Monday, 21 June 2010

How Yeshivot Learn Gemara (Short Answer: Badly)


As usual forgive me for generalizing different yeshivot have different approaches but this is the approach I'm familiar with:

The basic assumptions underlying yeshiva Gemara learning are:

1. The Gemara is basically a homogeneous work. Most contradictions between different sugyot can and should be explained away logically.

SH: The Gemara is as heterogeneous as a text can be. It is an amalgam of hundreds of different opinions from hundreds of years all smushed together.

2. The Gemara's interpretation of the Mishna is THE interpretation of the Mishna

SH: One needs but look at a Kehati to see this approach. It is clear that the Gemara changes the Mishna's simple meaning. (There is supposedly a Gr'a somewhere that admits to this. Does anybody know where it is?)

3. The Gemara's Hava Amina (Initial Thoughts on a subject which it later rejects) is completely valid except for the one point that the Gemara brings to reject that point

SH: The Hava Amina's in the Gemara often suffer from many flaws. The Rishonim were the ones who began to look at the the Hava Amina as perfect minus one thing. A huge amount of literature is written based on what I think is a faulty assumption.


4. The halacha as laid out in the Gemara has basically stayed the same since the times of Moshe.

SH: Even assuming that the Written Torah has not changed at all, it is clear that certain things were innovations of Rabbinical Judaism (Rabbinical Judaism is not a phrase that exists in the Yeshiva world)


5. The stranger bits of the Gemara are esoteric and contain hidden secrets about some sort of spiritual reality.

SH: This was essentially the life work of the Maharal, to show the deeper meaning of the strange myths in the Gemara. I don't like this approach from the mere fact that if the Maharal had lived in Ancient Greece he could have done the same thing to Greek mythology.

6. The Rishonim were basically always right. When one Rishon points to a flaw in another Rishon that flaw is not really a flaw.

SH: An amusing consequence of this approach is that one gets stuck in endless circle. "Tosfot says Rashi was wrong. But Rashi really meant something else. So why did Tosfot misunderstand Rashi? Because Tosfot really meant something else." and around and around we go.

7. The Rishonim (and the Gemara for that matter) are deeper than they seem. One word or phrase can hint to a complex system of pilpul (halachic dialectic)

SH: Basically the Brisker approach to the Rambam and also pilpul in general. Basically the building edifices on a word or two. Any shiur in Yeshiva which does not use this methodology in analyzing a text is derisively called "Baal Habatish"

8. One learns Gemara not for the acquisition of knowledge but because the very act of learning fundamentally changes you spiritually.

SH: See R Slifkin over here.

As you can see the learning in Yeshiva's is far from academic. Personally I think a "B.A. in Talmudic Law" is one of the biggest scams in the country. This type of "learning" is based on very dubious assumptions and is by no means worthy of accreditation. I'm not trying to offend anyone who loves Yeshiva learning I just don't think its vaguely on par with academic subjects. I guess it depends on what your goal is. Yeshiva Gemara learning has more reverence for the material. Academic Gemara learning is more interested in somewhat less reverent critical analysis.

Can anyone think of any other assumptions Yeshiva learning makes?

19 comments:

Baruch Spinoza said...

Why do I say "yeshivos" instead of "yeshivot"? All the Jews outside my community say "ot" but my group says "os". Where does this come from?

If one opinion says chaiv and another opinion says patur then there is clearly a contradiction. What does this show? It easily shows that the Rabbanim could have no been correct all the time. And thus they must have made error commonly. In fact for one position there are a big list of different opinions. This shows that on the average the Rabbanim are always wrong.

I also remember hearing that the Rabbanim were smarter than the scientists. How many times did you hear that? They told me if you read Gemara Eruvin the geometry is just so advanced, this shows the divine inspiration of the Rabbanim. This is of course non-sense to anyone familar with mathematics, as I was, and knows the works of Euclid of Alexandria. Euclid, approximately a thousand years before the Gemara was written, was able to derive much more complicated geometrical facts than the Gemara. The geometry in the Gemara is baby geometry, so simple with nothing deep.

Also remember the Gemara is filled with myths. Like the myth of the salamadra, the fiery creature that emerges from a seventy year old flame. That just reminds me of a question. Why does it always have to be the number fourty, or sixty, or seventy. These numbers are used just so often that it suggests this is just a metaphor for large amounts rather than actual numbers.

Shilton HaSechel said...

YeshivOT is the Sefardic/Zionist pronunciation

YeshivOS is Ashkenazic

>If one opinion says chaiv and another opinion says patur then there is clearly a contradiction. What does this show?

Nothing really all it shows is that the Rabbis were interpreters not transmitters (of some Oral Law code). This is however a major problem for the Yeshiva approach.

Interestingly enough the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim (i forget where) says that we can tell that Iyov (Job) was not a real person from the fact that there are so many opinions in the Gemara as to when he lived.

