Implications Of Academic Approaches To The Study Of The Babylonian Talmud For The Beliefs And Religious Attitudes Of The Student

  • by: Pinchas Hayman

From Abiding Challenges: Research Perspectives on Jewish Education Edited by Yisrael Rich and Michael Rosenak

 

1. Fundamental values, objectives, and textual learning assumptions  in religious education

Jewish religious education today, in distinction to post-modern trends in general education, is characterized by its attempt to educate its pupils to a specific faith,  defined values and obligatory behavioral patterns.[1]  Torah, Tanakh, Mishnah, Gemara, Halakhah, History of the Jewish People, Jewish Philosophy and related disciplines are not informational “Jewish Studies”, but sacred religious studies. The student is intended to internalize and adopt fundamental absolute values, translating them into defined faith positions, religious attitudes, and behavioral imperatives:  fervent belief in God as creator and commander, God’s choice of Israel as a people chosen from among all nations, receipt of the Torah through specific, manifest divine revelation as a result of the events at Mount Sinai, authority of the sages in each generation to render binding interpretation of the revealed tradition, exacting observance of Torah and Rabbinic legislation, and intense personal and collective determination to maintain and promote these positions.[2]

In order to inculcate absolute religious values and concepts, religious educational institutions often teach traditional sources according to textual assumptions which, though not supported explicitly by curricular documentation[3], are obvious in classroom observations and prevalent in student interviews:

  • The entire Five Books of Moses (the Written Tradition) were actually physically given at Mount Sinai[4]
  • The Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi is the Oral Tradition which was given at Mount Sinai together with the Written Tradition[5]
  • The Babylonian Talmud, which was edited and sealed by Rav Ashi and Rabina, presents the sole authoritative interpretation of the Mishnah
  • The Halakhah as detatiled in the Shulkhan Arukh and responsa literature is the direct result of the Talmudic enterprise and is not given to alteration or cancellation.

Distinct from the absolute values and faith positions themselves which are well-documented in the Biblical, Tannaitic and Talmudic literatures, these textual assumptions have virtually nothing in common with the teachings of the Pharisees, the Tannaim, the Amoraim, and those who followed them, and are indefensible  according to historical, logical and literary criteria.  For example, the books of the Torah present themselves as having been formulated and presented to the nation of Israel at different points during the forty years of wandering in the Sinai desert, and completed only days prior to the entry into Israel under Joshua.[6]  The two Tannaitic positions on Torah formulation – that the Torah was given in segments, or that the Torah was given whole at the end of the wandering[7] – agree that the Torah was not given whole at Sinai!  Similarly, it is quite obvious that the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi includes both ancient oral traditions and Tannaitic legislation that evolved over the generations, and from a literary point of view was formulated and accumulated over the two hundred years before its “publication”.[8]  The prevalent textual assumptions regarding the Babylonian Talmud, which will be discussed in detail, are no less anachronistic.

Apparently, the textual assumptions of religious education are rooted in exaggeration intended to simplify, define and codify the approaches to be presented to students.  Although one could debate the psycho-social motivations of the religious education system to so extensively “disambiguate” and predigest Jewish theology for its students, there can be no doubt that codified oversimplification has serious far-reaching implications for the cognition and attitudes of students.  Here, I will concentrate on the prevalent textual assumptions of religious education with regard to the study of the Babylonian Talmud vis-a-vis the academic approaches to its study, because I am convinced that they have the greatest practical implication of all the textual assumptions on the faith and religious attitudes of pupils.

 

  1. Centrality of Oral Tradition  in religious education,  textual assumptions for the study of the Babylonian Talmud in religious schools

 

The study of the Oral Tradition literature[9], and specifically the Babylonian Talmud, dominates secondary religious educational programs.  In yeshivah high schools, study of the Babylonian Talmud alone fills twenty to twenty-five weekly hours, and when combined with its related disciplines of Mishnah and Halakhah, many additional hours as well.  Religious high schools for boys devote ten to twelve weekly hours to the study of Talmud, and more than half of all Jewish Studies hours to the literature of the Oral Tradition as a whole.   In “ulpanot” and religious high schools for girls, both in institutions which support learning of the Talmud by girls and in those which do not, study of Oral Tradition literature comprises the majority of Jewish Studies hours.  In post-secondary religious institutions, study of the Talmud and related Oral Tradition disciplines becomes radically disproportionate by any standard whatever, often taking over fifty hours of study per week, as opposed to less than five hours a week for Tanakh study, for instance.  Evaluation of wisdom and understanding of Jewish sources is virtually exclusively restricted to mastery of the Talmud and its related disciplines[10], and religious leadership in the Jewishly observant world is entirely a function of Talmudic knowledge.  It is clear that the faith positions and religious attitudes of students, and of religious society as a whole, will be dramatically effected by the textual assumptions and methods applied to the learning of Talmud.

