Finding A Home for Critical Talmud Study
Our method for learning Talmud can be summarized in the following question:
“What is it saying and what is it saying?” In
order to make this question intelligible, we have to define what we mean by
three crucial terms, “it”, “saying”, and “saying”.
The first two have been well developed by the academic world. However,
since that consensus is not widespread in the yeshivah world, I
will summarize them here. It is the third where we have something to contribute
to the discourses both of the yeshivah and of the academy. Through
defining these terms, we will see that the method consists of 1) identifying
the different layers of the Talmudic sugya, 2) reading each layer in
its own context, and 3) evaluating what values are reflected by each particular
statement and the larger editorial structure of the sugya. Through
this approach, we get a glimpse of the intellectual history of the sugya and,
more importantly, we inherit a wide range of halakhic values that operate in
the Talmud—values that guide the binding halakhic interpretations of the
Talmud and that can and should operate in our own thinking and decision-making.
The Talmud is a composite document reflecting numerous voices from various
places, spanning over 500 years. Consciousness of this fact is the crux
of the method. It bears emphasizing that the Talmud does not attempt to
hide this feature of its composition. The formal sources of the
Talmud—mishnayot, baraitot, and memrot of amoraim—are
formulated in terse, legal format and in the enterprise’s “official”
language, Hebrew. Later glosses, comments, and discussions—the stama
de-gemara—are recorded in conversational style and in the colloquial
language of the time, Aramaic (just as today, students of Talmud discuss and
comment on the text in English, modern Hebrew, Yiddish, etc.). Furthermore,
not only are the individual sources linguistically distinct, but the editors
of the Talmud even use specific terminology for the kind of sources they are
bringing (e.g., de-tanya, tenan, teno rabbanan, itmar). The first
task in learning a sugya is identifying its component parts.2
Comparison of the printed edition to manuscripts reinforces sensitivity to
this characteristic of the literature. One rarely finds significant variations
in halakhic sources of the tanna’im or amora’im.
One constantly finds variations—often substantial—among different
textual witnesses for the stammaitic give-and-take of the sugya. Knowing
this, we read the tannaitic and amoraic sections differently than the
stammaitic ones. The former are legal source material, fastidiously transmitted
in an official format. The latter are commentarial glue that interpret
and contextualize the source material as they transmit it. These layers of commentary
and scrutiny—the stam—are already embodiments of the learning
process, and are, phenomenologically, the same process in which we engage in
our batei midrash.3 Awareness of this
distinction invites a different conception of the genre of the Talmud.
Once we comprehend the Talmud’s genre (“it”), our first
task in learning a sugya is to identify and separate its strata.
As we do so, we listen to what each voice is “saying”, that
is, what each one means in its own context. This task requires expanding
our study of primary texts, including the Tosefta, midrashic literature, and
the Talmud Yerushalmi. We learn the positions found in a mishnah in
the context of relevant parallels—not only in baraitot in
the Bavli, but also in the Tosefta and the halakhic midrashim—in
order to appreciate the nuances and range of tannaitic positions.
We can then understand what Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi was saying by recording certain
positions and not others, and by recording them in certain contexts and not
others. The same goes for amoraic statements. Instead of accepting
the Bavli’s formulations carte blanche, we first study memrot (statements)
as they appear in the less edited Yerushalmi. This increases our ability
to appreciate the character and significance of the positions themselves.4
In the course of identifying original voices, the learner should utilize
the wide corpus of manuscripts of the Bavli and other Rabbinic texts.5 Not
infrequently, one finds variants that clarify difficult passages in a sugya.6 The
printers of the Talmud did, indeed, perform an invaluable service to the Jewish
world in their stunning accomplishment of preparing editions of our most important
literature that could be accessible to the masses. However, they made
interpretive choices in deciding among variants in the manuscripts before them.
They also frequently emended the texts on the basis of the “corrections”
of the Maharsha”l, whose notes were insightful, but not necessarily based
on textual traditions. Since Daniel Bromberg7,
the widow Romm of Vilna8 and all those in between
did not have Ruah ha-Qodesh, we should read their texts alongside other
textual possibilities that stood before them (and before the rishonim and
aharonim, for that matter). In this way we can come closer to reclaiming
the original voices.
