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On "Knowing How To Learn"
...and which kind of people possess that ability
In the brouhaha over my explicating rabbinic views regarding the financial support of Torah scholars, some critics claimed that I “don’t know how to learn.” Some readers may not understand what they meant by that, so I would like to explain what they actually meant (which is not the same as what they think they meant).
Claims that someone “doesn’t know how to learn,” in a context like this, is purported to mean that someone does not have the skills to accurately analyze the meaning of a text, as opposed to someone who has learned in yeshivos for many years and found success among his teachers and peers. However, it does not actually mean that. After all, while my opponents would happily negate the many successful years that I spent in yeshiva, the majority of what I say here is fully agreed upon by numerous people who “know how to learn” according to any measure, such as Rav Hershel Schechter, shlita.
So what does it mean when they say that someone “doesn’t know how to learn”? It usually means a combination of things.
First and foremost, it is a way to negate someone whose conclusions differ from what is accepted in the charedi yeshiva world. After all, the texts of Chazal and Rishonim and Acharonim are supposed to dictate what they believe and how they live their lives. But the Gedolim, and the way that things are socially acceptable today, are what actually dictate how they live their lives. So if there is dissonance between the former and the latter, it is extremely jarring (unless you are someone like Rav Schechter, who is not afraid to say that the yeshiva world is simply wrong). The easiest way out is to simply claim that the person is not presenting the true meaning of the Torah sources, and the easiest way to explain that is to say that the person lacks the ability to do so.
Related to this is that “knowing how to learn” means knowing how to make texts conform to the desired result. A popular method of learning Gemara involves a style of fabulous intellectual creativity that was developed over a century ago by Reb Chaim Brisker. Twenty-five years ago, his sefer on resolving difficulties in Rambam was my favorite sefer due to its profundity and ingenuity. (I actually produced an English elucidation of ten analyses of Reb Chaim, which you can download at this link.) His very first analysis, which solved a problem caused by an inference in Rambam, was my personal favorite.
But then I discovered that no less than Chazon Ish, commenting on Reb Chaim’s first analysis, says that the inference is without merit and therefore the entire analysis is pointless. And the fact is that there is nothing remotely resembling Reb Chaim's types of arguments in any of Rambam's writings (or, for that matter, in the writings of pretty much anyone preceding Reb Chaim.) Furthermore, when Rambam himself was asked about such contradictions, he didn't employ Brisker-style distinctions; instead he simply said that he erred, or changed his mind, etc. The Brisker method of “knowing how to learn” is about using creative ingenuity to construct incredibly complex frameworks, not about actually getting to the plain truth of what the author of the text actually meant.
And when even the Brisker derech fails, there are other options. Faced with texts that they couldn’t possibly imagine to reflect the beliefs of the rabbis who authored them, many Torah scholars who “knew how to learn” would claim such texts to be forgeries. It was left to more broad-minded Torah scholars and academics to prove that the texts were authentic.
This is what happened with the controversy over my own books; revered rabbinic authorities like Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel would claim that I am an am ha’aretz and my sources are forgeries. Of course my sources were not actually forgeries, and my analyses of the Gemara (such as regarding the sun’s path at night and spontaneous generation) were perfectly straightforward and moreover were completely consistent with the explanations of all the Rishonim. Whereas my distinguished opponents, on the other hand, did not present any analysis of these topics and were unable to do so, because their approaches, aside from being utterly unreasonable, required discounting all the Rishonim.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not at all saying that I am an amazing Torah scholar. What I am saying is that not much is actually required for analyzing texts; it’s just clear thinking, breadth of knowledge (in order to establish the context in which the text was written), and, most of all, intellectual honesty. These are worth much more than the analysis of someone whose training is all about making things complicated rather than clear, and whose religious worldview and lack of acceptance of the diversity of Jewish history is forcing them to a particular conclusion.
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