“Of Fainting Maidens and Wells” Bible Study in the Yeshiva Curriculum

  • by: Ya'akov Beasley

My paper dealt with an issue close to my heart: the traditional neglect of Bible study within yeshivot. I am always intrigued how the so-called People of the Book have no knowledge of that book. The paper studied three areas relevant to the discussion: the halachic sources, a historical overview of yeshivot throughout the ages, and contemporary issues that have arisen due to the relative increase in Bible study in our generation. Unbeknownst to me at the beginning of the project, I had to explore a fourth area of study: why yeshivot? I discovered that the discussions and debates that arose regarding the inclusion of Bible study in the yeshiva curriculum revolved around the larger issue of what purpose yeshivot fulfilled in Jewish society. Without a resolution of the second question, then one can properly analyze the first.

Pirkei Avot (5:24) explicitly states that Bible study belongs in a yeshiva’s curriculum. Other similar Talmudic statements laud Bible study, even if only for its utilitarian role in properly understanding the Oral Law. The ensuing halachic discussion as to the normative and binding nature of these statements reflected the split that existed historically between Ashkenazic and Sefardic Jewry regarding Bible study. Unlike Ashkenaic Jewry, Sefardim regularly studied Bible in their yeshivot, even into the modern era. Maimonide’s clear ruling that “a person should divide his study time into three equal sections, to study Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11) reflects this. Similarly, the rich exegetic literature that emanated from Spanish Jewry did not consist of (nor required) the apologetics that characterize Ashkenazic commentators. The situation in Ashkenaz differed greatly; after the first Crusades, we find that yeshiva curriculum consisted almost entirely of Talmudic study. This is reflected in Rabbeinu Tam’s (TB Kiddushin 30a) explanation that since the Babylonian Talmud is all-encompassing, a person fulfills his requirement to study Bible by studying it. His ruling is accepted without reservation by the Ashkenazic codifiers, although debate exists as to its breadth (cf. The Bach vs. The Shach, Yoreh Deah 245, regarding the education of school-children). Talmudic statements that allude to the possible negative effects of Bible study, most notably R’ Eliezer’s dictum “keep your children away from ‘higayon’” (TB Brachot 28b), are similarly re-interpreted by the two camps, each according to its own view.

Two major historical factors arose that caused the yeshivot to limit Bible study, and concentrate on Talmud instead. Potential heretical threats, including the Karaites, the Christians, the Shabbateans, the Hasidim, and the Enlightment, all turned to the Bible as a source of justification for their views. Rabbinic leaders of each era responded by limiting Bible study in favor of the more pristine Talmud. The other, more significant factor was the transformation of the yeshiva as a tool of mass education to an educational institution that concentrated on producing an elite strata of scholars and community leaders. With this change in purpose, the curriculum naturally was adjusted to emphasize Talmudic studies. Both changes, the limiting of Bible study and the evolving role of yeshiva as elitist, were was not accepted placidly, without reservations or opposition. Notable among the leaders and movements who protested this development were the German Pietists, the Maharal, the Hasidic movement, and Western European leaders, whose educational institutions paralleled the Sefardic yeshivot much more then they resembled the Lithuanian models. Rabbi Dessler’s writings (Michtav meEliyahu, vol. 3, p. 355-358) were a major source of information for this discussion.

As Bible study in contemporary yeshivot increases, several new fears and hesitations are emerging. Because of both its historical neglect, and the naturally dynamic nature of literary study, the proper methodology for Bible study had not yet been invented. Fears of “pseudo-scientific” inquiries, based on either the superficial level of present Bible classes in yeshivot, or the rejection of rabbinic mediation and exegesis, still prevail in many places. Bible’s unique relationship with the new settlement in the Land of Israel has yet to be defined. As yeshiva study once again becomes a mass, populist movement among Orthodox Jewry, these issues await resolution in the years to come.
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