"So What?!": Talmud Study through Values Analysis

  • by: Scot A. Berman

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 10, 1, 1997, pp. 17-31. Appears here with permission.

“So what !?!” is probably the most defeating and damning statement given by a student in response to a teacher’s lesson. It implies that, after all is said and done, what was studied is perceived by the student as irrelevant and meaningless. Many students of Talmud have exclaimed and continue to exclaim, “So what !?!” It is to this retort that I turn my attention.
Textual Skills, Textual Relevance
In these pages, I have already outlined the need for developing textual analytical skills while, at the same time, demonstrating textual relevance.1 Teaching Talmud through values analysis addresses the latter concern. It is my contention here that every Talmudic selection can be analyzed for its value.2 Underlying the Talmud’s halakhic dialogue is an evaluative corpus3 that is usually only implicit in the text. Applying the correct analytical tools to the Talmud can help the student make those values explicit. Such disclosure can serve to make what is perceived by many students of Talmud as purely legal and technical, into a text that is both relevant and meaningful.
Before demonstrating the method with a model lesson, let us explore some conceptual issues related to the values analysis approach.
I. Talmudic Values Analysis: Issues For Consideration
Is it not contrived and artificial to analyze Gemara according to the values presumably contained in each selection? Is this not just a ploy to make Talmud more acceptable to students?
The question, properly formulated by the educator, is: What is useful in teaching the text? What avenues can we pursue; what anchors can steady us in presenting Talmud in a more intelligible way to the students? It is much less important to us that the texts identify these avenues or anchors by name. If, through analysis, these techniques are helpful in explaining the text, we can safely conclude that they are, in fact, “there”.
Let us demonstrate this point from what has become known as the Brisker derekh- the “conceptual-analytical” approach, first introduced by Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik. This approach offered alternative theoretic constructs for the study of Talmud to the more prevalent ones of the day, which fell under the general rubric of pilpul. This new approach represents a shift from its predecessor. Yet, from that point forward in history, it revolutionized the study of Talmud.
Opponents of the new approach argued that the conceptual-analytical approach was contrived and artificial. The conceptual constructs identified have no real correspondence to the text, given that the text does not explicitly state them. This argument, however, can be mounted against any interpretive approach to the text, whether it be conceptual ,analytical, pilpulistic, or something altogether different. Every interprative framework involves translation.4 Each approach applies its own set of theoretical concepts as tools to interpret the printed word. Each approach attempts to be consistent in employing its set of interpretive rules. Each is justifiable to the degree that its methods help elucidate the text. The avenues and anchors may “exist” even if not identified explicitly by the text.
Values Are Fundamental
Value analysis is justifiable on the same grounds. Values are basic to all civilizations and religions. These values are often evidenced through their customs, rituals, laws and legends. Midreshei Aggadah are the most explicit of the classical Jewish writing to state or deliberate over Jewish values.5 Torah, Eretz Yisrael, kavod, yir’at shamayim, derekh Eretz, and a myriad of other terms are immediately associated by those initiated into the Jewish lexicon as indicators of authentic Jewish values. The halakhic sections of Talmud actualize Jewish values stated in Aggadah into normative determinative modes of action.
Tzedakah, for example, is a value attested to in Aggadah countless times. Its exact parameters and limits as a normative requirement, however, are to be found in the halakhic sections of Talmud. Emet is a positive value, as sheker is a negative value. Midrash and Aggadah are replete with statements regarding each one. It is only in the Gemara, though, that one discovers the particular criteria for truth in business affairs, on the one hand, and situations in which the whole truth may be set aside, on the other. Even though these values may not be stated explicitly in the text, they lie beneath the surface, as anchors, waiting to be used to help us plumb the depth of meaning contained in the Talmudic text.
