The Academic Study of the Talmud

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In every interaction I have had with R. Dr. Pinchas Hayman, a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan and the head of the Revadim project, he has come across as an extremely level-headed and realistic talmid hakham. However, when I read his article “Implications of Academic Approaches to the Study of the Babylonian Talmud for the Beliefs and Religious Attitudes of the Student“, that impression did not come through. In this article, Dr. Hayman attempts to demonstrate that the “academic approach” to studying the Talmud is not only legitimate, it is the most authentic approach and the one used by traditional scholars throughout the ages. This is certainly a difficult thesis to prove, considering that almost everyone agrees that the “academic approach” is based on new, “scientific” methodologies. The way that Dr. Hayman proves his thesis is by creating typologies of yeshivah and academic approaches and demonstrating that the academic typology is based on traditional approaches while the yeshivah is not. This would work if his typologies were accurate. Unfortunately, they are more stereotypes than anything else.

I. Anachronistic Beliefs

Before we get to that, Dr. Hayman gives examples of textual beliefs taught in religious schools that are incorrect and “have virtually nothing in common with the teachings of the Pharisees, the Tannaim, the Amoraim, and those who followed them, and are indefensible according to historical, logical and literary criteria.” These are strong words, to say the least. Here are some examples of such wrong-headed beliefs so maliciously taught in religious schools:

– The entire Five Books of moses (the Written Tradition) were actually physically given at Mount Sinai together with the Written Tradition…

-The Halakhah as detailed in the Shulhan Arukh and responsa literature is the direct result of the Talmudic enterprise and is not given to alteration or cancellation.

It is due time we rid ourselves of such anachronistic beliefs, and let’s cross out the Ramban’s entire introduction to the Torah while we’re at it. But beliefs about the source and development of the Written Torah and Halakhah are not the subject of this article, so let us move on to the alleged anachronistic textual assumptions about the Babylonian Talmud.

II. Teaching of the Talmud in Religious Schools

These are the six basic assumptions in current religious study of the Talmud, with my own commentary added on:

1. The Babylonian Talmud is the authoritative interpretation of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi on which it is based.

When it has practical implications, yes. Sure, one can find rare occasions in which post-Talmudic sages preferred an interpretation from the Yerushalmi. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. Certainly, over 99% of the time there is no post-Talmudic scholar who disputes the authority of the Babylonian Talmud’s explanation of a Mishnah. I have no problems with this assumption.

2. The Babylonian Talmud is an exhaustive edition of the bona fide opinions of the sages, and only that which is brought in the Talmud has been adopted as accepted practice. Hence, there is no purpose in the study of extra-Babylonian Talmudic sources, such as the Yerushalmi.

While there may be someone somewhere who believes this, I find it so ridiculous that I cannot accept that any respected scholar believes this. Anyone who has studied rishonim or aharonim knows that that the Yerushalmi is considered a valuable source of instruction. However, when the Bavli contradicts the Yerushalmi we are bound to the conclusions of the Babylonian Talmud.

3. The text of the Babylonian Talmud as learned today was edited, fixed, sealed and written by Rav Ashi and Rabina, heads of the academy in Mata Mehasia in the fifth century, as stated in the Talmud itself: “Rav Ashi and Rabina are the end of instruction.” Hence, the entire content of the Talmud as it appears in the printed version is binding on all Israel as the final decisions of the formal redactors of the Oral Tradition.

There are certainly people who are unaware that there are Saboraic additions to the Babylonian Talmud. However, most scholars are fully cognizant that certain passages – such as the beginnings of Kiddushin and Bava Metzi’a – are later additions. The standard rishonim (e.g. Ritva) state this explicitly! However, this is halakhically irrelevant because the Babylonian Talmud is not binding because Rav Ashi and Ravina are “sof hora’ah” but because, as the Rif states, the greater Jewish community accepted upon itself the authority of the Babylonian Talmud. To my mind, this includes the Saboraic additions but, even if not, since those additions were of an explanatory and not an halakhic nature, it does not matter.

Additionally, modern academic scholars have greatly increased the number of passages believed to be later additions based on highly speculative methods. Their guesses as to what are post-Talmudic additions can certainly be disputed by more conservative scholars.

4. In editing the Talmud, Rav Ashi and Rabina related primarily to the halakhic import of the statements of their forbears, without recourse to historic context or prevailing conditions in time, place and society. Therefore, it is possible to relate to the hundres of sages appearing in the text of the Talmud as if they sat together in a single generation and debated the concepts and halakhic issues studied in the Talmud discourses. Study of the Talmud should concentrate on the conceptual definition of halakhic statements on the various topics, and these definitions should be analyzed through abstract schema detached from the reality of the statements themselves.

