Thursday, June 17, 2010

Anti-Rationalism and the Kollel System

In the previous post, I discussed the approach to financed Torah study in the times of the Rishonim. In Ashkenaz, financing Torah study was unheard of; virtually all Torah scholars were self-supporting, and the only thing that was permitted was financing Torah teaching. In Sefard, while there was a system of financial support for Torah scholarship, this was partly because there was very little of it to support. Furthermore, many of the Rishonim in these lands limited this license to Torah scholars who were serving in a professional capacity for the benefit of the community. In addition, even to the extent that financial support was permitted, it was constantly stressed that the ideal is to be self-sufficient, even at the cost of learning less.

Given that history, how is it that today there are so many halachic authorities in the Charedi world who say that it is perfectly legitimate to finance mass kollel, and that there is no reason for people to strive to be self-supportive? It is true that Judaism does change, but this is a complete inversion not just of halachah, but also of values!

The answer usually given is that this reflects yeridas ha-doros. We live in emergency times that require emergency measures - Eis La'asos l'Hashem, Heferu Torosecha. We live in such a spiritually impoverished generation that it is essential to boost Torah study via financial means. And the Rishonim could become the Rishonim even while working to support themselves, but today people cannot.

The problem is that this perspective is inherently rooted in an anti-rationalist approach that is ignorant of history. It may well be true that mid-twentieth century America was a spiritual emergency zone. But it cannot remotely be said that the situation today, in the 21st century, is an emergency situation compared to the time of the Rishonim. There is vastly more Torah being studied than ever before. People have idyllic, romanticized views of the past, which have no basis in fact. The state of Torah study in much of Sephard was exceedingly weak.

Furthermore, the idea that we today cannot match the Rishonim of Ashkenaz who were financially self-sufficient, because we would never become as great as them, is based on a non-rationalist view as to who these Rishonim were. From a rationalist perspective, there is no reason to believe that they were actually more intelligent or more spiritually dedicated than the best people of our era. The reason why society today does not produce anyone revered as a Rashi, a Rosh, or a Rambam, has nothing to do with any inherent deficiency in people today. Rather, it is due to three factors:

One is that it was much easier to become proficient in the whole Torah when the whole Torah wasn't very big. People today spend a good chunk of their learning schedule studying material that simply didn't exist 800 years ago. And if someone were to only learn what the Rishonim learned, they probably wouldn't be respected today.

Second is that it is assumed today that the Rishonim were much more brilliant than they actually were. Of course Rambam was a genius, and his Mishneh Torah is a work of genius that has much more to it than meets the eye. But it doesn't contain the genius of Rav Chaim Brisker's chiddushim!

Third is that it is the historical context, in combination with the previous two factors, that makes the Rishonim appear unmatchable. If Rabbi Ploni today were to write a work of Torah scholarship that is equivalent to the works of the Rishonim, it would simply go unnoticed. But send it back in a time machine to 800 years ago, and now you'd see that it has endless commentaries and Rabbi Ploni is hailed as Rabbeinu Ploni, one of the Rishonim who made an amazing and vital contribution to Jewish scholarship.

For all these reasons (and others), we see that is the contemporary anti-rationalist outlook which leads to the rulings and values of the Rishonim being completely undermined.

45 comments:

  1. Just wanted to point out that while we are not in a spiritual zone emergency insofar as quantity of Torah learning is concerned, perhaps we are in terms of quality (Torah learning today rarely is willing to accept truth from wherever it comes.)

    Also, I would point out that assimilation is rampant and tragic among the Jewish nation at large and thus we do live in a general spiritual emergency zone which has induced some such as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim or Rabbi Nathan Cardozo to propose solutions.

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  2. Neither the lack of people being open to accept the truth from wherever it comes, nor assimilation, are helped by the kollel system.

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  3. The 2 problems:
    1) The "emergency takana" of creating a mass learning movement is itself a contradiction seeing as it was created by a community that bans innovation. However, having banned innovation, they are now stuck with this one.
    2) For 60 years the concept of the "Godol" has changed from an extremely smart, learned and pious Rav to a special person who has a private connection to the mind called Daas Torah that allows him to make infallble decisions. These Godolim have spent 60 years promoting the "learn, don't earn" system. How can they now change their mind if they were infallible when they innovated it?

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  4. Excellent post. It so very sad but true.

