Camino Real and Modern Talmud Story

May 20, 2003

Camino Real and Modern Talmud Study [1]

Shalom Carmy

From Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. Shalom Carmy, Orthodox Forum Series, New York, 1991.  The Orthodox Forum Series is a Project of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, An Affiliate of Yeshiva University.

The Volume Editor is Shalom Carmy and the Series Editor is Robert S. Hirt.

Published by Jason Aronson Inc (

You are studying the sections of Bava Metzia devoted to the four kinds of shomer (bailee). It is quite natural to begin with the mishnah (93a) that introduces, systematically, the four categories and the most fundamental laws pertaining to them. But you notice (for the first time?) that the placing of the mishnah is unexpected, at the end of a chapter dealing with the rights of employees. It would be more suitable, one would think, had this mishnah appeared in the third chapter (ha-Mafkid), which discusses responsibility for objects that are stolen or lost while in the possession of the snomer. Is this merely a case of the serendipity typical of talmudic discussion “the words of Torah, poor in one place and rich in another” (JT Rosh Hashanah 3:5), or is it a phenomenon inviting, perhaps even requiring, closer scrutiny? [2]
Take another example in the same area. A borrower (shoel) is liable in almost all cases. One of the few exceptions is when the damage resulted from the use for which the animal was borrowed (metah me-hamat melakhah) [3]. In studying this rule it occurs to you that the notion of metah me-hamat melakhah does not appear in the Mishnah, nor, for that matter, in any other Tannaitic source. Is the silence accidental? Does it imply that the rule did not exist in the Tannaitic period? Or shall we infer that cases of metah me-hamat melakhah were so infrequent that the possibility was rarely discussed? [4]
What are we to do with such questions? All things being equal, the student of Torah has good reason to want to know how the text he is learning attained its canonical form, and, if at all possible, he would like to reconstruct the original statements and debate of the Tanna’im and Amora’im. If academic methods promise assistance, why not employ them? What Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg said about philological and textual investigation of the talmudic text is just as true of the historical-literary inquiry he engaged in: “any influence and instruction from precise science should be accepted. For insofar as the subjects of talmudic-halakhic investigation are very old books, we find that, as with any philological investigation, the existence of an authoritative text is the first prerequisite.”[5]
No room is provided for this interest, however, in the conventional yeshivah curriculum. The yeshivah scholar, following the derekh ha-melek, the royal road of learning, has little patience for such matters. His eye is fastened on the content of the sugyot, not their form or composition. Content, for most benei Torah, means conceptual analysis, as practiced in the archetypal Lithuanian yeshivot of the past century and at their successor institutions in Israel and the United States, as taught by great masters like Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik of Brisk and Rabbi Shimon Shkop of Telz and their generations of disciples [6]. The goal of conceptual analysis is to discover the truth of halakhah, to formulate the principles inherent in the word of God. Literary and historical research, though its motivation may be the service of God, though the student attempts to infuse it with a religious passion, is about the background of Torah, and thus remains one step removed from the camino real.
Professors Sperber and Elman demonstrate, with great erudition, that historical and literary issues were not alien to the Rishonim and to many of the great Aharonim. They examine the range of methods made available by contemporary academic research, and show that the results of these investigations are not without interest, and, as Sperber argues, even have import for practical halakhic decision. But justifying certain aspects of the academic enterprise is not the same as providing a model for the interweaving of modern scholarship in the fabric of Talmud Torah. Both the Bet Midrash and the university Talmud department tend to regard traditional Talmud study, on the one hand, and literary-historical investigation of the rabbinic corpus, on the other hand, as hermetically sealed worlds. The talmid hakham dwells within the four cubits of traditional analysis; the professor, even when he shares the background and beliefs of the talmid hakham, sets aside the conceptual tools of the yeshivah when he takes up the implements of literary-historical analysis.
