Sunday, March 18, 2007

"Wrestle With It And Make It Your Own"

(Photo courtesy of Treasures of Jewish Culture in Ukraine)

Litvak commenting on "Torah Is A Smorgasbord" :

R. Yaakov has given good advice.

Also, it should be noted that many other seforim today have portions of Gemara contained in them.

Let's say you are learning the Torah commentary of the Netziv, for example, which we discussed here recently. It is full of references to Gemaras and other teachings of Chazal (so much so that a beginner probably would be hard-pressed to follow them).

Could one say that learning it is totally 'leaving out' Gemara? I don't think so.

That is somewhat of an extreme example perhaps, but there are other such works as well.

Just as Tosfos (Rabbeinu Tam I think it was) famously stated that Talmud Bavli is a mixture of different parts of Torah, therefore one could fulfill the requirement of studying Chumash through it, so too, perhaps we can say that learning Chumash with a commentary that incorporates Gemara can fulfill the requirement to study Gemara!

Additionally, we must understand what 'Gemara' really means. Gemara is discussions of Torah, using the Mishna as a starting point. It is analysis and arguments of 'static' texts such as Mishna and Breisos, which make them come alive. When we treat Gemara as if it is a static text itself we are making it into a new, another layer of Mishna to a degree. But it's not meant to be like that. The correct idea is to take what you are learning, wrestle with it and make it your own.


At March 18, 2007 at 12:29:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Litvak said...

I am happy to see that the blog is becoming more Litvish (or at least Litvak ;-) friendly lately. ;-)

First, a slight correction - " It is analysis and arguments of 'static' texts such as Mishna and Breisos, which make them come alive." should be something like "It is analysis and arguments and discussions related to 'static' texts such as Mishna and Breisos, which make them come alive."

Scondly, I would like to comment on the comment of Yitz to the earlier post -

"Of all the comments above, the one I most fully agree with is: The correct idea is to take what you are learning, wrestle with it and make it your own. I personally think that for most Jewish men, this can best be done with Gemara. But note that he says, "wrestle with it." It's not supposed to be, necessarily, easy. An English translation, or even Ivrit-b'Ivrit Gemaros such as ArtScroll or Steinsaltz are no substitute for "breaking our heads" over a Gemara -- to try to come to understand what Chazal, our Sages, are trying to teach us.

When we wrestle with it, we engage with it, we internalize it more. I don't think that has to exclude using Artscroll or something similar. Someone might legitimately choose to do that, to reduce the wrestling with the Aramaic words, if it's difficult for them. However, that doesn't mean that the whole experience will then be devoid of the 'struggle' aspect. There is still plenty to struggle with over the exact meanings and implications of the holy texts and commentaries. Although that of course is intimately connected with the words and language, if one finds the Aramaic too difficult just using an old-fashioned gemara, they can use a translation as an aid and save their strength for struggles, questions and debates about the meanings of the Torah itself being studied. In Torah shebaal peh, the main thing is the ideas, not the words themselves (at least not to the same degree as Torah shebiksav).

Re 'struggling with the Torah' - I think that is like the expression that Chazal themselves use regarding learning, namely 'milchamta shel Torah' - the 'war of (studying) Torah'. When someone studies something intensively and seriously, when it matters greatly to him, it's not a light matter. Ideally , it's an intensive struggle to learn, clarify and define the Torah truth on an issue. It's an intellectual and spiritual struggle, an intensive effort to personalize and internalize the Torah, to make it part of you (as Chazal say on Tehillim 1:2 - first it's called Hashem's Torah, but later it's called his Torah, as the learner becomes the owner of it).

Nowadays, unfortunately, some people minimize this struggle and wrestling process, which ideally is a no-holds barred search for the truth. Perhaps they think it's disrespectful and should be minimized, reduced or eliminated. Instead of the idea of milchamta shel Torah, they want shalom achshav, a quiet, peaceful learning experience, with no confrontations or sharp exchanges. But that is short-sighted and dangerous. Stifling legitimate questions leads to unresolved doubt which erodes faith and respect for Torah. Better to enunciate your questions and have them addressed.

Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in his sefer Ruach Chaim, on Pirkei Avos 1:4, Yosei ben Yoezer omer... hevei misabeik beafar ragleihim, talks about this wrestling.

There is also a famous story about Rav Eliezer Gordon, aka Reb Leizer Telzer, of the famed Telshe Yeshiva.

