2000–01 Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh

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Halivni deviates from the Hildesheimer model in conceding that the “scientific methodology . . . is tentative and . . . adjustable,” in light of which he does not argue that academic scholarship will consistenty prove the truth of tradition but instead admits that occasionally, it will appear to contradict the transmitted halakhah.41 Consequently, Halivni’s approach differs from both the Frankel and Hildesheimer models by confining academic inquiry to the theoretical plane; and it addresses Hirsch’s concerns regarding the bifurcation of truth by positing that there are multiple layers of Torat Emet.


In examining Frankel, Hirsch, and Hildesheimer’s nineteenth-century approaches to the integration of academic scholarship in Torah study, we have demonstrated that there are three coherent responses to the challenges presented by a synthesized derekh limmud. In keeping with Frankel, it is possible to fully embrace integrated study, reforming our beliefs and halakhic practices in accordance with the results of our intellectual inquiry. This approach, however, is unacceptable in Orthodox circles, whose adherents are committed to traditional principles of faith and to the transmitted halakhah. Following the approach advanced by Hirsch, it is possible to reject scientific, historical scholarship entirely and to maintain that there is no possibility for integrating such scholarship in Torah study within the boundaries of halakhic, Torah-true Judaism. In accordance with Hildesheimer’s model, it is also possible to endorse the integration of academic scholarship in Torah study and to utilize such scholarship to confirm and reinforce traditional beliefs and practices. These three models have broad implications for any attempt to integrate academic scholarship into the traditional limmudei kodesh curriculum. As such, they are of supreme relevance to the contemporary discussion and are worth bearing in mind as we move to an analysis of current arguments in opposition to and in favor of a synthesized derekh limmud.

Current Discussion of the Possibility of Integration

Nearly one hundred and fifty years have passed since the debates of Hirsch and Hildesheimer. Following a century of Modern Orthodox preoccupation with the ideal of Torah U-Madda (defined previously as distinct from the ideal of synthesis), the debate over integrating academic scholarship in the study of Torah has recently been renewed. The Modern Orthodox world itself is split on the issue, and even some advocates of Torah U-Madda have suggested that a synthesis of academic scholarship and traditional Torah study should be rejected because of its threat to basic principles of faith and to halakhic observance. On the other side of the debate, advocates argue that the Torah world is facing a crisis related to the quest for relevance and that an integrated approach may provide an answer. Not surprisingly, contemporary arguments echo those delineated by Hirsch and Hildesheimer. In the following section, we will outline and consider the contentions of both those who oppose the integration of academic methodologies and those who favor it.
Objections to the integration of academic scholarship in Torah study

Objections to an integrated academic approach can be grouped into three major categories: (1) its consequences for emunah and yirat shamayim (2) its impact on halakhic worldview and potentially on halakhic observance, and (3) its implications for Talmud Torah as a religious endeavor.

With regard to emunah and yirat shamayim, opponents of an integrated derekh limmud claim that many of the underlying assumptions inherent in a more academic approach threaten ikkarei ha-emunah, specifically the unity of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah,42 and challenge the role of hashgahah in history.43 Whether questioning the omniscience of HaZaL or demonstrating the role of local factors in the pesak halakhah of hakhmei ha-dorot, the inherent skepticism of an historical approach also jeopardizes emunat hakhamim, which, in the words of the RaMBaM, obligates us to “emulate their actions and believe the truth of their words” (le-hiddamot be-ma’asehem u-le-ha’amin ha-amituyot mi-divreihem). These objections recall those expressed by Hirsch.

An historical, academic approach to Torah study unquestionably focuses on the human factor in the halakhic process, and the view of halakhah through this lens has the potential to impact halakhic worldview and ultimately halakhic observance. Those who object to an integrated derekh limmud argue that attributing halakhah to HaZaL, i.e. human beings, rather than to Torah Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai, i.e. the Divine, undermines the authority of the mesorah and makes it easier to dispense with individual halakhot. An historical approach not only focuses on the central role of humans and humanity in the halakhic process but also differentiates between different layers of halakhic development. Opponents of this approach object to the presentation of halakhah in stages out of fear that it will encourage conscious, or even subconscious derision of halakhot deemed to be “later” innovations instituted by the Rishonim or Aharonim and not present in the Talmudic discussion itself.44 These apprehensions are precisely the same as those expressed by Hirsch and his supporters in their condemnation of Wissenschaft and Frankel’s “Historical School.”