An important factor in this dichotomy is the condescension and superficiality that often characterize the academic attitude toward traditional learning. Academic scholars of Judaism regularly feign obliviousness to the primacy of conceptual content in the study of Torah. Not knowing better, sometimes despite knowing better, individuals aligned with the academic program frequently fail to see any significant distinction between Brisker analysis and high-class darshanus, crediting themselves with the search for scientific truth, while patronizing the orientation they have abandoned as “inspirational Jewish studies.”
Historians of philosophy, by contrast, generally recognize that investigation of the language and transmission of philosophical texts is ancillary to conceptual work and is of little value unless that work is pursued. Hence it is not surprising that the analytic approach, despite its failure to achieve predominance over the philological-historical in the university world of Jewish studies, has nonetheless penetrated the more conceptually sophisticated realm of legal studies. From this perspective Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg is merely slating the obvious when he writes:
If the meaning of “scientific investigation” is the clarification of concepts, the extrapolation from cognate ideas of the fundamental concepts and their logical and methodical construction, then it is difficult to grasp precisely why a discourse on Talmudic ideas which presents them in the formal framework of formulated clarified concepts should not be worthy of die name “science.” [7]
Surely the path of the talmid hakham, leading to the conceptual heart of the halakhic inquiry, is the derekh ha-melekh of our learning. Where does that leave the queries with which we began our discussion? So long as questions about the history of the sources and traditions are dismissed as extraneous to the camino real, we, who are committed to lomdut, can complacently pass them on to the professors, while we forge ahead with a wave of the hand and a merry cry of weiter, the compartmentalization of traditional Talmud Torah and modern scholarship intact. Let me remind you, however, that our opening questions, about the Mishnah’s presentation of shomer and the history of a specific rule of sho’el, grew out of a conventional encounter with a text studied in a yeshivah setting; they were not conjured up by a graduate student looking for a topic. Are we really justified in ruling such questions out of order? Can literary and historical considerations be successfully and seamlessly integrated in the derekh ha-melekh?
Leaving aside the legitimacy and adequacy of die solutions offered by academic Talmud study, to which we shall return later, the major obstacle to the integration of modern scholarship and the camino real the time and effort required to encompass a sugya, all angles. By the time the literary historical aspects are properly covered, one is too overburdened and weary to progress from these preliminary inquiries to the conceptual analysis itself. Under present and foreseeable pedagogical constraints, this would rule out the combination of formal literary analysis and lomdutfor the vast majority of students and teachers [8]. Even the sophisticated few, I imagine, are unlikely to engage in such synthesis on a systematic, global scale, rather than on an eclectic basis.
The convenient conclusion is that the majority of Talmud students should not be acquainted with formal literary-historical considerations. But this would be misleading, for it does not take into account the fact that these questions often arise spontaneously in the course of learning. The examples I drew, almost at random, from my own recent experience [9], are far from exceptional. How often does the Gemara seem to construe the Mishnah by, in effect, rewriting it? How many contradictions are resolved only by bringing to bear a factor patently absent from the language of the primary texts being interpreted? Students who raise such problems, only to discover that nobody knows, or cares, what’s bothering them, are likely to conclude that the Gemara “isn’t supposed to make sense,” or, as a mother once told an elementary school teacher, when asked how her son was adjusting to Gemara: “He thinks the Mishnah’s O.K., but the Gemara is always looking for “trouble.” [10]
No doubt there are students who are either insensitive or undeterred by textual in concinnity. But others, not always the least intelligent or the least earnest, are frustrated by literary difficulties which, if not acknowledged, may inhibit the student’s growth as a lamdan or understand his motivation. And even those who play the intellectual game of lomdut with panache, whose development appears to be unconstrained, may be hindered by the inarticulate awareness that the etiquette of learning places certain legitimate questions above the formation of the- text outside the limits of discussion.
