04 February 2009

Rav Lichtenstein on Why Learn Talmud

I recently read Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's chapter on "Why Learn Gemara?" in his Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning, vol. 1. I like learning Talmud (I am surprised I still haven't yet posted on how I started liking learning it, but one of these days I hope to), so I was interested in reading Rabbi Lichtenstein's take on why he likes it. He identifies "four distinct and yet confluent factors."
The first of these, he states is "its status as a primary - in a sense, in the world of Torah she-ba'al-peh, as the primary - text." He then continues to beautifully describe the experience:
On every daf, one feels the freshness of virgin birth, the angular edge of rough terrain plowed and yet unplowed, the beck of meandering paths charted and yet uncharted. There is nothing distilled, nothing lacquered. The sense of challenge and concomitant invigoration is pervasive.
The second is a relation "in a personal vein, with regard to Hazal." He writes that
To open a gemara is toenter into their overawing presence, to feel the force of their collective personality - and not as in a historico-critical mode, in order to pass judgment upon them, but as so to be irradiated and ennobled by them. It is to be exposed, with a sense of intimacy, not only to their discourse, exegesis, aphorisms, or anecdotes, but to themselves - at once engaging and magisterial, thoroughly human and yet overwhelming.
Unlike Rabbi Lichtenstein, I don't have the same experience in my Talmudic studies with the rabbis in the Talmud - although I do try to appreciate them for who they were. I really don't know why he tosses that line in about "not as in a historico-critical mode, in order to pass judgment upon them" - I don't know how that particularly helps his case. For me, if anything, the historico-critical mode could perhaps draw me in, but once he dropped that line, I was kind of put off to his second point (not that it had engaged me, per se, anyways).
His third factor is "the substantive nature of gemara." He explains:
Learning becomes, in great measure, a quest for a captivating but frequently elusive truth that must be sought, and at times molded; and the student of gemara - alongside amoraim, Rishonim, and Aharonim - is privy to the process and part of the process. Gemara is quintessential hayyei olam; that is the crux of the difficulty and the glory of its study.
I actually happen, to some extent, find that the stammaim are also a fascinating part of the intellectual processing.
His last point, he wrote, is that Judaism has traditionally "stressed that talmud Torah is not to be perceived as a purely intellectual pursuit. It constitutes, rather, a dialogic encounter with Ribbono shel Olam." He doesn't actually articulate how it is a dialogic encounter with God, but rather writes that "to the extent that one is more deeply and intensely involved, insofar as one's being is more fully charged, he is more powerfully engrossed by the encounter, and presumably worthier of divine grace."
Anyways, I thought it was interesting and stimulating for me in my project to articulate a view on the significance and importance of Torah study.

No comments: