Something for the Spirit: A Response to Fear in Talmud Torah
Since the time of our father Ya’akov, who united the hesed of Avraham and the gevura of Yitzhak, our people’s scholars and teachers have treaded the treacherous path between mesorah and hiddush — tradition and discovery. In every generation, our yeshivot must raise both Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos, the plastered cistern that does not lose a drop, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, the ever-strengthening fountain. Like Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in his cave, our institution of Torah learning is sustained by a slow-growing carob tree, gathering water, and a rushing spring, shooting water out. For that reason, the emerging discussion in this publication of the place for academic Talmud study is an essential one to be had both inside and outside the walls of the beit midrash.
Unlike the giants of Torah in our institution and in countless others, I am not a scholar. I am neither a plastered cistern nor a strengthening fountain. Many gedolim of our generation and of those past have written on the subject of academic methodology, but this is neither the place for a thorough treatment of derekh halimmud nor of the exact parameters of academic Talmud. In his recent Commentator headline, Michael Weiner posed what is certainly the most important question in any beit midrash: What of Yirat Shamayim?
That is a question I can answer.
In this pursuit, I would like to analyze three sub-questions raised in the article: The fleeting identity of “classical Talmud Torah,” concern for the undermining of kavod for our sages and the claim that certain methodologies “offered nothing to the spirit.”
Nothing New Under the Sun
In discussing academic methodology in Talmud, it should be noted that virtually all of the methods in question are not themselves products of some twentieth-century enterprise of secular academia, but have been held dear by our own great sages in every generation. As the author duly noted, the comparison of manuscripts to produce a reliable text is all but unquestionable. My teacher Rabbi Jeremy Wieder is quick to point out that most significant textual variants were already noted and considered by the rishonim. Archeological and linguistic findings, though sometimes less available to previous generations, have been utilized everywhere from the Rambam’s treatment of avodah zarah to Rabbi Steinsaltz’s masterful glosses.
Beyond these universally utilized methods, many talmidim trained in the conceptual analysis common in many modern yeshivot fear approaches that recognize layers in the text of the Gemara. But such recognition is far from foreign. As Rabbi Wieder explains in his article on academic Talmud in the beit midrash, the ba’alei hatosafot distinguish in numerous cases between a statement of an amora and its interpretation by the Gemara. Just a few weeks ago in shiur, I learned such a case (Bava Kamma 19a s.v. Rav Ashi) where Tosfot explains an inconsistency between a cited question and a later question of Rav Ashi by claiming that the Gemara’s citation included a later interpretation which was not shared by Rav Ashi. Clearly, there can be no threat to “traditional” study of Talmud from suggestions of historical development per se. They have already sat firmly in the beit midrash for a thousand years.
Dignity of the Law
In his article, the author cites Professor Lawrence Kaplan to voice concern that a “diachronic” historical approach to Talmud study — one that analyses historical development within a sugya by deconstructing its layering and redaction — is “undermining respect for chazal in suggesting they are poor, careless or uninformed interpreters.” This accusation is understandable. After all, some secular scholars do espouse such disrespect, and, in doing so, do cite changing interpretations between redactional layers. Nonetheless, many gedolei haTorah are unphased. Rabbi Yehiel Yakov Weinberg in the Sridei Esh (vol. 3 p. 22) stresses:
One should not be surprised when into an answer of Rava a later interpretation is inserted, for we find this sort of thing in many places in the Talmud, that the stamma d’Gemara or rabanan savorai added explanatory words of their own to the language of a braita or of an amora, and even a few commentaries of the geonim entered into the body of the Gemara after the sealing of the Talmud, something that the rishonim have already testified to and explained. We even find in later additions that entered a statement of the amora things that seem to contradict the amora himself.
Are we to say that the Sridei Esh lacked respect for talmidei hakhamim? In his fourth volume (p. 246), the Sridei Esh quotes the Vilna Gaon as asserting that the phrase hisurei mehasura vehechi ketani indicates that the authors of the Gemara disagree with the Mishnah. Surely the Gra did not lack respect for Torah scholarship.
