Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Gemara Logic

I've been wondering if learning copious amounts of Gemara affects your reasoning skills.

Now learning Gemara is fine AS LONG AS you know from whence it comes. It comes from people who were just stumbling upon the concepts of logic and logical thinking and had not yet matured intellectually enough to develop things we take for granted such as modern literary analysis and modern critical thinking.

The problem with yeshivot (and Orthodox Jews in general) is they have way too much reverence for the Gemara. Just like Chareidim are wrong in blindly accepting Chazal's faulty science, so too we must not be wrong by blindly accepting Chazal's logic and methodology. But Yeshivish and Orthodox Gemara learning does not take any of this into account. They treat the Gemara's logic as something profound and relevant when in reality the Gemara's reasoning is much more primitive (excusable, of course, due to the time period) than our own.

Now you spend all day or most of your day sitting learning this profound and meaningful Gemara logic and eventually you're going to start thinking the obvious - hey! This is a normal way of thinking! When the Gemara does such and such that's just how one is logically supposed to treat such and such a dilemma. Then you might take the Gemara's methodology and start trying to apply it in places where it doesn't belong. . . .

I wonder this because the Orthodox seem rather unworried by explicit contradictions in the Pentateuch. (I'll finish that list some day....)

Could it be, perhaps, and this is just some random guessing, that one of the reasons the Orthodox believer happily accepts Chazals resolutions to these explicit contradictions is because they've gotten used to Talmudic thinking. The Gemara absolutely loves taking two explicit contradictory statements and then using some ingenious explanation to show how there really is no contradiction at all. Now you start learning things like this in 5th grade or something and continue to pound it into your brain for years. Every year you watch the Gemara say things like "This Baraita says that strawberries grow on bushes and this Baraita says that strawberries grow in fields לא קשיא. One is talking about strawberries in Israel while the other is talking about strawberries outside of Israel" And since this is the most logical training you're gonna get it middle school or high school, you start to think that this is a completely normal way of thinking. That it's completely run of the mill to take two complete opposites and try smashing them against each other until you get a resolution.

So now our Gemara saturated fellow cracks open a book about Bible criticism and starts reading about how scholars separate bits of the Torah that just don't shtim (flow). And our Talmudic scholar is not scared or confused but just annoyed at the stupidity of this so called scholar. Doesn't he know that when two things contradict each other you're supposed to uproot mountains to reconcile them! Silly Bible critic! You don't assume there is an argument you assume there is an ingenious and complex resolution. If only Elliot Friedmann had learned a little more Gemara! Then he would know how you're REALLY supposed to think.


Or maybe most people are just brainwashed well enough to NEVER ask questions.

More probable.


OTD said...

Reminds me of the elephant through the eye of the needle

JewishGadfly said...

I once commented elsewhere that I think one problem that emerges from Gemara study is the notion that you can "rely on" an opinion that someone says, which gets misapplied. And so, people repeat arguments about everything from evolution to the Torah that are just awful, but they think they can "rely on the idea" because someone else said it. It excuses you from doing the thinking work on your own.

One of my private hypotheses, at any rate.

kisarita said...

I think the turning point for me was actually reading the sources and being able to hear what it actually said, instead of all the convoluted explanations.

Just a plain reading. No critics, no books. I just finally read it. And it was obvious that A. It was pretty simple, straightforward and easily understood
B. It was pretty clear who wrote it. (Not which individual, of course, but a person of which particular gender, culture, historical period, and political allegiance. which is close enough.)

Jewish Atheist said...

Yes! The "logic" is so bad it's painful. Even my rabbis seemed to acknowledge it sometimes... "Well, it's not a great answer, but it's something." Um, yeah, if by "something" you mean pure BS.

translator said...

Depends for what you need your logic.

I did not learn Gemara, just chumash with Rashi, but I can tell you that, as a translator, I feel Rashi is the high school of hermeneutics.

It gives you so many original interpretations of a text, that you learn to look "everywhere", even into the most remote hypothses, and it comes in very handy when you have to work as a translator.

Might be that the same does not apply to chemical engineers or bridge builders.

Anonymous said...

Gemara logic sometimes reminds me of the Monty Python skit in Search for the Holy Grail, where the villagers bring this woman to the village wise man to determine if she's a witch.

Anonymous said...

on the other hand it does sharpen your mind because it requires you to keep in your head many different strands. It's also fun to anticipate what the commentators will ask and understand it

Philo said...

I can somehow read many works of philosophy from Hume and Schopenhauer etc. However, I cannot stand Gemara. It was shoved down my throat as if it was divine scripture and you get brownie points for learning it.

IDK about you, but it did not 'sharpen my mind,' if even such a cognitive process is possible.

no one said...

The level of rigor in Gemara and Tosphot is very great. However it might be hard to see in without tosphot. On the other hand there is something specifically very krum about orthodox rabbis but in theory they might just be getting because they don’t really learn or care about the gemara.
So instead of blaming the gemara it might be possible that the stupity in the frum world is inspite of the Gemara.

It is possible for this reason the rambam did not want anyone making money by learning or teaching Gemara.
Because if people make their livings and get shiduchim from being good yeshiva students and kollel lite then it might be that they are the type of people that are not really sensitive to what is really going on inside a Gemara. And when those people teach or learn gemara they ruin it for themselves and everyone else.
After all you don’t have to pay people to have sex. If someone really likes the Gemara then you should not have to pay him either. But if he runs a shop or store then you should support his business as the Rambam says.--but not give money to him or his yeshiva. Just like you don’t pay him for having sex.

David said...

It's not (always) that the reasoning is so bad-- the problem with Gemara study is usually the impossible premise (i.e., everybody's right, because they're all so much smarter than we are). This is what leads to the poor logic and the made-up explanations.

Rabban Gamliel said...

"So now our Gemara saturated fellow cracks open a book about Bible criticism and starts reading about how scholars separate bits of the Torah that just don't shtim (flow)."

That's what happens with blindly following DH too. You can't think outside the box. By the way I posted comments so far on the first seven contradictions in the Torah altogether so far I see.

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