Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Do We Still Need Gemaras?

When I was first learning Gemara, before the advent of Artscroll, if you wanted a text that could help you out, you basically had two choices.  The old-school choice was the Soncino translation, an English version of the Gemara that was written in a vocabulary almost as difficult as the Hebrew/Aramaic original.  Alternatively, there was the Steinsaltz Gemara, a new and new-fangled version that was quite intriguing.  Rather than maintain the classic "Vilna" layout of the page, Steinsaltz broke the text into topical paragraphs, added punctuation, and included his own running commentary/explanation alongside those of Rashi and Tosafot, the two "big guns" on the standard page.  For making all of these seemingly helpful changes to the page (not to the text, which remained the same), Steinsaltz was widely excoriated and shunned, and by the time he finally got around to completing his massive work, the Artscroll revolution was upon us.

You can read more about the controversy over Steinsaltz's Gemara at this post by my friend David Zinberg. The main issue that he raises is one that is bubbling up right now for Jewish educators - do we even need to hand our students actual Gemaras (or Chumashing or Mishnayot or Neviim) anymore?  I am speaking specifically about schools that are trying out iPads for all students - there are several apps, some of them free, that contain the complete text of many classic Jewish texts.  Why not just have the students reference that version of the text on the same device that they are using to take notes?  It would avoid having students forget their books, and would provide opportunities for all sorts of innovative ways to learn and study.

One issue that Zinberg points out is the veneration of the classic Vilna layout of the page, completed between 1880 and 1886 by the Romm publishing house. In truth, the basic layout goes even further back and the Romm edition is merely the latest one to gain near-total acceptance.  Steinsaltz took heat for breaking that down.  Meanwhile, versions of the Gemara that add vowels to the Vilna page are seen perhaps as a crutch, but not as a threat, and the Artscroll Gemara, which severely reduces the need for the learner to put in all that much effort, has been heralded as the greatest thing to happen to Torah learning since Sinai.  The Artscroll iPad app, for all of its innovation, kept the standard page layout, and thus has received many of the same accolades as the print edition.

But should any of that matter?  Ask any Gemara teacher in Middle School or High School to list the skills that he or she is teaching, and "knowing how to navigate the standard page of Gemara" will certainly be on the list, but will likely be something to which only a small amount of time is devoted.  Vocabulary, key words, identifying whether a Tanna or an Amora is speaking, learning the different parts of the Gemara's argument - these are the key skills which occupy our time in the classroom, and they can all be learned regardless of the page layout.  By contrast, no such insistence on a page layout is required or even desired in any of the other text-based Judaic subjects - we tend to look for the edition that will work best for the students.

I am not saying that using a running text of the Gemara using the U'v'lechtecha BaDerech app is necessarily the best way to go.  Perhaps the sugya-based iBooks currently being crowdsourced through an effort of Rabbi Mordechai Smolarcik will be the wave of the future.  On the other hand, I can think of a variety of reasons why I might prefer an old-school paper edition of the Gemara in my classroom.  However, it is an issue whose time has come and that we should be prepared to explain to ourselves and our students why we are using whichever version of the text that we have decided to use.

What are your thoughts on the matter?  Please share in the comments section.


David S. Zinberg said...

Aaron - thanks for the citation.

Just to be clear, I am an unqualified supporter of the Steinzaltz program. Largely for aesthetic reasons, I favor the layout of the original Steinzaltz over that of the punctuated-Vilna dapim in the Koren. And, I fail to understand how Vilna-style "tzuras hadaf" has come to be regarded as a 14th Principle of Faith.

I also believe that a standard layout is educationally valuable -- on the printed page as well as on a screen. I just wish that Talmud educators would give the original Steinzaltz a chance to become that standard, especially for young students.

Daniel Rothner said...

I fully embrace using technology but think that if we never use an actual text we are failing our students.

Gershon said...

You are making the assumption that it is worthwhile to begin with for middle school students to learn gemorah at all. I would argue that it's not for the overwhelming majority of students and that we should go back to heeding the words of our sages in Pirkei Avos and start introducing gemorah to kids at a much later point.

Aaron Ross said...

Gershon - two responses:

1) When to begin learning Gemara is not the subject of the post. I have plenty to say on the topic (check the Lookjed archives), and as a teacher in the only school I know that has actually pushed back its beginning of Gemara (from 6th to 7th) in recent years, I would assume that we more or less agree.

2) Either way, that was not the topic of this post. My focus was on whether or not we still need to use the standard text editions as opposed to ebooks or ibooks. I used Gemara as my main example, since the standard layout seems to have acquired some unexplained kedusha, but the main thrust of the post can apply to Chumash and Navi as well.