Once he came to give a shiur somewhere and was not interrupted, as the attendees sat and listened quietly. Rav Leizer got up and stopped his shiur, remarking that he didn't give shiur in a cemetery. While there may be different shitos and styles regarding allowing/encouraging of interruptions or questions during a shiur (vs. afterward, e.g.) and while foolish questions can be problematic, it still well illustrates the important role the struggle of 'milchamta shel Torah' occupies in the learning process. A dry lecture alone doesn't cut it.

At March 18, 2007 at 3:09:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

1. Now there's a shtender!

2. Jews should get the needed preparation to struggle with the content and logic of Mishna/Gemara, which includes sufficient grounding in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages as used in the Mishna/Gemara, and also sufficient grounding in Tanach. Neglect of prior language study and Tanach study in our curricula adds a completely unnecessary dimension to our struggles in learning.

At March 18, 2007 at 3:37:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Litvak: Of all the Litvaks I know, you're my kind of Litvak ;)


1) This shtender was from the 17th Century and was used in a shul in Galicia.

2) While we routinely keep up with Torah because of the yearly cycle in shul, how do you keep up with your knowledge of Nach?

At March 18, 2007 at 4:05:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Hi Litvak, I'm glad my comment to you elicited such a nioe response. I think Bob Miller's point #2 sufficiently answers it. I would just add that just as one wouldn't come to a university course without the required high-school background, and university pre-reqs, one should have the proper language skills for taking on Gemara. I have nothing against either ArtScroll or Steinzaltz, by the way; I think they can be valuable tools. But I don't think they should come before properly working out the Gemara "inside" without any aids [which would also mean, trying to understand the Gemara without peeking at Rashi too!].
ASJ, keeping up with Nach really means having the whole thing "under your belt" before learning Mishna and then Gemara [which is why I advocated the Zilberman yeshiva method of learning some moons ago!]. I'll admit that many if not most of us have probably not done this. And here's where your Chok learning can be a boon! :))

At March 18, 2007 at 4:07:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Corrections: 1. I meant "nice response," & not the word typed above.
2. I should have added a "L'havdil" in my comparison to university pre-reqs above.

At March 18, 2007 at 4:10:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

There's a Haftarah every week, too.

Also see this well-organized Nach study program at Rav Avraham Greenbaum's site:
You can get on his free email list for new lessons as they come out. This is the same Rav Avraham Greenbaum who has translated many works of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov for Breslov Research Institute. [Azamra, his current organization, sells his more recent books, including translations of Rebbe Nachman and Ramchal's works.]

At March 18, 2007 at 4:28:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yitz: G-d willing, one day I will at least have this under my belt! Knowing all of Nach is no small accomplishment.

Bob: The lessons you mentioned are indeed good and I have been subscribed to them for some time now.

At March 18, 2007 at 7:47:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Likutie mohran spends quite a while on a gemurah in baba basra with the rashi the whale jumping out with the bug in its nose with the bones building 60 cities

At March 19, 2007 at 2:07:00 AM EDT, Anonymous A Yid said...

The wrestling and struggling isn't at all a self aim. It is the process of overcoming klipoys that cover the meaning of Toyro. The aim is Toyro lismo - dveykus itself, which bring a yid to the Eibershter.

At March 19, 2007 at 6:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

A Yid: I know that you have a lot to say about Torah lishma. Would you be willing to write a guest posting on this topic?

At March 19, 2007 at 9:17:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Knowing all of Nach is no small accomplishment.
My wife once went to a shiur with a friend of hers, & they mentioned one of the Nevi'im, let's say, Malachi. She & her friend didn't know that one, so they asked where his sefer was. "Oh, Trei Asar," came the reply. When they realized they had no idea what that was, they dropped out of the shiur & started learning Nach together. So far, they've done Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel [1&2], Melachim [1&2], Divrei HaYamim [1&2] and are now in the middle of Yeshayahu! I must admit, I envy them!!!

At March 19, 2007 at 9:53:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yitz: Yes, it is an excellent idea to continually refresh ourselves with the content of Nach. At least a perek a day on a continuing rotation might be an good practice to have.

At March 19, 2007 at 11:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

By the way, there are major differences in the quality of Jewish translations of Nach into English. Check around before buying. Ways they can differ include:

1. Accuracy of word meanings
2. English language style

The latter is not such a trivial thing. Some translations read so clunkily as to lose the grandeur and poetry. What I have seen of The Living Nach (Moznaim) looks pretty good.

At March 19, 2007 at 12:23:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Agreed. For a good English translation see the link I just put up on my sidebar.


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