Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Difference is Context

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.

28 comments:

  1. Well I guess your mentor like so many other traditional Jews didn't really understand what academic Judaic studies was about. There are many more differences beside context. By limiting it to context it is so easy to dismiss academic scholarship as conjecture. You can make statements like "I would not pass a value judgment on whether traditional or academic methods of Torah study are superior" only if you do not fully understand the academic methods. For one, academics utilize the scientific method by testing their hypothesis unlike traditional learning which until Rav Chaim didn't even conceptualize and categorize each idea and scenario. For more elaboration see Moshe Lichtenstein's “What” Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited (found here http://www.yutorah.org/_shiurim/%2FTU9_Lichtenstein.pdf) There are many more methods that academics use in analyzing texts which are totally absent in traditional Torah learning.

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  2. Of course there are other differences. I am just speaking about one.

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  3. "One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Yosef Tabory, encapsulated the difference between traditional and academic forms of Torah study with a single word: Context"

    It is not even an encapsulation. It is one of many methods.

    Again statements like "I don't know which one is superior" demonstrate that one doesn't appreciate the full academic dialectic.

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  4. I would have said the most important distinction is goals. One is the intellectual exercise of understanding a text. The other is a spiritual exercise of connecting to God using understanding of the text as a means to that end.

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  5. That is the problem with the word "encapsulated". Nice "SAT word" but the wrong high tech one for the point you want to make but ironically supports in its true meaning and understanding of the conclusion made.

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  6. I don't think you can compare the two unless their goals are the same, which I believe they are not. The academic pursuit, as you rightly stated, is interested in the actual meaning of the statement. The torah approach cares less for the meaning of the words than what can be derived from them; i.e. how can I better serve God based on what I'm reading?

    To use a 100% fabricated example; if a rishon made a statement that sounded like an endorsement for hating one's fellow Jew - the academic would might look for clues in the societal context that would lead to such a statement. Perhaps he was addressing a rival, or perhaps he was influenced by some other means.

    A torah scholar would likely dismiss such a thing as a scribal error. "Rishon X would never have said such a thing".

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  7. 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
    ==========================
    Except when they are: see this recent Hirhurim post and how the Ramabam has been understood:
    http://torahmusings.com/2012/07/leaving-home/

    KT
    Joel Rich

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  8. It`s all context. look at the pasuk from Perek,` ilmaleh mora`ah`,about not rebelling against the government. It was probably meant to keep the Roman authorities at bay as much as anything else.

    My favorite has to be the three shavuot,about not forcing our way back into Eretz Yisrael. This has to have been made in reaction to the Bar Kochba rebellion,to give us bona fides as law abiding citizens. The idea was that future Christian inspectors wouldn`t be able to call us traitors , just infidels.

    This is my unlearned opinion , of course, but it fits the idea of historical context,without the whole odd idea of Klal Yisrael gathering somewhere to make some oaths to..well,to who,exactly ?

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  9. I agree that one of the problems with academic studies of Judaism is that you start ignoring the import of statements and teachings and only focus on the background behind the teachings, who said them, why, when, etc.

    Susannah Heschel actually says this about Bible studies. She was frustrated that scholars never seem to focus on what the Bible actually teaches. (She says this in an interview on YouTube.)

    It's like if you told someone that a particular thing was bothering you, and instead of him listening to your complaint, he started analyzing why you made the statement you did, what in your family history led to the statement etc. Basically he analyzes the complaint rather than listening to it.

    (This is also why psychologese is frustrating to many people. It sidesteps what people actually say and do and focuses on something else.)

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  10. I'm not sure what the comment from Ephrayim could possibly have meant, but anyone who has actually been through any reasonable amount of Talmud with Tosafos, Ramban, Rashba, etc., knows full well that the "scientific method," otherwise known as "seeing if this conclusion holds up throughout Shas" was alive and well long before Reb Chaim came around. That's what the Tosafos and Ramban do, for instance, when they clearly define some concept and then test it throughout different places in Shas. On an even more basic level, that's what the Gemara does all the time--it presents a possible underlying idea, then says "well, if that were true, it would result in such and such, which we know is not true from this other source."

    Reb Chaim's methods were by no means unique or new in this respect--they are found in abundance not only in the work of his father, the Beis HaLevi, but in numerous earlier authorities, such as Sha'ar HaMelech, Kesef Mishneh, etc. His total disregard for the "why" along with his use of this method all the time as a consistent methodology were, perhaps, unique (although, again, the Beis HaLevi preceeded him in this), but this was not the introduction of the scientific method into traditional learning.

    In the work of the academics I have seen, ranging from Epstein and Albeck to Lieberman, Friedman, and even Hauptman, to list a sampling, this point is actually far inferior. But, of course, we need to list specific examples, and as Ephrayim did not bother, neither will I.

    As to the "many other methods" that academics use, I'm afraid we'd have to reserve judgment for an actual enumeration. Of course, traditional scholars did not often resort to "brilliant" nuggets along the lines of "Rav lived in Sura, where it was very hot; thus, he allowed people to walk around in their underwear for Oneg Shabbos."

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  11. Many poskim who have never set foot inside a university will say that a previous pesak was only given in certain circumstances. I think that the difference betwen academics and traditional elarners is more in the willingness or unwillingness to dialogue with non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews.

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  12. Can you explain how knowing the context of when and by whom the statements were made,the stature of the figures in question are diminished?

    On the contrary, I find their stature much improved as I learn of the times and places they lived in.

    When you realize these rabbis were not just the people who happened to be in the right place in the right time to have their comments recorded, but rather were the heads of great schools and entire communities. When you see how they cared for the political and economic realities around them, it brings much inspiration and makes their words all the more meaningful in a timeless way.

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  13. I think "purpose" is a much more meaningful and fundamental distinction than "context".

    It is not hard to find numerous examples where Hazal and rishonim show acute awareness of context. Dr. Tabory is still correct of course, because such awareness nevertheless differs from academic work in that it is haphazard, while academic study is meant to take context into account systematically. But the roots of the idea are there, and thus the difference, while it can sometimes be striking, is not a fundamental one.

    What is more fundamental to my mind is purpose. The academic study of Judaism seeks historical truth. The traditional study of Torah seeks to serve God.

    These two goals need not always be incompatible: Traditional Torah study done with sensitivity to history and context can often prove valuable and enlightening in an academic context. And academic work can be done with the purpose of serving God.

    It is often the best work done in both worlds that can be a bridge, at least for those able to appreciate it.

    Shabbat Shalom and thanks for bringing up this important topic.

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  14. To back up what Yehudah said: Once I said in kollel that the Ba'alei HaTosefot were tolerant of suicide in situations of forced conversion, because it was (unfortunately) not uncommon during the Crusades for communities to have to make such a choice.
    My Rosh Kollel said immediately, "Remove any such statements from the Beis Midrash." He explained that the reasoning is exactly the opposite of how we view halachah: as if to say that the Ba'alei Tosfot modified the halachah for their circumstances, rather than have the halachah dictate what they should do under the given circumstances.

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  15. "Whereas once one starts to examine the context in which words were written, their stature is lessened and they have less of an impact"

    i disagree with this sentence. a deeper understanding by a sincere, sympatheic student will lead to more impact of a more genuine kind.

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  16. 2 points:
    1. The Brisker method is imho more focused on conceptualization- looking at apparent conflicts was old, looking at underlying TOE at an atomic level was newer.
    2.Truth on a human level is subjective.In statistics we have correlation which says nothing about causation. The challenge is when you have apparent correlation (e.g. you find many times where it certainly appears that local circumstances may have impacted the halacha)and no clear alternative thesis to explain it.
    KT
    Joel RIch

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  17. I'm not sure they are opposites. Take the Tosafot in Brachot explaining why Mayim Acharonim is no longer required - because we no longer have melach sedomit. I would add that now we eat with silverware and not our hands. I think knowledge of circumstances enhances the appreciation for halacha. Another similar example is Rashi regarding the laws of "Aishet Yefat Toar)

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  18. “It is not hard to find numerous examples where Hazal and rishonim show acute awareness of context.”

    I think that even Rambam, the most rationalist rishon, avoided the use of context. For example, when confronted with the fact that the Talmud appears to support astrology, which Rambam did not believe in, Rambam writes that the said Talmudic passages are the minority opinion of an individual (dubious). He makes no attempt to attribute the passages to the prevalent world view during Talmudic times which supported astrology (a use of context.)

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  19. Jonathan - As I wrote, there are exceptions. But still, there are plenty of people who do mayim acharonim!

    Avi - Rambam wasn't a modern academic, but he did use context a lot more than everyone else, e.g. in his explanation of many mitzvos being related to prevalent idolatrous practices.

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  20. “Rambam wasn't a modern academic, but he did use context a lot more than everyone else, e.g. in his explanation of many mitzvos being related to prevalent idolatrous practices.”

    There’s a difference between “context” and “a reason/explanation.” Rambam believed all mitzvos have a reason to them, and most of the mitzvos were commanded to combat idolatrous practice. Nevertheless, although idolatrous practice is no longer an issue, the mitzvos remain intact, according to Rambam. Either because change and revision is an untenable practice because then every man would create “his own Torah”, or, as I prefer to think, G-D wants us to relate back to the time the revelation was given in order to strengthen our faith in the Torah.

    A context is only relevant if it can be used to alter a result.

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  21. with regards to this statement: "Torah study analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages without regard to external factors" I'm not sure how long this has been true for... or more precisely... I'm not sure when this idea became the accepted way to view traditional torah study.

    I accept that this is the basically accurate distinction made by frum jews today, regardless of it's correlation to any reality past or present. But from the perspective of someone who is interested in the history of ideas... 'what is the history of this idea?'

    when did people start to believe it? in what circumstances did this idea emerge? in response to what stimuli?

    anyone with any answers?

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  22. yehuda p

    i wonder if it is your tone that he objected to.


    http://daattorah.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/is-assisted-martydom-desirabable-or-is.html


    Maharam M’Rothenberg(2:59):
    During the massacre of the Jews in Koplinsh a man’s wife and 4 sons begged him to kill them to save them from falling into the hands of the mob. H
    .....
    Nevertheless, it is obvious that it is permitted since we have heard about many great sages who martyred their sons and daughters [to save them from the Crusaders]. … Whoever would require atonement in these cases is slandering our pious ancestors. Since his motivation was love of his Creator and those he killed were his beloved family and they begged him to do it, …there is no basis to require atonement.

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  23. I think context often matters as long as one also seriously engages the ideas themselves -- especially if it's obvious that the thinker truly meant what he said.

    For example, RSRH and the Rambam were very clearly influenced by the time period they lived in. On the other hand, they also clearly believed that what they were expounding was Toras emes (in the case of RSRH, there is absolutely no doubt about this).

    Therefore, after knowing the context, I think it's important to seriously consider what the Rambam and RSRH had to say -- whether their ideas are true, whether they are present in the Torah, whether they should be followed today, etc.

    The problem is that some academics spend their whole lives deciding exactly who influenced the Rambam and RSRH without ever grappling with the ideas themselves.

    Therein lies the problem.

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  24. "when did people start to believe it? in what circumstances did this idea emerge? in response to what stimuli?

    anyone with any answers?"

    No idea, and it's a good question. However I can give evidence that it is "new". (don't know how new)

    "in the begining", the Shema was composed of 3 paragraphs. The first 2 that we know, and the 3rd paragraph was the 10 commandments.

    However, because of people arguing that only the 10 commandments came from Gd, and the other 603 mitzvot did not, they changed the Shema to the third paragaph about the tzizit, which represents all 613 mitzovt, and represents the 10 commandments because of the techelet and the saphire brickwork.

    Clearly, the halacha changed because of the circumstances and external factors of non-believers.


    Another example. In the 1500s there is a teshuva about if its ok for a man to walk behind a woman who is the wife of a great person. The teshuva says that since "today", women walk in the market all the time, and it's not like the days of the Rambam where women were restricted to their homes You can walk behind a woman who is the wife of a great man. There is no concern that anybody will think poorly of you.

    Clearly here again, halacha is seen as being dependent on the realities of the world around you at that time, and are not timeless laws that never change based on context alone.

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  25. One of the questions that we can ask on traditional learning is are they historically true? Theשרידי אש was asked whether R' Chaim Soloveitchik's analyses of the Rambam were historically true? In both a teshuva and a published letter he says no, they were not. He writes that it is clear that the Rambam's derech was not R' Chaim's.

    It is patently clear that in the Yeshiva world no one would say such a thing.

    See Are R' Chaim Soloveitchik's analyses of the Rambam historically true?

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  26. ...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)....

    Good points and one good place to start is to dismiss the concept of "stature" because "decline of the generations" has been clearly proven to be a false notion. We can only compare what our Sages thought in their time to what is known in our time.

    The knowledge or concepts will either hold water or not, no need to make excuses or attempt typical Rabbinical cover ups.

    I also do not believe upon critical examination the Sages status's are really lessened rather because more often then not their words of wisdom and methods still ring true. I would say we must place them in the proper place in history and take from them what is useful and discard what is not. I believe seeing them as simply human from a certain era is totally acceptable and in fact a proper healthy approach.

    BTW I the heard you speak in Cherry Hill on Shabbat, very nice job. I am sorry I did not have a chance to personally greet you.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

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  27. There is a more fundamental difference.

    Classical academic study utilizes objectivity in order to find the truth. Its primary quest is to find the author's original intent. (Or in the case of an O academic dealing with the Torah or mitzvos deOraisa, the Author's intent.)

    The deconstructionist academic goes to the opposite extreme. He believes it is impossible and meaningless to try to obtain the original intent, and all one can study is the meaning that emerges from one own's encounter to the text.

    Mesorah finds a middle path. Talmud Torah is entering the dialog down the ages, joining the stream of learning. It's not to make the text's meaning subject to who I am but to see what the text says about who I could be. There is no objectivity -- the idea is internalization. There is no quest for original intent; I don't want to understand R' Meir, I want to understand how Rebbe understood R' Meir. By which I mean how R' Yochanan and Reish Laqish understand... And that's really more about how the rishonim undersand the amoraim. Which in turn... In other words, talmud Torah is allowing meaning to flow and drift through the history of interpretation, so that Sinai can speak to me as I am in my day and age. But its not the text's meaning that comes from the encounter, it's mine.

    Neither method is superior. They're looking to uncover different things.

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  28. Sorry Mike S, I missed your 19-Jul-2012 8:02pm post. I pretty much just said the same thing.

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