What Gemara Can (Theoretically) Provide Students, Part II

Logic, Logic Everywhere

There are quite a few methods to learn a gemara text. Pilpul. Pshat. Brisk. Telz. These methods all serve as effective if partial tools for deciphering the maze that is gemara. What all these methods have in common is the assumption that the study of gemara is primarily about logic and all that is missing are the right tools to decipher this logic.

The crux of gemara study is one long effort to understand the arguments and evidence of each and every disputant. What are their assumptions? How strong is their evidence? Who wins the argument, if anyone? What can we learn from this argument beyond the immediate context?

There will be those who will scoff at the above. Is not pilpul the height of empty mental acrobatics? Is gemara not full of klutz kashyas, bad logic and forced arguments?

Well, yes, gemara has that too – but that’s part of its beauty. Gemara is not a perfectly edited, carefully constructed argument. It is a huge conversation with thousands of discussants. Like all conversations, it contains good arguments and bad, not to mention different forms of argument and many worldviews. Studying gemara is far closer to logical arguments and debates in the real world than anything you’ll find in a sterile book.

Life is messy. None of the methods of learning mentioned above can be anything but partial because reality does not conform to any one system of logic. Logic of any kind is exact and tidy. Reality is messy, chaotic and unpredictable. Gemara is what happens when the two forces collide.

A master of gemara, someone who truly grasps what I have just said, will not just understand gemara. He will internalize both the importance of logic and its limitations. He will learn both intellectual power and humility. He will learn a lesson far more important than any hiddush or hilluk. He will learn that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is contained in any human system of thought.

That’s a lesson worth absorbing.

NEXT: A culture of conversation, not diktat


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: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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3 Responses to What Gemara Can (Theoretically) Provide Students, Part II

  1. adam zur says:

    brisk is an ambiguous type of path of learning. The reason i say this is that even though the book of reb chayim is a masterpiece but in my experience most people who would say over brisk types of Torah were missing the actual ability to calculate the sugia properly. it is almost as if brisk became a substitute way of learning or as i used to call it easy lumdut.
    Though i admit i have seen high level brisk in action in the likes of shmuel berenbaum but he had a depth that even very smart people around him were unable to penetrate. What i am trying to say is that brisk is a precision tool that takes a high degree of intelligence to get right and most of the time it is flubbed up.

  2. fred says:

    berenbaum had no connection to brisk.

  3. Shlomo says:

    Interesting idea, but I wonder if it applies to the 99% of gemara learners who, if they were even aware of a specific derech halimud in the first place, certainly do not recognize its flaws. Or on occasion, they do recognize its flaws but consider their rebbe or themselves as the one person in the world who has managed to strike the correct balance between two different derachim.

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