Derekh ha-Limmud: The Means, Modes, and Methodologies of Jewish Learning

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  The same can be said of the methods applied in scholarship. Almost all fields of study are dominated by methodology; it is rare to find an area of scholarship that does not attempt to approach the issues under investigation in a rigorous manner, with each discipline developing its own tools and techniques to approach the questions it is devoted to exploring.  This process is often subconscious: the methodology may be used, but not understood.  Sometimes the material is subject to rigorous study, but the process itself is not.

However, sometimes this process is a conscious one, and in recent years many disciplines have attempted to become more aware of the methodologies they use.[i] As a friend of mine once put it, “All good history these days is historiography.”  But what about Torah study?  Should we cognizantly develop a methodology, either by trying to understand and formalize the tools that were previously implicitly used or by developing our own methods by assessing our goals in study and the best means of achieving them?  Some would aver that we should not.  I remember that one late Friday night in Yeshiva, a student from another yeshivah argued that when studying Torah we are looking for truth, and thus we should not bind ourselves to any specific methodology, because if we were do that, we would inevitably end up worshiping the methodology and looking for answers that we think should flow from that methodology rather than simply searching for truth.  By doing this, we would have forgotten our commitment to understanding the word of God and replaced it with a commitment to our derekh ha-limmud.  When you have a hammer, everything looks like a  nail, and by creating a structure within which to understand Torah, you may forget to let the Torah speak to you and rather force the Torah to say what you think it should. It may be that you end up using similar means to understand different topics, but to spell out what tools should be used is to limit the tools you can and will use.

However, as appealing as this claim may be, it seems to me that the opposite is true.   To completely remove ourselves from the texts is impossible.[ii] While we must try to be as objective as possible, at some point we are going to put ourselves into the texts anyways.  As the Talmud itself claims, “Ein moshivin ba-Sanhderin ella mi she-yakhol letaher et ha-sherets min ha-Torah, we do not appoint judges to the High Court who cannot [find a way to] purify an impure creature on a biblical level.”[iii] As Gerald Blidstein puts it, “Texts can be interpreted [… and] Scripture is never a match for ingenuity.”[iv] A sufficiently potent scholar can explain anything in any way he wants.

There are ways of minimizing this danger.  When we actively develop a methodology, we formally stipulate what tools are to be used and what standards are expected, and we become accountable to those standards that we have set up.  To develop a methodology is to both recognize the complexity of the topic at hand and to admit that the process of human thought must itself be subjected to rigorous analysis if it is to be as objective as possible.  For both these reasons, if we value the subject matter, we must value and understand the process we use to study it.  This means not just developing and explicitly explaining methodologies, but questioning them.  In other words, to paraphrase Socrates, “The unexamined methodology is not worth using.”   We must question the classic modes of study and ask how we can use new methodologies and new resources to enhance our understanding of every facet of Torah.

With self-conscious study come many questions, many of which will be dealt with in this issue, both through the articles written and the interviews conducted with Rabbis Moshe Kahn and Eli Baruch Shulman.  For example, the question arises as to how much time should be spent studying Talmud and Tanakh, respectively?  This question finds many answers in the various medieval understandings of the Talmud’s suggested division of study,[v] an issue which Ariel Krakowski examines in his article.  Within the Talmud, what is the role of the legal portions in contrast to that of the aggadot?  David Pruwer explores this question in his article.  When we study the commentaries on the Talmud (or the legal codes that attempt to codify the laws of the Talmud), should we focus on Rishonim or Aharonim?  If we are to favor the study of one over the other, is that a function of the assumed formal authority ascribed to the authors of the texts, or is it based on the assumed quality of their work?[vi] Should we study theoretical texts or practical-legal ones?[vii] Within legal texts, should precedence be given to codes of law or responsa, which reflect the application of the law in reality?[viii] How much focus should be placed on Mahashavah (philosophy and theology in the broader sense) and Musar (ethical and exhortative literature)?

