Hakirah or Mehkar:
The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh

Rachel Furst

Torah scholars have long recognized the complimentary value of "secular" subjects to the Talmud Torah endeavor; indeed, HaZaL's erudition in a wide range of disciplines is demonstrated throughout the Talmud. In the concerted effort over the past century to develop a program of Torah U-Madda that synthesizes Torah and worldly pursuits, Torah scholars have endorsed the value of secular knowledge as a complimentary accoutrement to the Talmud Torah endeavor; but few have validated the application of "secular," academic tools and methodologies to Torah study or developed a model for such integrated Torah learning.

The feasibility of synthesis between historical scholarship and traditional Torah study was at the forefront of the debate among leaders of the German Jewish community during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the wake of the Haskalah and the Wissenschaft des Judenthums ("Science of Judaism") movement which gave rise to Reform Judaism. In order to counter the Reformers, who were guided by the spirit of Wissenschaft, the defenders of tradition-both those in the "Historical School" and those in the Orthodox camp-were forced to address the challenges that scientific, historical study presented to traditional Judaism. The author utilizes the monographs of these thinkers to highlight the religious benefits as well as dangers of integrating history into the study of halakhic texts.

The Torah scholar committed to synthesis seeks to employ historical knowledge and methodological tools in the decoding of halakhic texts as a means of contributing to the halakhic discourse itself. The benefits of such an approach are certainly open to challenge from the religious perspective: What facets of Torah can historical tools uncover that classical lamdanut cannot? What is the price of introducing methods of research (along with their underlying assumptions) that are "foreign" to the world of Torah study?

Traditional Talmud Torah does not address the realm of pesak halakhah, but it is nonetheless considered the highest form of religious expression. This project explores the expansion of Talmud Torah boundaries and the religious dimensions of such an expansion. Accordingly, both objections to and endorsements of an integrated approach to Torah study will be examined on the basis of three criteria: (1) its consequences for emunah and yirat shamayim (2) its impact on halakhic worldview and potentially on halakhic observance, and (3) its implications for Talmud Torah as a religious endeavor.

The author suggests that for students who question the applicability of halakhic practice to contemporary reality, an approach to Torah study that attempts to synthesize historical, academic scholarship with classical Torah learning has the potential to deepen appreciation for both the richness and compelling authority of tradition by demonstrating that for two thousand years, halakhic Jews have been struggling with the same essential question: how to make ancient law meaningful to modern man. An historical approach is thus compelling to students who would otherwise become frustrated with the traditional world of Talmud Torah because of its perceived irrelevance to their lives. This argument posits that the historical approach not only matches "traditional" learning in its religious undertaking, but actually surpasses the religious force of "traditional" learning in directly addressing students' theological concerns and their religious development.


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