Thursday, December 07, 2006

R. Jeremy Wieder's Concise Methodological Manifesto

There's a very interesting audio at YU Torah called 'Concise Methodological Manifesto by R. Jeremy Wieder. It runs about 15 minutes long and was apparently spoken off the cuff at the end of a shiur. It's worth listening, to or you could read this transcript:

I just want to take two minutes to address something that I'm told the rumor mill is very active [about]. I'm not going to address the larger issue right now; I just want to address the issue that's nogeah to shiur. Everything I say is repeatable in a public forum because I want to be very clear. It doesn't need to be repeated, but it may be repeated in a public forum.

There are people who seem to have, and perhaps its my fault, a misunderstanding of the nature of shiur, of my shiur. I value very highly that which I do outside of the beis midrash as well, in all sorts of disciplines and arenas, not in any particular studies, even though that's where most of my work is. I also value very much what is known in some circles as mehqar, in other circles as academic Talmud. I think they're very interesting--to me it's very interesting because I love learning Gemara--for over two decades--and to me, when you love learning a text you tend to be attracted and interested in all the various and sundry aspects of the text; how it came to be, not just the ideas that are floating in the air. Klal Yisrael, many of our frumme Yidden have learned Gemara for a very, very long time. The baalei ha-tosafos were very concerned about how the Mishna formulates things, whether it says arbaah roshei shana hem or, whether you have a hem or you don't have a hem. Now, those questions may not fascinate me so much, but you can see what an attachment there was to the language and sometimes they're [unclear]. But it interested them. And it interests me as well. And, I look up to Rava and Abbaye and I would be interested in seeing pictures of Rava and Abbaye (even though we never will) and maybe I'd be curious in what Rava and Abbeye wore as well. However, many of those aspects themselves are not talmud Torah. I don't believe, as I think you all know, that just because something is not talmud Torah doesn't mean it isn't a worthy enterprise and worthy of our time. But there are some things which are basically--some would call it secular disciplines--even if they relate to Torah, evne if they have some value in connection with Torah. Many of the things, however, that are often associated with academic Talmud, and some of us come to them via our exposure to academic Talmud, some of us come to it via other exposure, sometimes intuitively, are tools that can be very valuable in--and yes, I used the word tools because tools are good things--are very valuable things in properly understanding the devar Hashem in all of its manifestations as has been expressed by Klal Yisrael throughout the centuries. And as such, if there's a particular tool that might now be more currently prevalent in the academy, but it is useful for a ben Torah studying, then I think it's a very valuable tool to use when one learns Gemara. One does not spend his time engaged in playing with those tools, but you rather take them and you use them in the context of your talmud Torah.

Most of these tools, if not all of them, should be non-controversial, even if somehow they have become. So, for example (and I've mentioned this before), even though we don't spend our shiur doing girsaos, nontheless, when you look at the Dikdukei Sopherim, when it was published, it had the haskamos of all the gedolei ha-dor there, starting with R. Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor, for whom our yeshiva is named. Now, R. Shlomo Kluger, R. Yaakov Ettlinger--major, major gedolim in Europe. It was a wonderful enterprise; all this tedious labor, R. Rabinovich had undertaken to produce an amalgamation of kisvei yad on the Gemara that was relevent to their beis midrash. And frankly, for the most part, he did actually what was interesting, of value to Torah study; he didn't have every vav and yod and every variant spelling; he had those things which he thought had impact on the meaning of Gemara, the part that's relevent for the beis midrash. It doesn't really matter whether or not the Gemara ohi ending or the oy ending contracted. It's very interesting if you're a linguist; its not interesting in the beis midrash because it doesn't really matter in 99.99% of the contexts.

