Memory and Analysis

19 12 2011

I hear of feats of memory from time to time, such as the man who recited all of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and while such feats are beyond my skill (and patience), they are generally unimpressive. This morning, however, I read of a truly impressive feat of memory and skill, and I already balk at how best to comprehend it. A full description is provided by Mohan K.V., with an excellent summary by S at The Lumber Room.

From Panini to Ramanujan, India has had more than its fair share of brilliant individuals, although the feats performed by Dr R. Ganesh are sui generis. The only way that I can translate them into a culture similar to my own is by imagining the following:

A performer stands upon the stage; before him is his audience. As a feat, he must compose a poem on a theme to be determined by a random audience member, and do so in a strict metrical arrangement. What is more, he must compose this poem only one syllable at a time, and between each syllable, the audience member who suggested the theme must call out a syllable that he is not allowed to use next. He progresses in such a fashion until he has concluded the first line, at which point he is offered a new challenge. The new challenges mount up, between each of which (and without the aid of writing anything down) he must return to the original challenge and, in similar fashion, add another line to it. The challenges that are interspersed throughout include answering random questions from the audience, composing poems on specific themes (again, constrained by metre), adding lines to poems that are given to him, recognising the provenance of quotes that are called out from the audience, composing verse that contains specific sounds that are words in other languages but which must be included as morphemes in the speaker’s own tongue, and completing a magic square to certain specifications. This last challenge, like the first, is broken up and interspersed around others.

This all sounds like quite a mess, and I would have enough difficulty completing even the first of those tasks without being distracted by so much as one of the others. Apparantly, Dr. R. Ganesh is quite adept at this particular feat of memory, which is called an “avadhana“, and his ability to do it with one hundred parallel questions (a “shatavadhana”, instead of the traditional eight) has led to his being named a “Shatavadhani”.

Reading this got me to thinking about feats of memory in general, and it was but a small step from there to the world of the yeshiva in particular. I am reminded of a parlour trick, for want of a better term, that had some measure of popularity for a time. Known by many as “the pin trick”, it involved choosing a random tractate of the Talmud, opening it to a random page, and then placing a pin through one of the words: the person who was “performing”, so to speak, would be told the tractate, the page and the word, and would then disclose exactly which word it was going to go through on the other side of the page. In order to make the enormity of this feat clear, the Babylonian Talmud comprises a vast corpus of legal and dialectic literature, spanning almost 2,700 double-sided pages of unvocalised, unpunctuated Aramaic text. To perform a feat like this – and one which was looked down upon by many members of the establishment – it is necessary to have committed the entire Talmud to memory. Such a skill relies greatly on natural gifts, but is also an indication of an incredible time spent in the pursuit of Talmudic fluency.

While I am disinclined to minimise in any respect the performance of such a feat, if I were to say anything to its detriment I would note that it is uncreative. While it testifies to the practitioner’s incredible familiarity with the corpus, it says nothing at all for his comprehension. In that respect, more popular amongst many individuals (particularly in Lithuania) was the delivery of a pilpul: a Talmudic homily that linked together a large number of Talmudic discussions and meta-discussions, commentaries and super-commentaries. In many respects, this practice served the same purpose as the pin trick: to demonstrate the acumen of the “performer” by revealing his incredible feats of memorisation, and to show that he was possessed of a keen and analytical mind.

To demonstrate just how ingrained such attitudes are, within the Haredi world today, consider the following example. Just down the road from one of the yeshivot at which I studied in 2003 was a kindergarten. There were signs in the street around it, advertising it as a good place to send your children. Not one of the signs mentioned the conditions of the rooms, the quality of the equipment, the professionalism of the staff or even the rates. Instead, they all asked a simple question: “Do you want your sons to know Shas?”

Shas, which is an acronym for Shisha Sedarim (ששה סדרים, “six orders”), refers to the Babylonian Talmud. It is certainly no mistake to think that a young man need start (reasonably) early if he wishes to truly master this corpus, and must learn to work diligently in the process. While I applaud the enthusiasm of the parents, I do think that kindergarten might be a little bit too early.

During my time in yeshiva, I heard of young men who lived locally and who had completed Shas in time for their bar-mitzvah. While that was certainly rare, completing it in time for their twentieth birthday was not. What is more, there were a number of young men, ranged through their twenties and thirties, who appeared to know large sections of it off by heart. If I were to be cruel, I would say that they didn’t appear to know anything else.