It is customary in primary, secondary and post-secondary religious education to approach Talmud study with the following six basic assumptions:

  1.  The Babylonian Talmud is the authoritative interpretation of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi on which it is based.
  2.  The Babylonian Talmud is an exhaustive edition of the bona fide opinions of the sages, and only that which is brought in the Talmud has been adopted as accepted practice.  Hence, there is no practical purpose in the study of extra-Babylonian Talmudic sources, such as the Yerusahalmi.[11]
  3.  The text of the Babylonian Talmud as learned today was edited, fixed, sealed and written by Rav Ashi and Rabina, heads of the academy in Mata Mehasia in the fifth century, as stated in the Talmud itself:  “Rav Ashi and Rabina are the end of instruction.”[12]  Hence, the entire content of the Talmud as it appears in the printed versions is binding on all Israel as the final decisions of the formal redactors of the Oral Tradition.
  4.  In editing the Talmud, Rav Ashi and Rabina related primarily to the halakhic import of the statements of their forebears, without recourse to  historic context or prevailing conditions in time, place and society.  Therefore, it is possible to relate to the hundreds of sages appearing in the text of the Talmud as if they sat together in a single generation and debated the concepts and halakhic issues studied in the Talmudic discourses.  Study of the Talmud should concentrate on the conceptual definitions of halakhic statements on the various topics, and these definitions should be analyzed through abstract schema detached from the reality of the statements themselves.[13]
  5.  The Vilna edition of the Talmud[14] is the authoritative and accepted printing of the edition of Rav Ashi and Rabina, and the very layout of the Vilna page has sanctity as an expression of Divine Providence.[15]  Alternative printings of the text can be considered, at most, as learning aids for initial preparation before the actual learning to be done in the Vilna text.
  6.  The Babylonian Talmud is the sole source for the halakhah in later periods, and there is utter unanimity between the Talmudic text and halakhic practice in our day.  Apparent differences between the Talmud and halakhah can be explained through more abstract definitions of both.

According to these assumptions, it would appear that the linguistic and literary phenomena in the Talmud play no role whatever in studying the text:  there can be no significance to the fact that the text presents statements of hundreds of scholars hailing from two separate countries, dozens of various academies over seven generations[16], because one may relate to them as if they all lived together in one place, at one time.  There can be no significance to the fact that the Talmudic texts are a composite of Hebrew and Aramaic components[17], utilizing loan words from Greek, Latin, Persian and other languages[18], since the entire text was edited uniformly by Rav Ashi and Rabina.  There can be no significance to the various cultures described in the text, or to the differences in thinking and analysis of various locales and academies mentioned in the discourses, since one should relate to halakhic material as dictates above time and place.

These assumptions bring the pupil to conceptual-attitudinal guidelines as well:  Since one should relate to the text as if it is above time, place, and historical, social or national conditions, and as if it is divorced from the spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical and social realities of the tradents, it would stand to reason that the halakhah derived from the Talmud by later authorities would be beyond any given personal or collective reality, infallible and unchangeable.  Halakhah should be seen as the fruit of abstract legal thinking of ancient scholars who were divinely authorized to establish, and who did establish, what is appropriate and inappropriate for our lifestyle.

Working with such assumptions, the student of the text is called upon to transcend him/herself to become, in effect, an instrument for transmission of the data of the Talmudic system, a technical carrier of the tradition, but is not authorized, permitted or capable of personal participation in the halakhic process of the text.

 

  1. Academic assumptions for study of the Babylonian Talmud

Over the last century, academic research into the Babylonian Talmud[19] has produced alternative approaches to analysis of the text based on textual assumptions which differ significantly from those prevalent in today’s religious educational institutions.  As will become apparent, the approaches termed “academic” or “scientific” today are actually closer to the approaches of classical Talmudic scholars[20] than those in use by traditional religious institutions today.  The “scientific-academic” approaches may be summarized as follows:

  1.  The Babylonian Talmud is a reservoir of literary and legal sources which includes interpretations of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi and  other Tannaitic materials[21], and independent legislation[22] of the scholars of various Babylonian academies and communities.
  2.  The Babylonian Talmud is neither the only nor the exclusive reservoir of traditions of the sages from the Talmudic period, and should be learned in the context of the entire Rabbinic literature from the period.[23]  Furthermore, even study of all extant Rabbinic literature from the Talmudic period would only yield a partial literary picture, since large quantities of material did not survive, or was not passed on to us.[24]
  3.  The text of the Talmud we use today was not edited, fixed, sealed or written by Rav Ashi and Rabina.  The Babylonian Talmud contains various editions of the Amoraic traditions up to the time of Rav Ashi and Rabina[25], including their own edition, with the sizable and significant addition of traditions which accumulated organically in and around the text during hundreds of years after Rav Ashi and Rabina, during the Saboraic and Gaonic periods.[26]  Since the Talmud itself says that “Rav Ashi and Rabina are the end of instruction”, the material which accumulated after them is obviously not “instruction” in the same sense, but rather interpretations and comments of scholars after the period of “instruction.”  With all due reverence and respect to these later scholars, they cannot be allocated the authoritative, binding halakhic authority of those who preceded them, deemed scholars of the “instruction.”  Even more significantly for the student of the Talmud,  the two different types of material in the Talmud – the Amoraic and post-Amoraic materials – think, learn and teach in totally different, and sometimes contradictory, ways.[27]  Therefore, study of the Talmud should concentrate first on separation of the binding halakhic traditions from the Amoraic period from the interpretive, non-binding later material, and only afterward on the conceptual analysis of specific materials from one period or the other.    The Talmudic text allows recognition of the various materials through technical means:  early material was edited with the name of the tradent attached to the tradition, while later material, which accumulated unedited through a process described below, was left as an anonymous text.[28]  Additionally, Amoraic halakhic material was generally presented in Hebrew, while later interpretive material was left in colloquial Aramaic.[29]
  4.  The Amoraic material in the Talmud, which was edited and transmitted with the names of its tradents and generally in Hebrew, is also presented in the Talmud in chronological sequence, due to the gradual process of its  accumulation.[30]  Thus, the sequence of traditions automatically creates a layered text which reflects the evolution of the halakhah.  Every statement must be understood in its specific historical, cultural and conceptual context, since halakhic decision-making was according to considerations of time, place and prevailing circumstances.  Study of the Talmud demands attention to the realia of the text, and their influence on the traditions.
  5.  There is no one authoritative printing of the Talmud, and all printings should be studied in comparison with the manuscripts from which they were produced, and in light of all manuscript and printed edition variants available.[31]  There is benefit to alternative printings of the text which aid in understanding of the textual history and the evolution of the layered material and its relationship with the later, interpretive material.
  6.  The development of the halakhah in the post-Talmudic periods is a discipline in and of itself, and is to be studied in light of the prevailing conditions of the various halakhic decisions in different times and places.  The connection of later halakhah to the Talmud is relevant, but not exclusive.[32]

