonim.

The lack of Chumash classes is not unique to Yeshiva College. Most yeshivot in the world focus mainly on Talmud, devoting morning, afternoon, and night sedarim to Talmud study. Talmidim at these yeshivot may spend a marginal amount of time studying Tanach, Mussar, Machshava, and Halachah, but Talmud is the focus. Maimonides famously writes in the Laws of Talmud Torah 1:11 that one should divide his Torah learning into thirds – a third for scripture, a third for Mishnah, and a third for Gemara. It would thus seem that most yeshivot, along with Yeshiva University, appear to be directly disobeying the explicit directive of the Rambam. Why might this be the case? The medieval Talmudic commentator Rabbeinu Tam writes that Gemara encapsulates all three elements the Rambam included in his directive regarding Torah study. According to Rabbeinu Tam, once a person has a basic understanding of scripture and Mishnah, he should devote his entire learning to the study of Gemara, as the Gemara expands and provides the Biblical and logical sources for the opinions in the Mishnah.

There is a tremendous irony, however, in Rabbeinu Tam’s comment. The section of Gemara on which Rabbeinu Tam comments is actually an Israeli polemic against the Jews in Babylonia. After taking a number of humorous jabs at the Babylonian Jews, the Talmud on Sanhedrin 24a concludes that the Hebrew word for Babylonia, “Bavel,” can be understood as “Bilula BaMikra, Bilula BaMishna, Bilula BaTalmud” – confused in Torah, Mishna, and Talmud. They are confused because they don’t take the time to master the first two subjects before proceeding to Talmud. Are we just as confused as the Jews in Bavel?  Have we not set aside enough time for the study of Mishna and scripture?  Have we lost something by focusing almost exclusively on Talmud?

Despite the historical widespread focus on Talmud at the “classical” European-style yeshiva, there is precedent for Chumash study at yeshiva as well. The students at the Volozhin Yeshiva, one of the most prestigious of the European yeshivot, had a Chumash seder every morning with their Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Naftali Zvi, the Netziv. The Netziv’s son, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, wrote passionately about his father’s commitment to analytical Chumash study, as recorded by Henry A. Sosland and Stefi Weisbur in their 2002 article in Judaism:

The results of his efforts were that so very many Volozhin alumni who distinguished themselves in various professions entered the world at large, taking with them so much Torah learning and fine moral qualities as a result of their learning Chumash with no less fervor than they learned their lessons in Talmud.

Our Yeshiva is steeped in the Talmudic tradition of Brisk and Volozhin, but the tradition of intense Chumash study along the same principles has disappeared. If the Netziv walked into our Beit Midrash and observed the state of Chumash study, I am sure he would strongly disapprove.

As Bar-Ilan observed, alumni of the distinguished Volozhin Yeshiva entered the world with “fine moral qualities” and a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge as a result of those daily sessions with their Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv. Rabbi Yaakov Bieler, my Rabbi and teacher, comments that the Torah “more frequently overtly grapples with more spiritual matters than does Gemara.”  While one can approach Chumash from a purely intellectual standpoint, Rabbi Bieler believes that the spiritual and moral issues are much harder to avoid when studying Chumash. By giving Chumash study short shrift at YC, we are missing out on the valuable moral lessons that Chumash has to offer.

Some people may object that Chumash can be “fluffy,” not conducive to rigorous academic analysis. This is a seriously misguided notion. In high school, I took two years of advanced Chumash study with a student of Nechama Lebowitz, and it was one of the best Judaic Studies courses I have ever taken. My teacher’s approach was similar to the “Brisker Derech” for Talmud. We would delve into the biblical commentaries and search for the fundamental differences between them. The class was as analytical as my Talmud class, and I definitely gained more in terms of Jewish ethics and spirituality from my Chumash class. Yeshiva College should emulate this model of Chumash study and not discount the opportunities it offers for intense analysis and spiritual growth.

 I discussed the issue with our Yeshiva’s Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual counselor), Rabbi Yosef Blau, and he acknowledged the lack of analytical parshanut classes on Chumash. He informed me that YU was aware of the problem and was considering offering Chumash chugim (informal classes) during night seder. I am excited about this possibility, but I sincerely hope that this is only the first step. Informal chugim, by nature, are not as rigorous as formal classes.

Most people would probably agree that Chumash study is important, but there is still an issue of conflicting priorities. Bible professors Jeremy Wieder and Moshe Bernstein both explained to me that one of the goals of the Bible department is to expose the students to new areas of Bible study, which is reflected in the course selection and requirements. As most students have already taken parshanut courses in high school, the emphasis is on Nevi’im Acharonim and Ketuvim, or on alternative approaches to Bible beyond parshanut. However, this does not justify the complete lack of parshanut courses in the Bible department, which still offers plenty of courses in Nevi’im Rishonim.  

YU can begin to effect change by offering more Chumash parshanut in the Bible department. Students looking to fulfill their fourth Bible requirement could take one of these courses. This would also be beneficial to those pursuing Jewish Studies majors or minors who are looking to take more Chumash with Rishonim courses.

The next step would be to adjust the nature of the Yeshiva Program. Right now, students in the Yeshiva Program are only required to study Talmud. We could allow students to take a number of electives in other topics, such as Chumash, Machshava, Mussar, and Halachah. This would produce a much more well-rounded Torah scholar and human being.

Of course, change would present logistical issues. Decisions would have to be made regarding the length, frequency, and amount of elective courses. A good starting point would be to allow students to take an elective of their choice once a week for 45 minutes each semester. The Yeshiva Program would also have to find lecturers for these courses. Perhaps each Rosh Yeshiva could teach an elective in his non-Talmudic area of expertise. Well-qualified instructors from outside the Yeshiva Program could perhaps be brought in as well.

After having many conversations with my peers, I get the sense that I am not the only one with such concerns. I look around the Beit Midrash during morning seder, and I see a number of people spending some time learning things other than Talmud. The support for change seems to be there from the student side. It is time for the Yeshiva Program to step up to the plate.