>These numbers are used just so often that it suggests this is just a metaphor for large amounts rather than actual numbers.

That would support that some of the myths were actually allegories.

My point is however that even without deifying Rabbis and believing in their infallibility STILL the entire approach to Gemara learning in Yeshivot is just wrong

Anonymous said...

SH: The Gemara is as heterogeneous as a text can be. It is an amalgam of hundreds of different opinions from hundreds of years all smushed together.

The Yeshivot treat the Gemara the same way the Gemara treats Tanach. Could you expect anything else?

E-Man said...

Shilton said: Interestingly enough the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim (i forget where) says that we can tell that Iyov (Job) was not a real person from the fact that there are so many opinions in the Gemara as to when he lived.

This is slightly wrong. What he says is (Guide for the Perplexed 3:22):

"THE strange and wonderful Book of Job treats of the same subject as we are discussing; its basis is a fiction, conceived for the purpose of explaining the different opinions which people hold on Divine Providence. You know that some of our Sages clearly stated Job has never existed, and has never been created, and that he is a poetic fiction. Those who assume that he has existed, and that the book is historical, are unable to determine when and where Job lived. Some of our Sages say that he lived in the days of the Patriarchs; others hold that he was a contemporary of Moses; others place him in the days of David, and again others believe that he was one of those who returned from the Babylonian exile. This difference of opinion supports the assumption that he has never existed in reality. But whether he has existed or not, that which is related of him is an experience of frequent occurrence, is a source of perplexity to all thinkers, and has suggested the above-mentioned opinions on God's Omniscience and Providence."

Found here http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp158.htm

E-Man said...

Shilton said:
3. The Gemara's Hava Amina (Initial Thoughts on a subject which it later rejects) is completely valid except for the one point that the Gemara brings to reject that point

SH: The Hava Amina's in the Gemara often suffer from many flaws. The Rishonim were the ones who began to look at the the Hava Amina as perfect minus one thing. A huge amount of literature is written based on what I think is a faulty assumption.


I am not sure who told you that all Rishonim think this way. The way I always learned was that is a possibility and we must figure out whether the Hava Amina is being changed or whether it is being rejected completely. It is not a rule that it is always being changed. Several hava aminas are rejected completely.

E-Man said...

BS said: Also remember the Gemara is filled with myths. Like the myth of the salamadra, the fiery creature that emerges from a seventy year old flame. That just reminds me of a question. Why does it always have to be the number fourty, or sixty, or seventy. These numbers are used just so often that it suggests this is just a metaphor for large amounts rather than actual numbers.

BS, this is exactly what the Maharal says. Good Ha'ara!

Shilton HaSechel said...

E-man,
How am I slightly wrong about the Rambam and Iyov your quote said exactly what I said? Thanks for the quote though!

>I am not sure who told you that all Rishonim think this way

Who told you that Shilton Hasechel thinks this way? I didn't say all Rishonim. Anyway I did make a disclaimer that I would be generalizing didn't I?

>The way I always learned was that is a possibility and we must figure out whether the Hava Amina is being changed or whether it is being rejected completely.

I think you misunderstood me so let me explain:

The Ran or Tosfot or most Rishonim spend a lot of time asking and answering questions on a Gemara's hava amina. That is only fruitful IF the hava amina was meant to be perfect minus the one thing that the Gemara used to reject it. I'm not saying every Hava Amina goes straight into the trash. Its usually fairly obvious what's staying and what's being thrown out though I concede that there is much scholarship trying to figure out HOW MUCH is getting thrown out.

What I object to is wasting time on a Hava Amina which is the Gemara completely threw out. Why do people have to spend time trying to justify a Hava Amina that the Gemara did not like?

E-Man said...

Re: the Iyov statement. You said that the Rambam says we can tell that Iyov was not a real person because there are differing opinions about when he lived. But Rambam says there are two opinions and it seems like the fact that the opinions that say he lived differ on when that was so that supports the idea that he never lived. It doesn't PROVE it though.

The Rif, Tosfos etc.. that try to explain the hava amina dissect it even if the entire thing is thrown away for several reasons. Gemorah is not just a halachic book it teaches how to learn and the process of thinking. If you look at the Gemorah it works more as a thought process than a well ordered law book. That is why it jumps from subject to subject that is seemingly only slightly related.

The hava amina is important because it deals with this thought process. It could have nothing to do with the law.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Re: Iyov

No one said prove but fine for you: the Rambam "humbly suggests" ;)

Re: Hava Amina Once again you misunderstand me. I'm not saying its useless because its not halachic. (That's a different objection) What I'm saying is that I think the writer of the Gemara did not sit and think up of every theoretical problem with a hava amina before he wrote it down. Why? Because he was not saying it as halacha it was a mere hava amina.