Every halakhic discussion in the Talmud can be analyzed for its value content. Discerning these values as one studies the text, is the focus of this approach. Why does the Talmud not state more explicitly the values it is attempting to codify? The very nature of values discussion in Aggadah is fluid and indeterminate. Strict and unified definitions are altogether avoided to insure the organic nature of the value complex in the Aggadah; they are allowed to take on a multiplicity of meanings and shades of meaning. Halakhah, on the other hand, concerns itself with deciding the law. Multiplicity of meanings will no longer do. The law must be clear and precise. Indeterminacy has no place in the realm of Halakhah. For this reason the Halakhah “conceals” the values at play. Stating them explicitly would limit the multiplicity of “belief afforded values” in Aggadic material.6
Orthodox Judaism rests upon the assumption that the law is imposed from above. Accordingly, man’s role is to decide whether or not to accept the law. The validity of the law, itself, however, does not depend on that choice. If this is true, an approach to Talmud study that attempts to focus its attention on the belief system of the student corrupts the very foundation upon which the Talmud is based. Does not attempting to make Talmud more acceptable to students through values analysis begin with this erroneous assumption regarding the basis for authority? Does not this approach convey an erroneous message to the student?
The Text and the Student: Building Bridges
First, a bridge must be built between the text and the student who comes without a priori allegiance to Jewish law. Jewish values may serve as this bridge. Confronting the values implicit in the text, and comparing them to the students’ own values, increases the likelihood that the students’ evaluation of the text will lead them to the conclusion that it is, in fact, worthy of additional consideration and further study. Through this process there is a chance that the students will discover that issues of concern to them are also of concern to the Talmud.
Second, this approach does not begin with the belief system of the student; it presents the belief system of the Talmud as authoritative. However, as said above, students without an a priori commitment to Halakhah require an entryway into Talmudic discourse that bears meaning for them; one way is by comparing and contrasting the Talmud’s values with their own. The very exercise of Talmud values analysis leads the students to make independent comparisons and contrasts. This necessary prerequisite will help the students take the Talmud and its ideas seriously and find them worthy of consideration.
Is this, then, not merely a ploy to make Talmud more acceptable to students? In a way, yes. This is a legitimate approach to Talmud study, applied specifically here to meet the needs of a particular community of learners. Given a different population of learners, one might well use an alternative approach to Talmud study. Schools serving hareidi students often used Humash study as a springboard for values education while utilizing a more traditional approach for learning Talmud. I would add that, unfortunately, very few schools of any persuasion study Midrash and Aggadah in a serious fashion. A complete picture of Rabbinic Judaism’s world view will never be complete without the incorporation of both Halakhah and Aggadah. The approach to Talmud study suggested here attempts to incorporate into the study of halakhic texts the essence of its relationship to the values expressed in Aggadah.
Do Values Really Underlie Talmudic Texts?
Can it be substantiated that values underlie each and every Talmudic passage? A select number of examples may be indicative of the exceptions rather than of the rule.
I believe that values do underlie each Talmudic passage, and I attempt to demonstrate this point through the very “ordinariness” of the passage I have selected as a model lesson: acceptable marriage proposals, as debated in Masekhet Kiddushin. Correspondingly, I intentionally ignored the selection from folio 40b which raises the question: What is superior, Torah study or performance of commandments? Since it is all too obvious that values are central to that Gemara. The selection that has been made here to demonstrate the values analysis approach is typical of common, ordinary, Talmudic passages.7
Is there but one way to interpret the values of a given Talmudic selection? Clearly not. As with all forms of interpretation, a given values analysis must withstand the objections of those who come to criticize it. Just as Tosafot argue with Rashi regarding the interpretation of a particular selection of Talmud, so too, differences of opinion will inevitably emerge regarding what values are central to any given Talmudic text.
The model lesson proposed here is not meant to be the final word on what values are implied in this text and how these values are to be studied. Rather, it is meant to demonstrate one interpretation of the text with one methodology for its study. The reader is encouraged to take issue with my interpretations and offer alternatives. The sole purpose in presenting this model lesson is to demonstrate the values analysis to Talmud study.
