R. Steinsaltz Addresses Educators On
"ROLE OF GEMARA IN SHAPING IDENTITY"--Thought By Most To Be A Serious Challenge
In Jewish Education
the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions, sponsored a discussion evening with Rabbi
Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz on the role that Gemara study should play in shaping Jewish
identity among our students. This topic is viewed by educators and parents alike to be one of
crucial importance, as issues of "relevance" and an air of dissatisfaction plague Talmud study
in all sectors, but especially among Israeli Dati-Leumi, or Modern Orthodox.
Rav Steinsaltz has made his life's work the accessibility of Talmud study to a broader public than ever before. The Steinsaltz Gemara, with its vocalized text, punctuation, and running Hebrew translation-commentary, removes many of the obstacles of language and style that impede the student who wishes to study the text that forms and informs Jewish culture and law.
Rav Steinsaltz addressed the philosophy behind this endeavor in his January 26th
presentation to a crowd composed of ATID Fellows and mentors as well as other interested
educators. The lecture was entitled "Torah She-Ba'al Peh as a Primary Factor in the
Shaping of Jewish Identity," and focused on the need for every Jew to connect in some way
with the Talmud. According to Rav Steinsaltz, this need transcends boundaries of time or
geography, age or level of observance.
Rav Steinsaltz illustrated the centrality of Torah She-Ba'al Peh as a defining
characteristic of the Jewish people by citing a Midrash (Tanchuma, Ki Tissa 34):
God said to Moses, "write for yourself these things...(Ex. 34:27)" Rabbi Yehudah bar
Shalom said, when God said to Moses, "write for yourself," Moses wanted the Mishnah to be
written. Since God foresaw that the nations of the world would translate the Torah and
read it in Greek and say: We are Israel...God said to the nations: You say that you are
my sons. Only those in whose hands my mistorin (mysteries) are found are my sons. And
what is that mistorin? The Mishnah, which was given orally.
The Oral Law is somehow God's mistorin, "secrets," which are known only to the Jews and
make them distinct from other nations. Thus it stands to reason that the continued
study of the Oral Law strengthens Jewish identity.
Rav Steinsaltz also offered historical support for the primacy of the study of Oral Law.
The Italian Jewish community of the Middle Ages was a strong, creative world center for
Torah study and practice. A sixteenth century papal ban prohibited the study of Talmud,
but permitted other areas of Jewish literature. However, the greatness of the community
as a Torah center was vastly diminished. Communities fell, asserted Rav Steinsaltz, not
because of external pressure, but because an internal life source, the mistorin, had been
Rav Steinsaltz objected to according Tanakh the same status as Talmud. He argued that
there is a dialectic with the Oral Law that simply does not exist with the Written
Law-prophets express truth, while Tannaim trade in opinions and positions. This dialectic
allows for identification from within. Additionally, he offered a sharp critique of the
manner in which Tanakh is incorporated into Israeli culture, with an almost exclusive
focus on prophetic texts which are nationalistic or universal in nature.
In order to reclaim the mistorin, asserted Rav Steinsaltz, study of Torah SheBa'al Peh
must regain its centrality in Jewish education. Attempts to build education which is
"relevant" or "up to date" are a failure. Rather, the talmudic corpus speaks for itself,
and must be presented to students in that light. This approach shuns the selection of only
"user-friendly" masekhtot as well as the classroom use of examples taken from the daily
lives of the students.
During the question and answer segment of the evening, Rav Steinsaltz was asked to
address some difficulties posed by the educational philosophy and teaching methodology
which he outlined. First, given that the entire corpus of the Talmud cannot be covered,
there needs to be a process of selection. Upon what is this selection to be based,
if ability of students to relate to the subject matter is not among the relevant criteria?
Second, what should educators do to address the current questionable level of success?
In response, Rav Steinsaltz suggested that the problem lies not with the material,
but occasionally with the educators. Talmud is given short shrift in terms of scheduling
and priority. Teachers are frequently not particularly talented or qualified. The job of
the teacher is to try to approach problems and to create a smooth path between the student
and the material. There are teachers who simply make no effort to fill their roles and
fulfill their responsibilities. The failure is a failure of the system.
Rav Steinsaltz stated that students, children in particular, possess intelligence,
curiosity, and inquisitiveness, which the Talmud will naturally stimulate.
When taught properly, the material indeed stands on its own as the mistorin,
the key factor in promoting Jewish identity.
This summary was written by Aliza Segal.