The fundamental method arising from these assertions is that it is possible, and desirable, to distinguish between the Oral Tradition itself and its literature.  Oral Tradition itself is a dynamic legal process which entails constant Rabbinic implementation of the values and principles of the Torah under changing circumstances.  The literature of the Oral Tradition, including the Mishnah, the Midrashei Halakhah, the Tosefta,  the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud of the Land of Israel, are the literary products of the process, from given time and space coordinates.  Through proper study of the literature, it is possible to uncover the dynamic process itself and, by definition of the legal and value-orientational thought processes behind the specific decisions brought in the texts, reach conclusions about halakhic imperatives for conditions unlike those discussed.   Ipso facto, specific decisions brought in the texts can only bind later generations if proper comparative process yields the conclusion that prevailing circumstances match those discussed in the text itself.  That is, the appropriate study of text moves the center of attention from its contents to its process.  This concept is expressed in numerous sources from post-Talmudic periods, including the following notable selection from the responsum of Abraham, son of Maimonides[33] (translation mine):

“In summary, I say that a judge who makes his decisions only according to what is clearly written in the texts is weak and ineffectual, and in this way he undoes what the sages said:  ‘a judge must decide according to what he sees’…  written precedents are the basis, but the one who must decide or judge needs to consider them according to each matter which comes before him, and to compare each law to the sources according to the circumstances, deriving new laws from the precedents.  The many incidents recorded in the Talmud were not written without purpose, and also not in order that the later judge should decide according to the decision recorded in them, but rather so that the judge will acquire by means of their repeated study his own ability to reason and make his own decisions.”[34]

Similarly, one finds the following in the commentary  “Maggid Mishneh”[35] on the code of the Maimonides[36] (translation mine):

“Our pure Torah was given for the purpose of perfecting the characteristics of the person and his behavior in the world, as it is said:  ‘you shall be holy.’  The intention here is, as our sages said:  ‘sanctify yourself even in the things permitted to you’, … and it would not have been appropriate to command details, since the commandments of the Torah are intended for all times and all matters, and the characteristics and behavior of people are constantly changing according to the period and the population…”

In other words, Talmudic texts intend to exemplify spiritual and value-oriented thought process, and not primarily to fix specific halakhic practice.  The judge or teacher is responsible for the application of proper judgment, according to the needs of the time, the place, and the prevailing circumstances.

  1. Development of mistaken textual assumptions for study of the Babylonian Talmud

If the “scientific-academic” approaches to the learning and teaching of Talmud are indeed the more original and accurate approaches to the text,  what caused religious educational systems to adopt the less accurate approaches prevalent today?

The prevalent approaches reflect a long, gradual process of transferring and transposing ancient oral legal traditions, which operated as case law, into formulated, written and printed traditions, which operate as statutory law.  This process can be reduced to four basic stages:

  1.  Creation of standardized literary formulation of ancient oral traditions began in the middle of the Tannaitic period.[37]  From the many codices of ancient traditions in the many Tannaitic academies, formulated in many different styles and according to varying topical and associative methods,[38] complex  midrashic and halakhic codices began to take shape (of which the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi is one of the latest, and possibly primus inter pares[39]). These complex codices served as fixed oral “readers” of Tannaitic traditions, intended to protect and preserve the traditions against the vicissitudes of Roman domination and persecution, and through constant repetition and orderly study they became the daily fare of the late Tannaitic academies.  Standardized formulation did restrict the flexibility and adaptability of the ancient oral sources to a certain extent, but since these collections were not necessarily written down, and certainly were not used in public learning in written form, the recitation of the fixed sources was always subordinate to the judgment and interpretation of the academy head under whose watchful eye (ear?) the sources were learned and transmitted.
  2.  Toward the end of the Amoraic period and the beginning of the Saboraic, formal, possibly even written versions of these “readers” of Tannaitic and Amoraic sources began to serve as the basis of study,[40] and this process brought about the fixing of the halakhic traditions and their final detachment from their original oral quality and format.  The Oral Tradition literature gradually became a second written tradition, with all the accompanying literary and legal implications.
  3.  In the academies of the Gaonim, study of these written halakhic codices of Tannaitic and Amoraic sources was accompanied by formal learning, characterized by fixed logical and argumentational patterns.[41]  Learning moved from deductive to inductive patterns, from topical discussions to formal analysis, from halakhic decisions to speculative conceptual analysis, from practical learning to hypothetical inquiry.[42]   Recording of the lectures in the Gaonic academies included in one written continuum the written halakhic source materials from the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods together with the formal, hypothetical, speculative analysis and commentary of the Gaonim.  It is highly unlikely that the Gaonim and their recorders actually intended to insert the Gaonic analysis and commentary into the earlier codices, since they left their material in anonymous, Aramaic format, but the very existence of manuscripts of the Gaonic lectures contributed to the further fixation of later students and scholars on the written, expanded text, turning it into a new superstructural literary reality.  Scholars still saw the manuscripts as informal and inexact documentation of the Gaonic discussions, and they corrected and altered them virtually at will according to their analysis of the overall halakhic tradition.[43]  The scholar was still in command, and leading Rishonim continued to actively distinguish between the early, binding halakhic Tannaitic-Amoraic base of the material in the manuscripts and the late, non-binding Gaonic analysis.[44]
  4.  The printing of the Talmud at the end of the fiteenth century, and especially the first printing of the entire Talmud by Bomberg at the end of the first quarter of the sixteenth century,[45] brought about another revolution in the study of the Talmud.  Complex Talmudic texts, combining early halakhic material with later Gaonic speculative analysis, became printed documents, available at will and independent of scholarly control.  In accordance with evolving Western intellectual and literary conventions, these printed Talmudic texts become the fixed, authoritative representations of  Jewish law, without distinction of literary layers, and without reference to the dynamic oral tradition they were originally intended to summarize.   The text had now replaced the scholar as the basis of learning and teaching.  Especially after the Vilna printing, the actual printed format of the text took on a certain sanctity and holiness,[46] leaving the early dynamic processes of the Oral Tradition to atrophy from neglect.

In our day, therefore, the prevalent textual assumptions of the religious schools do not reflect the authentic, original approaches of Jewish scholarship to the study of halakhic traditions, but their gradual disappearance and rejection.  The religious community, under the influence of education in its traditional texts according to modern, non-Jewish methods and printed texts, has turned away from dynamic halakhic process to a conservative, protective stance toward the fixed printed sources, a metamorphosis once termed by Berkovitz – “karaism of the Oral Tradition.”[47]  Renewal of the ancient textual assumptions and methods has come to be termed “academic” and “scientific”, and thus suspect as inadequately devout in the eyes of many instructors of Talmud in institutions of religious education.

  

  1. Implications of  the different approaches to the study of the Babylonian Talmud for the beliefs and religious attitudes of the student 

 

 

What is the influence of today’s prevalent methods in the teaching of Talmud on the thinking, the faith, and the religious attitudes of the pupil, and what are the foreseeable implications of exchanging the existing methods with more “academically” appropriate methods?  Is there substance to the fear of some educators that a student’s realization of the dynamic, developmental nature of Oral Tradition will undermine faith and devotion?

First, one must examine the efficacy of the prevalent approach.  Statistically, approximately two thirds of yeshivah high school graduates do not attain independent learning capability in Talmudic texts, despite dedication of twenty to twenty-five weekly study hours over six school years![48]  Even among “hesder” yeshivah students, who represent the cream of the national religious crop, fully half continue to fail examinations in “unseen” texts after three years of post-secondary Talmudic learning.[49]  Although little academic research can be mustered to confirm the anecdotal evidence, it is well known that the vast majority of yeshivah graduates in the national religious community do not maintain regular study of Talmud after completion of formal studies, a reality which points to the ultimate failure of the process.  My sources also indicate similar problems in “haredi” yeshivot, despite the allocation of yet more time to the study of Talmud in primary and secondary levels.[50]  It is true that these horrifying statistics must be mitigated somewhat by the fact that Talmudic learning, and certainly fluency in Talmud, has historically been the portion of small percentages of the people, thus rendering even success with one third of the students an achievement.  On the other hand, our period is marked by the spread of education to all sectors of the population, and the same yeshivah population which is failing in Talmudic studies is succeeding quite well at advanced natural sciences and technological studies, humanities, social sciences and professional studies in medicine, law, and commerce.  Is it reasonable to assert that Talmud is so much more complicated than quantum physics or molecular biology?