    I say, to paraphrase your psalmist quote, Eis La'asos l'Hashem, Heferu Man-higainu.

    In many parts of Yiddishkeit, positive change will only come from the bottom, up. I truly pray to Hashem that this comes sooner than later.

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  5. Rabbi Slifkin,
    You write: "Rambam's Mishneh Torah is a work of genius... but it doesn't contain the genius of Rav Chaim Brisker's chiddushim!"
    Do you mean that the diyyukim Rav Chaim made in the Rambam weren't really there? That he was reading into the Rambam things the latter never intended?
    What are the ramifications of this form of intellectual imposition / creative interpretation? Especially given that this is done by the Achronim onto the Rishonim... the Rishonim onto the Gemara... until we have what is known today as... a SHIUR!
    ??

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  6. "And if someone were to only learn what the Rishonim learned, they probably wouldn't be respected today."

    I'm afraid I disagree with that particular point.

    Let's say you locked up brilliant Torah scholar today with nothing but Tanach, midrash, an unannotated shas, the writings of the geonim, and perhaps many other writings that were available in the 12th century but have since been lost time, seforim burnings, etc.

    If this man then proceeded to master shas, analyze it, raise and resolve the enumerable questions that would arise (as the rishonim did), he would unquestionably be recognized as a formidable great talmid chacham, albeit one with a perplexing ignorance of anything written after the 14th century

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  7. Quoting TVT:

    Let's say you locked up brilliant Torah scholar today with nothing but Tanach, midrash, an unannotated shas, the writings of the geonim, and perhaps many other writings that were available in the 12th century but have since been lost time, seforim burnings, etc.

    Don't forget that the Rishonim didn't work in a vacuum like that. They quote their rabbeim regularly, sometimes to disagree; and the baalei ha-Tosafos worked in powerful collaboration, according to what I've read.

    On that note, R' Slifkin, your post doesn't seem to take mesorah into account. Do you see the Rishonim as having an advantage of proximity in time and transmission to the Amoraim?

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  8. That's not relevant to this topic.

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  9. My points regarding the quality of Torah learning and the level of general assimilation among Jews were not intended to justify the current kollel system.

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  10. I know this comment is unrelated to the post, but what happened to the poll that you had going on your website? The last of it was something like 45% for, 38% against, and 16% mixed. I wanted to vote "for" but now I can't! Could you restore it? Thanks.

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  11. "Of course Rambam was a genius, and his Mishneh Torah is a work of genius that has much more to it than meets the eye. But it doesn't contain the genius of Rav Chaim Brisker's chiddushim!"

    Do you think that Rav Chaim Brisker himself would agree with the statement above?

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  12. what happened to the poll that you had going on your website?

    that's weird, I have no idea where it went!

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  13. Do you think that Rav Chaim Brisker himself would agree with the statement above?

    That's a very interesting question. I think he wouldn't; according to Marc Shapiro, there is a story that Rav Chaim did not like Rambam's responses to the Chachmei Luneil because they undermined his approach to Rambam.

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  14. I think many people in Kollel think that they alone are human and everyone else is created to serve them. I was in the Mir Kollel. Then I spent seven years in meor chayim in safed. Then I returned to California at that point my wife wanted a divorse since I was not working and not part of any kollel. She said if the Lakewood kollel would accept me she would not ask for a divorce. I went to the head of the lakewood kollel. She did not even believe at that point that it was a mitzvah to sit and learn because she was under the influence of chabad rabbis in LA. I said to the head of Lakewood I just need you to tell her that learning Torah lishma is a mitzvah. He said, "That does not refer to you".
    I asked "why not? It is what you are doing."
    He said' "That is different. We are astronauts"
    My conclusion is however that kollel is a mitvah (even though there are bad apples like lakewood) since that is the only place I see morality in the frum world. I think on the other hand that the position of rabbi should be annulled since I see most of them are immoral and in general evil corrupt leaders.
    Also I want to mention that I think the rishonim up until the time of the rambam were in fact geniuses. Only later is a real drop in critical thinking is noticeable

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  15. I think you will find in some recent writings of R' J Rosenblum the start of a campaign to gently undo the horaat shaah of anyone learning for as long as they want -imho the problem is an entire generation of "mid-careerists" who will get caught in the shift.