Using these lower-critical tools is important, but insufficient without the
appropriate consciousness in reading. The linchpins of our method are
paying attention to the strata of the text and reading each stratum in its own
context, without the comments or qualifications of later voices. Reading
an amoraic source in the dressing given to it by the stam prevents the learner
from understanding the amora himself. It further shrouds
perception of just what was bothering the stam and what legal or conceptual
development he heralded.9 The same is
true regarding amoraic extensions of tannaitic sources and Rashi’s
commentary on the “final” text.10 Reading
the Talmud synchronically misunderstands the genre and loses the nuances, or
even the entire thrust, of many of Hazal’s voices.
The contemporary learner is deeply indebted to the insights of academics for
focusing our attention on what the Talmud—”it”—is and
on what its sources are “saying”. However, Talmudic scholarship
exposes itself to a potent critique, articulated often in the yeshivah world:
“So what?”. Too often, academics labor to identify the
contextual meaning (peshat) of every source and to trace the arrangement
of the sugya without asking what halakhic concept is adduced or
what values are at play in a legal ruling, textual interpretation, or editorial
choice. Sometimes this lack is merely a missing step that we can fill
to supplement the critical analysis. Sometimes, though, it challenges
the veracity of their conclusions, because they have reached them without attending
to the issue at hand. In our eyes, any explanation of a ruling or interpretation
that is unconscious of the issue at hand is suspect. The core question
on any text is, “What is it saying?” Our employment
of all other features of the critical method is ultimately to enable us to address
this question most responsibly and confidently.
“What is it saying?” is the nucleus of our method regarding
each stratum of the sugya and is even more at hand in reading the
edited sugya’s literary gestalt. After identifying
the peshat of each source, we can see that the meanings of these
texts change through layers of interpretation, such as when the stam limits
the applicability of a memra with an ’uqimta.11 Academics
often read these statements only structurally: the editor had two opposing
traditions and could not discard one, so he reconciled them. Such an analysis
is correct, but does not go far enough. It is true that the editor aimed
to square away the material. But why did he do it this way and not another?
Alternative editorial possibilities are often readily apparent; influencing
the particular editorial moves are assumptions and values awaiting our analysis.
My approach is admittedly intuitive, which irks many academics, who demand
strict proof and objectivity.12 On the
other hand, their methodological reduction ends up eliminating the main objective
and sanctifying means as an end to themselves.13 In
any case, I agree that it is important to distinguish between readings about
which we feel fairly certain and those that are more speculative. I constantly
repeat to my students the unforgettable slogan of one of the prominent rashei
yeshivah in Skokie, Rav Starr, zt”l: “Know what you
know and know what you don’t know, and know the difference!”
However, I argue that admitting the gaps in our knowledge into the equation
furthers discourse and engenders the possibility of increased knowledge through
the interaction of the beit midrash.
In this way, we fill a crucial gap in prominent academic protocol, but we
also differ from the dominant learning approaches of the yeshivah world.
Today, most yeshivot proliferate the “Brisker derekh”,
the elegant and rigorous analytical system innovated by Rav Hayim Soloveichik
of Brisk, zt”l. This method seeks the classification and description
of the conceptual world of halakhah, without, generally, admitting the
subjective world of values into the system.14 In
Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein’s terms, it focuses on the “what”,
but not the “why”.15 However,
even his recent proposal to consider the “why” after the “what”
has been determined misses the point, because it assumes the independence of
these two categories, in asking “why” only after “what”
has been established. We differ, first, in offering different tools for
how to analyze “what”, as discussed above in the “It”
and “Saying” sections. Second, it is our claim that the “why”
is an integral component of the “what”. The tanna’im and
amora’im were not legal theorists proposing metaphysical systems.
They were interpreters and jurists. True, it is often unclear whether
the stage for an halakhic dictum is primarily the beit din, where the
sage has to issue a practical ruling, or the beit midrash, where the sage has
to interpret a difficult text. Either way, though, the ruling is local.
