Is Gemara Only for the Orthodox? (Answer: Not Really)

While looking over the fascinating discussion on the lookjed list on gemara education, I came across the following fascinating post. The author wondered aloud why there is no discussion of gemara education for the non-Orthodox. I thought I might address the issue here:

My first response to the titular question is that it isn’t. Secular and mixed “batei midrash” in which everything – including gemara – is taught and studied are a growth industry. In addition, books on Judaism – including ones which discuss gemara sugyot – come out regularly under the auspices of Yediot Acharonot’s “Yahadut Can Ve’achshav” series. However, I assume the poster was referring to non-Orthodox high schools, not adult Jewish self-education.

I have to wonder how one would go about teaching gemara in a non-Orthodox educational environment. While it’s certainly possible, gemara learning (done properly) requires a broad background and knowledge of Jewish terms and thought. It should only be taught in non-Orthodox schools that place heavy emphasis on knowledge of sources – not just general ideas or ideologies. Otherwise, it will be difficult if not impossible to teach it.

As for how to teach it to a crowd that is not committed to halacha in the Orthodox manner, I think I can suggest a number of directions:

1)      Topical: Instead of teaching by bulk (so-and-so amount of dapim or mesechtot), teachers should prepare specific topics and mine the sources of Mishna, Talmud, rishonim and acharonim to get a broad understanding of the subject. Students will understand that these sources are a veritable treasure trove of “Jewish” cultural and national info and, one hopes, will be curious to keep learning. These topics can range from philosophical (theodicy, for instance), sexuality and relationships, to historical issues related to Jewish life in the diaspora (such as yayn stam).

2)      Debate: Another important function can be learning the quintessentially Jewish (certainly in the toshba) art of debate – not just form, but also substance. Taking select and famous debates and arguing the different sides can get students involved in Jewish sources in a way no story given by a lecture ever could.

In addition to learning the debates themselves, students can then go into discussions about the boundaries of debate, acceptable limits and so forth. Students can decide for themselves whether various sanctions (such as Raban Gamliel’s coercion of Rav Yehoshua regarding Yom Kippur) were justified or not.

3)      Halacha: Just because students aren’t committed to halacha in the traditional manner does not mean they shouldn’t engage it. Discussions of halacha’s authority (from various theological and scholarly perspectives, from the scholarly perspective &c) and what it “means to me” could be very fruitful. A discussion of customs and their place in a non-observant setting could be quite fruitful.

Students could discuss their own view of their obligation to continue traditions and customs. A historical look at how much Jews absorbed in past generations could also enrich discussion.

So what do you think, dear reader? Are these directions good? Does Oral Torah have a place in non-observant educational settings?

NOTE: Please don’t be afraid to leave comments, even if you disagree strongly. As long as comments are civil and on-point, I let them pass through without a problem.



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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5 Responses to Is Gemara Only for the Orthodox? (Answer: Not Really)

  1. I think that you offer a very good description of what Talmud study should be most people studying Talmud, at least for the first few years of study, and not just people in a non-Orthodox setting. Study after study has shown two things: 1. Talmud is one of the most disliked subjects in Orthodox schools; 2. A large number of the students, if not the majority, never acquire the skills to study Talmud on their own. They are never taught the skills of learning the Talmudic text, the nitty gritty of vocabulary, technical terms, etc. I would add that often they are taught texts that are generally irrelevant to their lives and cause many to lose interest in Talmud very quickly, and possibly permanently. These problems have been found in both American and Israeli educational settings, with some differences between them.

  2. fred says:

    while generally i am in favor of jews learning torah as their god given right — torah tzivah lanu moshe morasha kehillas yaakov — teaching/learning gemara in a meaningful way is very difficult and may be counterproductive. as many have noted, it can be very unsatisfying for a number of reasons, not the least of which that it rarely comes to a conclusion. endless debate may be fun [sometimes], but it also leads nowhere [often]. another problem with this is that you get a ‘kulanu chachamim kulanu nevonim kulanu yodim es hatorah’ — that is these ignoramouses actually think they know some gemara, and are entitled to an opinion. it takes years of hard, humble learning to reach such a point.
    furthermore, rarely in such groups do they study hard gemara, choosing more intellectually interesting tanur shel achnai types of gemara [which imo as i mentioned above without tradition backing it up is an exercise in mental masturbation, or can lead to hubris].
    we are talking about israeli high schools which barely teach pirkei avos, which is almost not a religious text, but broadly universal [with some important exceptions]; criminal. gemara may be a stretch at this point.
    and exactly how widespread are these secular yeshivot? my sense is, not very.

    • AIWAC says:


      1) The humility thing, imo, is a personality issue. The problem of people who read a book or two and think themselves experts on a subject is universal and not limited to gemara. Teachers can try to dampen such feelings by emphasizing just how wide and deep the gemara and the sea of halacha is, but ultimately it’s up to the students. I don’t think it wise to shut off a whole area of learning simply because of this risk.

      2) Re: lack of knowledge. I stated specifically that only students who are possess broad knowledge of Jewish sources (Tanach, Mishna &c) should engage in gemara study. This is true regardless of whether one is Orthodox or not.

      3) Re: not coming to a conclusion.

      fred, the gemara is rife with insoluble halachic dilemas – teikus and unclear concepts whose solution has eluded even the greatest scholars. Just look at all the ink spelled on the question of the defintion of “dina degarmi”. You’re going to tell me that all that was for naught because the debate is never ending?

      It’s true that debates shouldn’t just be idle specualtion and chatter but should lead to deeper understandings of the issues at hand. However, this need not involve “solving” the equation but just analyzing it properly.


      • fred says:

        1. with traditional subject matter i think humility in the face of the tradition is all the more important [this is true for other ancient religions, not just judaism].

        2. in my experience, you dont really need much nach to learn gemara. you can go for entire perakim and never hit a pasuk in nach. when it comes up you can go over the relevant psukim. mishna, more so. but even here it is not as required as some would say.

        3. okay, take garmi. before you can even venture an opinion [humility], you need to master the relevant gemaras, what the rishonim say on the matter, and what the major acharonim have to say. if at that point you still feel you have something to add, go ahead. but by no means should one be under the impression that one is a colleague or equal of these great talmudic minds, and one should tread carefully before disagreeing.

  3. Pingback: What Gemara Can (Theoretically) Provide Students, Part IV | QED

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