There are a number of different sociological factors that come into play here. Central, in many respects, is the sense of loss that follows in the wake of the Shoah. Whole communities of learned, Torah-observant Jews were shuttled by the trainload to Chełmno and Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor, Majdanek and Auschwitz. Libraries, like the famed collection at the Chochmei Lublin yeshiva, were put to the torch. Despite the fact that more people are learning Torah today than have ever been learning Torah in the past, the sense that one needs to rebuild something is pervasive.

Secondarily to that, although intimately connected with it, is the success of the Lithuanian approach to Torah study. Between the death of Rabbi Moshe Sofer in 1839 and the outbreak of the first world war, there were over two hundred yeshivot in Hungary. In the minds of many people, however, the yeshivot of Lithuania and Poland (institutions like the Mir, Novaradok, Ponevezvh and Volozhin) were rabbinic institutions par excellence. The differences between the two styles of institution are noteworthy: while Hungarian yeshivot featured holidays during the year, allowing students to spend time away from the study hall, the Lithuanian yeshiva system emphasised the need for perennial learning. While the Hungarian yeshiva system had a focus on tutelage and regular examinations, the Lithuanian yeshiva system placed its focus on individual study with a study partner (a chavruta). While Hungarian rabbis were renowned for their cogent responses to legal questions, Lithuanian rabbis were renowned instead for their dialectic analysis and their feats of memory. Heads of Lithuanian yeshivot, as a general rule, did not decide on matters of law.

[If you are interested in reading more about Hungarian yeshivot, I append links to two excellent articles that appeared in Jewish History (1997): "On the Hungarian Yeshiva Movement", by Rabbi Prof. Mordechai Breuer, and "Hungarian Yeshivot, Lithuanian Yeshivot and Joseph Ben-David", by Prof. Shaul Stampfer.]

To all things, of course, there is a limit. Defining the uppermost boundary of Lithuanian analysis is the school of Brisk: a method of intense dialectical analysis that is likened by its detractors to chemistry. Its origins can be found in a collection of discourses on the Rambam’s Mishne Torah, composed by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who was the Rav at Brest-Litovsk in Belarus – “Brisk” in Yiddish. While the Rambam’s reliance on the Palestinian Talmud and other non-Babylonian sources is no secret, Reb Chaim Brisker’s attempts to align the Mishne Torah with the Babylonian Talmud resulted in a tremendously conceptual presentation of the halakha, breaking individual discussions in the halakhic literature into their constituent components and aiming at a philosophical appraisal of the Torah’s underlying mechanics. Those who oppose such an approach nonetheless recognise the greatness of his work, and a conceptual approach in non-Brisk circles, while it is not the norm, is also reasonably common.

Supporters of this school may see its true origins in the writings of Reb Chaim’s father, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), who penned a collection of analytical discourses on the Mishne Torah and on the Torah itself, entitled “Beis haLevi”. He was the great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim ben Yitzchak (“Chaim Volozhiner”), who founded the yeshiva in Volozhin and who was himself a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797). The methodology of the Vilna Gaon and of his disciples was one of extreme memorisation, and it is said of the Gaon (the Gra, as he is known) that if given the name of a Talmudic sage and the name of a chapter of the Talmud, he was able to declare the number of times the former appeared within the latter. In the school of Brisk, the two approaches of memorisation and analysis came to a head: two characteristics, while not always approved of in the extremes to which Reb Chaim Brisker took them, that are admired and striven for in the Ashkenazi Haredi world today.

The intensity and the devotion of these people, and the limits to which they have succeeded in memorising so vast a body of literature, are most certainly beyond the norm. One individual in our own age who has accomplished such a feat is haRav Ovadiah Yosef, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel and the spiritual leader of the Shas party. He has attained a degree of memorisation and fluency across the vast bulk of Jewish legal literature to an extent unparalleled since the Rambam himself. Nonetheless, his lack of analysis is one of the several factors (according to Dr Marc Shapiro, one of the major factors) in his being so disrespected by the Ashkenazi Haredi establishment. For those who model their education system on the Lithuanian yeshivot, analysis is as integral as memorisation.

For my part, I fear that the analysis in which they take such pride is in many respects as uncreative as the pin trick that so many of them disparaged. While it contributes a great deal to certain philosophical conceptualisations of the halakha, it does nothing in the realm of advancing Jewish legislation in practice. Like the shatavadhana of Dr R. Ganesh, it is impressive to behold, and a true testimony to the brilliance of he who can execute such feats of memory and analysis. Like the shatavadhana of Dr R. Ganesh, however, it remains no more than a performance.


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