Monday, December 6, 2010

Follow-up to Why Teach Gemara

After I posted my essay on why we teach Gemara, my colleague Rabbi Pesach Sommer contacted me with what I would consider to be the obvious response - do I really expect high school students to be impressed with my view that Gemara is important because it teaches us how to expand our horizons while still remaining tethered to certain basic rules and principles? Doesn't that all sound a bit high-minded, perhaps to an adult and certainly to a 17-year old who is trying to figure out things such as college applications and plans for the summer?

On one level, there is no doubt that I agree with Rabbi Sommer's critique. While there are certainly some high school students who are capable and willing to discuss issues of broader hashkafa in a serious way, there are many, many more who are in no way interested in such discussions. To the extent that that is true, my comments are really directed more towards the teachers. I believe to a certain extent in a trickle-down theory of education. By that I mean that on some level teachers are salesmen (and saleswomen). The best salesman does not present you with a cogent and rational argument for why you should buy his product; instead, he shows you how much he loves the product and how much he really wants you to enjoy all of the benefits that he is already receiving.

Teachers operate within a similar framework. We are charged with not only imparting knowledge, but with making the students want to receive the knowledge. In a word, we are in the sales division. How do we make a convincing case? By showing the students the coolest aspects of our subjects? By giving them good grades? Of course not. We sell a discipline to students by convincing them that it is, in a word, awesome. And the best way to make that case is to show that we truly believe in that as well. A teacher who is asked to teach something that he does not really care about can manage to present decent or even really good lessons, but without the passion for the subject matter the chances are that the students will pass through the class without gaining any true inspiration.

Back to my essay. My goal was to offer a rationale for teaching Gemara that went beyond Gemara itself, and perhaps even beyond formal study itself. I was aiming to articulate a higher purpose for the study of this most difficult text that could serve as a focal point for a teacher bogged down in the minutiae of actually teaching key words and punctuation. If a teacher can formulate for his or herself a notion that Gemara is important for the intellectual-religious development of the students (and the teacher!), then all of the details become important steps in the path of that development.

On the other hand, I believe that my reason for learning Gemara is one that teachers discuss with their students all of the time, beginning perhaps in Middle School. The notion that Judaism is a religion of responsibilities, not of rights, and yet still has room for personal expression, is an issue that I have found to be very important to a lot of students. Certainly in an age where so many people do whatever parts of religion appeal to them, our students often have a hard time dealing with tidal waves of halachic minutiae. While we may not always explain that Gemara is training for appreciating this approach to Judaism, if the point that I made in my previous post is one that we make in different guises to our students on many occasions, then I feel that we have a chance to show them that Gemara is relevant for exactly this reason.

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.

Welcome to the Thinking About Chinuch Blog

Welcome to my latest project - the Thinking About Chinuch blog. As a formal and informal educator for the past 15 years (probably more, actually), I have developed and semi-developed all sorts of ideas and thoughts about all different aspects of education - both Jewish education specifically as well as general education issues. The purpose of this blog will be to air out some of my thoughts, most specifically as they apply to a Jewish (generally Orthodox) educational context.

In addition, I will occasionally write about various technologies that I am using (or have seen others use) in limudei kodesh classrooms. While there are a wealth of edtech blogs out there, often limudei kodesh teachers do not see how it all applies to them. While I do not have enough edtech to fill an entire blog (but check out Tzvi Pittinsky's TechRav for more of that), I should have enough to keep things interesting in between my rants.

A few notes as we begin.

1) I am keeping the comments section open, as my goal is to spur discussion and debate. However, I am requesting and insisting that comments remain civil and constructive, and I am requesting as well that people use their real names. I have long detested people who flame others on blog comment sections under the comfort of "anonymous," and I will have very minimal tolerance for such behavior on this blog. As I tell my students - this country is a democracy, but this classroom - and this blog - is a dictatorship.

2) All hashkafot are welcome here, but all must adhere to that principle. I believe strongly that איזהו חכם - הלומד מכל אדם and thus I find admirable traits in hashkafot and schools systems both to my right as well as to my left. If your approach is "my way or the highway", then I invite you to look for the get-off ramp.

3) Not every idea that I express here actually represents my firmly-held opinion. I try to keep an open mind about as many things as possible, and thus I am willing to at least toy with certain ideas and notions that people are often nervous about raising. My goal is to challenge people's thinking (including my own), and the only way to really do that is to start by stepping out of the box once in a while.

Looking forward to a fun experiment. The first post will go up within a day - give people a chance to alert others to the existence of this blog.