II. The Model Lesson: Masekhet Kiddushin 6a; kavanah
The assumption we begin with is that students have prepared the material in advance with a havrutah and are familiar with the contents of the selection. This lesson attempts to demonstrate; a) that kavanah is the central underlying value of concern to this passage; b) why kavanah is necessary in this situation; c) how the Gemara concretizes the value of kavanah into Halakhah; and d) other applications of kavanah within Judaism.
Background Information
The halakhic issue of concern in this passage is what are valid expressions of marriage proposal. After citing a beraita containing six legitimate expressions of marriage proposal, the Gemara questions the legitimacy of the other expressions.
Clarifying the Question
In clarifying the exact circumstances of the Talmud’s question, the Gemara first makes the following points:
A. Without the man’s discussing marriage laws in the presence of the woman, any marriage proposal under discussion is invalid – given that she will not otherwise ascertain his true intention.
B. A woman who accepts money from a man immediately after he was discussing the laws of marriage in her presence is considered married even without a specific verbal marriage proposal
The Gemara concludes that the circumstances under which the question of legitimate marriage proposals is raised is when discussion about marriage laws precedes the marriage proposal. Based on this, the Gemara reformulates its question. The issue, now, is whether the man’s statement is to be understood, in fact, as a marriage proposal, or as a verbal contract consigning the woman to his employ. The Gemara’s conclusion: teiku; the question remains unresolved.
With these introductions, students will be ready to approach the text. We want students to understand that the man must have kavanah to marry his wife and that he must express his kavanah in a way that is communicated to others -most importantly, to his intended wife.
The Gemara introduces a beraita citing six legitimate expressions of marriage proposal that clearly articulate the man’s intention to marry, followed by a question regarding eleven other expressions of marriage proposal in which the man’s kavanah to marry is not clear. The questions below attempt to lead students to understand that the Gemara’s issue is one of correctly ascertaining what is a person’s exact intention.
Ascertaining Intent: Some Leading Questions
Q. What is the halakhic difference between marriage proposals and the eleven marriage proposals suggested by the Gemara?
A. Those used in the beraita are valid, i.e. through use of them the woman is married, while there is a question about those mentioned by the Gemara.
Q. What is the conceptual difference between the expressions listed in the beraita and those suggested in the Gemara?
The answer to this conceptual question may be less obvious to the students than the factual answer of the previous question. Here the teacher should help the students analyze the expressions by writing them on the blackboard in two columns and having the students translate each one. (This is a good opportunity for students to practice their dictionary skills.)
If the students are still unable to discern the difference, the teacher should then ask them to concentrate on what is the purpose of the marriage proposal, and which list of expressions best accomplishes that purpose.
In the course of the discussion, students may be troubled why the Gemara has any question regarding the eleven vague marriage proposals. Of course a woman is not married on account of any of them! If the students do not ask, then the teacher should raise the question. Rashi analyzes six terms and demonstrates that although these terms are less obvious suggestions of marriage than the proposals stated in the beraita, nevertheless, they may convey one’s intent to marry.
Q.If the Gemara’s expressions are so vague, why is there any question regarding their legitimacy? Of course they are invalid.
A. (A perceptive student may discern the point without the help of Rashi. Even so, Rashi should be used to validate the student insight.)
The teacher may first want to prod the students to discover the answer on their own before directing them to Rashi. By focusing attention on terms which Rashi doesn’t explain, such as: tzela’ti and tahti, students may remember the Biblical connection. Use of a Biblical concordance may be a helpful technique which also reinforces a necessary skill.
Rashi’s Analysis
Q.See Rashi on the terms: segurati, negdati, ezrati, meyuhedet, and atzurati. How do his explanations help us understand why the Gemara has a question about its list of proposals?
A. The Gemara’s list, while not as explicit as the beraita’s, contains expressions which utilize either Biblical language generally associated with marriage, or common language which strongly suggests marriage.
If the teacher has not already directed the students to the terms not explained by Rashi, he may want to encourage them to suggest their own interpretations for such terms as tzela’ti and tahti whose Biblical referents may come to mind (see Gen. 2:22-23).