Legal rulings are legal rulings before they can hope to be neo-Platonic
“So what?” is not the only challenging question asked by non-academics
of academics. Others challenge critical method as being disruptive to
halakhah. According to this claim, if the academics intend for
their peshat of Rav Huna’s memra to be available
for contemporary halakhic adjudication, the analysis becomes disharmonious to
the halakhic process, since no tradition exists for such a reading. Alternatively,
if it is to have no bearing on practical halakhah, its revelation
is irrelevant. Our response to this assertion is that it is coherent only
if one looks at the ruling as a legal bottom line and nothing more. Such
a view misunderstands the nature of law. All legal thought is, by its
nature, an embodiment of values, so Rav Huna’s statement is, actually,
a translation of some nexus of values into the setting at hand. These
values can be economic, social, political, moral, cultural, or spiritual, and
usually some combination thereof. They can be conscious, when a tanna or
amora actively grapples with a practical need in the community,
or unconscious, when his general outlook informs how he interprets a text or
The bottom line of our method of learning is that the sages of the Talmud—those
named and those anonymous—knew how to express themselves. We, as
committed, Rabbinic Jews, have to train ourselves to hear them. That requires
marshalling all available tools toward understanding the discussion at hand
in a sugya. It requires sharpening our consciousness of the textual
history of a sugya and of its conceptual underpinnings and remembering
that before a memra is a text (according to academics) or a metaphysic
(according to lamdanim), it is a legal ruling, which means that it is
intimately connected to local concerns. When we ask, “What is it
saying and what is it saying?”, we equip ourselves to hear the
voices of the Talmud express themselves as translations of God’s will
into the setting at hand. This sensitivity not only affords the strongest
reading of the Talmud, but also best enables us to locate ourselves on the map
of halakhic discourse.18
Rabbi David Bigman1 is Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivat
1 I gratefully acknowledge my student, Aryeh Bernstein,
for his hard work in bringing this article to fruition. I also thank my colleague,
Rav Elisha Ancselovits, for his astute editorial comments.
2 I will not attempt to rehash here a full methodological
program for identifying and reading the layers of the Talmud. The most basic
and thorough presentation of such a program that I know of is Prof. Shamma
Friedman's seminal "Mavo Kelali 'al Derekh Heqer ha-Sugya",
in Mehqarim u-Meqorot, vol. 1, ed. H.Z. Dimitrovsky, New York: Jewish
Theological Seminary, 1978.
3 I am neither describing the historical process
of the composition of the stam nor indicating who these editors/commentators
were. We still lack an answer to this enigma. For example, it remains an open
question whether all of the stam is the latest editorial layer of the
Talmud or if there are also earlier stammaitic sections. Since we already find
Aramaic and give-and-take between Abbaye and Rava, my own intuition is that
there are different layers of stam, a small portion of which already date to
around their time.
4 I am forever indebted to my teacher, Rav Yisrael
Ze’ev Gustman, zt"l, for bringing to my attention the importance of learning
the Tosefta, midreshei halakhah, and the Yerushalmi. Only years later
could I appreciate the deepest implications of this commitment to understanding
5 I am perplexed to no end by the taboo that accompanies
manuscripts in much of the contemporary yeshivah world. One need only
peruse the haskamot to Rav Raphael Natan Nata Rabbinovitz's Diqduqei
Soferim to be impressed by what a radical innovation this taboo is and
how valued manuscript comparison was to many of the gedolim of a century
ago. This work, published between 5627 and 5646 (1867-1886), lists variants
between the printed edition and the significant Munich manuscript of the Talmud
and scattered other manuscript references, and includes his long essay on
the history of printing of the Bavli. It received the glowing haskamot
of no less than Rav Shlomo Kluger, zt"l, Rav Yoseph Shaul Ha-Levi Natanzohn,
zt"l, Rav Ya'aqov Ettlinger, zt"l (the "Arukh la-Ner"),
Rav Avraham Shemuel Binyamin Sofer, zt"l (the "Ketav Sofer”), Rav
Yitsaq Elhanan Spektor, zt"l, and Rav Shimon Sofer, zt"l (the "Mikhtav
6 Comparing versions of a gemara between
manuscripts often also clarifies positions of rishonim that seem not
to square with the text. The rishonim do not rule out of a vacuum,
but in interpretation of the sugya. To comprehend their legal concepts,
we must read them in context of the texts they explain.
7 The Christian Daniel Bromberg printed the first
full edition of the Talmud in Venice between 5280-83 (1520-23).
8 The widow Deborah Romm and her brothers-in-law
printed the Vilna Sh"as, which we use to this day, between 5640-46 (1880-86).
9 Opponents of the academic method sometimes criticize
it for showing disrespect to Hazal and the Talmud. I
think the opposite. It is because of our reverance for the tannaim,
amoraim and the editors, that we insist on understanding all of them.
