Learning the Talmud from Within

by: Menahem Kahana and Rachel Schloss

An Interview with Menahem Kahana

This interview originally appeared in Hebrew in Meimad, Vol. 17, August 1999.

Translated by Rachel Schloss.

Menahem Kahana, Professor of Talmud at Hebrew University, explains the difficulties inherent in learning Gemara:
Besides the lack of appeal of all humanistic studies in our materialistic, impatient generation, striving as it does for instant gratification, which cannot be satisfied by profound cultural knowledge, there are special difficulties in teaching Talmud at the elementary- and high-school levels.
Talmud is a difficult book and is meant for the scholarly elite. The very fact that it is taught to all students in state educational frameworks is problematic. The study of Talmud begins too early, when a child is not mature enough to grasp the Talmud’s complexity and beauty, which is why he/she builds a resistance to it. Learning Talmud requires rationalistic and humanistic talents and must be done in groups according to ability-level.
Learning at an inappropriate level makes it difficult for all students: the more advanced get bored with the repetitions and the weaker ones have a hard time understanding.
In addition, the Talmudic way of thinking and the numerous textual challenges are problematic for the students. When a student innocently questions the validity of a convoluted interpretation of the Mishnah brought in the Gemara, the average teacher will try to convince him that the Talmudic text is the authentic explanation of the Mishnah and that the question stems from the student’s limited understanding. This way of learning creates resistance. At first the students struggle and ask their questions, but then they get used to the cliched answers given by the teachers and they stay away from Talmud in despair.
Another problem is that most Talmud teachers are yeshiva graduates who tend to teach the same commentaries of the Rishonim and the disputes of the Acharonim that they themselves learned in yeshiva, and neglect their main role, which is to impart to their students tools for self-learning and to endear the Talmud to them. A great many of the Talmud teachers in the educational system do not radiate great love for the Talmud. They often teach out of necessity and the students easily sense that.
Q. Doesn’t this growing failure together with the tremendous effort mean that a change is in order? Maybe the Talmud is, in fact, intended for the elite and not the general population?
A: In my opinion, Talmud should continue to be taught and not replaced by extra Bible, Mishnah, Halakha or Jewish Thought studies. Talmud is the book of the Jewish people. The spiritual energy invested in it throughout the generations is above and beyond what has been invested in any other book, and it is a basic foundation of all Torah-oriented fields, be it Halakha, Aggadah, Bible commentary or philosophy. Beyond the fact that Talmud, in the past, has been the central book of the Jewish people, it should continue to be taught for its great religious and cultural value.
Rightfully, by any measure, the Talmud is considered a classic masterpiece – in its contents, its depth of thought, the boldness of its religious and educational teachings, its style and its concise and precise language. It also distinctly characterizes the best of Jewish scholarship, centered around the study of a text dealing with laws and details, that only through them can one understand Jewish halakha and the concept of “the study of Torah is equal to all [other commandments]” as a religious experience.
The Talmud is a very varigated book. It is steeped in many disciplines of Halakha, biblical homiletics, Aggadah, rationalistic discussion, as well as spiritual questions, Jewish law, history etc… In addition to its varied nature, it is an open book, perhaps the most open book ever written throughout Jewish history. In the post-Talmud period, discussion became a much smaller part of the literary corpus. In books written in the Gaonite period, halakhic summarization gradually replaced the give- and-take. This process is most apparent in the writings of Maimonides, who abandoned discussion for Halakha proper. Talmud is a dialectical book, and in that respect, is fundamentally suited to the spirit of our generation, which is, too, basically dialectic and critical.
Furthermore, the Talmud is not a conservative book. It is not apprehensive about renewing halakhic laws or trailblazing ways of thinking. In its biblical homiletics and Mishnah interpretations, there is a distinct combination of adherence to tradition and innovation. The great creativity that is reflected in its discourses may match the creative soul of the modern student.
In this respect, Talmud poses a major educational problem for the Haredi population. The Talmud shows that the human, rationalistic development of Halakha is positive, thereby making it difficult to educate people to have simple faith in the Divine source of every last detail of Halakha. If, after all, the Talmud retains its centrality in the Torah world and is not replaced by mussar (ethical teachings) books or by stories of deeds of the Righteous, what better proof to the tremendous power inherent in the Talmud itself and to the challenge it presents to its learners.
Talmud is the only book, which can serve as a cultural common denominator between all parts of the nation. In the Bible, God “peeks out from every page”, and if you are not a believer – the Bible is problematic for you. Halakha books are irrelevant to a secular person. The Talmud, on the other hand, which is founded on discussion and disagreement and whose study wondrously brings out the vitality of Halakha, can serve as a common cultural basis for both the religious and the secular groups.
For these reasons, not only must Talmud study not be done away with in religious high-schools, but it should also become mandatory in public schools.
Q. You once wrote about the difference between learning in university and learning in Yeshiva. Do you believe that scientific methodology should be used to “save” Talmud learning in high schools?
A: In high school, Talmud should be learned from within and not with an external, scientific and critical eye. There is also no connection between scientific and pedagogic ability. Yet, a teacher with a background in research, may use it to get a precise, pedantic understanding of the workings of a sugia, in the variety of lessons, in making initial comparisons between the Tannaic foundation and its development by the Amoraim, etc. An open-minded attitude to scientific approaches may help the teacher present the creative interpretation of the Talmud as an advantage and not a problem which must be overcome, through the inspiration of Orthodox views.
Only after teaching good learning skills and knowledge of significant scope, is it relevant to integrate research methods, and even that only in the advanced yeshivas and not in yeshiva high-schools. At that advanced level of learning, the scientific perspective may shine a new light on the Talmudic sugias, but that is already another matter.
Q. What are the possible solutions?
A: As mentioned, it is important to delay the age at which Talmud is first taught. Classes should once again be divided into groups according to ability-level and the tractates to be learned should be chosen carefully. It would be worthwhile to prepare new curricula that could compete with the tempting programs that exist in other subjects. Most importantly, a revolution should be made so that Talmud-loving teachers are trained, so that they would be able to teach in a fascinating and challenging way.
In recent years, alongside the boys’ escape from Talmud, there is a blossoming of Talmud study among girls. This applies mostly to girls in midrashot, who have no bitter memories from attempting to learn Talmud too early. Having women teachers entering the system may refresh Talmud study and give it life, both methodologically and professionally. With their help, the percentage of teachers who really love Talmud and believe there is a challenge in imparting it, may grow significantly. A love of this kind eventually travels from the teacher to the students.
Copyright Meimad 1999 Reprinted with permission

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