By: Michael Weiner | Opinions  | 

But What of Yirat Shamayim? A Response to Rethinking Traditional Talmud Study

I was intrigued by Jacob Stone’s recent article in these pages, in which he made the case for YU to create an academic Talmud studies requirement for all of its undergraduates. Supposing that we could find the time in our schedules and muster the necessary rabbinic support to add an academic Talmud requirement here at YU, would such a thing be advisable? The author thinks it would.

For one, he says that such a program would fulfill YU’s ostensible goal to “promote a secular understanding of topics as well as a religious one.” To my mind, this is a reasonable restatement of YU’s core educational goal of Torah UMadda. However, when it comes to Jewish studies in particular, there’s a bit more to the story.

YU’s webpage for Undergraduate Torah Studies says that “Jewish studies at YU are based on classical Talmud Torah.” I’m not exactly sure what “classical Talmud Torah” means, but I’m far from sure that academic Talmud study would qualify.  By way of a demonstrative example, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Eztion, earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and learned from a rich array of non-Jewish literary and philosophical works, exemplifying the best of the Torah UMadda tradition. And yet, he remained steadfastly opposed to academic Talmud study, refusing to incorporate it into either his Gemara shiurim or his published articles, which liberally quoted from other secular works.

Beyond the narrow question of whether academic Talmud is in line with YU’s own goals for its Jewish studies program, I want to also address the broader issue of whether the very different goals and methodology of academic Talmud threaten or enhance those of traditional Gemara learning.

True, YU offers a number of courses that could challenge the religious convictions of its students, such as academic Bible. But minimizing that challenge are the professors who teach those courses. These teachers only embrace the elements of academic Bible scholarship that do not undermine Jewish faith. Thus, they accept the literary analysis of the Bible, which enhances our appreciation for the text, while rejecting source criticism, which does not. Both may be taught, but ultimately, the traditional view is defended and Wellhausen discarded. No one here learns of the Documentary Hypothesis without hearing the “last word” from its detractors. This process of borer, separating out the religiously desirable from the undesirable, is essential to academic Bible’s permissibility at YU.

Much like Bible, there are also “two dinim,” if you will, within academic Talmud. On the one hand, some of what we call “academic” Talmud scholarship is unobjectionable. The group of Skverer Chasidim who analyzed kitvei yad  (ancient manuscript editions of the Talmud) and compared textual variants to produce the now-beloved Oz Vehadar edition of Shas did a great service to the Torah world. Additionally, the Talmudic commentary of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has many notes explaining the Greek or Persian loan-words in the text. In cases like these, where the goal and impact of such academic-esque learning are to facilitate traditional Talmud study, I’d say academic Talmud is certainly permitted and even helpful, much like applying literary analysis to Biblical narratives.

Consequently, if the author of this piece had only suggested that our maggidei shiur more frequently incorporate some useful academic tools into their shiurim when they enhance the goals of classical Talmud Torah, I would not have written this rejoinder.

However, other aspects of academic Talmud can seriously threaten the entire enterprise of traditional Gemara learning. I return to Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, whose views on this matter were explicated by Professor Lawrence Kaplan in an article for the Lehrhaus. There, he explains that R’ Lichtenstein strongly objected to the “diachronic,” historical approach of academic Talmud scholars, who assume, following David Weiss Halivni, that later Babylonian amoraim and anonymous redactors regularly misunderstood the original meaning of tannaitic statements. Hence, Kaplan says, “they are guilty, in Rav Lichtenstein’s eyes, of undermining respect for chazal in suggesting they are poor, careless or uninformed interpreters.”

Another concern for R’ Lichtenstein was whether the tools of academic Talmud promote the purpose that observant Jews believe Torah study is to serve: namely, as a vehicle for avodat Hashem. As one of R. Lichtenstein’s students, Rabbi David Brofsky, put it in a Facebook post, Torah study for R. Lichtenstein was about “entering and engaging a world of ideas which were religiously, morally and ethically edifying. The academic's preoccupation with philological-historical study, in R. Lichtenstein's eyes, offered nothing to the spirit, and therefore it was of little value.”

If it were possible for YU to thrust academic Talmud on all of its students in a way that would support classical Talmud Torah and avoid creating theological problems, I’d be all ears. Sadly, because there are so few frum professors of rabbinic literature who could adequately respond to the emunah-related pitfalls of this field and challenge the diachronic approach, as YU professors do for Bible, it could not yet be considered as a requirement at YU.

In Israel, while there has been a blossoming of frum, academic Bible scholars, there is no movement even approaching the same scale for Talmud. I’d suggest that the relative paucity of frum academic talmudists has something to do with academic Talmud being fundamentally more problematic than academic Bible, as R’ Lichtenstein held.

In closing, if classical Talmud Torah and religious inspiration are goals of YU’s Jewish studies program, then an academic Talmud requirement treads on thin ice. How much of the discipline strengthens respect for chazal and leads to yirat shamayim? Is there an entire department’s worth of professors who can teach the permissible, enlightening tools of academic Talmud while also rebutting and dismantling its many intolerable assumptions and claims? Until we can answer these questions and find sufficient people and resources to create a religiously meaningful and intellectually rigorous academic Talmud requirement, such a suggestion remains trapped in the realm of inaccessible theory, just beyond our reach.