[The following is a Q&A with Dr. Shai Secunda of the Talmud Blog. The views represented herein are solely his and do not necessarily reflect those of the other contributors. – AIWAC]
AW: What does the field of “academic Talmud” encompass?
It depends on what you have in mind. I guess one of the broadest definitions, the one I like the most, is that academic Talmud encompasses all of the various disciplinary critical settings in which rabbinic literature is studied. This includes, first and foremost, the scientific tools used to study the actual text such as manuscript work, textual criticism, source criticism and redactional criticism. This also includes literary theoretical tools used to understand Rabbinic story, for instance; legal frameworks to understand the development of talmudic halakha; political and cultural history; history of religions and comparative religion which interfaces with the religion(s) reflected in rabbinic literature and so on and so forth. Still, I do think that the center of academic Talmud are those disciplines interested in reading and understanding the text – which can then be used by historians, literary scholars and others.
One of the interesting things that happens when you hold such a wide view of academic Talmud is that the line between academic and traditional learning diminishes. Some academics and traditional Talmudists don’t like this, but I find the blurring of boundaries interesting and invigorating. I would only emphasize that when an academic studies the Talmud, the only God in the room is the God of understanding the text. As such, the word “critical” (not necessarily in the “negative” sense; rather in the sense of distance between text and reader necessary for achieving a certain rationally based understanding) is crucial. Interestingly, I more or less first learned to be a critic in yeshiva, and the idea remains current in some traditional settings as well – especially in certain heirs to the Slobodka tradition.
AW: A common view of the yeshiva world is that academics are interested in trivial details that contribute little to the study and understanding of Chazal and later authorities. Is this charge accurate? If not, in what ways can historical and sociological research benefit Talmud Torah?
Triviality is in the eye of the beholder. I will admit that for the most part that outside of academic scholars actively engaged in producing commentaries on rabbinic literature, there is an impression that traditionalists are interested in the sugya at hand while academics tend to be interested in methodological questions and other issues that concern the basics – “what is this work,” “how do we study it,” etc.
But these questions further future pursuits. So harping on an apparently minor linguistic phenomenon, for example, might seem unimportant to the text at hand, yet it will contribute to further accurate readings of future texts, which is not trivial at all. On the other hand, if I wanted to criticize some “traditional” modes of learning, such as Brisk (I’ll admit, an easy straw man), I can point out that instead of focusing on the text of the Talmud, the Brisker lamdan is swimming around in his head and focusing on various conceptual possibilities instead of the sugya.
If the goal is towards understanding Hazal as they were and not as some twentieth century rosh yeshiva conceived of them, then academic Talmud is a great way to get there. I hasten to add that I think there is value to understanding that hypothetical twentieth century rosh yeshiva – but it is an endeavor separate from understanding the Talmud.
Although not as difficult as dealing with academic Bible study, many believe that academic study of Talmud, Rishonim and Achronim contains very serious pitfalls to a committed Orthodox Jew.
What are those pitfalls? How may one overcome or deal with those pitfalls? Lastly, in your experience, what is more common among Orthodox students with regards to faith and attitude towards halacha – crises, no change, or an increase in religiosity?
The pitfalls emerge from the distance placed between the critic and his or her text. It is a spiritual risk one takes in any critical endeavor and we all know the stories where roshei yeshiva banged on the shtender during seder and reminded everyone to remember God. However, in my view there is a certain falseness in the dichotomy. Why should yirat shamayim be synonymous with non-rationalistic approaches to holy texts?
In my view there is room for level-headed and persistent pursuit of rational textual truth as a spiritual exercise. And we need to articulate this to students who want to pursue academic Talmud but are held back for spiritual reasons. I think a fundamentalist “God-centered” view of the Torah as unchanging and without a history sometimes creates a crisis in students who suddenly realize that this is simply untenable. The crisis also seems to develop from the false dichotomy described above. But if one is schooled on the notion that Torah, particularly in its oral form, is a divinely blessed human endeavor, and that Talmud Torah is the task of understanding this endeavor, then this all falls away.
I am not equipped to make a sociological statement about how this endeavor affects Orthodox students in general.
AW: Would Rabbis and educators benefit in their teaching and practice from knowledge of academic research regarding halacha?
ShSc: Absolutely! But in its own time.
AW: In your opinion, should research be introduced in Orthodox educational circles? If so, what and when (day school, high school, yeshiva)?
After students develop a certain level of bekiut – which means at the very least late in the high school years if not well into post-high school yeshiva. I am not one of “those” academics who think that academic Talmud will save the rampant disinterest of students in studying Talmud. I think the latter is part of the anti-intellectual environment in which the majority of the US and Israeli Orthodox communities find themselves, where the life of the mind and the attempt to really sweat over gaining one’s own understanding is simply not valued.
However, I do think that the basic ethos that drives academic Talmud – that we are trying to understand what the text means, and the recognition that the pursuit of talmudic pshat is neither easy nor self-evident, will go a long way with our high school students.