    Your Rambam/R' Chaim point is interesting and worhty of a separate discussion -was all R' Chaim was doing was unpacking the Rambam of his original intent or making the Rambam's unconcious mind conscious or finding things the Rambam didn't intend?

    Perhaps the point on brilliance is that there are so many more constraints (previous generations of Rabbi's opinions) that are given deference, that there's much less room to show brilliance.

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  16. Here's my question: How and when is the principle of "Eis Laasos" used and how powerful is it exactly? If it can go against Halacha in some cases than why not in all cases (the one that immediately comes to mind is Womens' role in Judaism.) I was taught that this principle was used to justify the Bais Yaakov movement, so why can it not be used one step further?

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  17. >>"One is that it was much easier to become proficient in the whole Torah when the whole Torah wasn't very big. People today spend a good chunk of their learning schedule studying material that simply didn't exist 800 years ago."

    This is demonstrably false.

    Tosfos, Ramban, Rashba, Ritvah etc. consistently quote Rashi either in agreement or in argument of his interpretation of the Talmud.
    Conclusion: All rishonim subsequent to Rashi learned Rashi, and felt that learning Rashi was part of the process of learning what the Talmud means.

    The same can be said of the Ba'alei Tosfos, Rambam and Ra'avad who are consistently cited by Ramban, Rashba and Ritvah in most major sugyos is Shas.

    So apparently the rishonim themselves considered earlier rishonim's work indispensable for the correct understanding of Shas.

    Let me ask you:
    Would you say the same about Tanoim and Amoraim? Would you assert:
    "It was much easier to become an Amorah because all they had to learn was the mishna, braisos, and halachic midrashim."

    If the answer is no, ask yourself why, and apply the answer to every subsequent generation of talmudic scholarship. Then you will understand the fallacy of your reasoning.

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  18. This is demonstrably false.
    ... So apparently the rishonim themselves considered earlier rishonim's work indispensable for the correct understanding of Shas.


    What does that have to do with what I said? Of course everyone always seeks to study whatever they can find. But as you go back in time, there is progressively less to find!

    Would you assert:
    "It was much easier to become an Amorah because all they had to learn was the mishna, braisos, and halachic midrashim."


    It was probably somewhat easier, but I don't know how much less texts there were.

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  19. Hey Rabbi - what's going on with "Blogger"? Lately there have appeared responses that you wrote to questions, but the original questions did not appear! You should check it out.

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  20. >>"What does that have to do with what I said? Of course everyone always seeks to study whatever they can find."

    You don't understand that the Talmud is not a legal text like the Mishna Torah where all you have to do to master it is achieve thorough comprehension of the language and concepts and simply commit them to memory.

    The Talmud contains numerous inherently ambiguous or contradictory passages which require considerable interpretation or reconciliation--often complex ones-- before one can claim to truly understand it.
    In a nutshell, all the work of the rishonim were basically just to provide those necessary interpretations or reconciliations.

    SO if the rishonim didn't do it for us, we would have to do it for the Talmud all ourselves.
    THIS TAKES A LIFETIME no matter where in history you are standing.

    If anything, the rishonim saved us enormous amounts of time by charting out the most logical and "Talmudicly consistent" ones which eliminated an infinity of the non-starters by implication.ve

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  21. Rabbi Slifkin,
    I really would like to understand why you posted the comment by no one.
    His comment is very sad, and i feel bad for him, but I do not understand what it adds to the discussion.

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  22. Hey Rabbi - what's going on with "Blogger"?

    I don't know. It's very weird.

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  23. My comment is not necessary in relation to this post specifically (although it does apply), but is really meant towards your blog in general. I am so impressed and inspired by you, Rabbi Slifkin, that you stand up to the world and state what you believe to be the truth. I can't imagine how much it hurts to put yourself out there and be shot down for what you know to be right. Kol hakavod to your search for absolute truth in a world full of false absolutes. One day the world will hear, even that day isn't today...

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  24. Issac, there is some truth to what you are saying, but there is still an enormous amount of material that came later. Plus, while the Rishonim save us time in some ways, that is probably far outweighed by the amount of time people spend figuring out the views of different Rishonim.

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  25. >>"One is that it was much easier to become proficient in the whole Torah when the whole Torah wasn't very big. People today spend a good chunk of their learning schedule studying material that simply didn't exist 800 years ago."

    Not so simple.