When one talks about recognizing the layers in sugyos--this was a tool in the arsenal of the baalei ha-tosafos. It was not a invented in the 20th century by some hoqrim in the academy. It was something that was well known to many, many rishonim and they use it to explain frequently problems in sugyos and between sugyos. There's nothing new about it. It is not the end-all and be-all of talmud Torah, but it is another useful and valuable skill in learning Gemara. This can be said for--almost everything, not everything. For many things that certain people in the academy have been machshiv. Someone like David Weiss Halivni, was not interested in a lot of the modern academic Talmud, but was interested in--again, I am not commenting about specific persons--but in learning Gemara. These were different methodologies that one can add to one's arsenal. Despite my occasionally making fun (maybe more than occasionally) of myself for sounding Brisk and making fun of Brisk, conceptual analysis plays a very important role in learning. Anyone who has been in this shiur for any period of time, maybe not for one or two days--it could look different--knows that it plays a regular role because, especially you learn Nezikin and Nashim, there's no other way around it. You have to engage in it some of the time. Perhaps, some people are more inclined to see it everywhere and some people are inclined to see it in fewer places and sometimes seek out alternative solutions. But it plays a major, major role even if it didn't come down mi-Sinai, like this is the only aspect of talmud Torah one shoudl engage in, it's still very important.

So--hence, some people might walk away because what makes this shiur different, among other things, is that these are tools and methodologies that are acceptable to use. They're acceptable. Now, to supplement, to enhance and to magnify the scope of our talmud Torah, and therefore they may be emphasized because what characterizes our shiur is not--maybe it does, actually--that we learn Gemara, but let's assume for the moment that it doesn't characterize the shiur to say "What do you do in your shiur?" "I learn Gemara," because that's not really helpful, it doesn't really tell you anything--"Yeah, but so does everybody else" and say "I learn rishonim," and even if those two enterprises take up, you know, 90% of the time or more it's not useful in characterizing it, so one of the things which stands out, which gives the shiur a particular flavor, is the presence of the question of layers in sugyos more so, perhaps, than any of the other issues which come up in mehqar, but other issues as well.

Some, perhaps, have come to a misunderstanding based on that, that this is an academic shiur. We have a yeshiva, and we have many shiurim--maybe all the other shiurim that are engaged in talmud Torah--and we do academic Talmud. But unfortunately that's a false impresison, and one that, if you spend time here I think you'll figure out pretty quickly, doesn't reflect the reality. And to the extent that there are people in the institution, talmidim who seem to be under this impression , that this is an academic Talmud shiur, you might--especially if they raise the issue--point out that--in fact, you should invite them to come in, they should sit in the shiur for a week. Not to come, but just to visit and see--at the very least like you'd come into a museum to see--and this way they would be most welcome to understand what it is that we do in this shiur. Because, from my perspective, this is my passion, this is my talmud Torah, this is what I spend much of my life doing--I hope to spend most of my life doing, and I hope that my talmidim, those who continue not in Torah will walk away, enriched with their experience of talmud Torah, but not of academic Talmud. Not because academic Talmud is bad, but academic Talmud is not what you do in a yeshiva, it's what you do in the academy. Some people don't really like it there either, I don't have the same problems with that, but that's not what takes place in the koslei beis ha-midrash. The koslei beis ha-midrash is a makom for talmud Torah--in the traditional beis midrash, for the most part, although I don't see the need to restrict it to Bavli or even restrict it to Torah she-be-'al peh, but traditionally we study Gemara, we study Bavli (we do study Yerushalmi here too)--I don't think the Yerushalmi was written by a bunch of academic scholars in the 4th or 5th century of the Common Era in Palestine, I think it was written by our holy ancestors, the Amoraim, and it was studied by our holy ancestors, the Rishonim, and it was once again brought into the curriculum by the Vilna Gaon--maybe some think the Vilna Gaon was an incredible Maskil--but the Vilna Gaon was a big talmid chochom, and was a very frum man and he and his circles, those who preceeded him and followed him, thought that the Yerushalmi and all these other texts were a valuable part of talmud Torah--Torah she-be-'al peh, it belonged in the beis midrash. Maybe not Torah she-be-khetav, but Torah she-be-'al peh, certainly, in expanded scope. But that is what we do here. So if anybody is not clear on what it is, so if you can perhaps clarify that misimpression because I don't people to think, either about this shiur or about the talmidim in this shiur, that somehow they're not engaged in talmud Torah but they're engaged in something else. Because this is talmud Torah, and if someone is in fact looking for that they should go to a different address, I'm not sure where they'd go, but this is the wrong place to come. So in case someone should happen to come under that misimpression, if you could clarify that for them I would greatly appreciate it. But I think in general, sheker and lashon hara and motzi shem ra are things that are generally to be avoided, whether or not they are bemezid or beshogeg--it could be beshogeg too, but I think it's very important that people understand what exactly it is that I am about and what the shiur is about. If somebody thinks it's appropriate for them, that's wonderful. If it's not appropriate, that's fine. But this is our talmud Torah, and very much in the tradition of our ancestors even if its not what some people want it to be or not, actually, what some people realize it is.

