Rethinking the Way We Study Talmud
The majority of male Yeshiva University undergraduate students spend the first portion of their day studying Talmud. The Mazer School of Talmudic Studies (MYP) and the Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP) combined account for over sixty-seven percent of the student body, and many students enrolled in the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC) and the James Striar School (JSS) are involved with some form of daily Talmud study. These students, for the most part, learn Talmud in the same shiur-based style that they were taught in high school and in yeshiva in Israel.
The creation of an academic Talmudic Studies requirement, however, could complement the morning programs in pursuit of my understanding of our university’s goal, to promote a secular understanding of topics as well as a religious one. While almost all shiurim in MYP and SBMP employ classical methods of discourse to Talmud study, be they pilpul or brisker, few ask many of the questions that would be covered in a corresponding academic Talmudic Studies course. This gap in the education of a typical male Yeshiva University undergraduate student is staggering; a student who spends three years exclusively in the MYP program can spend upwards of 2,500 hours learning nothing about the fundamental questions that should plague us when we approach the Talmud.
Should we assume consistency of opinion between mesechtot of the Talmud? Should we assume consistency of opinion within a single mesechet? If so, when and why? Can we deduce large amounts of information from fine variations in textual grammar or word choice, or “make a diyyuk” in the terms of those who frequent the beis medresh?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I would wager that few MYP and SBMP students do. But the shiurim in our yeshiva are based so fundamentally on the answers to these questions that we never stop to ask ourselves why we make these assumptions. Many MYP shiurim spend days solving contradictions between statements in different mesechtot of the Talmud without researching the editing process that created those statements. Some shiurim use diyyukim to extract meaning from Talmudic texts, but it is unclear whether Talmudic grammar can be said to be intentional or meaningful.
Creating an academic Talmudic Studies requirement would solve this issue. In the fashion of the introductory Bible requirement, students could be exposed to the “big questions” within the field of Talmud study, and shown some of the common approaches towards answering those questions. Whether for good or bad, we spend almost no time daily on the study of Tanakh, yet every YC student is required to take three academic Bible Studies courses. Wouldn’t it be fair to have at least one required course that deals with the Talmud, arguably the text most important to the modern-day Orthodox Jewish community?
One of the four main course subjects at the Bernard Revel Graduate School is Talmudic Studies. If the university is comfortable with offering such courses at Revel, then there should be few barriers, either practical or ideological, that would stop such a course from being offered on the undergraduate level as well. While a few Jewish Studies majors may be exposed to the type of course material that I am describing, the relevance of an academic Talmudic Studies course is not limited to those who make Jewish Studies the focus of their education.
Such a course could deal not only with the Talmud, but the history of the development of halakhah as a whole, including Mishna and post-Talmudic rabbinic literature. "It's worth thinking about whether our current Jewish Studies requirements best meet the needs of the student community,” commented Professor Aaron Koller, chair of the Undergraduate Judaic Studies department. “Is it certain that knowledge of Jeremiah or the different Targumim is more important than a course on midrash or the history of halakhic literature? I think this is a reasonable question, and student voices on this are much appreciated."
Some may argue, though, that students already spend hours daily on Talmud study. If our community is near-obsessed with the Talmud, shouldn’t the Jewish Studies department try to diversify the material that students encounter instead of compounding the problem by offering yet another Talmud-focused course?
But we should not conflate the time spent inside the beit midrash with the time spent outside of it. To justify the massive investment our community makes in learning Talmud from a religious lens, we must invest some time in it academically as well.
I want to know how this beautiful dialogue between the generations of our mesorah developed. I want to know why Tosfot were allowed to ask the questions they did. I want to apply the same standard of academic rigor to Talmud that I do to the sciences. I want the halls of our university’s batei midrash to be built on a bedrock of knowledge, not the vague guesswork that makes up their foundations now.
Photo Caption: The first page of Masechet Gittin in the Talmud Bavli
Photo Credit: Google Images