Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Derech HaLimmud and Theology


Krum as a bagel
What is the relationship between one's derech halimmud and theology?

I use the "yeshivish" term "derech halimmud" intentionally to refer exclusively to different traditional styles of learning. I exclude the academic study of Talmud, as such an approach, which takes into account the historical contingencies involved it the developments of Talmud, certainly reflects a non-traditional outlook towards torah she'll baal peh.

For example, it is fashionable to portray R' Chaim Soloveitchik's development of the "Brisker" method of Talmud study as reflecting some deeper innovative spirit that animated his broader religious thought as well. In fact, some of his contemporaries villified him for this. The Ridbaz is quoted as saying:
"One rabbi invented the study of chemistry ... and this has been very, very bad for us, for it has introduced a foreign spirit from the outside into the oral tradition, which has been handed down to us from our teacher Moses from the mouth of God."

And indeed, his grandson, RYBS, sought to portray R' Chaim as an exmplar of the "Halachik Man," and built a broad theological idea around this idealized personality.

However, this is most likely incorrect as a historical matter. R' Aharon Lichtenstein notes:
[S]ome may be sorely tempted to relate the conceptual approach to a specific theological infrastructure. I am certain that Reb Hayyim would have resisted the suggestion vigorously; and I, for one would take him at his word. I do not believe that his basic assumptions in the area of emunot ve-de'ot, or the quality of spirituality that characterized him, were much different from the tradition in which he was reared, or that any presumed differences significantly affected his innovation.
This is borne out by the "Israeli" branch of the Brisk dynasty, which is religislously conservative to an extreme.

Which is fine. At least this approach fosters critical thinking and intellectual curiosity in one area -- limmud torah.

Contrast this with the derech halimmud advocated by R' Shach (Hattip: S.):
Maran's [note: Maran=R' Shach] grandson, HaRav Ben Zion Bergman shlita, related that in his early years he used to study with Maran every day when he returned from yeshiva for the afternoon break. When he reached shiur alef in yeshiva gedola, they studied the chapter, Naarah Hameorasah, and dwelled at length upon the innovations on it.

Maran asked him, "What did they say about the words of the Ran concerning `Nisroknah?" R' Ben Zion expounded on all the commentaries he had heard on the subject.

Rabbenu listened, and then said, "All that you need to know from what you just said is that the Ran says thus and the Rashba challenges it and replies as he does. The reply is not quite satisfactory, however, and can be reconciled in this manner. But more than that, you need not know at all!"
"More than that, you need not know at all"? What about plumming deeper into the sugya? What about trying to understand the conceptual basis of the machlokes between these rishonim?

R' Shach's conservatism in derech halimmud is even more starkly indicated in the following excerpt which seems to equate deviations from R' Shach's approach with a fundamental flaw in character:
In his letters, Maran says that this is how he studied. What he did not initially understand, he would skim over, and not dwell upon, but proceed onward. Afterwards, he would review time and again. Repeatedly.

He once warned a young student and told him, "Don't learn slowly. Don't look for complex explanations and sevoros. Don't do what they call iyun, in depth study. Study to cover ground and review a great deal. I know that you won't listen to me (for he knew that his approach was not accepted), but nevertheless, I am telling you this so that you won't come to me later with complaints as to why I didn't tell you this before. The time will come when you will understand what I am telling you, and will regret not having listened to me."

That very person told me, confessing, "Now I really understand what he was saying. But it is too late . . . "

Maran HaRav Shach wrote about this in many letters and used to speak about it frequently, and was painfully aware that the popular approach to learning was not what it should be. But, he admitted, people were blinded to his view; they were bribed by self-serving interests. They thought their way led to success, but did not realize that it was all wrong.

It's like diabetics who allow themselves to eat sweets, deluding themselves that no harm will come but are blind to the eventual outcome. And even if those students heard and knew, still, conflicting interests got in the way. Even in [deciding on] the approach to study, one encounters deceptions and bribery which we cannot go into here.
I have no doubt that there is a link R' Shach's conservatism in his derech halimmud and his broader theological conservatism.

What I don't understand about R' Shach's derech is thit is how it is effective. Intense, conceptual Talmud study that characterizes the "brisker" derech at least gives an intelligent young student an arena to exercize his mind. In light of R' Shach's firm opposition to any sort of secular study, how is such a student supposed to express his creativity and intellectual curiousity?

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