Are there any questions?

["Chaim" asks what academic Talmud study it]

Studying what Rava and Abbaye wore, studying the economics of Mechoza, studying the sociology of Mechoza, is not Talmud Torah--its very interesting--if we could actually get to the bottom of it it'd be fascinating, because people like to watch other people's lives generally. There's a kind of voyeuristic tendency that people have--I don't know if it's a kind of vicarious enjoyment--whatever it is. So, you know, I would love to see a video of life in Mechoza. But the fact is that's not studying of mitzvos Hashem, that's not studying on the Aggadah, which is meant to teach ethics and morality, it's not study of halakhah--it's, I think, sort of--there's Torah she-be-khetav and Torah she-be-'al peh. Torah she-be-khetav is, I think, clearly defined as Scripture, Torah she-be-'al peh is the interpretation of Torah she-be-khetav, plus halakhah in general, plus Aggadah and mussar, if you want to call it that, but sociology and history and realia in their own right are not talmud Torah. They're very interesting; but they're not talmud Torah.

[questioner starts to ask something about "if one uses..."]

Derekh agav, you might learn a Gemara, if you're studying to write a paper on how the terminology of which generations quote which generations of the Gemara, you're gonna learn a lot of Gemaras in the process, there's no doubt about. On a personal level, one of the reasons I chose to PhD, in the end, in academic--in Rabbinics, and not in computer science, is because I did not think I'd have the koach to work in two completely different disciplines where there was really no overlap in the substance of them. In other words, when you work in rabbinics you do get to learn a lot of the time, in doing so. But the study, per se, itself--you know, when you sit down and actually work on the problem and you tabulate your data; when you make a table of yeush kedi kani and yeush kedi lo kani, and all the possibilities, that's talmud Torah. When you make up a table of the quotations, of which amora quotes which amora, that's not talmud Torah. It may be a very useful tool,just as science is very useful for understanding, for paskening halakhah, for understanding many things. So is it a kind of mitzvah in its own right of some general rubric? Sure. It's a machshir. But if you talk about talmud Torah itself, it is the study of Torah she-be-khetav and Torah she-be-'al peh. I think machshirim are very good as well; there's no question about that. I think studying knowledge for its own right is a wonderful thing. You know, that's what distinguishes man from animal, aside from speech, its the broad thirst for abstract knowledge. It's wonderful. But nontheless, there's talmud Torah and there's chochmas ha-olam, which is wonderful, which is not talmud Torah, and its okay. It doesn't have to be talmud Torah to be a worthwhile pursuit. But what we do in a beis midrash is talmud Torah.

Are there any other question?

[Someone asks, "there's actually a deah that Rabbi Lamm brings in his book Torah U-Madda that you would make a bracha on machshirim."]

You know, I happen to have a nice relationship with Dr. Lamm, and I won't want to do what one of my no-longer-present colleagues did who got up, and, you know, made fun of the book and something like that, I think it was one of the things he picked on--I don't know what deah that is, I think its a silly deah [student tries to interject] I understand that, I understand that. I think that part of the problem that disturbs me about that point of view is that it makes the assumption that if it weren't talmud Torah then maybe we shouldn't be doing it. That may not be what the deah says, but I don't think you make a bracha on your calculus or your physics--even though I think they are magnificent subjects, I don't mean to exclude history either, it's of a different nature--I'm belying my science and math roots here--I like things that tend more towards absolute truth then not, postmodernists aside, but the fact is that I think they're incredibly valuable, I think the study of--particularly the natural sciences--for many people, maybe the humanities for others--can be incredibly religiously inspiring, spiritually inspiring, morally furthering and they're wonderful enterprises. They're just not talmud Torah. For me, personally, what I've chosen as my life's enterprise is talmud Torah. But I think that there are many different darkhei ha-chayim, and even for the person whose primary occupation is talmud Torah there are other valuable subjects to study, but you don't have to call them talmud Torah for them to be valuable.

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