[Tangential to our discussion on kavanah, but still worthy of attention. are such enrichment exercises as: (a) the use of Talmudic variant readings (perhaps Rashi’s failure to explain three terms reflects a different reading of the text?); and (b) Rashi’s disagreement with his teachers (s.v. atzurati).]
To further bring the point home students should be asked to identify the Gemara’s rationale regarding the terms lekuhati and harufati as legitimate expressions for marriage proposals. Here the students will see that expressions which approximate Biblical terms which are associated with marriage are valid, eg., lekuhati approximates ki yikah ish ishah, and that an expression which strongly suggests marriage is also valid, e.g., harufati in Judah, because it is synonymous there for arusah.
Q.What is the Gemara’s rationale for concluding that lekuhati is a legitimate expression of marriage proposal, as is harufati in Judah?
A. Lekuhati approximates the Torah’s expression of ki yikah ish ishah. In Judah the term harufah was synonymous with arusah and therefore its use to indicate the intent to marry is also obvious.
From Intent to Implement
Up to this point in the lesson it has been demonstrated that the man’s intention to marry must be expressed unequivocally through the marriage proposal. Now the Gemara turns its attention to how one determines whether this has been accomplished.
Before answering the question regarding the list of eleven marriage proposals (now pared down to nine), the Gemara directs itself to how we can measure the man’s efficacy in expressing his intentions to marry by using the woman’s consent. Only when the woman understands from the man that his intention is to propose marriage are we satisfied that the necessary kavanah has been expressed.
Q. According to the first half of the Gemara’s twofold question, on what does the success of the man’s expression of kavanah to marry depend?
A. The success of the man expression of his kavanah to marry is dependent on the woman’s understanding. Therefore, she would not be considered married if the man was not previously speaking of matters related to marriage when he proposed to her using one of the “vague” expressions. The woman’s consent in this situation would not be assured.
Yet the Gemara in the second half of its question discloses a unique halakhic feature that may be the key to uncovering the depth of kavanah as a value. In the circumstances in which the man’s kavanah can be ascertained without any verbal pronouncement whatsoever, the woman is considered married. Moreover, the Gemara sharpens its question regarding the nine expressions of marriage proposal such that a verbal pronouncement may distort his intention rather than clarify it.
Q. According to the second half of the Gemara’s question, what seems odd about how the woman is considered married?
A. It is odd that if a man is discussing matters relating to marriage in the presence of a woman and then gives her money, she is considered married without any specific verbal expression from the man whatsoever.
Q.What idea about kavanah is advanced here that the Gemara had not yet addressed?
A. kavanah reflects a mindset behind the man’s statement. If his state of mind can be ascertained without his speech, the woman is considered married given her tacit consent.
When Actions are as Loud as Words
The oddity of this case is a matter the teacher will need to explore further to insure that the students understand that such a reality is possible. The teacher might first enlist the insights of the students to suggest a situation in which an action without any verbal pronouncement can clearly demonstrate a person’s intention. If the students are unable to think of such a case, the teacher may want to offer the following scenario: a man tossing a rose at the feet of his girlfriend. The students will be able to see from our scenario that the man has expressed his love for his girlfriend without uttering a single word.8 This is so is due to the circumstances surrounding the situation. First, the fact that he threw the flower to his girlfriend and not to some strange woman helps inform us about his intention. The rose, symbolizing romance, is a second clue. Perhaps even the body language of bending down to toss the rose before his girlfriend demonstrates his submission before his beloved- yet another demonstration of his love. Now that the students understand how the circumstances in our rose scenario inform us of the boyfriend’s intentions, they will be better able to understand how the circumstances in the Gemara’s case also work to inform us of the man’s intentions. By discussing the rose scenario the student will no longer see the Gemara’s case as “odd.” With this accomplished we are prepared to return to our analysis of the Gemara.
Q.In its final reshaping, what is the Gemara’s question?