    The amount of Girso'oth (reading variants) were staggering.
    Plus: The Seforim were not easily available.
    To make a commentary that is both insightful and consistent with the rest of Shass was quite an effort!

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  26. The Seforim were not easily available.

    All the more reason why there was less to learn!

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  27. The is a fantastic article from Ta-Shma on the libraries of the rishonim, in "Creativity and Tradition." It is not only that they didn't have all the achronim to learn - they had only fragments of other rishonim and the geonim, and there was a lot of geographic variability as well, as to what rishonim in France, Germany Spain and Italy had available.

    And, there is the Rid's citation of the famous "dwarves ont he shoulder's of gients" dictum - even while respecting the authority and brilliance of those who have come before us, we are now able to see further as we get to start from a much higher place. Sid Leiman wrote a piece on this in Tradition a long time ago, and others have written on it as well. It appears the Rid co-opted the concept from contemporary Christian thinkers/writers, who were struggling with the same philosophical problems around authority, tradition, and the possibility of disagreeing with earlier authorities.

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  28. I want to say bravo, well said and "ditto" to Shira's post above.

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  29. Rabbi Slifkin – you wrote:

    The answer usually given is that this reflects yeridas ha-doros….The problem is that this perspective is inherently rooted in an anti-rationalist approach that is ignorant of history.

    It is not just an approach that is ignorant of history, but the entire approach of those who believe in yeridas hadoros is coming from a whole different view of Torah. I believe you referred to it at some point in one of your lectures as a different “epistemology”. Those whose epistemology includes yeridas hadoros believe that the Rishonim by virtue of where they fall on the historical timeline were holier, being that they were closer to Matan Torah. They believe that the further we are from Matan Torah, the “weaker” our spiritual capabilities. Being that “spiritual capabilities” is something that cannot be observed or measured objectively, it can’t really be disputed unless you are going to dispute the entire approach.

    The whole belief in “Daas Torah” and that a Rov has a magical connection to G-d’s mind and their every opinion on all matters must be followed, is also part of the epistemology.

    Believing that Rashi, Rambam and other Rishonim were “holier” based on when in history they lived is something that can not be argued being that it is based upon a belief system.

    Together with this belief, is the belief that because we are that much less holy, our Torah learning is that much less holy, and therefore Klal Yisrael requires a greater quantity of Torah learning. We also need a greater quantity of Torah learning to be able to sustain the world because of the idea that the world is only sustained BECAUSE there is Torah learning. If there would be no Torah learning at any moment in time, the world would cease to exist. For those who sincerely believe this, there is a spiritual emergency situation at all times around the world in regard to Jews learning Torah.

    It is a very basic part of their belief system, and it is Anti-Rationalist-Judaism. (And Anti-Slifkin for those of you who haven’t heard or read about the cherem on his books ;)

    It seems to me that the root of the whole issue is a claim of a spiritual measurement which can not be observed and for which we have no objective measuring tools.

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  30. In a recent R' Reisman navi shiur he mentions in passing that at some point we moved from the "psak" being like the earlier generation to halacha kbatrai - any thoughts on how this squares with yridat hadorot(or when/why the change)?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  31. See Yisrael Ta-Shma, "The Law in Accordance with the Later Authority Hilkheta KeVatraei - Historical Observations on a Legal Rule." It's printed in the new compilation "Creativity and Tradition."

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  32. Rabbi Slifkin -

    Do you have an answer to Zehava's question - "How and when is the principle of 'Eis Laasos' used"?

    Are there any parameters, rules, limits to it's use?

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  33. Arguably, the least impressive Torah authority was Moshe, who learned the least amount of material and from an unambiguous Source.

    The Gemara makes reference to the phenomenon of later, more brilliant students, in the story of Moshe not being able to understand R. Akiva's chidushim, yet being told that they were all derived from Moshe.

    Also, the Gemara makes use of the expression, "if the earlier generations were human beings, then we are donkeys, etc"--although, as I recall vaguely, later generations mastered material that the earlier generations did not.

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  34. Do you have an answer to Zehava's question - "How and when is the principle of 'Eis Laasos' used"?

    Are there any parameters, rules, limits to it's use?

