One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Yosef Tabory, encapsulated the difference between traditional and academic forms of Torah study with a single word: Context. Although I have briefly mentioned this previously, I would like to begin a series of posts which explore it in more detail, because it is of great significance.
Traditional Torah study analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages without regard to external factors (aside from considering whether they were Rishonim or Acharonim, for example, which serves only in order to rate their stature).
Academic study, on the other hand, analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages with the aid of examining the context in which they were written. What societal, cultural, intellectual, political factors could have been involved?
In traditional Torah study, the words of the Sages and Rabbis are timeless, eternally relevant in virtually every way, and not subject to any external influence. As such, they are sacrosanct and inspirational. Whereas once one starts to examine the context in which words were written, their stature is lessened and they have less of an impact. But on the other hand, examining their context often sheds much light on their meaning. And so I would not pass a value judgment on whether traditional or academic methods of Torah study are superior - each has its advantages.
Of course, this distinction is blurry at the boundaries, and has certain exceptions, but it is basically true and fundamentally important. In future posts, I will elaborate on all this, with examples, along with discussing other aspects of tradition vs. academic Torah study.
In other news: Don't forget that this Sunday morning, I am delivering a double multimedia presentation in Cherry Hill, NJ. Details here. It's even accessible to New Yorkers, if you get up at 7 am!
And if anyone can give me a ride from Lawrence to Cherry Hill tomorrow, or to Teaneck tomorrow morning, I would be indebted.