Teaching About Textual Transmissions: How Important? How Necessary?

May 20, 2007

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at 1989, 3:3, pg.44. Reprinted here with permission.

RABBI CARMY is on the faculty of Yeshiva University in Bible and Philosophy. Among his recent publications is the Torah U’Mada Reader. He has also served as executive editor of Tradition..
The following is a response to the invitation in the Winter ’89 issue of Ten Da’at for reactions to the issues raised by Rabbi Marvin Spiegelman in his article “The Role of Text Transmittal” on the problems connected with the transmission of Talmudic and other texts.

The issue(s) of text transmittal indeed ought to be confronted by every teacher. But must they be presented to tenth-grade students? Are these issues essential or unavoidable?
There are puzzles no student can avoid on the road to a mature relationship with G-d. The existence of evil, and the mystery of the death of a child from cancer, are obvious examples. But those who remain merrily oblivious to the fine points of the history of textual transmission can be just as profound yere Shamayim as those who fancy themselves heroic because they ceaselessly debate how much one can curry favor with the Bible critics before one’s status in Orthodox society is affected. Even at the advanced level, our theological conversation with Tanakh and Chazal has suffered because we are too easily distracted by preoccupations that, however legitimate they may be, contribute neither to fear of G-d nor to His love. 1

Is engagement with Rabbi Spiegelman’s issues inevitable? This is an empirical question. I don’t recall my peers in high school reacting with “very visible alarm” to the merest whiff of a hakhi garsinan. At the age of fourteen, I studied Sanhedrin 4 and knew the Haggahot haBach who noted that the Gemara’s text of Chumash differs from the printed text. I did not find these facts particularly damaging to traditional Judaism – and not because I was anxious to defend it. What registered in my mind was that whatever problem existed – the meforshim knew about it and presumably had it under advisement; as Rabbi Spiegelman puts it, they did not “go into a panic over the discrepancies.” I don’t recall my classmates making a big deal of it either. Perhaps the situation has changed. 2

As a college professor, I find it necessary to acquaint students with the basic data on textual transmission in order to enhance their learning and (as Rebbeim or parents) teaching, and in order to forestall the dismay and revulsion, a self-respecting human being feels when s/he suspects that teachers have kept the truth from hirn/her. 3 I would be disappointed were students become preoccupied with these matters. Rav Soloveitchik shlita surely took the call to learn Torah as an invitation to the inevitable pain that accompanies knowledge. Yet one could hardly say that he considers textual transmission a primary arena in which the existential agony of soul-making is to be played out.

But even if high school students are not, as a rule, alarmed by a hakhi garsinan, the Rebbi must nevertheless know everything Rabbi Spiegelman refers to and much more, both for his own edification and for the sake of the occasional troubled student in private conference. If, however, the spontaneous alarm reported by Rabbi Spiegelman is widespread, then his proposal that the subject is introduced as a “planned tangent” is surely in place.

One must, however, be fully prepared for the possible outcome of such a discussion. One may appeal to the siya’ta dishmaya that guides the halakhic corpus, but the fact remains that an error in textual transmission is no cause for rejoicing. This is why Rabbi Spiegelman, having asserted that one should not be troubled by these phenomena, goes on to assure us that they are rare. A rejected text may still be a cheftza shel Torah -“part of the dynamic dialectic of the mesorah, ” especially when the rejected text has been incorporated I into the mainstream of learning, but sometimes a rejected text is only a mistake.

Likewise, one may point out that the text of Tanakh was carefully preserved by baalei haMasora. Yet once the beam of skepticism is let out of the bag, untempered logic progresses daily down the slippery slope, leaving the evidence far behind. Oh, what fun it is to slide from Talmudic text to Biblical text, from taamei ha-mikra to the vowels, from vowels to consonants, from variant to emendation, from one tiny emendation to several, until the breached is broader than the standing, the Torah script is mechezei k’menumar; the halakha as inaudible as Nixon’s tape.

Of course, mature individuals don’t engage in this sort of wild inference. But the high school teacher must take the realistic maturity of the experienced maamin(a} as a goal rather than a given. S/he must be ready, intellectually and didactically, for such challenges. S/he must communicate a judgment on these subjects in a matter-of-fact way, without putting too much weight on one particular “pet” resolution, without drawing attention obsessively to questions for which students are not yet ripe, and above all without betraying the discomfort or defensiveness that nurture a morbid fascination with these questions.

Rabbi Spiegelman is to be commended for pointing out the necessity for such intellectual and pedagogic preparation on the part of Torah educators. He is to be admired for his willingness to share his own experience in the classroom.

1 See my “To Get the Better of Words: An Apology for Yirat Shamayim in Jewish Studies” (to be published by YU Torah U-Madda Project under the editorship of Rabbi J.J. Shachter).
2 Is this perhaps because young, sophisticated educators jazz up their teaching by encouraging such inquiry? I hope not, but if so, will my former students please sit up straight and pay attention to what I’m saying.
3 This is one of the goals of the Bible 1015 course that I and several colleagues offer at YU.