Shnayim Ohazim: Two [who are] Holding…

  • by: Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Shagar

The synopsis of this debate originally appeared in Hebrew in Meimad, Vol. 17, August 1999.
(Translated by Rachel Schloss)
About a year and a half ago, a few hundred men and women (mostly yeshiva and Midrasha students) gathered in Jerusalem’s “Yakar” Beit Midrash to discuss a critical  question raised by the moderator: “Why give learning Talmud in-depth such a central role, when there is a feeling that this kind of learning does not address the basic spiritual and existential needs of this generation?”. The fact that the hall was very crowded and the audience wide awake proved that the topic concerns many who dedicate much of their time to learning Talmud.
Rav Aaron Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva at Har Etzion Yeshiva and Rav Shagar, Rosh Yeshiva at Siah Yeshiva, were asked to discuss the question. The debate revealed the common ground of both worldviews, represented by the rabbis, and the wide gap between them. Both Rabbis agreed on two central points: both view Gemara learning, especially the in-depth learning of Talmud (known in the yeshiva world as limud be-iyun), as the most important and central expression of worshipping God (avodat hashem) and as the essence of the Jewish religious experience. In their opinion, Talmud study is not just “general Jewish knowledge” or merely getting to know a classical culture, but rather an important junction of the covenant between the Jewish person and God. Neither are interested in generally replacing Talmud study with the study of Bible, Jewish thought or practical Halakha, as is the case in the pre-military preparatory schools. Yet, they admit to a decline in the motivation to learning Gemara in the national-religious community, and the penetrating disagreement between them stemmed from a different interpretation of these difficulties.
Rav Shagar introduced himself as the “representative of the students” who deliberate with this question and bring it before their rabbis. He believes the problem is rooted in the existential condition of the modern religious person. Yeshiva-like Gemara learning is based on the Haredi world’s religious orientation, which deals with modern life by disassociating the religious and the secular world. Religious life in this community is measured by internal criteria and not by their suitability to life in the modern world. Moreover, how intensely religious a phenomenon is depends on how different it is from the “regular” world. The fact that the contents of Gemara-learning are meaningless in the world outside the beit midrash does not bother the Haredi learner whatsoever. In Rav Shagar’s words:
As a product of his education and world view, the modern learner is immersed in the general culture and sees it as part of his own. He will derive cultural and intellectual pleasure from the books of Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. Learning Gemara, when it is disconnected from this world is frustrating.
As an example, Rav Shagar brought the style in which the tractate of Kiddushin, a classical “Yeshiva” tractate, is learned.
One who learns this tractate in the usual way, deals with a wide range of analytical questions that deal with the different aspects of the act of marriage: Is a barter kinyan (acquisition) effective with regard to a woman? What about one betrothing with a loan? What is the law regarding a husband who betroths with an equivalent of money or with a “present” that must be returned?  Yeshiva-type study knowingly nullifies the question of meaning, believing that it would take away from the learning itself…What is the relationship and the connection between the learning and what the learner himself will do when he is privileged to marry? Such a question is not even relevant…The student does not even understand what is going on, why this has to bring him closer to God, what Divine religious value there is in dealing with these details.
Only learning which provides solutions to these existential questions can interest a student living in the modern world. That is why it is suggested that a new method be developed to teach Gemara in-depth, in a way that will not ignore the achievements of Talmudic creativity over generations, but would add a new dimension that would enrich the learning while having it focus on questions that are part of the learner’s real world.
This seemed dangerous to Rav Lichtenstein, who argued:
With all my heart, I believe that one who brings his faith in God, in the Torah, in the Sages…into his learning…those things that are at the very heart of Judaism…with the depth and the intensity needed for it…- he will find that existential and emotional connection…but we may not posit the achievement of these goals as the condition for our learning Torah.
These goals put the question of “what does Gemara learning give me?” in the center. And that is the opposite of what should be. Jewish thought places God in the center and not man, God’s love and not man’s love for himself. The obligation to serve God is not dependent on the pleasure or relevant message that the learner may get from his learning. Furthermore, claims Rav Lichtenstein, learning which is conditional on finding existential meaning in the contents may bring about a distortion of the Torah, because the learner will twist texts to suit them to his own needs. Rav Lichtenstein is aware of the pedagogical problems involved in Gemara learning and he believes that for students who are unable to “understand and gain knowledge” in Gemara learning, maybe an alternative curriculum should really be considered and suggested, due to considerations of educational practicality.
Again, in Rav Lichtenstein’s words:
Unfortunately, however, today we hear from certain directions – sometimes even from within the Torah world – a provocation, which is not only educational-pedagogic, but idealogical, substantial, value-oriented, in the sense that the Sages said with regard to the definition of a epikoros (non-believer)  “like those who say ‘of what value to us are the Rabbis?’”(Sanhedrin 99b). In the question “what does it do for us?” “what does it give us?” The focal point is us. What value, what spirituality do we get from it? With regard to this provocation a learner of Torah must protest.
And I protest!  If a person approaches his learning not from an egocentric but a theocentric viewpoint (placing God in the center), and does not notice all that is whispered in his ear “you should be under stress and hardship!”, if one is open to the word of God, he will also find the existential connection and all it entails.
It seems that the above-presented debate is not merely one of pedagogics, but it relates to the basis of modern man’s religious experience: is man’s standing before God eternal despite the changing reality, or does the changing reality cause changes not only in the external expressions of religious life, but also in the way man relates to his God.
Copyright Meimad 1999. Reprinted with permission.