(truth be told I doubt the writers thought of every theoretical problem in the maskanot either which would also be a slight problem to the way the Rishonim treat the Gemara)

>It teaches how to learn and the process of thinking

I'm sorry but upon reading that I irreverently laughed

no one said...

if rav yehuda says in one place you don't believe a certainty (as in ox gores cow)and in another place he says you believe the one that is sure, then why would you not want to see if perhaps he did not contradict himself/ I mean maybe he did but why would you assume it. Perhaps in fact there was some essential difference in the cases? Is that so unreasonable? Maybe you learnt from teachers that had a whole long list of assumptions they brought to gemara learning. And I admit those types of teachers are usually pretty incompetent. But from where I come from the idea of learning gemeara was to understand gemara-not to bring into it any assumptions at all.
the way I see it the problem is the teachers of gemara tend to be incompetent hacks that portend they could be doctors and layers in the real would but in fact would probably be incompetent in any profession they went into--even garbage collecting, it is just that rabbis tend to defen each other so you now have a whole class of sanctimonious incompetent rabbis and kollel lite.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Your Rav Yehuda example (I assume its a real one from Bava Kama) is (I THINK because I don't know shas by heart) relatively rare and usually the Gemara picks up on those sort of things before anyone can make a crack on trying to figure it out. Most contradictions that people spend time trying to figure out are a little more subtle.

Actually my Rabbis were (most of them) truly brilliant people, unfortunately they had been trained to make most or some of the above assumptions.

I'll try to make make a follow up post discussing how I think (not that I'm an authority on the matter) Gemara should be learned.

David said...

Yeshiva learning serves another purpose. Indoctrination, obedience of authority, conformity, and brainwashing. By being totally immersed in halachic hair-splitting, the student is to lose a part of his personal identity and individuality. His thinking is tightly controlled.

S. said...

Re the bit about the Gra interpreting mishnah against the Gemara, although no testimony is needed since there are some examples, the philosophical idea behind it is reported by a semit-talmid of the Gra, R. Menashe of Ilya. He wrote that the Gra told him that just as there is peshat and derash in interpreting pesukim, there is also peshat and derash in interpreting mishnah, and sometimes the amoraim interpret the mishnah al pi derush. Therefore it is legitimate to also expound the peshat. I don't remember exactly where you can find it, but I assume it is in Menashe's book Alfei Menashe; or at least reported by his biographer Mordechai Plungian in Ben Porat.

Shilton HaSechel said...

S,
thank you for the source!

Luke Skyhopper said...

I think learning Gemara with rishonim is alot more intense than anything I ever studied in college. It forces you to follow a logical train of thought while juggling various ideas on the fly. As an intellectually honest methodology, its a load of bunk. The assumption within the mainstream Yeshiva world, that Jewish literature is a homogenous collection of work is complete nonsense.

Yeshiva learning works with the assumption that everyone knew and was thoroughly schooled in everyone else's writings. Thus, the notion that if one statement seemingly contradicts another comment by some other rabbi (spanning slightly under 1500 years of literature) then it must be that the fellow meant something else. In order to figure out what either mean, you have to neuter the text and stuff it into an incongruous puzzle slot. This I've always thought was somewhat absurd.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Luke,
Great point! I wish I would have remembered to include it in my post. Yeshiva learning just expects too much from these poor Rabbis.

M-n said...

Shilton, The word you're looking for is "Scholasticism":
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholasticism

Another word worth knowing is "Glossator":
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossator
That's who the baalei tosafos mimicked.

Anonymous said...

Another bit of gemarah-learners' myopia that I find fascinating is the idea that certain commentators were so smart and beyond our intellectual reach that we can barely begin to understand them or reach their stature. So for us to criticize a concept or statement by R' Akiva Eiger, for example, would be foolhardy at best. Yet when R.A.E. leaves a question with 'tzoruch iyun godel' and no answer, everyone will try to come up with answers to his question. How is that possible if there is no way you can reach an inkling of his understanding? If RAE's understanding was truly so much above and beyond and better than yours, then your answer to his question is at best a lack of true understanding on your part. Your answer, because it's attempting to answer a question that to RAE's mind was unanswerable, is in reality a 'kashye' on RAE. If you're really intellectually honest, instead of being proud of your answer, you should instead be endeavoring to understand in what way you learned the sugya wrong that brought you to the mistaken conclusion of thinking that you have an answer to RAE's question, no??

There's quite a bit of this sort of myopia in gemarah stury. Nevertheless, when done properly, gemara study is intensely rigorous. More rigorous than university courses in many respects.

Rabban Gamliel said...

If you look closely you will notice a a rule I've so far seen hold up in my learning. There is a difference in regard to treatment of anonymous statements in the Talmud versus statements in which a rabbi is quoted by name. I've noticed this time and again. The quote from the rabbi by name will get nuanced or it will be used for something else. The other statements will get massacred even. When you have for instance the anonymous Tanna Kamma or "the Rabbis" or Bais Hillel versus say Rabbi Yehuda watch whose statement will likely be touched to relieve a contradiction.

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