A. The final question posed by the Gemara is: Does the man’s statement impede his desire lo communicate the intention of marriage, or does it have a neutral effect?
Why Rabbi Yehudah Requires Speech in All Cases
Before addressing the Gemara’s conclusion, it may be insightful to examine the placement of Rabbi Yehudah whose opinion is ultimately rejected by the Gemara. Rabbi Yehudah requires the man’s oral pronouncement under all circumstances.
Q.Why do you think Rabbi Yehudah required an oral pronouncement even when circumstances clearly indicate that his intention is to marry the woman? A. Conceptually it is not altogether clear with what Rabbi Yehudah disagrees. He may require a verbal pronouncement to remove all doubt and insure consent on the part of the woman. Rabbi Yossi, on the other hand, does not consider lack of a verbal pronouncement an impediment to the woman’s consent providing the circumstances point lo a particular conclusion. This line of thought centers on the woman.
Alternatively, Rabbi Judah may be of the opinion that full kavanah on the part of the man is actualized only when it moves from conscious thought to articulated speech. Anything less may be considered incomplete kavanah. According to Rabbi Yossi, kavonah, by definition, cannot be reduced to an act. Kavanah to marry must accompany the act of marriage which here takes place in such a manner that the man’s internal kavanah is reasonably ascertained.
To further support the reasonableness of this second interpretation,of Rabbi Yehudah’s thinking, the teacher may want to discuss the distinction that Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik makes (in Al HaTeshuvah) between kiyyum hamitzvah and pe’ulat hamitzvah. Repentance regards the internal state of mind of the penitent. Peulat hamitzvah is the action one is required to do as a result of being commanded to do teshuvah by means of confession (vidduy). The Rav makes the point that the act of vidduy actually affects the kiyyum, or internal state of mind. Without it the kiyyum is incomplete.9
Mitzvot Tzerikhot kavanah
The perceptive student may note that, in the Talmud, a disagreement exists whether commandments require kavanah or not. Our entire discussion may hinge on this point. At this juncture the teacher should introduce Rabbi Pinhas Kehati’s commentary on the Mishnah: Masekhet Berakhot, Chapter 2. Kehati explains that even those who maintain that commandments do not require kavanah agree that commandments dependent on either thought (such as in our case) or speech still require kavanah.
Q.Besides teshuvah, what are other examples of commandments which require thought or verbal pronouncement?
A. Reciting Shema, prayer, blessings, love of G-d, fear of G-d, remembering the exodus from Egypt, etc..
Q.What is the difference between commandments of thought and verbal pronouncement which require kavanah according to all and other commandments in which there exists a disagreement?
A. Commandments of thought and verbal pronouncement, which originate in the mind, by definition require kavanah. In these cases kavanah is the fulfillment of the command, as opposed to commandments requiring physical action in which one can distinguish between the action and the thought behind the action. According to the view that commandments do not require kavanah, doing the action is what is required. Good “deeds” are objectively good. Fulfilling the act as commanded is what is necessary regardless of the person’s kavanah. According to the view that commandments require kavanah, commandments serve to improve the individual. The mere completion of the deed is not sufficient. A “good deed” must be reflective in nature if any positive attribution is to be ascribed to it. Otherwise, it is a random act of chance bearing no meaning on the life of the individual.
The teacher should point out that although the Rishonim argue about the law, the Talmud appears to conclude that commandments do not require kavanah. What remains clear, however, is that Judaism has long stressed the value of performing commandments with kavanah. The teacher may want to assign an out-of-class essay or lead an in-class discussion on evidence in Judaism for the importance of performing commandments with kavanah. This activity has broadened our lesson from our specific Talmudic text considerably. However, it offers the teacher the opportunity lo develop the concept of kavanah, which is central to our text in its larger context. The following sources and ideas may add to the discussion:
1) The Hassidic custom (whose influence reaches far beyond the Hassidic world) to say hinneni mukhan urnezurnan lekayyem mizvat assei prior to performing a positive mitzvah.
