Demystifying Academic Talmud: Insights from Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann’s Courses
Hidden away in the vaguely named “Jewish Studies” section of MyYU is the listing for Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann’s course “The Formation of the Talmud.” This is a much more apt title than the “Rereading Talmud: Legal Sugyot” class, which I stumbled upon my first semester on campus, and ever since I began taking that class, I knew I had to share this secret with the rest of the student body.
Many have an instinctual aversion to anything with the word “academic” in it, and perhaps to the idea of academic Talmud in particular. This is not without reason; there are certainly academic Talmudists whose views are far from those of Orthodoxy, and there are certainly ways of doing academic Talmud which may be seen as speculative or dry.
But Rabbi Bergmann is neither un-Orthodox nor boring. On the contrary, he is renowned for the engaging shiurim he gives in his shul in Lawrence as well as in many other communities and venues, with a fiery passion, high erudition, and unmatched warmth towards all. An alumnus of Ner Yisrael and Chevron Yeshiva, a Ph.D. from Columbia and the CFO of a prestigious hedge fund, Rabbi Bergmann is uniquely positioned to offer this interdisciplinary and multidimensional class to a knowledgeable, Orthodox audience.
As Rabbi Bergmann explains, academic Talmudic methods help to supplement traditional learning approaches to offer a richer and clearer analysis of the Gemara, answering questions that one might have difficulty answering without its help. What are these methods? Checking girsaot, that is, comparing different manuscripts of the Talmud to find the best version of the text, is one of them, and can be an important one; however, Rabbi Bergmann doesn’t focus on that specifically, which he will be the first to admit can be dry and boring. Rather, he focuses on a completely different field of academic Talmud, that which primarily seeks to analyze the different parts of a sugya and their development in order to understand how the Gemara came to the conclusions that it did.
This requires, first and foremost, a clear understanding of how the Talmud was formed. To summarize the conclusions of his course (spoilers ahead), which is based on a variety of Talmudic sources with the aid of such pertinent works as the Iggeret of Rav Sherira Gaon and Dorot HaRishonim, the Talmud, like the Mishna and Braitot which preceded it, was (partly) an oral, standardized text that was taught and put to memory in the Yeshivot of Bavel until it was written down at some point in the Geonic period. This included the Amoraic statements — meimrot — and discussions. Yet there is also another large part of the Talmud, identified by its unique components: it’s written in Aramaic as opposed to Hebrew, it’s anonymous (meaning that it is just the “Gemara” speaking as opposed to a Tanna or Amora), and it can be discerned as organizing various sugyot, arranging Braitas, Mishnahs and Meimras in a logical stream with transitional phrases and additional notes, expansions and discussions of its own.
This element of the Gemara is referred to by some commentators as the Stam HaTalmud, and Rabbi Bergmann argues that it was never standardized in the way the Braitas and Meimras were. Rather, the Stam was a fluid text, with the students of the Babylonian yeshivot constantly adding to it and changing it and with different versions proliferating, all as the standardized text was simultaneously being developed. While the Talmud went through various stages where more and more of it became standardized — such as Ravina and Rav Ashi’s chatimat haTalmud — Rabbi Bergmann argues that the Stam continued to evolve. It was only once the Talmud was written down in the Geonic period that it was completely sealed off, though early commentaries, like Rabbeinu Chananel, continued in the style of relating the back-and-forth of the Talmud with their own thoughts and interpretations reflected in the “Stam.”
Understanding the formation of the Talmud is important for many reasons. For starters, appreciating it as an evolving, oral text with a tradition of interpretation helps one appreciate how the Talmud may often deviate from the simple meaning of the Mishna’s words. For while as a written text these readings may seem implausible, as a fragment of an oral tradition, it makes sense that something might be lost in transmission, and it is reasonable to use logical clues and other sources to help arrive at the most accurate interpretation. Of course, the student of Talmud will be sensitive to the fact that these interpretations are not taken lightly — they must be highly substantiated and are often subject to debate.
Furthermore, according to Rabbi Bergmann, understanding the development of the Talmud is crucial for appreciating why it is halakhically binding. While there are several approaches as to why later generations can’t argue with the Talmud, Rabbi Bergmann understands Rambam to be of the position that it is because of the massiveness of the Talmud project. The fact that all of the rabbis of the time got together on such a scale, over several generations, debating, tweaking, and developing it together, means that it would be practically impossible to muster a greater level of authority to revise it.
Besides this point, in analyzing the Talmud itself, the student will gain much by identifying the various sections of the Talmud, from Mishnahs and Braitas to Meimras to sugyot to Stam. This will enable the student to appreciate how the Talmud got from point A to point B, as well as to better analyze discrepancies between different versions of the sugya as it appears in different places throughout shas and other places.
Through these methods, one might perceive that not every discrepancy or contradiction among different sugyot needs to be resolved; rather, different parallel sugyot may reflect different Stammaic traditions.
I was hoping to include an overview of the rich methods for analyzing Aggadta, or the competing Aggadic interpretive traditions through history, that Rabbi Bergmann taught in his “Rereading Narratives of the Talmud” course, but time and space does not permit me at this time. All I can offer is a plug for my forthcoming article on Rabbi Elazar Ben Pedas in the upcoming edition of Kol HaMevaser, which is adapted from my term paper from Rabbi Dr. Bergmann’s course and includes some of these methods in its analysis.
The course is just two credits and is highly worthwhile for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Talmud or in engaging with one of YU’s most fascinating and inspiring Torah Umadda personalities. While my article offers a superficial overview of some of the main points of the class, for those that are interested in hearing more — or are skeptical and want to understand the basis for these claims — this class is a rare and unique opportunity. I highly recommend taking it.
Photo Caption: Yemenite Jews studying Talmud
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons