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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.