Talmudic Methodology

18 02 2015

Picture the following scenario. A young man, enamoured of Torah, encounters the commentary of the Ramban. Lucid, straightforward and with an almost categorical precision, yet mystical and permitting of ceaseless interpretation. He’s hooked, and he purchases a copy. Undeterred by the fact that he has never before read the chumash, he immediately sets out to learn it with the Ramban, and he commences with the very first verse.

Six words in Hebrew, followed by a few hundred words of Hebrew commentary. He reads those six words, thinks about them a little, makes sure that he understands (or thinks that he understands) what each of them means, and then spends several hours wrestling with the Ramban’s interpretation before moving on to the second verse. But the second verse features no comment from the Ramban! Obviously, there’s no need to learn this passuk and he skips it altogether, moving on instead to the third.

In such a fashion, he progresses through the five books of the Torah: skipping verses on which the Ramban leaves no comment, and merely reading those verses on which he does. Since the Ramban’s commentary deals at length with ideas contained within the verses on which he does not remark, even reading the text in so haphazard a fashion will still enable the diligent student to at least encounter every (or almost every) verse in the Torah. So, when he comes to the end of this enterprise, what will he have achieved?

It would be foolish to say “nothing”, since it is impossible to read a text the size and scope of the Ramban’s commentary on Torah and to not learn a thing, but to pretend that he has at all studied that text would be no less ridiculous. After all, the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah is a commentary on the Torah, and the only way to properly engage with a commentary is to study first the text on which it serves as one. By skipping those verses that lack the Ramban and only cursorily engaging with those verses that do, our student will not only fail to learn Torah, he will also and as a direct result fail to grasp the Ramban’s commentary on it.

If you think that this scenario sounds absurd, it is no different to the Talmudic methodology adopted in every major yeshiva. There, students commence their study of every sugya with a reading of its introductory mishna. They make sure that they understand (or think they understand) the mishna’s words, they have a look at the issues with the mishna that Rashi raises, and then they proceed to spend several hours (perhaps days, or even weeks) wrestling with its gemara. And well they should: the Talmud, as a text, is both larger and more complex than the Mishna – to an order of magnitude.

But have they really learnt the gemara? After all, the gemara serves as a commentary upon the Mishna, and unless one actually studies first the text on which it is based, how can one expect to walk away with a proper understanding of either?

I first asked this question in 2002, when it initially became apparent to me that “we were doing it all wrong”. If a student’s only encounter with the Mishna was with the few lines that served as a preface to the text that he was really studying, is it not the case that he is really studying neither? Like the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah, the Talmud doesn’t feature gemara on every single mishna, and while almost every mishna might be mentioned at some point within it, the rabbinic endeavour presupposes familiarity with the text as a whole. Should not more time be devoted to a serious, analytical study of the early rabbinic literature on its own merits, before delving into the sprawling, complex and systematic commentaries upon it? And the flabbergasting answer that I received (not once, but twice, and at two separate institutions) was, Yes. Of course! But who has the time?

You do, is what I should have answered. If it is your job to study Torah, then you absolutely have the time to do it properly. But I did not. I accepted their answer: all things being equal, if I could only study one thing, I would make it the gemara. And to those who lack the time to study anything else, the gemara is a worthwhile choice. It contains both law and philosophy in equal measure, and might amply be described as the root and stock of rabbinic Judaism. But those who do have the time – whether they learn in kollel, or whether they simply devote a few hours each day to serious study – have no excuse for neglecting the Mishna, save that their teachers taught them to do so.

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