If they spoke up, they deserve to be heard and appreciated.
10 I have no formal, academic training in Talmud.
The earliest seeds of my academic orientation were planted by Lithuanian rashei
yeshivah who insisted that Rashi be read as a commentator, and not as
a seamless part of the gemara. When I was in high school at the Skokie
Yeshivah, then under the leadership of Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, zt"l,
the beit midrash rang with a pedagogic slogan: "Rashi is a rishon!"
When I was in yeshivah gevohah in Detroit, the rosh yeshivah,
Rav Leib Bachst, shlit"a, put it a little differently: "Rashi did
not have Rashi!" Both rashei yeshivah were warning us to pay
careful attention to the Talmudic text itself before turning to the commentaries.
Looking at Rashi as a commentator and not as the decisive read of every line
allows for an awareness of the difficulties in the text. If Rashi needed
to smooth out the Talmud, that means that the Talmud itself is rough. Confronting
that roughness enables the learner to uncover worlds of interpretive possibility
and to evaluate and appreciate the interpretive choices of Rashi and the other
commentators. This reading attitude is Prof. Nehama Leibowitz, zt"l’s
contribution to the world of Bible study, where it is now the convention.
We urge similar developments in Talmud study.
11 “’Uqimta” is the conventional term for
an interpretive comment that limits the applicability of an authoritative
statement to a particular range of situations.
12 This is a frequent critique of Prof. David
Weiss Halivni's work by his academic colleagues. In this regard, I side with
Prof. Halivni. I frequently disagree with his conclusions, but intuitive
speculation furthers discourse and engenders greater understanding. To refrain
from it is to avoid our most important task.
13 Moreover, as we pointed out earlier, by eliminating
the essential questions—and, therefore, the issue at hand—they may open themselves
up to interpretive errors.
14 It is not within the scope of this article
to present a thorough description or analysis of the Brisker derekh,
nor am I the person most fit to do so. Rav Hayim's great-great grandson and
my friend, Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, recently published an insightful article
on this topic, "'What' Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited",
in The Torah U-Madda Journal, Volume 9 (2000). To my knowledge, the
most important statement of the philosophical world reflected by the Brisker
derekh remains Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt"l's, Halakhic
15 This is not to say that all yeshivah
"lomdus" ignores asking "why?". Rav Shimon Shkop,
zt"l, and his disciple and my teacher, Rav Yisrael Ze'ev Gustman, zt"l,
do emphasize "why" and, in my opinion, often carry their analytical,
conceptual method to a more fruitful conclusion than do Rav Hayim or his descendants.
I focus on the latter method, though, since it, in its different shadings,
dominates contemporary yeshivah learning.
16 I am not claiming that memrot are always
restricted to their local contexts. However, when the amora wishes
to make extractions to other contexts, he will tell us so. We see this phenomenon
especially in statements of Rava and Abbaye and their disciples. A few examples
come readily to mind. On Sukkah 7b, Abbaye sums up eight ostensibly unrelated
positions regarding sukkah with the common demoninator "Sukkah
dirat qeva' ba'inan" (the sukkah must be a permanent structure).
On Qiddushin 6b, Rava teaches that giving money to another
person on the condition that s/he return it is ineffective for sales, betrothal,
and redemption of the first-born son, while it is effective but prohibited
for giving terumah. In BT Nedarim 6b-7a, Rav Pappa apparently connects
five areas of halakhah—betrothal, separating the corner of one's field for
the poor, tsedakah, unowned property, establishing a room as a lavatory—by
asking whether a yad (an abbreviated expression) is effective in all
17 This approach, which sees halakhot
as expressions of values, begins to answer a deeper critique of academic Talmud
study as undermining of one's confidence in the worth or truth of the accepted
halakhah. I hope to address this issue in the future.
18The academic Talmudists I know who actively engage the religious question
steadfastly deny any applicability of their studies to halakhah. This
position seems naive to me. If one thinks of one’s learning at all in truth
constructs, it is hard for it not to affect one’s evaluation of halakhic positions,
either in the direction of decision-making or, if not, in the direction of
dissonance-building. Briskers often maintain the independence of their haqirot
from practical halakhah as well, but this is equally illusory. Perusal of
Rav Herschel Schachter’s book Nefesh ha-Rav will illustrate this point