Fortunately, involvement in literary problems is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Earlier I suggested that even those well versed in literary-historical methods are likely to resort to them sporadically, as the need arises, rather than consistently. The same kind of compromise may satisfy less advanced students as well. There may be situations in which sensitivity to literary features of the text is encouraged, both lishmah, because reflecting on them is a legitimate part of learning, and because they are, in any event, apt to attract spontaneous attention; in other circumstances the literary history should be discussed only at the student’s initiative. Lastly, as is many a time the case in mature learning, it is often appropriate to recognize, and bracket the problem, deferring any attempt to resolve it, so that the student is able to turn back to the content, untroubled by the vague peripheral uneasiness that occurs when an unacknowledged difficulty is swept under the rug, as it were. [11]
So far I have insisted that an awareness of the phenomena discussed by literary-historical theorists occurs as a natural by-product of the traditional learning process, with the implication that the status of these phenomena is no different, in principle, from that of geographic information pertinent to learning. My purpose, in keeping with the title of this volume, was to sketch very briefly the possible integration of modern Talmud scholarship in the study of Torah. I did not challenge the theological legitimacy and intellectual coherence of the dominant academic theories, as these questions are more than adequately treated in the two long chapters by Professors Sperber and Elman.
It would, however, be misleading if we failed to observe that many talmidei hakhamim repudiate the entire synthesis of academic Talmud scholarship and traditional Torah study, not because of the practical obstacles raised above, and not only as a reaction to the scholars’ lack of comprehension and sympathy for the derekh ha-melekh of learning. They reject coexistence with the literary-historical methodology because they object to the specific theories and interpretations prevalent among its practitioners.
To begin with, many talmidei hakhamim believe that the fundamental arguments adopted by the scholars are eminently unconvincing, and their systematic judgments highly speculative. If this is so, then to spend time and energy on the whole exercise is wasteful at best, frivolous at worst. An even graver fault, from the viewpoint of Orthodoxy, is the tendency to explain away difficulties by assuming that the Amora’im regularly alter the original intent of Tannaitic statements and that the later editorial stages may deform both. What precedents might support this strategy, and what arguments might justify it, is part of the task reserved for Professors Sperber and Elman. Prima facie, however, it should be obvious that espousing this approach risks undermining the respect due to Torahshe-be’al peh and the authentic bearers of its traditions. To take such objections seriously means that we would have to jettison large portions of these theories about the history of the sources and traditions.
This would not, however, invalidate all insights based on the literary phenomena. In other words, my discussion of the desirability and feasibility of broadening the camino real to include ideas based on literary-historical factors is not dependent on any particular theory about those factors.
In setting the stage for my colleagues’ presentations, I have concentrated on the literary-historical method, insofar as it is the area with the greatest implications for the everyday study of Torah. The tenor of my comments may leave both academic scholars and talmidei hakhamim dissatisfied – the former, because they are reluctant to accept the superiority of the traditional analytic approach, the derekh ha-melekh; the latter, because I would like to see whatever is valuable in the academic project incorporated, to the extent that this is practically possible, in our learning. [12]
As we have noted throughout, the primacy of the derekh ha-melekh in the study of Talmud is not merely a matter of intellectual preference. It is intimately bound up with our sense of Torah study as a transcendent religious activity, confronting us with the word of God. Any admixture that threatens to divert us from the conceptual heart of the halakhic inquiry strikes at the heart of our religious vitality. Hence, the very notion that considerations insignificant in the current mode of study may be destined to take on a more consequential, albeit secondary, role can be profoundly unsettling to anyone who cares about Talmud Torah and avodat ha-Shem.
In this connection, it may be worth recalling that our own derekh ha-melekh was once regarded as something of a departure from the tried and true path. A century ago Rabbi Hayyim Brisker’s method was derided as a radical innovation, as “chemical analysis.” When Rabbi Henoch Agus decided to publish Marhe-shet, he feared that his approach was too old- fashioned to appeal to the up-and-coming Brisker faction. In the introduction to his book, he meditates on Rabbi Abba’s prayer, when traveling, that his words of Torah be acceptable to his audience. Why, asks the author of Marheshet, did he utter this prayer on the road? Is the petition not equally appropriate at home? And he answers:
