The first Gemara lesson: You can't say whatever you want
By now, I'm sure that every Mishpacha reader has seen at least one story, and probably many, about the fascination of South Koreans with Talmud study. South Koreans assume that somehow the key to Jewish intellectual success lies in our learning of Talmud and are eager to provide their offspring with an educational boost by teaching them to emulate the methodology of traditional Gemara learning.
Well, it turns out that South Koreans are not the only ones fascinated by the Talmud, though they have been bitten hardest by Talmud fever. Last week, I was invited by Rabbi Yosef Chevroni, Rosh Yeshivas Chevron, to lead a group of about 40 senior education officials from 12 advanced countries — who were in Israel for a conference on educational methodology — on a tour of Chevron Yeshivah.
The tour consisted primarily of standing in the ezras nashim and looking down on the action below in the packed beis medrash. I introduced myself as a graduate of two of the world's leading universities in order to give credibility to the comparisons that I would be making between the animated learning they were watching and traditional academic studies.
To begin, I shared with them a vignette that has stuck with me for three decades. My chavrusa and I were learning in the main Mirrer beis medrash, when suddenly a pair of young chavrusas, probably not out of their teens, jumped up and started screaming at one another and gesticulating forcefully. An outside observer would have been perfectly entitled to assume that they were about to come to fisticuffs.
My chavrusa and I, who were more than a decade older than they and who had done most of our studying at their age in university libraries where even a sneeze was likely to earn a dirty stare, looked on in fascination. Suddenly, I understood the vast chasm between their Gemara learning and my own studies at their age: Much of my learning consisted of the passive reception of information; theirs was almost entirely active.
Every time one offers a hypothesis, every time one reaches some tentative conclusion, he can count on his reasoning being subjected to close scrutiny by his chavrusa and subjected to vigorous attack if found wanting. The "wars of Torah" is a not inaccurate term to describe that process. And it explains the intellectual acuity of those who hone their minds on Gemara learning.
(I always envied those who were so confident of the truth of their positions and so devoted to them that they could shout at their chavrusas, "Am I speaking to a bar daas?" or the like. But every time I imitated them, it always turned out that I had made an embarrassing error.)
I also spoke to the educators about the rigorous logic of the Gemara and how the Gemara might, for instance, test a particular proposition by examining its contrapositive. Professor Harry Wolfson of Harvard, much of whose first quarter century was spent in Slabodka Yeshivah, used to refer to Talmud study as the scientific method applied to texts.
But what is gained from Gemara learning goes far beyond intellectual rigor. An exposure to Gemara offers a curative to many of the regnant intellectual fallacies of this generation — e.g., there is no such thing as Truth, just my truth and your truth; trust your emotions, your feelings are the only reliable guide.
The first lesson one absorbs in Gemara learning is that you cannot say whatever you want. Rather, you must prove your point. And that means, inter alia, accounting for all the facts. True, as the Ramban writes in his introduction to his Milchemes Hashem, there is no such thing as a perfect proof in Talmudic study. But each Rishon, for instance, in staking out his position on a particular issue, must account for every relevant statement and case in the Gemara. None can be dismissed out of hand as wrongly decided. And any other Rishon who disputes that position must somehow account for all the relevant statements and cases as well.
And if someone disagrees with your pshat in the Gemara, feeling hurt is not one of the options: Either argue back or suck it up. What a far cry from today's campuses where the first sniff of disagreement is considered an emotional assault.
As we were talking, another great benefit that Talmud learning confers occurred to me. One of the impending challenges facing mankind is: What will people do when artificial intelligence and robots have taken over many of the tasks now performed by human beings? Aldous Huxley's 1931 dystopia Brave New World, in which a large percentage of the population spends its days blissed out on a soothing, happiness-producing drug, no longer seems completely futuristic, especially as marijuana legalization is fast gathering the momentum that we witnessed with same-gender marriage.
Increased leisure can either be a blessing or a curse: It all depends on whether one has something to do with that time. There is, after all, only so much time one can spend watching inane fare on TV or staring mindlessly at a screen playing solitaire (though that time period, from my observation, appears to be longer than a transatlantic flight).
But for us, the greatest blessing would be that all the melachah would be done by others, while we'd be free to plumb the depths of Gemara or other Torah study. We will never lack for ways to use our time.
The assembled educators remained transfixed throughout this discussion and asked many questions. But I think I was the greatest beneficiary. For contemplating, if briefly, how blessed we are to have received the Torah, proved a perfect prelude for its reacceptance on Purim.
Two readers took sharp exception, in nearly identical e-mails, to something I wrote last week. The first's subject line read: "This week I'm sad." Why sad? Because one of his favorite writers — that would be me — had wittingly or unwittingly perpetuated an easily refuted but persistent historical myth.
What was my sin? I had written, without qualification, that after the Holocaust the gedolim directed every talmid toward long-term, full-time Torah learning.
Both letter writers expressed themselves eloquently, albeit sharply, to say that nearly three-quarters of New York City yeshivah graduates from the late '40s through the early '80s went to college, usually Brooklyn College or CCNY at night, even as many of them received semichah in their respective yeshivos.
One can establish that fact by a visit to any neighborhood in Brooklyn and Queens today, "literally crawling with 45–85-year-old frum professionals: physicians, attorneys, accountants, teachers, engineers, professors, and more."
In truth, I was primarily thinking about Eretz Yisrael, which has been my home for nearly 40 years. As applied to the Chazon Ish, the leader of postwar chareidi Jewry in Eretz Yisrael, my statement was fully accurate. And the Chazon Ish did not have to oppose a preexisting status quo. The old yishuv of Jerusalem had always been hostile to any secular learning.
And what I wrote would certainly have been accurate with respect to Rav Aharon Kotler in America, and most of the yeshivos established by his talmidim. In the late '40s, Reb Aharon strenuously and successfully opposed a plan by two of the leading New York yeshivos to create a college.
Yet, I should have known that the situation in America was not as I portrayed it from my research on the biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer. Rabbi Sherer devoted great effort to convincing Brooklyn College to give maximum credits for yeshivah studies and to minimize the requirements on yeshivah students in the '70s. And the large number of yeshivah students in Brooklyn College gave him leverage in those negotiations.
Why did things change? Partly, as one of my correspondents put it, because the earlier generation achieved in the professions and business "a level of affluence that their parents could only have dreamed of" and which allowed them to support sons and sons-in-law in long-term learning. And as the model of going to Eretz Yisrael, after two or three years in beis medrash, and returning to Beth Medrash Govoha, became entrenched, the ethos of both penetrated the yeshivah community to an ever-greater degree.
History is always a bit more complicated than we might wish.