Opponents of synthesis argue that academic methodologies and assumptions are not compatible with the goals of Talmud Torah as a religious endeavor. Torah is dynamic, they emphasize, and the goal of learning is to advance Torah study, not to re-create the original. As such, the Talmud Torah endeavor is not really concerned with authorial intent, a hallmark of the historical approach. According to these objectors, what Abbaye and Rava actually said is of less relevance than what the Rishonim and Ahronim thought they said because their version is the one that stood up to the test of tradition (“she-avrah et ha-masoret”). In this respect, it is more worthwhile to learn the Ketsot HaHoshen than to learn R. Hai Gaon: the author of the Ketsot lived later, possessed a greater body of Torah knowledge and more advanced learning tools.

The same argument applies to the study of manuscript variants: Torah scholars are more interested in the printed version of the Talmud which is the cumulative result of all the Torah that filtered through the batei midrash of the Rishonim and the gedolei ha-Aharonim than they are in individual manuscripts which were lost for centuries and therefore did not continue to impact Torah scholarship. As Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, a student of Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz (who was better known as the Hazon Ish), has asserted in the name of his teacher:

Halakhah is rooted in current, ongoing reality and is neither shaken nor fortified by any evidence ferreted out from remote ages and places, ‘What was, already was’ (mah she-haya kevar hu; Kohelet 3:15). Halakhah looks forwards, not backward.45

In Talmud Torah, the primary concern is the normative, accepted text, i.e. the Talmud Bavli. Investigation of other traditions, such as the Tosefta or the Yerushalmi, which is central to academic scholarship, may be of value in clarifying the Bavli, but, nonetheless, it remains tangential to Talmud Torah, and time devoted to its study should be adjusted accordingly.46

Above all, there is a serious concern that academic methodology will not be able to transmit the spirit of Torah, the love of Torah that traditional learning embodies.47 Indeed, in critique of the purely academic approach embraced by Wissenschaft scholars, Rabbi Yaakov Yehiel Weinberg (known as the Seridei Esh), who was the last dean of the rabinnical seminary in Berlin and who, in general, supported the integration of academic scholarship in Talmud Torah, wrote:

Not seeking the Talmud’s essential kernel, science busied itself only with the externalities. Like surgeons, they sliced up the Talmud as though it were a mummified corpse. He for whom the Talmud is a source of life, however, cannot be satisfied with this way. . . . This kind of science will never discover the key that will enable its entry into the enchanted palaces of the Talmud. It has failed to locate the Talmud’s soul and has not recognized that the immanent core of the Talmud is none other than the perpetual striving to clarify fully and exhaustively each and every concept and to enable their future development.48
This was Hirsch’s ultimate charge against Wissenschaft, and it is similarly the ultimate contention of those opposing a derekh limmud that seeks to incorporate academic scholarship in Torah study.

Arguments favoring the integration of academic scholarship in Torah study

Whereas opponents of an integrated approach claim that the academic tools and methodologies it incorporates implicitly challenge students’ emunah and undermine their commitment to halakhic observance, proponents of a synthesized derekh limmud assert that this type of approach to Torah study has the potential to achieve just the opposite. Rather than threatening students’ belief in the sanctity and binding nature of the Oral Torah, rather than damaging their emunat hakhamim or weakening their commitment to halakhah, a derekh limmud that integrates academic scholarship into traditional Torah study has the capacity to bolster students’ faith and halakhic commitment. The advantages of such an approach, by which it endeavors to achieve these goals, are its engagement with “real life” considerations in the development of halakhah, its scholarly integrity, as expressed in its concern for honest and accurate rendering of Torah texts, and its historical sensitivity which appeals to the modern intellect. Additionally, a synthesized derekh limmud expands the boundaries of Talmud Torah and builds upon the goals of this religious enterprise.

One of the foremost educational challenges that arises with regard to Talmud Torah in general (not the study of halakhah le-maaseh) is its ability to transmit religious ideals such as yirat shamayim and commitment to kiyyum mitzvot. What practical effect does the intellectual enterprise of Talmud Torah have on the religious lives of students? This question needs to be asked seriously of any shitat limmud, including that which we have been calling “traditional” yeshivah learning. Through an examination of the successes and failures of the traditional approach in this realm, we will highlight a particular advantage of the proposed integrated approach.

As articulated by Hirsch, the advocates of “limmud yeshivati” dismiss academic scholarship for being unable to transmit what they call the “spirit” of Talmud Torah. Hirsch, as we have seen, credited this “spirit” of Torah with maintaining Am Yisrael’s commitment to a Torah lifestyle in the practical realm. But what specific element of traditional limmud is able to achieve that which its proponents claim is lacking in a more academic approach?