Yet more troubling than the measurable success or failure of religious institutions in the teaching of technical learning skills is the damage being done in the affective realm.  Studies indicate that significant numbers of yeshivah high school students leave high school with a dislike of Talmudics.[51]  Indeed, it is common knowledge among those who train, in-service and support teachers of Talmud in religious schools that there is a growing sense of inadequacy, frustration and guilt at the didactic shortcomings of the present system, mixed with misgivings and suspicion about the “academic” alternatives available.[52]

Beyond these didactic issues, more basic problems present themselves in the realm of the faith positions and religious attitudes resulting from the prevalent approaches.  According to the ideological program of religious education, a religious person is expected to relate to sacred texts as ultimate sources of authority which define one’s lifestyle, one’s values, one’s priorities and even one’s innermost thoughts.  However, these same texts are seen to be beyond comprehension and logic, let alone independent textual inquiry.  In a certain post-secondary institution, a student asked the Talmud teacher about the logical implications of the text under study.  To this question, a second student retorted:  “What?  You expect the Talmud to be logical?”  In such a situation, a student may come to the obviously threatening conclusion that there is not supposed to be any orderly connection between spirituality and  intelligence, between religiosity and cognition, and that  human awareness, sensitivity and reasoning has nothing to do with God-centered life and behavior.  Once this dubious concoction has been internalized by the despairing pupil, what will be the  reactions to the faith positions of others, to their logical challenges to his/her own dogmatic positions?  How is a person to be expected to resolve loyalty to God with rejection of his/her own mind, under pressure of a general society which values empiricism and the reign of reason?    The historic differentiation between Judaism as a spiritual national-legal system on the one hand, and dogmatic-charismatic spiritual systems such as paganism and Christianity on the other hand, becomes obscured, even eliminated, giving support to the secular position that spirituality as a whole is merely a vestige of the primitive, pre-enlightenment, pre-empirical darkness.

For the religious Zionist student, who is taught to believe that the nation of Israel is presently experiencing dynamic, historical and spiritual processes of the first order,[53] the detachment of religious study from reality is likely to have yet more severe repercussions.     The student learns that God has blessed the human initiative to return to Zion, such that history and human experience is seen as a dynamic and creative process, yet God – as represented by sacred texts and their teachers – is seen as rejecting out of hand the very same processes in the spiritual and halakhic realms!  History moves on, but Torah turns off.

It would appear, therefore, that the prevalent didactics for Oral Tradition studies in general, and Talmud in specific, create a contradiction between learning and life.   Teachers of sacred texts claim that their fare is the deepest, most meaningful on earth, yet simple logic and normal cognition render them detached, even ridiculous.  The intelligent student has no escape, and the choice is clear:  if he/she accepts the texts and lifestyle being dictated by teachers, the result is potential rejection of one’s own mind, heart, and experience.  Acceptance of oneself may lead to rejection of religious texts and, with them, religion itself.  Learning leads to passive acceptance of the incomprehensible, life leads to active formulation of the necessary.  Learning leads to submission to authority, life leads to the acceptance of responsibility.  Learning leads to the precedents of the past, life leads to the needs of the present and the future.

“Academic” approaches to the study of text stress the linguistic, literary, and historical phenomena of the text as keys to its understanding.  Hebrew and Aramaic components come from variant periods, variant academies, or both.  Attention to the ordering of these different segments provides critical signposts to the development of the text and evolution of the halakhah itself. Study of the text does not proceed according to the linear presentation of the text in print or manuscript, but according to the order of the creation of the text’s components.[54]  Until publication of the Talmud in a manner conducive to visual recognition of its strata,[55] the Talmud student must acquire the learning skills to scan a Talmudic discourse, mentally map and sort its contents according to objective criteria of time and place, and then – and only then – study the content of the discourse in order of its development.  As a result, the components of the Talmud text receive context:  as one progresses through the discussion, one is called upon to pay attention to the prevailing circumstances surrounding each remark, each step in the evolution of the halakhah, and to relate to the religious, philosophical, social, economic, political, educational or communal motivations for halakhic change.  Jewish observance becomes a prism through which the student can see religiosity as interplay between eternal values and temporal conditions, and Talmudics and halakhah become the map by which one charts the course leading to one’s own day – and beyond.  Halakhah becomes a national-legal process which takes its rightful place alongside and among the dynamic historical and national processes which fill modern life, and Jewish values can justly claim once more to lead, not follow, human development.

Unlike the unresolvable variance between prevalent Talmudic didactics and “academic” Talmudic didactics, academic approaches to Talmudic learning justify smoothly with the fundamental values of religious education.    These values express themselves yet more effectively in an evolving system, especially with regard to the acceptance of Rabbinic authority to adapt and interpret halakhah as needed.  Tradition becomes once more a function of the teacher, not only the text, and the human response to divine revelation becomes as relevant as the revelation itself – because it becomes part of revelation itself.  Torah can indeed be eternal because, like life, it is in perpetual motion.

