Friday, January 05, 2007

Semi-talmidei hakhomim, or semi 'amei ha-'aretz: A unique modern challenge to rabbinic authority

There is currently a vibrant blog post about laypeople being critical of the gedolei Yisrael. This blog points out that laymen simply don't know what they are talking about, or rather whom they are talking about when they critique gedolei Yisrael, by way of analogy from the lack of respect shown by boxing fans toward fictional boxing champion Apollo Creed when he was acting in a way that seemed unseemly, in contrast to the respect that boxer Rocky had for him a that time, noting that the fans haven't got a clue. A boxer like Rocky knows who the champ is and what exactly about him is deserving of respect, no matter how unseemly he looks to the fans, who just aren't in a position to judge who is and who isn't a great boxer.

In another blog, someone posted that "What bothers me is when blogging laymen feel they can debate rabbis regarding halacha" and also "I've come across many blogs where the bloggers, sometimes women, quote pesukim and halachot to argue against gedolim. I think it is pathetic."

This subject is very interesting to me. I think it might be worthwhile to explore a phenomenon that I suspect is fairly modern, but even if it is not that new, it surely could have begun only since the advent of printing. I mean this: an entire class of Jews exist who have a relationship to the texts of Jewish learning which didn't exist, or at least not in such numbers, in earlier times.

Let us go back less than one hundred years to the fabled shtetl culture of eastern Europe. It is well known that there was a lot of Torah learning and there were many talmidei hakhomim of great depth, and there was a lot of love for Torah as well (putting aside the reality of the disintegration of this culture at the same time; it is still a fact that in this time these Jews still lived). Anyone reading any histories, chronicles or memoirs of this period finds that Torah classes and study groups were structure in a way which is quite foreign to anything contemporaries have seen. There were groups of Jews who studied Talmud; the chevra ha-shas. There were Jews who studied mishnayoth. There were Jews who studied chumash and there were even Jews who gathered together to recite Psalms--all according to their ability. Now, I am sure it is possible that a person who participated in a mishnayos group could have hacked it in the Talmud class. I am not asserting that there really was such a rigid stratification, but as far as I can tell, having seen this in many different places, as recently as a hundred years ago there were Jews who valued the Torah, who were pious and who hadn't a prayer of participating in or probably even understanding a Talmud class. Okay, it could be that those shas brotherhoods studied on a relatively high level, and that it was possible to teach Talmud to these less learned Jews, but it didn't happen.

I wonder if I even have to say more than two words, daf yomi, about today. There are countless laymen that attend a daily shiur and if they keep to it they are, at least, in the same room as people that will, in less than a decade, run through Shas. Yes, among daf yomi goers there is a broad spectrum. There are those who are capable of independently 'doing the daf' themselves. There are those who can hack it out with a study partner. There are those who are sufficiently learned that they can fill in when the maggid shiur is absent, if they have enough time to prepare. There are those who can fill in with the help of a Soncino or an Artscroll Gemara. There are those who have practically no idea what's going on. There are those who get some of it; or do well with certain parts of shas but not others. There is a broad spectrum, but the point is this: there are no fellowships of Psalm-sayers.

That is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Travel back to elementary school: I am assuming that the average yeshiva student, say, of ten years of age today is better prepared than his or her average counterpart a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. Yes, there may have been some relative advantages in the old system lacking today. For example, there was no pop culture to distract and fill a young mind. But, conversely, there was really no pedagogical method for teaching broad masses. Individuals excelled, most gained very little. This can even be proven, I think, because we do possess materials that are very old which tell us some things about the literacy of Jews (and I don't mean only in eastern Europe, which was not the Jewish world). We find Jews who were apparently unable to write there own name. Not a great percentage, but they did exist. We find Jews who did not know how to write their own name correctly (eg, מרדחי for מרדכי), where it is obvious that such people did not read very much.

Today's child doesn't leave the heder forever at 12 or 13 or so (and the old heder did not produce average 12 year olds as learned as our average 12 year old), but has a high school Jewish education and even post-high school. Today's child or teenager is aware that there is a Rif and a Rashba that there is a Shulhan Arukh and what it looks like inside. Todays young adult may not be on the way to being a talmud hokhom but probably knows dozens of maamarei Chazal, a lot of midrashim, many 'famous' Rashis, perhaps a couple of sugyas in some shape. They acquire some hashkafah, they know about some famous shittos. They grow up and acquire some more. When you see, if you do, Joe Jew reading a translation of Maimonide's Guide you are looking at a new creature, or at least one that could not have existed when books were hand-copied manuscripts. You are talking about many, many, many thousands of people who know something about something with regards to Torah, Talmud, halakhah, hashkafah--and I do think this is something fairly new. In earlier times there were people who were very pious and as careful about halakhah as they could be, who asked rabbis halakhic questions, but who hadn't a clue what a Mishne Torah was, who the Raavad was, that the Shulhan Arukh is an abridgement of the Beis Yoseph, which itself is a commentary on the Tur and that R. Yoseph Karo had a method etc etc etc. Now, I am not saying that every Joe Jew who knows a little something, who attends a daf, who can and perhaps does, on their own, learn a lot of Torah, knows how the Shulhan Arukh works or knows what the Rif is and all of that. But such people are present in varying degrees, with various shades of knowledge. Heck, I am one of them! You get thousands of people sitting in a class, or reading on their own, in the Talmud 'הלכה ואין מורין כן,' 'don't disseminate this law'-- to whom? Everyone knows it. But there was a time when what was written in shas was not bound to become common knowledge.

