Talmud Now

  • by: Moshe Meir, Channa Amit and Kalman Neuman

This article originally appeared in Hebrew in Meimad, Vol. 17, August 1999.  (Translated by Rachel Schloss)

The study of Talmud is at the very core of Jewish identity, which is why in yeshivot of all types, national-religious included, Gemara-learning is the essential component of the curriculum. Quantitatively, Talmud is learned approximately 30 hours a week, including week-day and Shabbat sedarim (scheduled learning-sessions). In terms of importance, it is studied in the first half of the school day. Understandably, such immense scope raises the expectation that the most basic Talmud values – a love of its learning, a great ability to learn and a wide extent of knowledge – be internalized. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness to the fact that within national-religious education, in all its types and shades, a serious problem exists with regard to Talmud study.
In research done on Yeshiva high-schools some ten years ago, the late Prof. Motti Bar-Lev pointed out a lack of motivation in Talmud study. At the time, his conclusions did not fit the self-image of the national-religious community and were rejected. It took time for that community, not used to exposing its weaknesses, to acknowledge the problem. Now, however, everyone is aware of it and various, intensive efforts are made to deal with it.
This awareness is expressed in sociological research, in reports made by rabbinic and other teachers and in “calls for help” by current and former students. Apparently, Talmud study has painfully failed in terms of achievement, in terms of regard for it during the school years and in terms of internalizing the values and realizing them in the lives of national-religious school graduates. A considerable number of Hesder yeshiva students who are tested on a previously unseen Talmud text – fail. Prof. Motti Bar-Lev’s research, mentioned-above, indicates that 50% of the students name Talmud as the most boring subject. The main purpose of Talmud study has not been achieved.
The popularity of the pre-military preparatory schools has resulted in a decline in the number of yeshiva high-school graduates who go on to Hesder yeshiva programs. These students are “voting with their feet” in choosing these alternative programs, whose attraction of mainly their replacement of Talmud study with other areas of Yahadut.
Educators claim that there actually has not been any dramatic change in the past few years. “Even as students we were aware of the problematic nature of the Talmud, but we learned it as a matter of course,” says Shlomo Mozes, a rabbinic-teacher (ram) in the “Ohr Torah” yeshiva. In the past year, that yeshiva has run a workshop for ramim, which dealt with the difficulties involved in teaching Talmud. “In the past, accepting authority and commitment were part of the package, while today, there is a tendency toward individualism, and the yardstick is: “how meaningful is this learning to me.” The ramim who taught us came from the “black” (ultra-orthodox) yeshivas. The fact that teaching staffs today are made up of “our” kind of people who were not able to effect a change in the attitude toward the subject, was a warning sign for us.”
There are basically two schools of thought on how to deal with the problem. The first remains loyal to the traditional approach, i.e.: that yeshiva-oriented Torah learning should continue to be the focus of religious education – ideologically, quantitatively and qualitatively. Changes must be made in the educational tools.
This group believes in adopting new methodologies for teaching Talmud, such as putting together better-organized curricula, systematically studying the tools that are beneficial for learning, and choosing subjects that are interesting to the students. This actually means adopting the didactic tools already in use in other subjects, that are missing in Talmud study because the Talmud teachers have been trained in traditional institutes that did not use these methods, sometimes even out of ideological conviction, in which these tools are seen as secularizing Talmud study.
The second group suggests more radical solutions, in three different ways:

  1. Changing the contents of Oral Law (torah she-beal peh) studies: Rav Lichtenstein, whom in other contexts represents the conservative view, suggests changing the focus of Oral Law learning, from Talmud to Mishnah and Maimonides’ Mishne Torah. According to this radical view, yeshiva high-schools and “advanced” yeshivas (yeshivot gevohot) will not be the standard course of education for the entire national-religious population, but, rather, a track intended for the minority. There is a return, here, to the basic school model. For the level above high-school, the obvious conclusion is a transition – already taking place – from Hesder yeshivas to the preparatory school model, in which the term has been shortened (from 5-6 years to one year) and the proportion between the different subjects (Talmud versus Jewish Thought, Halakha and Bible) has undergone a major transformation.
  2. Moving from yeshiva-oriented learning to academic study. It is suggested that the yeshiva-oriented learning adopt several of the components characteristic of scientific study: a pedantic examination of the nusah(textual version), the language and the textual and historic contexts; an acknowledgment of the different strata involved in the sugia (Talmudic discourse on a topic), editorial tendencies and an expansion of  the concept of “Talmudic literature”, to include the Jerusalem Talmud and Gaonite literature.
  3. Moving from yeshiva-oriented (intellectual – mitnagdim) learning to existential (Hassidic) learning. Proponents of this approach criticize the traditional yeshiva learning as being rationalistic and alienated to life and to man’s existential concerns. According to another variant of the criticism, the traditional study is disconnected from the experiential-religious aspect and from the religious devotion (dveykut), perceived by these people to be the ultimate religious value.

Rav Shagar aims to make a connection between learning and life through the studying of Talmudic realism and the search for the meaning of Halakhah. Dov Berkovitz points to the need of having two existential tracks of learning. One – religious existentialism, the purpose of which, in his words, is to “bring the Shechina (Divine presence) down to the lower world.” That is to present Talmud learning as an expression of God’s revelation and “descent” to all aspects of life. The other is humanistic existentialism, which aims to find messages in the Talmud that are also relevant to people who are not believers and who do not observe the commandments. Or, in his words “to draw out of the Talmud ‘a statement for Israeli society.’” Berkovitz’ approach leads to expanding the learning group to include both religious and non-religious people. This trend is already taking form in many Torah study institutions meant for the religious and secular, such as “Elul”, “Alma”, the Efal Seminary Beit Midrash and others.
These three routes do not converge. Those who wish to adopt academic components critique the ‘cognitive dissonance’ of the traditional methods. In contrast to what is happening in the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) world, a student of the national-religious educational, in his/her “secular” studies, learns scientific research methods, based on critical and skeptical work assumptions. It makes no sense, they claim, that when such a student approaches Talmud study he/she must change the methodology, and more than that, the basic assumptions underlying it. The traditionalists, on the other hand, claim that this option entails a desecration of the Talmud as well as a negation of the belief in Torah from Heaven. The existential approach is critical of both the traditional and the academic learning as being alienated to life itself. The existential approach itself is criticized for being subjective and speculative.