He knew that his words were acceptable to the scholars of his town, and pleased his comrades and his audience. But that was good and fitting and pleasant in his town, where they were accustomed to his ways of learning and mode of analysis (pilpul). In another place, or in Eretz Yisrael, where they were accustomed to another mode and a greatly different style than in his own place, Rabbi Abba was worried that his words and thoughts would not find favor. Therefore he uttered this short prayer… [13]
The prayer of the Marheshet was accepted; his book found favor, and is still studied lovingly wherever Litvisher Torah is cherished. As authors and readers of this volume we would do well to make his prayer our own.
[1] These remarks draw upon my correspondence with Rabbi Yitzchak Blau. On the question of integrating literary issues with standardlomdut I have profited from discussions with several students and friends, among them Jonathan Rabinowitz, Yosef Crystal, and especially Rabbi Yaakov Genack.
[2] For a far-reaching theory responding to these and other questions, see David Henshke, Arbaa Shomerin Hem? in Shenaton ha-Mishpatha-Ivri 16-17 (1991), 145-218.
[3] According to Rambam, the previous sentence applies only when the animal was debilitated by the work; if the animal is dead, the borrower is exempt only if it died during the work. See Hilkhot She’elah u-Pikkadon 1:1,4 and commentators.
[4] Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky, in Hazon Yehezkel, BM 8:8 (Jerusalem, 5712), pp. 133ff. discovers, in the failure of Tosefta to mention meta me-hamat melakhah, a possible basis for Rambam’s limitation on the occurrence of metah me-hamat melakhah to the animal’s death in harness. (See also his reference to Mekhilta of Rashbi, which does refer to metah me-hamat melakhah).
[5] On the Necessity for the Investigation of Halakhic Sources,” in Li-Prakim, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Kirya Neemana, 1967), pp. 115-120. Passage cited from Shalom Carmy, “R. Yehiel Weinberg’s Lecture on Academic Jewish Scholarship,” Tradition 24:4 (Summer 1989): 15-23, 21. For a thorough study of the subject, see Moshe Bleich, “The Role of Manuscripts in Halakhic Decision Making: Hazon Ish, his Predecessors and Contemporaries,” Tradition 27:2.
[6] For historical, biographical, and methodological overviews, see Norman Solomon, The Analytic School: Hayyim Soloveitchik and His Circle (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993); Yitzhak Adler, lyyun be’Lomdut (New York, 1989); and Rabbi Shlomo Zevin’s classic Ishim ve-Shittot (Tel Aviv: A. Tsioni, 1958).
[7] R. Yehiel Weinberg’s Lecture . . .” 19.
[8] The claim that secondary issues should be curtailed lest they detract from the primary goal, that tafel is ever to be thrown overboard for the sake of ikkar, can be taken to an intolerable extreme, and risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If reading Aramaic interferes with formulating analytic hakirot, shall we consign the original text to cold scholarship and steer the majority of students to ArtScroll, as is commonly done in other areas of Torah? It need hardly be pointed out that relinquishing the Aramaic text of the Talmud would be a far more disastrous blow to the quality and future of Talmud Torah than omitting to appropriate newfangled methods of scholarship.
[9] At the time of the conference, Yeshiva was learning Ha- Sho’el.
[10] It is fitting that I heard this cautionary anecdote from my father and first teacher, Mr. David Carmy zt”l, who firmly believed that theGemara was supposed to make sense.
[11] The situation described here is analogous to what happens when philosophical or taamei ha-mitzvot issues intrude upon the study of Talmud and halakhah. The question may be valuable in itself; it may be so troublesome that the student simply cannot go on without addressing it. Often, however, once the matter is properly formulated, the student realizes that he, or she, can, for the moment, set the difficulty to one side and continue learning.
[12] Those with a foot in both camps may add their own criticism: that my proposals for a synthesis are not specific enough. To these I would reply that the development of a viable derekh ha-limmud requires a great deal of experimentation, and can only be achieved by trial and error, one stone on top of the other.
This work is being done by various individuals, many of whom, I suspect, are unknown to one another, so that it is unclear whether these efforts have attained a critical mass. Some fine work has been done in journals, books, and dissertations devoted to Mishpat Ivri;other valuable essays have appeared in Torah journals like Ha’Maayan. The Herzog College (affiliated with Yeshivat Har-Etzion) has recently undertaken to publish Netuim, a journal of Mishnah study, edited by Rabbi Avraham Walfish and Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv.
[13] Marheshet I (Jerusalem, 1968), introduction. The book was first published in 1931.