Among the critiques which have been leveled at the Brisker derekh limmud—which is, despite being pioneered by Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the “traditional” approach that is employed in most of the yeshivah world today—is, in fact, its detachment from the religious meaning behind the halakhot whose precise mechanics it probes with such rigor. As Mosheh Lichtenstein has recently observed,

The Brisker transformation of the learning effort has been extremely successful in its goals of explaining the material world of applied pesak halakhah, but us has done so at the price of eliminating all speculation regarding the motivating forces behind the halakhot.49
The spiritual element of the Brisker derekh is the unspoken but pervasive middat hayirah on which the entire endeavor is predicated, a metaphysic that “deems it unnecessary for man to aspire to an understanding of why Halakhah has expressed itself in particular forms” because man’s role in the world is to fulfill God’s imperatives without questioning the meaning behind them.50 The focus on legalistic examination of the halakhah and subsequent disregard for the factors that went into its development is precisely that which instills in the student a sense of religious obligation and, hopefully, commitment to observance.51

Critics of the academic approach claim that even when scholarship does not undermine a student’s religious world, it does little to foster religious growth; if yirat shamayim happens to be the outcome of such learning, it is a coincidental by-product and not a direct corollary. If this is truly the case, then academic methodologies will remain forever tafel and educational questions such as the amount of time worth investing in the acquisition of historical-philological skills or devoting to the investigation of questions that are peripheral to the goal need to be considered seriously indeed.

However, there are serious weaknesses inherent in the spiritual framework that limmud yeshivati constructs for its students which have ramifications for their religious lives beyond the world of learning. The discrepancy between the formal-legal categories that are considered in learning and the social-psychological dynamics that are factored into “real-life” halakhah has the potential to create religious conflict for the student once he leaves the shelter of the yeshivah. The solution adopted by many former yeshivah students is to turn all halakhot into hukim whose reasoning is incomprehensible to the human mind, thereby limiting the spiritual substance of their religious lives to blind faith.52 Furthermore, this sense of fundamental conflict between the realm of learning and the realm of applied halakhah engenders the conviction that the collective yeshivah experience cannot be translated or adapted to life in the “outside world.” Formal-legal categories and talmudic logic which does not take human factors into account are not going to solve dilemmas about educating children or dealing with the neighbors. As a result, many former yeshivah students abandon the attempt to integrate their lives in the yeshivah with their lives outside it.53

An integrated historical approach to Talmud Torah, which broadens the spectrum of questions that may be asked and factors that may be taken into account beyond the narrow boundaries of formal-legal reasoning, has greater potential for allowing students to discern and explore connections between the printed page of the Talmud and their real-world interactions and halakhic observance. For students who question the applicability of halakhic practice to contemporary reality, an historical approach has the potential to deepen appreciation for both the richness and compelling authority of tradition by demonstrating that for two thousand years, halakhic Jews have been struggling with the same essential question: how to make ancient law meaningful to modern man. An historical approach is thus compelling to students who would otherwise become frustrated with the traditional world of Talmud Torah because of its perceived irrelevance to their lives, other than as an intellectual exercise. This argument posits that the historical approach not only matches “traditional” learning in its religious undertaking, but actually surpasses the religious force of “traditional” learning in directly addressing students’ theological concerns and their religious development.

The advantages of this approach can be demonstrated for the sugyot in Masekhet Pesahim which explore the mitzvot of leil ha-Seder. Most people who have attended traditional Pesah Sedarim recognize that some of the evening’s central rituals are outdated in their ability to convey the themes of slavery and freedom without the assistance of extended commentary. In fact, a thorough analysis of the layers of halakhic development reveals that it was similarly difficult for the Rishonim and even for the Amoraim to find meaning in an elaborate ritual that was initially designed for a Temple-based society whose point of reference was the Roman world. The concept of reclining as an expression of freedom was as un-natural to Jews in the eleventh century as it is to Jews in the twenty-first. And yet, after debating the point and struggling in their search for meaning, Jews in the eleventh century held onto the tradition and strengthened its status as normative practice, just as we, as halakhic Jews in the twenty-first century, continue to do today. Thus, the historical approach has the potential to bolster tradition precisely because it acknowledges that modern man is not the first to question tradition’s continued applicability.54

