Issues in Talmud Curricular Development: Why Study Talmud?

by: Moshe J. Yeres

Talmud has been studied by students for centuries. Yet the last century has seen rapid change in Jewish community and life. These changes have impacted on students and teachers, and are cause for examining the method teachers use to teach Talmud to today’s students.
 
Traditional Jewish practice, which is the prime factor that has continually sustained Judaism, is actually not based upon Scripture (Tanakh), but upon Talmud which forms the basis for Jewish law decisions (Halacha) and practice. It is probably for this reason that Jewish communities that maintained a strong tradition of Talmud study in their curriculum, such as Eastern Europe, survived and grew; but those that neglected Talmud study, such as Italy (due to the sixteenth century Papal ban specifically directed against Talmud study), did not over the course of time. (Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, “Torah Shebe’al Peh as a Primary Factor in Shaping Jewish Identity,” lecture Jan 26, 2000.)
 
It seems likely that this fact played a role in ensuring that Talmud has remained a focus in Jewish schools and high schools. There are other reasons why Talmud plays an important role in curriculum including:
 

  1. Tradition and Continuity: Talmud is the text that has been learned for so long that there is a strong tradition to keep it up.
  2. Skill-building: Talmud requires skill training to be successful, perhaps more so than other subjects in Jewish studies. Being exposed to that training in high school will serve students well even later in life.
  3. Intellectual Development: Talmud allows the mind freedom to develop and trains the student in analytical and intellectual prowess and mind-bending arguments. There is a joy of discovery which comes through the unravelling of the complex dialectics of a sugya. The late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget wrote “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it, and consequently from understanding it completely”. Talmud is the experience of continually discovering knowledge.
  4. Arguments/disagreements (machloket): As a method of allowing students to understand differing viewpoints and the legitimacy of argument, the Talmud serves as a primary experience. Every sugyah is full of Amoraim and Tanaim who seem to argue about just everything. They also learn to reach conclusion and put their differences into perspective. Most importantly, students learn that the value of arguing is about the “principle” of the matter.
  5. Democracy:  Talmud teaches students that each opinion is to be respected. In the Talmud anything can be suggested without fear; though it may be refuted. Respect for the other opinion is always clearly enunciated The Talmud is clear thinking and open inquiry. One who has the ability to understand an opposing view is in a much better position to coexist with it, even while disagreeing with it.
  6. Rights: Everyone can speak up in the Talmudic discussion. And in fact, even when the discussion is completed, the Rishonim and Acharonim still have their say and offer additional comments. Prophets of Scripture trade in truth; Rabbis in the Talmud trade in opinions and positions. And they are legitimate differences of opinion that existed among very intelligent and spiritually significant men.
  7. Adult Torah Study: With the revival of daf-yomi, there are more and more opportunities for adults to attend shiurim in Talmud. A firm grounding in the material and genre of Talmud literature will be an asset later in life.
  8. Values: Each sugyah and discussion in the Talmud has an underlying value and ethos that runs through it. Uncovering this becomes one of the goals of Talmud study.
  9. Recreate the Oral Law: Because of the living and fluid nature of the Talmud, its study takes on meaning as a recreation of the giving and development of the Oral law as passed along for many centuries. The student is no longer studying a text; he is participating in a mystical trans-theophanic experience. We are fulfilling the will of God by virtue of our re-establishing the process of the Giving the Law.

 
Challenges of Teaching Talmud
 
 
The study of Talmud in Jewish day schools presents a number of unique challenges, different from other material in Judaic studies. There also seems to be a numbers of different and opposing viewpoints as to how best address these issues. Finding a single voice among the educators and scholars in this matter is daunting. Indeed, there may be no single one correct solution, and at the same time all solutions may in some regard be correct. Much of what is taught works, I believe, because the educator works, and is able to carry the students’ interest in the material. Nonetheless, there are a number of complex issues, listed below, that need to be addressed in any curricular solution. There are basically three handicaps in Talmud study: the language barrier; the inability to understand the mechanisms and structures of the Talmud and how it works; difficulty in following complex logical arguments. I have outlined a number of specific issues that the teacher of Talmud needs to be sensitive to.
 
 
Issues Unique to Teaching Talmud
 

  1. The language barrier: The language of the text, which is in Aramaic, and at times Mishnaic and Amoraic Hebrew. Outside of Talmud, students do not study Aramaic grammar and syntax. The words are therefore unfamiliar. For that matter so is the entire literary structure.
  2. The layout of the page of text and the lack of punctuation, commas, question marks, quotation marks etc. The student is confronted with a mass of unbroken undifferentiated material in an unfamiliar language that contains challenging arguments.
  3. The logical or illogical structure of the Mishna, upon which the Talmud discussion comments. While there appears to be an order to the topics of the Mishna, within each tractate the order of subjects appears at times to be haphazard. This is many more times true for the Talmudic discussion on the Mishna.
  4. The nature of the sugyah material, especially the anonymous (stam) Gemara. The Talmud may ask a question from a source that the student is not acquainted with. The Talmud does not always explain clearly what the question or the answer really mean. The editor of the sugyah (stam) makes many assumptions that it considers obvious, but that may not be the case for the student.
  5. The Talmud’s use of cross-topical logic, where the same inherent implication is applied from one issue to a completely disparate topic, to bring across a point.
  6. The tangents that the Talmudic discussion takes, before returning belatedly to the issue at hand.
  7. The approach of the Talmud is to offer an example and attempt to extrapolate from it the general premise or rule which may be applicable to other examples. This defies modern conceptual thinking and teaching in which we start with the general premise and then seek the examples that fall into that category. Talmud is therefore inductive, not deductive.
  8. The large amounts of background material information the teacher needs to give his students before each sugyah. The student now needs to focus on additional auxiliary material in order to achieve success in the main topic. There are just alot of balls to keep up in the air at one time.
  9. Poor motivation due to the feeling that the Talmud is “pointless”, and certainly not relevant.
  10. Hair splitting and strange discussions can make the sugyah sound ridiculous.
  11. The amount of time spent studying Talmud takes away from other subjects and leisure. This is true for all subjects, but truer for Talmud, due to its complexity and interconnected nature.
  12. The small volume of Talmudic material that students cover each year can be frustrating. Because of its complexity, a class may find that only a few pages of Talmud have been covered by the end of the year.
  13. Lack of external motivation, as parents are generally more interested in children’s secular studies, and in fact parents may themselves not be supportive of continuing Talmud or Torah study in their own lives.
  14. Talmud teachers may be unfamiliar with the text they are teaching, as they have not yet studied this entire tractate, and so do not have full knowledge of all the Talmudic premises that will come up. This can affect teacher creativity
  15. Time constraints: Due to the complexity of the material it is difficult at times to keep a lesson within the period of a single hour. Continuity from lesson to lesson is therefore a challenge; surely when Friday’s class carries over to Monday.

