Talmud and the Quest for Personal Transformation

Meesh Hammer-Kossoy

Talmud study has been at the center of our tradition even longer than the Talmud has existed as a closed book. Students describe learning Gemara as the “bread and butter” of our tradition and as the “center of the wheel around which spokes are attached.” In addition to its centrality in our heritage, the unique intellectual challenge it poses also attracts students. However, students who are investing more than twenty hours a week struggling to grasp a difficult sugya are asking, and correctly so, “why?” What caused Talmud study to merit this central place within our tradition? What is Talmud study all about beyond the intellectual experience? Is Talmud study an isolated experience of engagement with Divine wisdom alone, or is the experience meant to impact on the religious personality of the student even after a sugya has been mastered?

“Great is learning because it leads to action” [bKid. 40b]. The central place of learning in our tradition is explicitly based on the assumption that learning transforms the individual in a way no other mitzvah can. Ostensibly, this impact on the religious personality could take the form of moral and ethical excellence, a strengthened spiritual connection to Hashem, heightened adherence and sensitivity to halakhah, or a combination of all three. However, pinpointing the personal transformation in Talmud study precisely and how it is affected is not a simple task.

Fortunately, students, even those who find Talmud study intellectually challenging and rewarding, frequently ask questions regarding the purpose and goal of their labors. These questions emerge from an authentic desire to learn well and serve God, and not from a cynical or rebellious approach to authority. Even if students were not asking the big question, “What is the point?,” we as educators should be. How should we approach Talmud education in order to maximize the extent to which it transforms the student, making her either more observant, more moral, more spiritually connected to God, or all three?

In this paper, the author presents three case studies of outstanding teachers who are all concerned with this question, but address it from very different angles. The first teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David of Machon Pardes, focuses on the content of the Talmudic discussion itself. He assumes that the questions and answers of the particular debate in the sugya are of personal significance to the student. Because the significance is not always readily apparent in every sugya, discovering this message involves a comprehensive literary analysis of the passage as a whole and a constant return to “the big picture” in order to explain how the questions asked in the sugya reflect larger personal concerns. Furthermore, it often demands the addition of outside material to the text at hand.

A second approach focuses on the genre and its impact on the human psyche. The Talmud is varied in content but is tied together by the discursive style in which it is written. Rav Yehudah Brandes emphasizes the way the “medium is the message” and the way the genre of the text causes the individual to see the world somewhat differently. The democratic, non-hierarchical, open, discursive method of the talmudic bet midrash should extend into the contemporary bet midrash and then into one’s worldview.

A third, more traditional approach, that of Rav Yair Kahn, argues that the very environment of being immersed in talmudic discourse creates is a religious and spiritual experience. Based on Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophy of religious humanism, the human is called upon to at once submit to God’s will unconditionally, and boldly join God as a partner in perfecting His creation. By studying and interpreting God’s word, a Jew both demonstrates his acceptance of the yoke of Heaven and boldly becomes His partner by interpreting and expanding His Torah.

Each of these models assumes that being in dialogue with Abaye and Rava and continuing their enterprise will inherently create a new allegiance and appreciation for the tradition. Talmud study mediated by an inspirational rebbe nurtures an awe of the Sages and the halakhic system which translates into fear of Heaven and scrupulousness observance of halakhah.

The author does not argue that any one approach should be exclusively preferred. The categorization of the above teachers and their methods is an artificial construct of the author in order to simplify and highlight. Indeed, none of the teachers pursued a single methodology to the exclusion of others. Ideally all three models will be appropriate at different points in every classroom. The authors presents a number of models available to teachers, as well as an evaluation of the benefits and potential barriers involved in each case.

While extending Talmud beyond the narrow intellectual experience can be achieved in a range of methods, it only happens when the teacher makes this a conscious goal. Although the student’s desire to grow is the most important factor in the growth equation, the teacher must create an environment in which this is encouraged. First of all, she must demonstrate herself to be striving to grow personally. Secondly, because the process is by definition a very gradual one, the explicit statement of this goal and the methods for its achievement greatly increase the students ability to understand the process and move forward. Thirdly, while the teacher’s genuine conviction about the efficaciousness of the method is very contagious, the absence of this conviction may render the whole enterprise fruitless.

While teachers had different emphasis’s and notions of the value of content, process and religious experience, all of the teachers utilized all of the models to some extent. This is especially true in the case of content. Teachers who are concerned with their students’ religious growth are reluctant to sacrifice the simple tool of relevant content. They all chose masekhtot and perakim with this goal in mind, and wherever possible asked the question, “what does this mean to me?” Although what will inspire change in an individual is very personal, even idiosyncratic, the careful use of these methods go a long way towards facilitating personal growth or at the very least impressing on students that learning which remains entirely intellectual is lacking.


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