I find it difficult to make heads or tails of this. Sometimes halakhich disagreements are due to different historical contexts, but the majority of the time they are not. The redactors of the Talmud resorted to historical explanations when necessary, but they usually are not. But even when historical reality is important, there is still a place of abstract conceptual analysis taking into account the different contexts. This seems to me to just be a statement of “I don’t like Briskers”. Even Briskers use the phrase “different metzi’us” but, evidently, not frequently enough. Generally speaking, differences in approaches to the Talmud do not revolve around the validity of certain methodologies but their priority; which weapons in the arsenal are drawn first and which later.

5. The Vilna edition of the Talmud is the authoritative and accepted printing of the edition of Rav Ashi and Rabina, and the very layout of the Vilna page has sanctity as an expression of Divine Providence. Alternative printings of the text can be considered, at most, as learning aids for initial preparation before the actual learning to be done in the Vilna text.

In my experience, attitudes towards textual variants in the text of the Talmud vary greatly throughout the yeshivah world. The only constant I have found is that most scholars find studying and searching for textual variants to be boring. It lacks the glory of finding a new halakhic ramification or devising a new theoretical construct. There are certainly some who appoint a mystical position of supremacy to the Vilna Talmud, as Dr. Hayman indicates. But there are also many who have are entirely accepting of variant texts, particularly those found in the texts of rishonim. There is, though, a distinct hesitance to change accepted texts without adequate evidence. This, I believe, is another legacy of Rabbeinu Tam who strongly opposed speculative changes of texts.

6. The Babylonian Talmud is the sole source for the halakhah in later periods, and there is utter unanimity between the Talmudic text and halakhic practice in our day. Apparent differences between the Talmud and halakhah can be explained through more abstract definitions of both.

I honestly do not know about what he is writing. To those from the school of the Vilna Gaon, this is indeed true. And when the halakhah seems to contradict the Talmud, they change the halakhah. To others, this is not true. They give a hallowed place to minhag and, to some, kabbalah.

In summary, Dr. Hayman has created a strawman of extreme views, some unrealistic, and posited that this represents the traditional yeshivah approach to the study of Talmud. And then, guess what, he topples this strawman in favor of academic study of the Talmud.

III. Academic Study of the Talmud

Dr. Hayman then proceeds to list the academic approach to the six assumptions listed above for the study of the Talmud. He then describes academic study of the Talmud as an undertaking that recognizes the complexities and the true nature of the transmission of the Oral Torah. Further, he makes the following, entirely obvious and uncontroversial statement:

Ipso facto, specific decisions brought in the texts can only bind later generations if proper comparative process yields the conclusion that prevailing circumstances match those discussed in the text itself.

No kidding! So, if the ovens we use in cooking are different from those used in Talmudic times then the laws of cooking on Shabbat might be different? Wow, it’s a good thing that the posekim from the past half-millennium were academic students of the Talmud so they were able to recognize this.

Dr. Hayman attempts to discover why contemporary study of the Talmud is so divorced from the truly traditional approaches. He suggests that the printing of the Talmud gave a certain sanctity to the printed text and radically changed methodologies. There is certainly some merit to this suggestion, and he is not the first scholar to raise it, but he exaggerates its impact as much as he exaggerates the methodologies of contemporary religious schools. A phrase he borrows from R. Eliezer Berkovits to describe contemporary talmudic methodologies, “Karaism of the Oral Tradition,” is not only offensive but simply incorrect. If he is describing the textualism of today’s religious community, a phenomonen discussed at length by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik in his famous “Rupture and Reconstruction” article, then he might be close to target. But to refer to a methodology of Talmud study with the name of a heretical and deviant sect is just offensive.

IV. Implications

Dr. Hayman then attempts to demonstrate that there is a serious lacking in current high school teaching of the Talmud. He quotes a number of statistics and anecdotes to show that students are bored with Talmud, don’t truly understand it and do not continue its study after formal schooling. Rather than looking at socio-religious causes for this problem, Dr. Hayman places the blame entirely on the methodology of teaching and studying Talmud. He might be right; I doubt it. But if his new approach replaces respect for scholars with the kind of arrogance and disdain for tradition he displays in this article then I suspect that more students may be studying Talmud, but not with kippot on their heads.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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