The scholarly integrity of a derekh limmud that incorporates academic methodologies is another feature of the integrated approach that can serve to augment students’ respect for Torah and for HaZaL and, thus, to bolster their emunah as well as their commitment to the halakhic system. Proponents of an integrated approach argue that it is “truthful” Talmud Torah in its straightforward attempt to understand the meaning of the written text.55 The fundamental goal of this historical approach is to understand each individual layer of the halakhic discussion as it was composed—Rashi as Rashi, RaMBaM as RaMBaM, the Tosafot as the Tosafot, etc. This objective of “authentic,” i.e. historically accurate, rendering of the text is no less applicable to the Mishnah or to the gemara than it is to any of the Rishonim or Aharonim.56 As Yaakov Elman has argued with regard to the construction (or, more precisely, the deconstruction) of Talmudic sugyot, the assumption that the imperative of emunat hakhamim precludes any attempt to distinguish between layers of composition belies the interpretive activity of many Rishonim.57

Proponents of a derekh limmud that utilizes academic scholarship cite the pursuit of truth as a primary value and as a particular strength of their derekh. But surely anyone who engages in Talmud Torah seeks truth! How do we define Torat Emet? The traditional answer, which is still adopted in most yeshivot, is masoret: tradition is truth. In the academic world, science is truth. Proponents of an integrated approach to Torah study insist that truth is the reconciliation of the two, tradition and science. A believing Jew cannot accept the truth of science over masoret; however, an intellectually honest thinker cannot accept the truth of masoret to the exclusion of science. Torat Emet lies somewhere between the two. As Hildesheimer argued, the strength of an integrated approach, then, is that it allows (or perhaps forces) the individual to confront and to reconcile the two halves of his world.

The ultimate contention of those who advocate an integrated curriculum is that the time has come to develop a new derekh limmud that is consistent with current modes of thought and definitions of truth. The RaMBaM was preoccupied with philosophical proofs of God’s existence because he was the product of a medieval intellectual environment. The Brisker shitah, which hinges on precise definition and meticulous classification of principles, was popularized (in part) because it attracted students who had been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the intellectual trends of the Scientific Revolution.58 In today’s intellectual environment, which is characterized by historical consciousness, it is necessary to engage students by demonstrating that Torah stands up to their definitions of truth.59 Menahem Kahane has stated forcefully:

Our generation is one of knoweledge (dor deah), and even the yeshivah students have a critical way of thought engrained in their secular studies and daily lives. Disregard of this inclination with respect to their religious studies and the split personality that it engenders does not allow them to respond to the challenge of making Torah a living Torah (Torat hayyim), a goal to which they aspire, for their Torah is disconnected from their lives in their fullest sense. In the critical environment of our times, any Torah learning that totally disregards the literary-critical perspective will not be able to strive to understand Torat emet even on its own terms. One who closes himself to anything but Torah, out of hostility and estragement from anything related to science and scholarship (hokhmah), culture and enlightenment, impairs the understanding of Torah itself, whose own structure was influenced by these factors.60

Kahane argues that dogmatic restriction of Talmud Torah to dated darkhei limmud does not only make it difficult for students to translate Torah into their greater intellectual worlds but actually obscures the meaning of Torah itself:

This artificial obstruction will create a screen between the light of the Talmud and the eyes of one who studies it, making it difficult for him to understand the simple meaning (p’shat) of the sugyot and their lessons, namely, their translation into his relevant world.61
Finally, in response to those who argue that the pursuit of academic scholarship is not and cannot be Talmud Torah, proponents of an integrated derekh limmud maintain that the utilization of academic tools and methodologies expands rather than contracts the boundaries of Talmud Torah and reveals an entirely new dimension of Torah study. Beyond the claims of Daniel Sperber, who insists that certain philological facets of academic scholarship are requisite to an authentic understanding of Talmudic sugyot and topics in halakhah, and Yaakov Elman, who maintains that an appreciation of historical and sociological context is imperative to an understanding of peshat, Shalom Carmy points out that academic scholarship which lends credibility to issues of linguistic and literary composition often addresses questions about form that arise naturally in the course of learning, and as such, has value both as an educational tool and as a tool for the pursuit of Talmud Torah.62

Acknowledging the contention that Talmud Torah is interested in non-Bavli material only in its capacity as a supplement to the authoritative tradition, Elman warns that reading all texts in light of the “normative Torah she-be’al peh,” i.e. the Bavli, results in “missing many of the nuances of texts outside the Bavli, and the contribution to the pluralism of Torah,” in addition to “[loosing] another element of peshat.”63 The penchant for “read[ing] traditional texts in light of the whole of tradition,” he claims, results in the loss of “the flavor of each time and text,” which limits the scope of Talmud Torah. Elman suggests that academic scholarship contributes to Talmud Torah precisely by recovering and examining that which did not become normative tradition:

It is one of the functions of academic scholarship to reverse the process [of the unfolding of Torah she-be’al peh] and study its unfolding. This not only gives us deeper understanding of how we have arrived at where we are, but allows us to examine the options not chosen by Klal Yisrael. Some may be worthy of resurrection in the light of later circumstances and challenges; in other cases, we will understand even more clearly why the particular viewpoint was ignored or consigned to oblivion.64
In this way, too, an approach to Torah study that incorporates academic scholarship can be effective in convincing students of the efficacy of tradition.