2) The formula of leshem mitzvat… prior to tying tzitzit or baking a matzah.
3) The invalidation of a sacrifice by deliberately intending not to perform all its required services (piggul).
4) The requirement to destroy a Torah written by a heretic.
5) The statement of Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 1:4: tov me’at tahanunim bekavanah meharbot belo kavanah.
A Summary and a teiku
The teacher may want, at this point, to summarize the main points regarding commandments and kavanah:
1) All opinions agree that commandments of thought and verbal pronouncement require kavanah.
2) The disagreement over the requirement of kavanah applies to commandments that involve some physical act.
3) Regardless of the disagreement, there is a strong tendency in Judaism to stress the performance of commandments with kavanah.
Finally, the teacher will want to bring the lesson back to the Talmudic text at hand and ask the students why the Gemara concludes in teiku.
Q:Why does the Gemara conclude in teiku?
A. According to the Gemara, although the circumstances indicate that the man’s intention is to marry, the language he uses may indicate his desire to just employ the woman for work. The Gemara is unable to decide which of two lines of thought is most compelling. Either the expressions, combined with the circumstances, are a clear enough indication that his intention is to marry, or the expressions are vague enough to possibly indicate his intention solely to employ her and, therefore, to leave her unmarried.
If successful, this lesson will have demonstrated the following:
1) that kavanah is an underlying value in this Talmudic passage;
2) why kavanah is necessary in this situation
3) how kavanah, as a value, becomes concretized in Jewish law;
4) broader applications and contexts of kavanah as a value in Judaism.
III. Some Afterthoughts
The need to teach requisite skills for independent text study is a necessary, but not a sufficient, educational aim for Modern Orthodox educators. We must also transmit a sense of significance and meaningfulness about the text which imbues the students with the desire to continue studying that text long after they leave our classrooms and our schools. Automatic commitment cannot be taken for granted; we must, therefore, nurture that commitment. Some educators manage to win their students’ commitment to tradition through their personal charisma, others do so by way of their personal example. Charisma, however, is rare, and personal example is unreliable when dealing with adolescents. We have presented here an alternative approach, utilizing and analytical, textual methodology. By such means we hope to develop students’ respect for the text, demonstrate its relevance, and, most importantly, foster an unrelenting devotion to Judaism. At the very least, we hope that these students will no longer exclaim: “So what?!”
1″Talmud: Text and Talmid- The Teaching of Gemara in the Modern Orthodox Day School,” Ten Da’at 5:1 (Fall 1990), pp. 17-21.
2A complete discussion of these ideas on teaching Talmud are developed in my Talmud Instruction in the Modern Orthodox Day School, Jerusalem: 1994 (unpublished).
3Such thinking is reflected in the writings of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Professor Eliezer Berkovitz, Professor Emil Fakenheim, and Professor Emmanuel Levinas among others. The most explicit description of the relationship between values and halakha is in the works of Max Kaddushin, most notably, The Rabbinic Mind, 3rd Edition, New York: 1972. For the most elaborate discussion on values in Jewish education and their relationship to classic Jewish texts, see Michael Rosenak, Roads to the Palace: Jewish Texts and Teaching, Oxford: 1995, Chapters 9 and 10 in particular.
4Rosenak: op. cit., Chapter 6.
5It should be pointed out that there are halakhic sections of Talmud that discuss Jewish values explicitly, albeit to a lesser degree.
6The indeterminacy of Aggadah and its network of values is well developed by Max Kaddushin. That Halakha concretizes those values into discrete forms of practice – requiring the concealment of those values- seems to be a natural extension of Kaddushin’s thinking.
7In my Talmud Introduction in the Modern Orthodox Day School, I present three model lessons- all from Talmudic selections that address values only implicitly in order to demonstrate my thesis that values underlie all halakhic discussions in the Talmud.
8I thank Professor Michael Rosenak for suggesting this example.
9Pinhas H. Peli, On Repentance: From the Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Jerusalem: 1975. pp. 40-41, 62.