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Torah Study and the Value of Scholarship
Accomplishing great things with Torah requires a clear definition of what we want to become
We all know that Talmud Torah is a fundamental element of Jewish life, and we’ve probably all given some thought to how we intend to go about fulfilling this particular mitzva. (Although, as I discussed in an earlier post, perhaps we haven’t planned things out quite as well as we could.)
But there’s no way any one of us can expect to learn and master everything, to follow every methodological approach, or perhaps even to properly introduce ourselves to every genre of Torah literature (have you even opened a מכילתא or each of theמסכתות קטנות?). So, practically, we’ll need to specialize by defining narrow goals for ourselves that cover smaller subsets of the entire Torah.
Choosing a Torah specialization isn’t just about how you want to spend your time, but what kind of human being you want to be and what you’d like to leave behind after you die. After all (as I wrote recently) the reason the Talmud (Shekalim 2:5) discourages markers at the graves of the righteous is because the words of Torah they shared while alive provide all the memorials they’ll need.
Which makes thinking about what we plan to learn, how we plan to learn it, and who we’re going to learn with even more important. I’d like to talk about the role scholarship plays in all this.
What is scholarship, anyway? As a friend of mine used to put it, a good scholar is anyone who has mastered the full scope of material on which his work is based (all the rishonim and poskim on a topic along with all the relevant Gemaras, for example); who always identifies and reliably represents his sources; and manages to avoid internal inconsistencies.
I would add that scholarship also requires that you start the discussion from a common set of axioms. That might mean, for instance, being able to establish that a particular source text is both unambiguous and authoritative. After all, if we don’t agree on the basics, we’re certainly not going to gain much from whatever comes next.
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Within the context of Torah study, what shapes can scholarship take? To some degree, that’ll depend on where along the Jewish political spectrum you see yourself. Here’s one way to break that down:
The isolationist approach assumes that external resources are neither required nor even permitted for one to achieve excellence in pure, unadulterated Torah. Many people and institutions claim to follow this approach, but I’m personally unconvinced such Torah can exist in the real world. Everyone develops within an intellectual environment unique to his historical age and some of his assumptions are bound to be foreign. It’s often only a question of how obvious the impact of those assumptions is.
The comprehensive approach uses broad familiarity with Tanach and Chazal to build conceptual superstructures from parallel classical sources (think: מדמה מילתא למילתא). In recent centuries at least, this approach has often implicitly employed externally-inspired methodologies. The Maharatz Chiyus is an excellent example of this style.
The blended approach will openly incorporate methodologies from external sources in the service of organic, Chazal-based insights similar in scope to the comprehensive approach. Examples of this approach include Rambam (inspired by Aristotle and others) and R’ Hirsch (inspired by Kant, Schiller, and others).
The faithful academic approach makes use of the full set of formal historical, anthropological, archaeological, and epistemological tools and combines them with a largely traditional attitude towards the authority of Tanach and Chazal. Prominent examples of this method include Professors Joshua Berman, Yoel Elitzur, David Berger, and Sid Leiman.
Participants of the critical academic approach are ready to adopt conclusions of critical academic scholarship without feeling the need to push back against anti-Torah positions.
Personally, I’m a Hirschian by inclination. But I’m often excited by insights - coming from the faithful academic world - into what might have inspired our ancestors to choose a particular innovation or response to changes in the world around them. There are countless intriguing questions waiting to be answered, like:
Why did Chazal offer nearly two dozen sources proving that God will, at the end of history, revive the dead, but - as far as I can see - not a single word about the other twelve principles of faith of the Rambam?
What parallels exist between ideas and patterns associated with the explosion of 16th Century innovation centered around Tzfas and intellectual trends in European society over the previous century?
How might a better understanding of ancient political and military events provide useful context for various Tanach narratives?
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Presumably, even God Himself acted in response to earthly events. And, from time to time, Chazal hinted to some of the events that inspired their decisions. Identifying more of those would be just some of the potential benefits from incorporating scholarship from a broader scope into our learning plans.
Having said that, it’s wise to remember the old joke that “some academics know what color socks Rashi wore, but have no clue what he taught”. Not all scholarship has value for us.
And not all scholarship is even worth pursuing. There’s always the risk of over-specializing to the point that you’re not really studying anything at all. That happens in the academic world often enough. But don’t forget those who feel they’re somehow achieving their life’s mission through a half-asleep Daf Yomi shiur or focus on just the first ten daf from the half a dozen “yeshivishe” mesechtos.
I don’t believe that God wants all of us to spend our lives learning exactly the same content. I also believe that what we do learn will largely define our successes in life, what we end up contributing to the world around us, and what we leave behind.
Any thoughts? Please do share them.