Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why teach Gemara?

Rav Shalom Berger, who runs the Lookjed educators email list out of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar-Ilan University asked me, as well as many other educators to offer some thoughts as to why we teach Gemara at all. The essays can be found here. I am including my piece below with the following initial explanation - I took the position that the standard explanations for learning Gemara such as it being the source of our mesorah, the source of halacha, it is what Jews do, etc were not sufficient. I imagined that I was offering an explanation to a relatively bored yet intellectual competent high school or college student. If you read the other essays, you will see that many fell back on the time-honored explanations that I consciously avoided. In a follow-up post I will note a comment that I received and my response to it.

The question posed for this forum - why learn Gemara? - is at once incredibly simple and incredibly difficult to answer. As someone who has steeped himself in Gemara from every angle - as a student, as a teacher, and as a researcher - one would hope that I have a good reason, or perhaps several reasons as to why this particular area of study occupies, and should continue to occupy, such a central place in our curriculum. The obvious and well-worn answers jump immediately to mind - the connection to the mesorah that is unique to the study of Gemara, the commitment required to study Gemara, the intellectual enjoyment tinged with religious overtones that one feels after plunging himself into the depths of a sugya.

However, none of these reasons, so self-evident to one who has merited to spend decades engrossing himself in Gemara, are likely to be persuasive to our students who are still at the beginning of their journey in the Sea of the Talmud. We should not be so deluded as to think that only Gemara can provide intellectual stimulation, and if we are using Gemara as a vehicle to teach halacha or ethics or any other sub-topic, then we must be ready to admit that there are a sufficient number of other works that can be learned with far greater ease.

Furthermore, the notions that Gemara is “real” Torah she-ba’al peh or that it serves as the most significant and meaningful way to connect to the mesorah are likely to fall flat when presented to skeptical, uninterested, or even sincere students searching for meaning in their learning. While all of these reasons are undoubtedly true, I do not believe that they are sufficient to explain to Modern Orthodox students our extreme devotion to Gemara study.

And so I would propose a different approach. Gemara is where we learn how to think like a Jew. We can learn how to act like Jews by reading Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch; we can learn how to behave as Jews by learning Mesillat Yesharim; but only Gemara teaches us how to
think as Jews.

By thinking as Jews I am not referring simply to the idea of “two Jews, three opinions.” That aphorism neatly sums up the idea of having a gemara kup (and perhaps also presents us as being needlessly argumentative), but it also refers mainly to the intellectual realm. To my mind, thinking as a Jew is also a religious exercise.

How so? I believe that the title of a recent volume excerpting the thought of Moreinu HaRav Yehuda Amital z”l sums up this idea clearly. The book is entitled “Commitment and Complexity” – and note how those two words can easily describe two very different approaches to religion. Someone who is committed to his religion can do so in a blind fashion – meticulously and scrupulously following every jot and tittle of every law, rarely, if ever, pausing to consider why he is doing what he does, or how his beliefs may fit into or interact with a world that is fundamentally different to his views.

By contrast, one whose religious attitude is defined by complexity may constantly be considering and reconsidering his every action, scrutinizing each law and discovering the various contradictions that they may seem to present. Such an approach, while intellectually meaningful, may ultimately be dangerous to one’s devotion to his initially stated beliefs. Or, as the bumper sticker slogan goes, “How much can you open your mind before your brains fall out?”

Gemara presents us with the middle ground. There is no question that on one level, the give-and-take of a Talmudic sugya represents an attempt to grapple with an issue from every angle, as new proofs are adduced from verses, as seemingly unrelated concepts are brought to
bear on the concept at hand, and as simple logic occasionally makes its presence felt in order to debunk a theory that has been suggested. It certainly seems as if Gemara exhibits and encourages a no-holds-barred “complexity” approach.

Yet, at the same time, there are rules. An Amora does not argue with a Tanna. Rabi Yishmael’s hermeneutic principles. A gezeirah shava has to be based on a tradition and cannot be invented out of whole cloth. And on and on and on. Our creativity has to be tempered by the fact that through it all, we remain committed, we remain cognizant of the fact that we are always working in the presence of God. While an architect designing his own house allows his imagination to run
free with no boundaries other than his own sensibilities, someone creating someone else’s home constantly checks with his patron to ensure that the design conforms to the vision of the one who will ultimately live there.

So it is with the study of Gemara, and so it is in our daily lives as ovdei Hashem. God does not want us, either as yoshvei Beit HaMedrash or as oskim b’Torah u’mitzvot, to be mere automatons, mindlessly and endlessly conforming to the same script until it loses all meaning.
At the same time, He does not seek for our sense of intellectual freedom to lead to our becoming so unmoored from His safe harbor that we wind up adrift in a sea of intellectual sophistry and religious confusion. Finding this equilibrium life is not a simple task, but I can think of no better training program than serious and sustained involvement in the study of the text that so perfectly models this delicate balance.


YD said...

Great to see another blog about chinuch, welcome. I'll see what I can do to get my 25 readers (that may be generous)over to your blog as well.

Although I have to think about your theory more, my first reaction is that it does not provide a reason to learn Gemara for Gemara's sake, but rather an ancillary reason. Reading a number of machshava seforim for example can also show you how Judaism encourages tempered open-mindedness.

We can't ignore the veracity of the classic explanations because they aren't persuasive to our students. The fact that they don't value concepts such as Mesorah and in-depth understanding of halacha is a problem stemming more from their upbringings than a dearth of meaningful reasons for Gemara learning.

Akiva L. said...

Great post, as this issue has long bothered me and you explanation is a good one. While what I am about to suggest may fall out of the realm of this blog, I was wondering how we could use this complexity-commitment approach to prayer. For it seems, especially during weekday prayer, that we are those automatons, mindlessly murmuring words that we are told to say. Thoughts?

Aaron Ross said...

Hang in there Akiva, tefilla is a topic that will appear here soon.