Friday, July 25, 2008

Learning Gemara - Process Versus Content

While never a great lamdin, I used to enjoy learning Gemara a great deal. The twists and turns, the final AHAH insight into the resolution of a sugya, it was really great intellectual stimulation. But as I got older, I noticed that I started to have an increasingly difficult time with Talmud study. My mind would wander, or I'd get very restless. I'd rather be doing something else. I'd rather be playing guitar. I'd rather be reading something else. And if the learning took place during a shiur, even a short lapse of attention left me temporarily clueless, further enhancing the vicious cycle of frustration.

Why was this becoming such a chore? Was age catching up to me? Was I becoming more stupid?? As I investigated the reason for this change in attitude, it came to me that "solving the puzzle at hand" had become the taful and the subject matter had become the ikkur. That is, the content was getting in the way of the process. And not only did I not care about much of the subject matter, but far too much of it represented a morale outlook that offended the sensibilities of my 21st century mind.

Did I really want to learn about the intricacies of the 4 methods of execution discussed at great length in Sanhedrin? Wasn't some of this just a little barbaric? Wasn't death by seraifah (e.g., for the daughter of priest that commits adultery) worthy of the most horrific slasher film?

How about the lengthy discussions relating to yiud in Kiddushin (among with numerous other "problematic" topics there)? Regardless of the cultural justifications for having a minor girl marry her rapist (or having him remunerate the father for the offense), isn't modern day jurisprudence just a bit more enlightened with treating this as a crime of violence that (ideally) requires removing the offender from society?

What about all of that stuff that has zero applicability today - things like the laws of korbanos, of tumah and taharah, of yibum, sota, nazir?

And, my goodness, you can't even learn normative halacha directly from the Talmud so it has little practical value for living one's life as an OrthoPraxic Jew!

Of course, all of this is irrelevant to the OrthoFundie (and even many ModernOrthoNonFundies). You learn because it's a mitzva! You learn because the Torah derives its kedusha from the Oral Law. You learn so that you may know (organ music please) The Mind of God!

But I dunno, to learn about the world around me, I'd much rather read a book on science, mythology, archaeology, or Terry Pratchett (plug here for Small Gods.)

My reverie is broken - finally, some aggadah! (Plug here for The Juggler and the King.) Hopefully it will be long piece that will carry me through to the end of the shiur...


Anonymous said...


During all my yeshivah years (and they were many) I had the similar experience of finding the Gemara's subject matter a distasteful combination of generally irrelevant and tedious, sometimes offensive, and not rarely odd.

And, of course, when some entertaining Agadata passage presented itself--with opportunities for discussion of philosophy, imaginative spirituality, and the like--it was usually rushed through in order to get to the "important" stuff: more archaic legalism in the next "real" sugya.

But this kind of unsatisfying curriculum isn't limited to yeshivos. Not only are secular schools filled with students who find (notwithstanding its potential real-life usefulness) memorizing the rules of grammar or formulas of algebra maddeningly boring, even in grad school I was forced to take equally maddening courses on diversity, etc., not to mention on the long-dead history of my professional field.

In short: a mixture of pointy-headed academics (who find certain kinds of learning interesting that the rest of us find boring) and ideologically driven people (religious or educational or activist leaders) with the power to set curricula, determine what the great majority of us are subjected to in our formal education.

In the end, we must find what interests us, or what is important for us to learn, and find ways of learning it that hold our attention. I think it was Twain who said: "I worked hard not to let schooling get in the way of my education."


me said...

gemara is search for the truth.

Frum Heretic said...

"gemara is search for the truth."

Yeah, and so is science.

Anyway, what truth have you found in gemara? Be specific please.

Frum Heretic said...

AgnosticWriter - you raise some interesting comparisons between the yeshiva and academic worlds. We should keep in mind that one of the major differences is that in the yeshiva world, the be-all and end-all is understanding gemara. One's status is largely based upon how skilled one is at spitting back the discussions of sages from 2000 years ago and understanding how the Rishonim and Acharonim explained those discussions. People are discouraged in cultivating interests outside of this area. Innovation and truly new insights are reserved for certain rarified geniuses because - for the most part - it's all been said before.

BTW, while there are "ideologically driven people" in academia, I didn't have this experience in grad school (either because I was blind to it or because my field in the hard sciences didn't cultivate this type of mindset.)

slaveofone said...

I too have found Gemara somewhat tedious...perhaps because I study not because I am interested in Gemara or Mishnah but because I am interested in the bits of light it can shine on ancient world-views and social customs, ancient history, ancient theological perspectives, ancient textual and linguistic understandings, and so forth.

Frum Heretic said...

slave - but of course that's not what LEARNING is all about! You are treating the Talmud as a historical document that contains interesting information which can be gleaned by perusing an Artscroll or Soncino. This is completely at odds with the Yeshiva understanding of the Oral Law as well as their methodology for studying it.

Anyway, your approach is probably one that I should remember whenever I start gritting my teeth while learning.