Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Drawbacks of Academic Torah Study

My previous post was misunderstood by many people in several different ways. I was not addressing the study of conflicts between Torah and science, or the question of the truth of Judaism. Rather, I was talking about learning anything and everything, from Chumash to Gemara to Rishonim and Acharonim.

Here is a quote from Rav Aaron Lopiansky about the academic study of Jewish thought:

"...One begins to feel that it is a subdiscipline of literary taxonomy rather than a serious attempt at understanding. The writer or speaker holds up Maimonides and Nachmanides with his literary tweezers for all to see and compare. "Note this about Nachmanides and this about Maimonides," he dryly points out. An attempt is then made at some broad academic classification, such as, "Maimonides was a universalist and Nachmanides a parochialist." ...For academicians, it is heresy for the analyst to become identified with the material he is studying. He must retain a cold distances from the subject being probed.

"The problem here concerns not merely the question of whether these statements are true or even proper to make. Rather it lies in the fact that whatever else it may be, it is not Torah, and certainly not the area of Torah it purports to be. Torah, especially Aggadata, enriches and enlivens a person with da'as Elokim; it perforce produces ahavas Hashem....

"The surest indication that the Torah one has studied is indeed the "right" Torah is his reaction to it. If a deep humility sets in, his approach and understanding were on the mark. If, however, his study leaves him smug and conceited, it is not the genuine article. No professor of machshavah ever had tears coursing down his cheeks, overwhelmed by the depth of Shir HaShirim. No lecturer or Jewish philosophy has grown in humility with the years. And no doctoral dissertation ever lit a fire in the neshamah of the reader." (Time Pieces, pp. 16-17)

I certainly disagree with many of his formulations, but I will leave that for future posts. For now, I just want to comment on that which I agree with.

One drawback with academic study from a religious perspective is the type of analysis that is done. The academic approach involves asking questions such as, "What does our knowledge of history tell us about what these words were intended to mean?" and "Is this statement true?" and "What historical/ cultural forces and attitudes may have led this person to this view?" The goal is to understand the source in context. This is very different from the traditionalist approach of viewing the sources as timeless parts of Torah miSinai. For example, when studying Rabbeinu Bachya's Chovot HaLevavot, the traditionalist sees it as a timeless hashkafah manual, whereas one who takes an academic approach realizes that both its objectives and content are heavily influenced by Greco-Muslim culture. This makes it much more difficult to draw inspiration from it. Even merely asking the questions of the academic approach means that one is taking less of a reverential attitude.

A second drawback is the way in which the academic analysis is done. The goal is to critically evaluate, and to do so as objectively as possible. While everybody has their biases and nobody can be fully objective, with the academic approach the goal is to try to do be as objective as possible. The best way that one can attempt to do so is by detaching oneself emotionally. That way, one is open to drawing the correct conclusions, even if they run squarely against one's worldview. But this very act of emotional detachment means that one is making it less of a religious experience. Similarly, one uses all available sources of information that may contribute to reaching the correct historical truth, whether or not they come from a "kosher" source.

This is why I see serious drawbacks in the academic approach from the perspective of religious growth. But, on the other hand, there are advantages to it, which are overlooked in Rav Lopiansky's account. I plan to discuss these in a future post.


  1. For me, integrating a more academic approach to Torah and halacha has been part of my journey for the last few years.

    I believe that this approach, within certain bounds, can enhance the religious experience/devekut. It can do so when one develops, literally, a thirst for truth, so that achieving truth is a real "high" in the religious sense. "Chothamo shel haQadosh baruch hu emeth". When truth and seeking truth become the paramount goal, the academic approach can be properly integrated, because one who seeks truth sincerely will accept it from any source, and plugging into/achieving/finding Truth can be a great, profound religious experience.

  2. >"Note this about Nachmanides and this about Maimonides," he dryly points out.

    Menachem Kellner is dry? Isadore Twersky was dry?

  3. (Re: Chovos Halvovos)

    Rabbi Slifkin, every time I read R.S.R. Hirsch, I am well aware that he was influenced by modernity but it doesn't bother me. I still find his writings very inspiring. I try to evaluate his thought (whether I should accept and incorporate it into my daily life) based on whether his statements ring true or not. I don't care where he got his ideas from as long as they're true.

    I don't see why this has to be religiously uninspiring. We all know that Rambam was heavily influenced by Greek rational thought. But who cares? If he's right and inspiring about certain things, then he's right and inspiring, regardless of the sources.

    Besides for Tanach, I assume that a) every Jewish thinker was definitely influenced by his own personality and inclinations and b) many Jewish thinkers were influenced by society. I still find much meaning in these thinkers' writings.

    Take the good, leave the bad, and ignore, for the most part, the sources (unless one has a specific reason for looking into them).