    ----------------------------
    IIRC it's supposed to be a one time suspension, not permanent in nature, required by an extreme emergency situation. Problem is that this does not seem to be supported by the (perhaps not completely coinsistent) usage of the term (e.g. writing down of oral law, greeting others with the name of HKB"H, women's going to school) - unless you assume the leaders of each generation renew it - but then in practice isn't it permanent?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  35. Also, the Gemara makes use of the expression, "if the earlier generations were human beings, then we are donkeys, etc"--although, as I recall vaguely, later generations mastered material that the earlier generations did not.
    ================
    See my R' Reisman comment above.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  36. The arguement of it's not rational to say that we should have Kollels because we need extra Chizuk will not work with the Chareidim because they are not rationalists. This idea may be true, but it's like trying to claim that Eretz Yisrael is the Jews' Biblically; you cannot tell the world this because half of the world is not of Abrahamic faiths and the rest of the world says the Tanach is "old". It's true that it's ours, but you can't tel the world this.

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  37. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I'm wondering what you think about what is going on in Israel right now regarding the closing of yeshivos in order to demonstrate, the demonstrations of over 110,000, the imprisonment of the parents of Imanuel, the dispute about the schools, the claims of it not being racism, their "fight" for the right to educate their kids according to their beliefs, etc.

    I realize these are "loaded" topics, but would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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  38. I don't know enough about the situation to have a meaningful opinion.

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  39. "One is that it was much easier to become proficient in the whole Torah when the whole Torah wasn't very big. People today spend a good chunk of their learning schedule studying material that simply didn't exist 800 years ago"
    It would seem based on this statement that one who is able to "master" the entire corpus of Torah today (seemingly the accumulation of all the material) would necessarily be on a higher level than a rishon. Even someone who would intimately know half of what is out there today would be on a higher level. Is one to assume that knowing a greater quantity of information by definition produces a chacham?

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  40. Regarding whether R' Chaim's explanations are pshat in the Rambam see this post of mine Are R' Chaim Soloveitchik's analyses of the Rambam historically true?

    The שרידי אש in both a teshuva and a published letter says no.

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  41. Bluke - the Gra"ch, the Gri"z, and the Gri"d, in their shiurim, all said yes. So I guess we have a machlokes between them and the Sridei Aish.

    Also, it would be helpful in supporting your claim, if you could give one example of a Rav Chaim and a Rambam t'shuva that both speak to the same issue in different ways. Without a source, the claim remains just an opinion.

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  42. When the current system was started, the Torah world was clearly in a post-holocaust emergency. The fact that that is not the case now is the crux of the problem, but the explanation of the system historically is still clear.

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  43. Dear Rabbi Slifkin, I want to ask you a general question, because I am a bit confused. I have read some of your books and blog posts and I agree with many of the things that you say, because you usually make alot of sense. Originally my opinion was very similiar to yours, by that I mean is that I would analyze a situation and with my own intellect and rational determine if what the gedolim say makes sense. So, many times I would conclude that they are holding exactly the opposite of what seems to make sense and they are misinterpreting what the Rambam, or anyone else is clearly holding, and it was truly mind boggling that they can totally miss the boat? However when I look at the Teshuvas and the differant seforim that they wrote and see how much they learn day and night for numerous years, I logically concluded that maybe I am missing the boat. For example the whole thing about the Kollel institution I was very against it and it seemed clear from the Rambam that it is the biggest bracha do be independant and it is a curse to be dependant on other people... But how can it be that such huge Torah giants can err in a simple Rambam and how is it they I know what is right and can think that they are wrong if they have learned for tens of thousands of hours more than me, it just seems like it is not even right for me to begin opposing them until I at least go through all of Shas, Mishneh Torah, Tanach, Shulchan Aruch... because not only did some of these gedolim go through all of that and more but they know it backwards and forwards! P.S.btw you should know that I am still young, I didnt even start bais medrash yet, and I really anticipate your response, I am sure that you addressed this before but I just have never seen it. Thanks for your time I really appreciate it.

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  44. I'm sure that you disagree with Barack Obama about various political issues, even though he has studied them for hundreds more hours than you. And I'm sure that you disagree with Meshichists about the nature of the Rebbe, even though they have studied him for hundreds more hours than you. And I'm sure that you disagree with the Pope about the New Testament, etc., etc. (And insert all necessary 'lehavdils'!)

    When it comes to differences in outlook and values, hundreds of hours more study are not as relevant as you might think.

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