Orthodoxy and Academic Talmud: Q&A with Shai Secunda

[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.


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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12 Responses to Orthodoxy and Academic Talmud: Q&A with Shai Secunda

  1. Pingback: An Interview with an Academic Talmudist « Menachem Mendel

  2. fred says:

    thank you for posting this. i found it very interesting.
    so on the one hand, ss sees the orthodox world as being anti intellectual [his last answer], and you bemoan how orthodoxy [or at least mo…] is too intellectual. how to explain this?

    • Ahava Leibtag says:

      I think what he’s saying is that in certain circles there is too much of an emphasis on understanding things from an intellectual point of view, without understanding that maybe our goal is to understand what Chazal meant at the time. There’s also a lack of understanding that Gd is really the goal, no? This is problematic for so many reasons because if we’re going to be honest, we have to admit that the math problem doesn’t add up: If there’s a Hebrew Gd who did all these things, why is the historical evidence so spotty? Why is the text itself so filled with holes? Why is it clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls that there were a lot of different versions of the later prophets? Hmmmm….

      The anti-intellectual movement he mentions is the people who dislike the above because it removes Gd from the equation. They are looking for the “ruchniat” that Judaism provides. When it says “Love your Gd with everything you have.”, they want to LOVE Gd, even though the word “V’Ahavata” might actually mean Devote yourself. Putting words in the contextual environment of the day is too scary for them (the idea of V’Ahavta as devotion comes from ancient Ugaritic), as it brings up all the other questions that Dr. Secunda referenced. Most people want to believe that people stood around a mountain and Gd handed them the parchment scroll they see in shul every Shabbat. The idea that the scroll has been “developed” over time is scary, especially when you’re not touching your spouse for 2 weeks every month, bankrupting yourself for tuition and enslaving yet another generation to a possibly meaningless religion. It’s too scary to contemplate that this doesn’t really mean anything at all, and so critical examination is rejected because the questions come way faster than the answers.

      • I do accept the idea that the text developed over time. Yet it doesn’t bother me in the least and I even manage to put G-d in the equation.

        A great deal depends on how one understands G-d, revelation, and community. The way I see it is that history and human experience has the potential to be an on-going dialog between G-d and G-d’s creation. Tradition represents the accumulated wisdom from generations after generations of that dialog. In my religious imagination we are perpetually at the feet of Sinai, both drawing near and holding back.

        I don’t need tradition to be perfect for it to be morally, ritually, and spiritually compelling. I don’t need there to be one reading of text, nor one praxis for all. I don’t even need one single reading in my own head. In fact I rather think it is to the text’s and tradition’s credit that I can read the text in so many different ways and still find something meaningful. Development merely means we are listening to each other, our experiences, and G-d.

        I only need tradition to be a good faith attempt of a community to hear and respond to G-d in history. Nothing human is perfect. With or without text or tradition, every moment of every day we stake our life and future on imperfect analysis of imperfect perceptions. The passion and commitment which guides our lives ultimately has to come from something other than certainty or perfection.

      • AIWAC says:


        That’s a beautiful and eloquent response.

        Yeshar Koach :).

  3. AIWAC says:


    I disagree with Secunda entirely. However, I didn’t think it fair to intercede my objections in the interview itself.

  4. AIWAC says:


    I have to say that I’m taken aback by your very cynical and triumphalist statement. It’s pretty out of line with the generally civil and respectful tone I’ve tried to maintain on this blog. Even commenters who disagreed with me in the past didn’t write like this. I’m halfway tempted to ignore this screed.

    Still, פטור בלא כלום אי אפשר…

    “If there’s a Hebrew Gd who did all these things, why is the historical evidence so spotty?”

    The ancient historical record has exponentially more holes than filled in parts. Stick a pin at any date and you’ll find MAYBE a few bits and pieces. I also studied ancient history at university. Try again.

    “Why is it clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls that there were a lot of different versions of the later prophets?”

    Because there were different traditions handed down on them? And Chazal chose the ones that seemed not only the most authentic but also the most spiritually relevant (נבואה לשעה, נבואה לדורות)?

    ‘the idea of V’Ahavta as devotion comes from ancient Ugaritic’

    דברה התורה כלשון בני אדם. If you expect this to shock me, you’ve got another thing coming.

    “The idea that the scroll has been “developed” over time is scary”

    No, that’s NOT the problem, but why would you care what is?

    “especially when you’re not touching your spouse for 2 weeks every month”

    Other religions and sects can be even more stringent. Some eschew women altogether.

    “bankrupting yourself for tuition”

    Nu, I can think of worse things to waste money on. Like a college education in the humanities. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt for nothing, to say nothing of the wasted years of work productivity.

    “and enslaving yet another generation to a possibly meaningless religion”

    Whoa, there. Even people who accept the most minimalist of scholarly arguments don’t claim that the religion is “meaningless”. Judaism is full of meaning even if you don’t accept the Orthodox historical narrative – cf. Eliezer Schweid and Isaiah Leibowitz, to name just two thinkers. You could also try Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.

    As for “enslaving”, we make for pretty poor slave masters; we even let escaped slaves come home to the Shabbat table even though they’ve taken off their kippa.

    “It’s too scary to contemplate that this doesn’t really mean anything at all”

    Ahava, you have demonstrated nothing of the sort. Even if I accepted your belief that ‘the scroll’ developed over time’ doesn’t make it “meaningless”.

    ‘and so critical examination is rejected because the questions come way faster than the answers.’

    …and this is a problem because? I deal with questions all the time, not just in matters of religion but in all matters of life.

  5. Pingback: The Darker Side of Academic Jewish Studies for Orthodox Jews | QED

  6. Shlomo says:

    “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.”

    This formulation is probably true but I feel misleading. I think most of us would concede that there is little value, in the grand scheme of things, to understanding how 20th century rosh yeshivas read the Talmud when that understanding does not match Hazal’s. But presumably there is much more value, to an Orthodox Jew, to understanding how rishonim and of course savoraim read Chazal. We all aspire to search for what is true, but sometimes it is more pressing to learn what is practical.

  7. Pingback: Response to Dr. Shai Secunda, Part I: On Those “Anti-Intellectuals” | QED

  8. Pingback: Response to Dr. Shai Secunda, Part II: Who Is the ‘God of the Text’? | QED

  9. Tuvia says:

    I think the problem remains. I know several folks (including my cousins) who did t’chuvah and now are certain that the revelation at Sinai was real history, that Moses wrote the whole Torah and it is word for word a divine text.

    My cousins (mikareved through Aish HaTorah – I spent time there too) believe evolution is a fairy tale, the universe is almost six thousand years old, Adam and Eve and the story in Eden is true.

    The list goes on, the theological-ideas-as-indisputable-facts goes on.

    That whole world view is crushed if the masorah is essentially terribly flawed and Torah came to be the Torah over centuries. My cousins work way too hard at living a Torah life to accept that – y’know – it is all a good faith effort, and we are all really at Sinai still, etc.

    Beth is essentially correct in my book – but certainly not according to the Orthodox.

    If that is how the Orthodox rabbis talked about Judaism – many more of us would be breaking bread with them on a regular basis.

    Whatever Beth’s relationship to Yiddishkeit – it falls outside the boundaries of any Charedi hashgafah I have ever experienced.


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