  4. A physicist by training, and profession for some time, I often feel existentially uncomfortable when reading works of philosophers of science. I remember discussions with philosophers about physics methodology, that left me bewildered. The overwhelming feeling is that "these people" have no idea what physics is, could never create a stickl physics, in short, just do not get it. It is not that the philophers are wrong. They are usually right, complete correct, formally. But they do not get it. See, we work with integrals that do not converge, and we do not care that much. We feel free to compute with formulas that do not correspond to sound mathematical concepts, and we do not care. We logically derive using rules of logic that we cannot explicate, and we do not care. At this stage. Because we are on our way to the truth, and we "know" in which direction to go. The methodology will fall in place after the truth is revealed, not before. Mutatis Mutandis, HaMevin Yavin.

  5. I think reverence is important however one really shouldn't sacrifice the truth for the sake of reverence. It is rather silly not to distinguish within the Rambam the Aristotelian elements from the overlying message. One has to know an author's background if he wants to extract any sort of truth from his writing. If one doesn't realize what the Rambam (or anyone else) was influenced by one will end up missing the overall point and get hung up on Medieval biology and astronomy.

  6. I must commend the commenters here for providing interesting insights!

    This blog continues to get better and better!

  7. It would be nice to see the whole piece, because truth didn't make it into this excerpt. Did he at least make the argument that the non-academic manner is better capable of arriving at the truth, or authorial intent or however one would like to formulate it?

    I think one of the things which tries the patience of academic minded folks with the other approach, presumably less dry, is its apparent lack of system. For example, modern linguistics and philology is out. Yet in explaining why celery is good for karpas the sefer Taamei Minhagim notes that "karfas" (ك ر ف س) means "tzeler" in Arabic. Of what possible relevance is its Arabic cognate? Or to put it another way, why is it relevant here and not relevant in other contexts? There seems to be no rhyme or reason for when comparative Semitic philology can arrive at a convincing and truthful understanding of texts and when it can't.

    This is just the other side of the coin, rather than a comprehensive critique.

  8. I think it is quite possible to arrive at an emotionally moving conclusion using "academic" methodologies.

    For example, I've read The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose. This is an pretty difficult (for a non-physicist, anyway) book about modern physics and how they apply to theories of artificial intelligence. A very technical academic text, even if you don't try to make sense of the mathematics.

    Nevertheless, after reading this book, I came away with an incredibly profound sense of awe about the nature of how the world seems to work. I'm sure I didn't understand even half of what Dr. Penrose presented, but I doubt very many people who feel awe after reading a section of Tanach fully understand what they've read either.

    I think it's important to distinguish between "academic" and "uninspiring". Academic work can be inspiring and religious work can be unmoving. It all depends on the ability of the teacher.

  9. I am desperately trying to find a respectful way to deal with R' Lopiansky's statements. While it is true that academic study does not inherently require emotional involvement of a subject, the idea that it must not is completely ludicrous. My English Literature professor could coldly analyze Shakespearean lines to make a dry point about English court politics, but he could also wax rhapsodic about the beauty of the sonnets. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman's physics lectures are legendary not just for their scientific rigor, but for his poetic outbursts at the beauty of the world he described:

    "Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"

    Academic analysis can often enhance yir'at shamayim. When Morah Nechama Leibowitz ZT'L described Rashi's exigetical methodology, she opened a world of awe and wonder at his knowledge, love, and dedication for Torah teaching that (to me, at least) dwarfs any simple "Rashi had ruach hakodesh"-type statement.

    I can think of at least two doctoral dissertations that have lit a fire in my neshama, thank you very much (the biographies of Rabbis Dov Revel and Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg), and if you think that professors can't be overwhelmed by Shir Hashirim, then you have never heard Dr. Hayim Tawil, who will shift seamlessly from explaining what Akkadian root a difficult word comes from to reciting a particularly beautiful passage repeatedly in enchantment.

    This is not a matter of "disagreeing with formulation." Rav Lopiansky utters a complete falsehood and slander. He may not personally feel inspired by such an approach, but to universalize his subjective distaste is repugnant.

  10. I think that the study of Torah where the student is pressured to either "believe" implausible ideas as if they were "truth" ultimately has a negative effect on all of us. The believer may be devout. But, exactly what are they devout about?

    In Aleinu we say we are not devotees of hevel v'riq. So, it seems that from this point of view, we should sharpen our sense of reality and become observant within that context.

    On the other hand, the academic approach...though very helpful in reframing our cultural heritage into something more somewhat like the Rasha in the 4 Questions. It's like "Here's what it is 'to you but not to me'.

    Personally, I think there's a place for both. Those that live only in their heads keep the past alive and so the reservoir of our cultural heritage remains full. The academics bring a refinement that allows us to bring Torah into our lives in the real world.

    Gary Goldwater

  11. "If, however, his study leaves him smug and conceited, it is not the genuine article. No professor of machshavah ever had tears coursing down his cheeks..."

    Can one get more "smug" than this statement? Honestly!

    The irony is killing me!

  12. It definitely seems that a profoundly unhistorical assumption underlies all of Jewish literature(if you are going to believe most of the classical sources); and that is that there is an independent, fundamental inspiration to Jewish literature that is entirely internal. It seems IMHO that this would apply at least to the Mishnayos and in all likelihood to Shas.

    What do you think?
    And how do you deal with this if you want to consider yourself faithful to the texts own assumptions?

  13. What is the point of the whole discussion over here? If one want to fulfill Talmud Torah, and that is why he is involved in learning, then, probably, the best thing to is to learn like there is a Mesorah(and within that, the many, varied different approaches). I have never read a Rashba that disagrees with the Geonim because they mistook a word because of the pagan/neo-Zoroastrianism they were exposed to. If not, and you want to learn Torah to become an academic, then obviously don't go and embarrass yourself and everyone else around you with something that is seen as ludicrously sentimental.

    Personally, I find Actuarial theory much more interesting than Torah in an exclusively academic context. I don't have any existential, intellectual angst about if I should learn this way, or that. I am trying to do what I think I'm mechuyav to do. What academic standard are you trying to conform to that is prompting this whole discussion?

  14. Sid Dagore

    Two points

    1: Just because the Gemara or the Rashba didn't believe or use historical textual analysis does not mean that we shouldn't. Modern textual analysis is a rather recent "discovery" and of course classic sources didn't use it just like they didn't use a Copernican model of the solar system!

    2: "there is an independent, fundamental inspiration to Jewish literature that is entirely internal."

    Yes! In any Jewish source there is a core of pure Jewish values and ideas but it is expecting quite a lot from the humans who wrote the mishnayos and shas to be entirely unaffected by their surroundings. One may never be able to reach the "core" without peeling off some of the influences.

  15. Shilton Hasechel :

    1) I am not sure if you are addressing my point. I was suggesting that modern textual analysis is not necessary for someone to fulfill the hiyuv of talmud torah. If you are saying that it is necessary, I would like to know where it says it in Shulchan Aruch :P

    2) The text itself doesn't acknowledge any external influences, and in many places says very extreme things about them. I therefore want to know how you can be true to the text, and still study it with modern assumptions.

  16. "For example, when studying Rabbeinu Bachya's Chovot HaLevavot, the traditionalist sees it as a timeless hashkafah manual, whereas one who takes an academic approach realizes that both its objectives and content are heavily influenced by Greco-Muslim culture. This makes it much more difficult to draw inspiration from it. Even merely asking the questions of the academic approach means that one is taking less of a reverential attitude."

    I think personally that if you dont realize that r sadya is within the context of greco muslim culture you are missing a main piece that is crtical to understanding - that is from a traditionalist perspective you are missing a big piece. surely many charedim do understand this. i dont think you intend this, but i read your presentation as "be traditionalist and be an idiot or adopt the academic approach" One has to hope these are not the only choices and that one can be a traditionalist without being completely and totally blinkered to the point of missing out such major influences on jewish thought and thinkers. my comment here is the same critique you've heard about the usual breakdown one sees and you write about between "mo/rationalist" vs "haredi nonrationalist" i believe there is more overlap than generallly acknowledged at least n the US. I dislike this dichotimizing because it contributes to the polarization. - of course there are differences between traditionalists and academics but surely not SUch stark ones
    kol tuv

  17. Sid Dagore:

    1. I assume the ideal form of talmud torah is to know the truth. You can maybe be yotzeh the minimum chiyuv without textual analysis but on the other hand you can be yotzeh the minimum chiyuv of talmud torah without learning rashi or tosafot also.
    Not being cognizant of a writer's influences is not knowing the full truth about what they are trying to say and what their message is.

    2. "The text itself doesn't acknowledge any external influences, and in many places says very extreme things about them."

    Which text? The Rambam sure acknowledges that he is quoting Aristotle. Open any page in a Moreh Nevuchim. However even if a text fails to mention its sources that could be because it is referring to things which in its day were considered obvious or common sense. However nowadays we need to know a bit of history to understand why a text considers somethings obvious or common sense because we sure don't consider Aristotle or medieval medicine obvious nowadays.

  18. And this is why Rabbi Lopionslky can write a commentary on the Forged Maharal Hagada without caring about what the kalte academics have to say. Great for him. Bad for truth.

  19. I just noticed this last comment.Rabbi Lopiansky did not publish a commentary on the "fake" Mahara"l Haggadah. If anything, he published the real Mahara"l Haggadah (or rather, the Gevuros Hashem) and included an article from a "kalter" scholar proving the other haggadah as being false.

  20. In addition, their expert understanding of the structure of academic papers results in superb writing. Academic writers are research oriented and analytic in their approach.


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