My point is this: the existence of such people poses a unique challenge to rabbinic authority. No one can now tell them that the Rashbam doesn't say X, R. Hirsch didn't believe Y and the Nodah Be-yehuda didn't pasken this about that. People know these things. It may be that the laymen has a cacophony of knowledge with no ability to sytemetize them, no "mesorah," no right, an obligation to bittul daas etc.

But this is what many people are today and they're not going to not have opinions. The boxing fan may be wrong, but 1) some boxing fans are knowledgable enough that they do have a right to an opinion and 2) they're going to have an opinion regardless of whether they're right. More arcane fields, say, the study of Punic paleography, don't come with hangers on with stupid opinions.

If this isn't really the desirable way for things to be, the only solution is to stop the daf yomis, to stop the translations, to stop the laymen shiuring presenting the views of the rishonim, stop the mesivtos, and roll back the clock. When you tantalize the masses with some of the things studied in Harvard, they become semi-learned.

Reading that last bit back, it sounds more like a rant that I intended. Oh well. I meant to describe, but not prescribe. Just my two prutot.

Note: the genesis of these thoughts was from this Mishmar post and comments I made there, such as this one:

You know the expression a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Well, be-zeman ha-zeh, the layman knows far, far more than ever before. On the one hand, laymen participation in Talmud shiurim is widely encouraged. On the other hand, the Gemara records halakhot that are en morin ken. Doesn't that imply that the assumption is simply that tens of thousands of Jews ought to be unaware of them? Yet here we are, and no one suggests that the laymen not learn some Gemara, learn some halakhah, learn some hashkafah etc.

This thing you decry is a direct consequence of that. Millions of Jews who faithfully observed the laws of taharas ha-mishpachah for many generations did not have a clue that there was anything to talk about; it's pashut, spouses are separated from their wives for a week after the period ends. Today that isn't the case. The people that in former times knew nothing of the origins of this reality now know something, even if not enough to make informed decisions, about it.

Does this somehow need to be balanced? Yes. But unless you're calling for a return to more widespread ignorance, to more tehillim zugging, you have got to expect that people who learn a little will have opinions. It is not arrogant or shameful--it is human nature, and the laymen would have opinions about medicine too if every layman was encouraged to dabble in advanced medical journals, indeed, to have a seder in medicine at least once a day, which is just what we are doing in the sphere of Torah, knowing full well as we do that not all laymen will ever develop into talmidei chachamim.
>I cannot disagree more. There were plenty of people in the prior generations who were quite learned -

I did not deny that. There were also plenty of people who lived fully halakhic lives, to the best of their ability, who didn't know as much Torah as a good 5th grader in a yeshiva, and I'm being generous. Circumstances were entirely different and that is what my comment was addressing. Today there are a lot more people who know "a little." As I said, "you have got to expect that people who learn a little will have opinions. It is not arrogant or shameful."

>and in this case you do not have to know much, it is clear from a review of the pesukim in Chumash that what we do le maaseh is far more machmir than that required by the Torah.

Of course; we're not talking about that. But we are talking about the fact that many, presumably most by far, had no idea about the nature of the shiva nekiin at all. Thus, it could scarcely have been a topic of discussion. Same applies to any major halakhic discussion. The reason why laymen enjoy discussing them is because they possess some basics. If you train someone to play a little piano, they'll play a little piano, even if they're not going to write symphonies.

>today many baalei batim would say

Nu, so reverse the trend. If the proper place in Judaism for baal habatim is to keep their minds from thinking about things they've no business thinking about, discourage them from learning Gemara. Discourage them from learning Orach Hayyim with Mishna Berura. Put 'em back into their place--you're right. It was better when pious baal habatim could read from a siddur and maybe a bissele Tzene Rena in Juedische-Deutsche (it was not written for women) and hear a rabbi give a derasha twice a year that he could not comprehend.

1 comment:

  1. Typo alert:

    "unable to write there own name." ==> "unable to write their own name."



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