Dividing the sugya into its chronological components helps the student see how historical forces may have influenced the development of talmudic law and rabbinic thought, and how talmudic law and rabbinic thought have influenced the history of Jewry and Judaism. The identification of a redactional level in the Talmud also means that we can help the student account for the Talmud’s discourse style—and take control of it—by separating the original material from the redactional matrix into which it has been placed (or forced)
While I have mentioned the redactional level of the Talmud, I have not yet offered a detailed picture of what its redactors did. There are a number of redaction theories, but for clarity’s sake I will present only one. It proposes that originally the “proto-Talmud” consisted of more or less chronological lists of tannaitic and amoraic material closely or loosely connected to the Mishnah. The basic elements of these lists generally had attributions and were formulated in Hebrew. The anonymous redactor(s) (the stam) took the elements of these lists and transformed them into a running argument called in Aramaic sugya. The connectives necessary to create this argument were in Aramaic, which is one of the identifying marks of stammaitic intervention, and were anonymous. Once we remove the redactional “glue” holding together the individual pieces of tannaitic and amoraic material, we restore the original extra-mishnaic tannaitica and amoraic dicta in Hebrew and the basic infrastructure of what became a sugya. This has the effect of showing that the Talmud’s discourse was, without its redactional level, more linear, and therefore more understandable. For those familiar with mishnaic Hebrew, a talmudic passage’s essential content becomes immediately visible. Students not familiar with Hebrew can have a similar experience if we take the time to use separate fonts or colors for the tannaitic, amoraic, and stammaitic strata in a translated sugya.
Once we are in a position to recognize how the Talmud’s redactors created a discursive matrix out of individual tannaitic and amoraic teachings, we can reverse the process and separate those strands of teachings out of the Talmud as a completed product. This allows us to consider what might have been the original meaning of tannaitic or amoraic teachings, independent of the meaning anonymous later interpreters assigned to them. This contributes to a less mythical, more historical understanding of Jewish law and rabbinic thought. Once students see clearly that halakhah and aggadah are developing and changing entities, re-interpreted over and over, teacher and student can consider together the developments in Jewish practice, ethics, and thought that have taken place throughout Jewish history, as well as the paths that Judaism might take today as it tries to navigate between the Jewish past, present, and future.
* In pages 9-10 from his "Neusner, Brisk, and the Stam: Significant Methodologies for Meaningful Talmud Teaching and Study" as part of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education's Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy in Jewish Studies (previously mentioned in January and in March).