In a religious educational environment, this approach to halakhic process can be diagrammed in a simple schema consisting of the following equation:

ORIGINAL COMMANDMENT[56] + PREVAILING CONDITIONS[57]

 + PERCEIVED TORAH VALUES AND FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES[58]

= HALAKHIC DECISION[59]

 

According to the absolute values of religious education, the first element of the equation is a obviously a constant, while the second is clearly a variable.  The assumption, and assertion, of religious education is that the third element is also a constant.  According to this assumption, the equation must yield a variable result, as the equation consists of two constants and one variable.  When a decision is made, for whatever reason, to effect a constant result (that is, to turn halakhic practice into a constant), the inescapable inference is that either one must ignore prevailing conditions, or that the third element of the equation becomes variable.  That is, in order to make behavioral norms constant, basic values have to be a variable, but to make values constant, behavioral norms must be variable.  According to this schematic presentation, it is possible to maintain a conception of eternal values only if one is prepared to study practice as an evolving system.  Thus, “academic” approaches to Talmud and halakhah constitute a method to teach texts in a manner consistent with the fundamental values of religious education.

In summary, it can be said that religious education is predicated on the connection between Talmudic text and practice, in the sense that study of the Talmud has immediate relevance to halakhic observance.  Religious educational institutions cannot possibly countenance detachment of the sacred text from the life of the student.  Academic, scientific approaches to the study and teaching of Talmud – which are the original and historically accurate approaches to textual study – provide religious education not only with creative alternatives to ineffective prevalent Talmudic and halakhic didactics, they provide an integrated system rich in intellectual challenge, orderly acquisition of learning skills, and a renewed value-orientation and spiritual relevance for pupils.  Implementation of this “altneu” Talmudic didactic, however, will require thoroughgoing retraining of teachers and teacher-trainers, rewriting of curricula, and creation of new textual editions and learning aids which are suitable for the new didactic and sensitive to the prevailing social and educational conditions.  Most of all, adoption of a new didactic will require a spiritual and intellectual openness and an existential choice for growth and renewal.  From its side, the academic community can do its share through continued and expanded historical, educational, sociological, anthropological, and textual research.  The renewal of dynamic Talmudics  and dynamic halakhah through the application of appropriate learning and teaching techniques carries with it, then, philosophical and spiritual challenges which are virtually eschatological in scope, and promise to be one of the most interesting chapters of modern religious educational history.       

[1] “Religious education” in this article refers to the government religious education system in the State of Israel.  Nevertheless, the discussion of Talmudic didactics is equally relevant for Orthodox schools outside Israel which, according to the most recent statistics of the Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Federation, comprise almost eighty percent of all Jewish schools in the diaspora.  Non-orthodox religious schools will, by their nature, place a greater stress on individual expression of spirituality through a de-emphasis of binding religious traditions.  However, the curricula of non-orthodox religious schools dedicate relatively little time to the topics discussed in this paper, and are therefore less relevant to the present study.

[2] See, for example, the delineation of the affective objectives in the Curriculum for Oral Tradition in the Government Religious Schools (Hebrew) of the Israeli Ministry of Education, 5747 (1987), pages 7-8.

[3] Ibid, page 7.  The curriculum states (translation mine):  “The written Torah, and its interpretation in the Oral Torah were give to Israel by God (“mipi haGevurah).”  How is this to be understood and taught?  Is this an amorphous statement in principle allowing for historical development of Oral Tradition, or a dogma about the events at Mount Sinai?  Several coordinators of Oral Tradition studies at Israeli high schools were insistent to me that the curriculum means physical delivery of both traditions at Mount Sinai!

[4] In accordance with a literal reading of the liturgical definition of the holiday of Shavuot as “the time of the giving of the Torah.”

[5] Apparently based on a variety of aggadic sources.  See H. Albeck, Mavo L’Mishnah, pages 66-67, especially notes 7-8.

[6] See the opening verses of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy for the dating of their contents after the events at Mount Sinai.  Deuteronomy commences on the “first day of the eleventh month” – Adar, and by the beginning of Nisan the nation had already entered the Land of Israel under Joshua.

[7] Babli Gittin 60a, and see Rashi there and on Babli Hagigah 6a-b.

[8] Sections of the Mishnah which describe enactments after the destruction of the Temple, or after the Bar Kokhba revolt, are obvious examples.  See Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:1-4.

[9] Oral Tradition literature refers to the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge not included in the Written Tradition (the Five Books of Moses, and, to a lesser extent, the Prophets and Writings).  Included in Oral Tradition literature are the Mishnah, the Tosefta, Midreshei Halakhah and Aggadah, the Babylonian and Israeli Talmudim, halakhic codes and responsa, Jewish customs and, to a certain extent,  Jewish philosophy and kabbalah.

[10] Tests for traditional Rabbinic ordination, for instance, are exclusively on Oral Tradition texts.  Even in academic settings, Oral Tradition dominates, as in the case of the obligatory exam in “Basic Concepts in Judaism” at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, which is overwhelmingly centered on Oral Tradition material, despite the well-developed academic departments in other areas of Jewish Studies.

[11] This assumption was shared by certain classical scholars, who felt that the Yerushalmi was in the possession of Rav Ashi and Rabina when they edited the Babylonian Talmud, and the elements that were worthy of study were already brought in their redaction.  Regarding the relationship between the two Talmudim according to academic research, see E.Z. Melamed, 1963, Pirkei Mavo L’Sifrut HaTalmud, Jerusalem, pps. 515-525, 597-604.

[12] Babli Baba Metzia 86a.  “Instruction” is taken to mean redaction of the text of the Talmud.  See Rashi.  However, “instruction” more likely refers to halakhic decision-making which is eternally binding on all Israel.  See below.

[13] This is the approach of the European yeshivot on the whole, while oriental yeshivot were more given to historical context.

[14] The Vilna edition was published in 1880-1886 in the famous Widow and Romm Brothers publishing house.

[15] See note 46 below.

[16] In Israel, significant academies existed in Tiberias, Caesarea, and Lod, and in Babylonia, in Nehardea, Sura, Pumbedita, Mehoza, Mata Mehasia, and others, over seven generations from circa 220 – 475 C.E.

[17] Hebrew components include the Mishnah, the Beraitot, and most of the Amoraic remarks, and Aramaic components include some Amoraic discussions, legends, and court decisions, but chiefly post-Amoraic commentary and analysis.

[18] On Greek and Latin influence, see D. Sperber, 1994, A Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms in Rabbinic Literature, Ramat Gan, Bar Ilan University Press;   SLieberman, 1965, Greek in Jewish Palestine, New York, Feldheim, and 1962, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York, Jewish Theological Seminary.  On the influence of Eastern dialects, see J.N. Epstein, 1960, A Grammar of Babylonian Aramaic, Jerusalem, Magnes.

[19] Central figures in this process were, among others,  Z. Frankel, N. Krochmal, I. Weiss, Y. I. Halevy, J. N. Epstein, H. Albeck, A. Weiss, E. Z. Melamed.

[20] Maimonides was notably sensitive to the issues discussed in modern research, and especially with regard to source analysis of the components of Talmudic discourse.  See M.S. Feldblum, 1979-1980, Pesakav Shel HaRambam L’Or Gishato L’Khomer HaStami Sheb’Babli, Jubilee Volume of the American Academy for Jewish Studies, New York.

[21] Tannaitic material includes quotations from the Tosefta, quotations of beraitot from other Tannaitic codes no longer extant, Midreshei Halakhah, aggadic selections, legends, and biographical sketches.  This material is interpreted by the Amoraim in the Talmud in various ways.

[22] Independent legislation is usually brought in the Talmud in specific formulations to distinguish it from the interpretive material.

[23] Besides the Babylonian Talmud, one might examine the Yerushalmi, the aggadic collections, and remnants of Tannaitic and Amoraic material not quoted in the Babylonian Talmud but quoted or treated in later literature, or even in non-Jewish literature of the period.

[24] For instance, the Talmud will refer to an opinion of a scholar, though no direct evidence or quotation of the opinion is to be found in the extant literature.

[25] On the stages of editing and redaction of Amoraic material in the Babylonian Talmud, see the three seminal works of A. Weiss, 1943, Hithavut HaTalmud B’Shlemuto, New York, Kohut Institute;  1955, L’Kheker HaTalmud, New York, Feldheim;  1962, Al HaYetzira HaSifrutit Shel HaAmoraim, New York, Yeshiva University Press.

[26] See B.M. Levine, 1972, Igeret Rav Sherira Gaon, Jerusalem, Makor;  S. Asaf, 1966, Tekufat HaGaonim V’Sifrutah, Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kuk;  Y. E. Efrati, 1973, Tekufat HaSaboraim V’Sifrutah, Petah Tikvah, B’nei Asher;  E. R. Zini, 1992, Rabanan Saborai V’Klalei HaHalakhah, Haifa, Ofakim Rehavim.

[27] The main differences are:

One. Amoraic material deals primarily with halakhic rulings, while post-Amoraic material deals primarily with speculative or hypothetical conceptual analysis.  Thus, Amoraic material is more similar to Mishnah than to the anonymous post-Amoraic stratum.  For this reason, Haim Vital and Shneur Zalman of Liadi included Amoraic material in the literary genre of “Mishnah” rather than “Talmud” when they delineated the laws of Torah study, and the need to divide one’s study time into thirds:  one third Bible, one third Mishnah, and one third “Gemara”.

Two. Amoraic material is topical, post-Amoraic material is formal.  That is, Amoraic material is concerned with an issue arising from a text, while post-Amoraic material concerns itself more with the form of the text, such as language elements, editing patterns, and the like.

Three. Amoraic material is deductive, applying earlier halakhic rulings to changing circumstances.  Post-amoraic material is inductive, matching prevalent halakhic rulings to early sources through speculative analysis.

[28] The importance of attaching a name to a tradition is the enabling of later tradents to attribute the opinions or decisions involved to a given source or approach, thus allowing the intergration of the item into an overall halakhic conception.  Thus, anonymous material is hypothetical or speculative by definition, since it cannot (should not?) be attributed to a given source or approach.

[29] Hebrew formulation conferred authority, timelessness and continuity with Tannaitic material.  Aramaic formulation signifies the opposite.

[30] Amoraic study began by recitation of a Tannaitic or early Amoraic source, with the additional layers of remarks accumulated generation by generation.

[31] In the tradition of the classical scholars, clarification of proper textual readings was a sina qua non for conceptual study.  Rashi, for instance, is known for his extensive work in resolution of Talmudic manuscripts – “hahi garsinan”, etc.

