What Gemara Can (Theoretically) Provide Students, Part IV

Wrestling With the Angel (Devil?) of Tradition

A while back, I wrote a post about how to teach gemara to a crowd of non-Orthodox but seriously committed Jews. One of the points I tried to make is that such a crowd should engage with the gemara on its own terms. Rather than just cherry-pick sugyot and subjects that they agree with, students should be exposed to the whole panoply of subjects, even if they find it strange or even offensive.

What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, there are the many superstitious statements and actions, the outdated science and medical procedures. Then we have the statements and halachot that are disparaging of women* and non-Jews. This is the stuff most of us avoid and with good reason.

After this, we get into all kinds of other rules that seem outdated or unnecessary. Depending on how “liberal” you are, all or even most of the different rules and concepts may seem foreign to you. Indeed, anything that does not conform to a purely humanistic liberal worldview may seem worth avoiding.

I think this is wrong – not just for liberals but also for Orthodox Jews. All of us grapple with problematic issues that come up in tradition, be they moral or scientific. The study of gemara should be a place to air out these problems, not to bury them or avoid them. Better to grapple with the angel like Yaakov than flee and be drowned like Yonah.

I can only speak for myself, but in the fourteen odd years I’ve spent commenting on forums and blogs, I have learned from everyone and every opinion. Even when I vehemently disagreed with a position or belief, engaging it merely helped me shape and strengthen my own. I believe that students of gemara can do the same by dealing with whatever part of it they find problematic.

Gemara study is a wonderful opportunity to discuss, debate and engage every aspect of Jewish tradition, law and belief. It can be a formative experience, in which the student fights, rejects, embraces and molds himself into an entirely new creation, enmeshed in the Jewish experience while all the time refusing to surrender to it entirely.

Rather than silence students who find strange things in the gemara, teachers and Rabbis should encourage just as vigorous discussion of these matters as they would of hezkat habatim and HaIsha Nikneit. Thus, gemara study goes from being of practical value (learning halacha) and spiritual value (Talmud torah) to being of existential value (self-identity and belief).

Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

*I’m actually considering writing a sort of “semi-defense” of some of the more famous of these statements…


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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2 Responses to What Gemara Can (Theoretically) Provide Students, Part IV

  1. fred says:

    if you introduce the offensive/wackier talmud passages too early you can alienate the irreligious, or they can walk away thinking the talmud is full of old wives tales and nonsense. while all passages should be studied, the student must learn to approach the talmud with humility and at least a modicum of tradition. this must come first or the entire enterprise is doomed, especially if you do not cherry pick. [you might want to read ‘the giver’ where a similar idea is developed.]

    studying the wackier passages really very often leads to nowhere, so whats the point. thus there is almost no tosfos on aggadita. to just pontificate? sorry, not interested.

    how much self identity can really be gained from some of the wackier passages?

    i do agree that all well-developed views shouid be entertained, if only to hone your own positions.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. In the Mishnah the odd passages are often the one’s that teach us the most about the Talmudic reasoning. For example, I remember being totally muddled by the father in Kiddushin who couldn’t remember what order he married off his daughters. After all, what sort of father is that?! But after i’d worked through a few such bizaare mishnayot, it dawn on me that strangeness of such cases often arose out of the need to put in tension two or more concepts so that their relationship could be examined and better understood.

    I also think we can lose important clues to the text if we skip over the the interleaving of aggadah and agumentation. When people or groups meander off topic, the choice of subjects and their emotions during the side excursion can sometimes give us insight into the main direction of their thought. So too with Talmudic discussions. Sometimes what seems to be off track isn’t.

    Sometimes those passages also let us play. Some are fantastical and fun. Others are wacky and weird. Still others give us insight into the culture and mindset of a world very far from our own.

    Certain parts of the Talmud remind me of an Any Warhol painting: an underlying message expressed through the seeming flotsam of pop culture. It is impossible to get at the message without looking at the food can labels and movie stars.

    I think the main thing is to have a teaching style that encourages approaching the text creatively using a variety of analytical and even intuitive techniques. By giving students a choice of tools, they are more likely to find a connection between their personality and the text.

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