A Never-Ending Debate
I’ve mentioned before that the gemara is not structured like an ordered, logical text. Rather, it is more like an informal protocol of hundreds if not thousands of separate discussions, debates and comments on every aspect of Jewish life and thought. Even more importantly, it is a world of discussion in which almost thousands of people both known and unknown participate, whether in the gemara itself or in commentaries of subsequent generations.
At its best, gemara study is so much more than just decoding text or understanding arguments on a superficial level. It demands constant rigor, scrutiny and criticism. You could get away with simply reading most stories in the Tanach without having to dig deep. The gemara would never allow such laziness. If you wish to reap the benefits of gemara study, you will have to work hard.
What’s even better is that gemara study encourages one of the most important drivers of innovation and intellectual development – conversation. As Steven Johnson points out, ideas and innovations do not come from isolation and sudden brainstorms. Rather, they come from constant interaction with other ideas and concepts, what Ridley calls “ideas having sex”. At least in theory, the chevruta culture in the yeshiva can be highly conducive for developing and sharpening the mind.
Some have argued that the presence of so many opinions in the gemara means that the gemara is “pluralistic” – that there is no one way, or that all ways are the same. This assertion is a classic example of the kind of superficial thinking that doesn’t fly in gemara study. If Hazal truly thought that “all opinions are equal”, if they believed that it doesn’t make a difference, then the gemara would not exist. It is simply not possible to understand the energy, passion and time which individual tana’im, amora’im and others dedicated to proving the correctness of their position and the falsehood of other positions if they believed elu va’elu in the sense endorsed by pluralists.
Gemara is not pluralistic in the sense that “all opinions are equal”. It is diverse, in the sense that all are invited to bring their opinion and prove that it is the truth. There they must contend with others who are no less convinced of the same. To be sure, there are rules of the game – rules of evidence, of certain common assumptions about the Torah, God and Judaism. But beyond that, everything goes – yet this need not lead to mutual shunning and exclusion. Yeshiva is one the few places where a chevruta can debate an issue day in and day out, yet remain the best of friends.
It is one of the great tragedies of Jewish intellectual life that so many have buried their real disagreements in the name of a saccharine and superficial unity. As Dr. Benny Brown pointed out in Akdamot, vigorous debate on what it means to be Jewish can strengthen, not weaken, the fate and unity of the Jewish people. Passionate debate about what it means to be Jewish means that people care about being Jewish and how Jews should conduct themselves. Such debates strengthen the attachment and interest of Jews in Judaism, because all the disputants feel they have a stake in the game.
Properly done, gemara education can instill in the student an appreciation for the importance of conversation and debate. It can show them the importance of interaction with people for different views and opinions as a method for sharpening one’s mind and strengthening one’s own commitment to Jewish life. This is something that gemara does better than any other subject.
NEXT: The Devil is in the Details, or Why the Small Stuff is Important