[32] See below the remarks of Abraham, son of Maimonides (13th century), and of Yom Tav Vidal of Tolosa, the Maggid Mishneh,(14th century).

[33] Brought in Hamishpat Ha-ivri, M. Elon, 1976, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, page 345, from Teshuvot Rabeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, 97 (page 147-148).

[34] Thus, one is to differentiate between the temporal and ideal expressions of halakhic traditions.  Each specific halakhic decision is the temporal, circumstantial embodiment of the value which stands above the temporal circumstances.

[35] Yom Tov Vidal of Tolosa, Catalonia, second half of the 14th century.

[36] The last comment of the Maggid Mishneh on the Hilkhot Sh’henim of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides.

[37] See H. Albeck, 1974, Mavo L-Mishnah, Jerusalem, Bialik and Dvir, pps. 63ff.

[38] Codices were constructed topically or formally.  See Albeck, Mavo l’Mishnah, pps. 88ff.

[39] The Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi was, according to an Amoraic tradition, based on the collection of Tannaitic sources developed by Rabbi Meir according to the teachings of Rabbi Akiba.  See Albeck, Mavo l’Mishnah, pps. 99ff.

[40] The exact period in which the Tannaitic and Amoraic material began to circulate in written form is a matter of scholarly debate.  There are sources for use of written “notes” as early as the beginning of the Amoraic period, though this does not indicate full written versions.  By the Gaonic period, written versions seem quite likely.  The point of written circulation in between this terminus pro quem and terminus ad quem is as yet undetermined.

[41] There are dozens of argumentation patterns in the anonymous Talmudic frame, each with its own literary history.  Examples include such patterns as:  áùìîà ìîàï, äðéçà ìîàï, áîàé ÷îéôìâé, öøéëåúà,

éìôåúà , and many more.

[42] This process was symptomatic of the general movement from Tannaitic and Amoraci case law to systematic statutory law through generalization, conceptualization and abstraction.

[43] See note 30 above.

[44] See note 19 above.

[45] Daniel Bomberg, Venice, 1523-1530.

[46] It is customary in the yeshivot to see the printed text as an expression of Divine Providence in the preservation and distribution of the texts.  The concept of “tzurat hadaf”, or  the sanctity of “the format of the Vilna page” has become an ideological war cry of many yeshivot against the use of the Steinsaltz edition.  The Mesorah Press “Art Scroll” English translation edition of the Talmud, recently translated into Hebrew (!) and printed alongside the Vilna page, is the response of this community to the Steinsaltz edition.

[47] See Eliezer Berkovitz, Not in Heaven, page  92.  Not in Heaven is an English summary of the original Hebrew research by the same author, Halakhah Kokhah V’Tafkidah, Mossad Harav Kuk, Jerusalem, 1981.

[48] See the research of S. Weiser and M. Bar Lev, 1990, Hora’at HaTalmud B’Yeshivah HaTihonit – K’sha’im V’Sikunim, Nir Hamidrashiah, 8, 233-256.

[49] Unpublished statistics of the Religious Education Department of the Israeli Ministry of Education, communicated to me in 1994 by the national inspector for Talmud and Oral Tradition studies.

[50] Reported to me in the context of professional consultations by an inspector of the Independent Education system in Israel, based on his impressions from his inspection visits in the Hassidic Talmud Torah and “Yeshivah Ktanah” system.

[51] See Bar Lev, 1990.

[52] As explained in a recent, unpublished lecture by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein, Head of the Gush Etzion Yeshivat Hesder, there is a perceived educational distinction between the academic and yehsivah approaches, in that the academic methodology encourages the pupil to examine the text critically, as if from the “outside looking in”, rather than from a position of identification and sanctification.  Rabbi Lichtenstein’s remarks are an accurate description of the results of the early Wissenschaft der Judentums, and possibly of certain academic institutions in our day.  However, it has yet to be demonstrated philosophically or empirically that Talmudic learning based a priori on the model proposed here would have any such effect.

[53] See especially the writings of Rabbi Tau, Emunat ‘Iteinu, which is a summary of the philosophical implications of Zionism according to the teachings of Rabbi Z. Y. Kuk and his father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk.

[54] First, Tannaitic material, followed by Amoraic material without the anonymous frame and, lastly, the anonymous Aramaic material

[55] The first volume of such landmark work was recently published by S. Friedman, Talmud Arukh, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, 1997.

[56] The original commandment may be either in the Written or Oral Tradition.

[57] Prevailing conditions include the physical, emotional, spiritual and even econcomic conditions of the one posing the question, the state of the religious community and its objectives, and any other considerations based on the perception of reality by the halakhic decisor.

[58] Perceived Torah values are distinguished by constructing a priorization of values as refelected in prophecy and early Rabbinic literature.  Perceived fundamental principles are culled from early Rabbinic literature as well.  For example, the enactment of “prosbul” by Hillel the Elder involved priorization of the economic support of the poor over the release of loans in the Sabbatical year.

[59] After the time of the Sanhedrin, a halakhic decision is binding only on those who accept the authority of the halakhic decisor.

References

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