Summary and Conclusion

In modern yeshivah day schools, Talmud and halakhah are generally taught in accordance with the traditional yeshivah approach to Torah study, utilizing the same tools and methodologies that students encounter if and when they enter the yeshivah world. Day schools educators are generally not more open to academic Torah study than their yeshivah faculty counterparts: many day school limmudei kodesh teachers are, in fact, products of that yeshivah environment and have assimilated its values and hashkafot which they attempt to transmit, albeit in a diluted form, to their high school students. The “relevance question,” however, is even more pressing to high school students who are, on the whole, less committed to the Talmud Torah endeavor than yeshivah students and have not chosen to learn Torah of their own volition. As has been recognized with regard to yeshivah alumni, day school graduates are often similarly confounded when attempting to translate their Talmud Torah experience into the “real world.” From this perspective, the goals and ramifications of a derekh limmud are even more critical to high school than to yeshivah students.

The religious objections and critiques that have been highlighted are substantial enough to merit serious consideration in any discussion of an integrated derekh limmud. Concern as to students’ continued affirmation of ikkarei ha-emunah and emunat hakhamim is not unwarranted, nor is apprehension as to how this will affect their commitment to a halakhic lifestyle and their practical halakhic observance. Certainly the goals of Talmud Torah as a religious endeavor and the ability of a derekh limmud to convey the spirit of Talmud Torah need to be carefully weighed when considering a new approach to Torah study, particularly one which deviates from tradition in its tools and methodologies.

Practical limitations in the high school setting raise educational considerations in addition to the religious considerations delineated. The proposed learning approach would require limmudei kodesh teachers to have at least minimal background in academic, historical study in addition to a strong Torah background. It is highly improbable, therefore, that such a derekh limmud could be implemented en masse in the immediate future. In addition to teacher-training issues, there remains the question of the expense at which we may be focusing on the development of these skills in our students. In order for students to gain from this approach, it is imperative that they, in addition to their teachers, be trained in basic academic methodology; however, since the proposed derekh advocates the synthesis of traditional and academic approaches, it cannot be considered successful if students acquire academic skills to the exclusion of classical limmud proficiency.65 Lastly, the religious message conveyed by the proposed derekh limmud is a sophisticated one, and the question of age-appropriateness certainly needs to be addressed. The approach assumes a prior commitment to observance which is to be strengthened rather than shaken in the face of questioning and intellectual challenge. Can we rely on such a level of commitment to kiyyum mitzvot among Modern Orthodox high school students? In considering implementation, educators should certainly keep their audience in mind. Possibly, this approach will be most beneficial to older students of post-high school age who have already acquired a solid foundation in basic learning skills and, more importantly, are at a more advanced, if indeed more critical, stage of intellectual-religious development and lifestyle decision-making.

Despite all of the legitimate and warranted concerns, there is still a strong argument in favor of developing and implementing a derekh limmud that integrates academic scholarship and traditional Torah study. Rather than threatening students’ belief in the sanctity and binding nature of the Oral Torah, rather than damaging their emunat hakhamim or weakening their commitment to halakhah, a derekh limmud that integrates academic scholarship into traditional Torah study has the capacity to bolster students’ faith and halakhic commitment. By grappling with the role that “real life” considerations play in the development of halakhah, by maintaining a high level of scholarly integrity and endeavoring to reconcile conflicting definitions of truth, and by engaging students with an historical sensitivity that appeals to the modern intellect, an integrated derekh limmud indeed surpasses the religious force of “traditional learning” in directly addressing students’ theological concerns and their religious development.


Yehareg Ve-al Ya’avor: A Model Lesson

No single example can exhaustively demonstrate the strengths of an educational approach, but I hope that the following model will highlight some of the educational advantages of the derekh limmud that this paper advocates. The sugya of yehareg ve-al ya’avor, which deals with the halakhic position on martyrdom, raises serious questions about the means whereby halakhah is developed and applied to changing realities. In its extreme form, the classic limmud approach would ignore the possibility of historical or sociological influences. Rather than avoiding the methodological and theological questions which arise in the course of learning, the educator can take advantage of this opportunity to argue for the integrity and contemporary relevance of the halakhic process.

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