If this is so, how can we understand historical layering differently? The question of why certain sugyot are layered is one that requires deep iyun and careful individual treatment that is far beyond my place to provide here. One answer is certain, though: We search for truth with ahavat haTorah and yirat shamayim.
Something for the Spirit
In every generation, as our sages held together both mesorah and hiddush — Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh — an element of fear has driven their search for truth. Through our travails in exile, our study of Torah has been driven by fear of Karaites, Christian censors, heretical reformers and false messiahs. Each generation’s search for truth is tainted, rahmana letzlan, by the pressing need to refute enemies of that truth. It is therefore nothing new that we fear secular academia. Nevertheless, we cannot let this fear compromise our yirat shamayim by denying our own traditions and rejecting truths latent in the pages we hold dear. What of Torah lishmah?
In his article, the author suggests, following an online statement in which Rabbi David Brofsky explains Rav Lichtenstein’s approach to academic Talmud, that “philological-historical study … offered nothing to the spirit.” Even if the academy indeed looked coldly upon our sacred traditions and out of them sought only to know what kind of house Abaye lived in or what he ate for breakfast, it is our great avodah as inheritors of the mesorah not just to record, but to listen deeply to its wisdom. What does Abaye teach us? What does Abaye reveal of dvar Hashem?
Practitioners of conceptual darkhei halimmud like Brisk mine the wisdom of the mesorah by constructing harmony in its legal mechanisms. As such, suggestions that previous generations did not understand these mechanisms in the same way can be frightening. In my experience, though, such suggestions are far from lacking in spirit. When I struggled through my first pages of Gemara in yeshiva, I was disturbed by the messiness of the text. Aside from explaining seemingly simple things in overly complex ways, it could not even seem to choose a consistent language in which to write. As I matured and learned to read more carefully — to recognize the stylistic differences between early tannaim, late amoraim and the so-called stamma or anonymous narrating voice — I began to see true beauty in the structure of the Talmudic sugya.
The suggestion of layers did not hinder my spiritual experience. On the contrary, my formerly planar attempts at lamdanut gained a third dimension; the layers of the text of the Gemara opened my eyes to the dynamic genius of our sages in revealing retzon Hashem in every generation. Granted, this revelation is seldom relevant to psak halakha, but, in the words of Rambam, the Creator “commanded us to love him, may he be elevated, that is to say, we should contemplate and consider his commandments and his works until we comprehend and find in his providence the essence of ecstasy. This is the love that is binding” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 3). Our contemplation of all aspects of Torah, irrespective of their current practical applicability, is the foundation of ahavat Hashem.
In his article, the author compares academic Talmud study to academic study of Tanakh, which has been largely accepted in this institution and in the broader Modern Orthodox world. He points to a process of “borer, separating out the religiously desirable from the undesirable” as justification for this acceptance, and the absence of a similar movement in academic Talmud as evidence of its problematic nature.
Based on my own experience in Eretz Yisrael, I cannot accept this argument. I merited to sit for many months in the Beit Vaad l’Torah Har Hevron in Otniel, a sizeable and well-respected yeshivat hesder whose beit midrash resounds constantly with historical analysis of our layered tradition. Similar methodologies are used extensively in the yeshivot of Mahanayim, Petah Tikva, Maale Gilboa and Tekoa, not to mention hareidi institutions such as Yeshivat Kisse Rahamim, which perpetuates the Tunisian tradition of Talmudic analysis. It cannot be said that there is no movement of yirei shamayim for layer-sensitive reading.
In my Introduction to Bible course, we have examined uncomfortable issues of authorship, redaction and textual transmission from the perspective of rishonim and aharonim. These issues may be practically irrelevant for psak halakha, but they are essential for understanding the nature of mesorah. Uncomfortable questions are of course amplified when they come to Talmud, the core of our avodah in the beit midrash, but we cannot let discomfort or fear get in the way of truth. Fundamental questions of textual layering and historical development of halakha have been addressed by the geonim, discussed by the rishonim and deliberated by the aharonim. To shun these discussions is to shun our own tradition.
Photo Credit: The Kaufmann Manuscript of Pirkei Avot