 
 
Some Broad Strokes Needed for Solutions:
 

  1. Ensure students enrolled in the Talmud course have the intellectual gifts to handle a full-fledged uncompromising analysis of texts in a precise manner.
  2. Break material into smaller units, then show how small units fit into the larger mass of work.
  3. Show students how to find the structure of Talmudic sugyah – question, answer, support; in order to see the flow of the argument. Teach students the technical skill of breaking down the page into smaller units.
  4. Create clear and well structured goals for staff and students and be capable of transmitting their values to their students.
  5. A well constructed school system that encourages students to be self-disciplined.
  6. Positive and trusting attitude between teachers and students.
  7. Curriculum development for staff: this is both in house for staff to meet with one another and discuss material and advice on how to present it, and external to learn from others and see modeling of techniques.
  8. Motivate students with the intellectual hook of the sugyah discussion; allow students to become part of the didactic. Stress abstract skills of logical engagement so that students with weak reading and comprehension skills can enjoy the intellectual challenge without the frustrating “breaking your teeth”. This also allows students to feel that they are involved in Torah study on the highest level, the way it is really done, and gives students of attachment to a sense of authenticity. It also creates in students a sense of positiveness about themselves.
  9. Allow for class creativity in presentation. Make the class feel a part of the presentation, and not that they are being exposed to a prepared curriculum.
  10. Show or model to students why Torah textual study is important, even if the issue is not immediately at hand.
  11. Small class size to allow greater flexibility in class discussion, and more personal teacher-student contact.
  12. Make sugyah material more relevant to students, not by learning “user-friendly” masechtot, but by letting the corpus of Talmud speak for itself; by stressing the values that the Talmud uses and inculcates. Uncover the underlying ethos of Talmudic discourse and many Talmudic principles.
  13. Set different goals for different level students: more modest goals for weaker students who wish to experience Talmud, while superior students should be allowed coursework to tap their potential. Allow students to succeed at their various levels.
  14. Engage the right staff persons for teaching Talmud to excite students and to build a smooth path between them and the material; to develop personal relationships with them; and to lead students by personal example. Successful teaching of Talmud requires pedagogic strategies for presenting abstract ideas in concrete ways, for breaking down complex ideas into component parts to be digested one by one. We need a combination of teacher’s guidance and explanation with student’s independent thinking and investigation.  Children possess intelligence, curiosity, and inquisitiveness which the proper teacher can channel to successful Talmud study.
  15. Allow students to become an authentic part of the lomdus of the sugyah.
  16. Innovative teaching and ideas; e.g. Talmud webpage.
  17. Ensure sufficient time in the schedule to accomplish goals. Talmud is intense; its complexity demands it
  18. Make sure students develop the basic building blocks of Talmud study in vocabulary skills and in conceptual potential.

 
 
 
Going About Teaching Talmud
 
Educators are divided as to the basic goal in teaching Talmud to contemporary students. After reviewing the literature, the following are differing divergent views being expressed today on certain fundamental curricular issues.
 
Goals:

  • Are we presenting and exposing students to our ancient texts, with the expectation that students will develop a respect for the text as a source for Jewish life and identity?

OR

  • Are developing in our students the intellectual prowess to second-guess the Talmud; to offer the answer to a shvere (difficult) Rambam or Tosafot or memra; to learn to think like the Talmud thinks; to get their brains exercised in a mesmerizing way in attacking a conceptual problem?

OR

  • Are we trying to teach our students the skills to learn the Talmud on their own, to develop learning skills so they can make a “lainin” or to read a sight passage with minimal interference; so that Talmud study will not be that different from reading a good book, and the student will achieve independence in his study of the Talmudic source?

IN SHORT

  • What is our priority – teaching our students to read or to think?

 
Organization of Material

  • Should study be according to masechet (Tractate) and linear?

OR

  • Should it be organized by topical units of material covered?

IN OTHER WORDS

  • How does one go about the process of selection of Talmudic material to study?

 
Analysis:

  • Should a traditional holistic form of Talmud study be presented to students, where the entire sugyah is dealt with as a complete unit?

OR

  • Should the teacher expend large amounts of time disassociating the anonymous (stam) material from the clearly Amoraic, with the goal of comparing the two strata of material?