Others questions relate to our focus within the texts.  Should we focus on iyyun (in-depth analysis) or beki’ut study (cursorily covering ground)?  This question has been debated since the Talmud, which asked what type of scholar is most qualified to lead the academy: the sharper scholar (oker harim) or the one with a greater mastery of the basic texts (Sinai)?[ix] There are also the important questions regarding whether we are concerned with authorial intent in Torah study, or whether our interpretation is more important.  In modes of interpretation, should we put our energies into exegesis or eisegesis?[x] Danny Shulman will analyzes different perspectives on issues of truth in Torah study, building off of R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s distinction between Torat hesed and Torat emet.  Moshe Peters and Josh Broyde deal with the questions of to what extent are we limited to precedent, bound to the understanding of earlier authorities, and to what extent are we expected to bring ourselves to the texts?   Peters argues for the importance of hiddush (novel understandings) generally, while Broyde focuses on whether we should attempt to understand the Mishnah independently of the Gemara’s lens.  Each of these articles raises the question of why it is that we traditionally ascribe more validity to sources simply due to their historical precedence.[xi]

With the questions of how and what we should study come the even broader questions: why do we study in the first place?  To gather knowledge? To understand the word of God? To derive practical legal conclusions?[xii] Ilana Gadish discusses the importance of connecting existentially to even the most complex Talmudic discussions.  Daniela Aaron analyzes how questions of theodicy should be approached in the study of Tanakh.   Do we want to engage the word of God in its original context or understand it simply as it speaks to us today?  Perhaps we should attempt a balance between these two, creating a calibrated worldview that combines both, understanding to what the Torah was responding and internalizing the values that emerge from the Torah’s unique perspective.  R. Micha Berger  explores whether we are looking for the “what” or the “why,” showing the problems of removing philosophy from legal questions.  R. Berger highlights the potential shortcomings of the “Brisker Derekh,” the dominant approach to Torah study in most Lithuanian yeshivot, as developed by R. Hayyim Soloveichik of Brisk (1853-1918), by comparing it to the Telzer approach.  We must ask whether this will depend on the texts we are studying.  Perhaps we only care about the “what” in legal discussions, but the “why” has value on a philosophical level.  Is it even possible to separate these two?  R. Klapper and Danielle Lent each choose particular topics as case studies, applying Talmudic methodologies to each area.  R. Klapper analyzes the Minhat Hinnukh’s treatment of mitsvah ha-ba’ah ba-averah (a positive commandment whose performance is predicated on sin) through Brisker eyes and demonstrates the potential shortcomings of extreme legalism. Danielle Lent applies philosophical categories of metaphysical identity in studying the legal discussions of tum’ah (impurity) and toharah (purity).

Many of these questions have been asked in every generation, whether implicitly or explicitly.  However, there are other questions that are unique to recent generations.  With the advent of academic scholarship of the Tanakh and Talmud, including the discovery of materials from the Ancient Near Eastern context of the Tanakh and the Persian context of the Talmud, new questions have come to the fore.[xiii] Should we introduce historical evidence to the discussion, and, if so, is it appropriate for the study of all texts – Talmud and Tanakh?  AJ Berkovits considers some of these questions and shows the benefits of using these tools in learning Tanakh through a case study of the insights into Sefer Amos provided by the field of archeology.  The question can also be raised as to whether such findings can change Halakhah?  The halakhic process generally does not allow for it, but are there circumstances in which it might? Even if they should not change Halakhah, should they change how we view or frame theology, the stories of Tanakh, and the aggadot and midrashim of Hazal?  Are there distinctions between these categories, and, if so, why?

Jews are the people of the Book.  Study has always defined us and continues to do so, and thus it behooves us to understand what we do in our study and how we do it.  For a people whose identity is tied up with erudition, there are few things as central to understanding ourselves than developing and understanding darkhei ha-limmud.

Jonathan Ziring is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Associate Editor for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] This is evident from the mass of literature that has developed about historiography, philosophy of science, and the like.

[ii] For an argument against removing ourselves from texts, see “The Path of Torah” – Introduction to R. Eliyahu Bloch, Shi’urei Da’at (Tel Aviv: Netsah Publications, 1948).  He develops a theory of Torah study that posits an intrinsic connection between understanding of the self and understanding of the Torah.

[iii] Sanhedrin 17a.

[iv] Gerald J. Blidstein, “Who is Not a Jew? – The Medieval Discussion,” Israel Law Review 11 (1996): 369-390.

[v] See Kiddushin 30a, Tosafot ad loc., s.v. lo tserikha, and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11, for example.

[vi] This question is debated by Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Mamrim 2:1, Hazon Ish ad loc., and Kovets Shi’urim to Bava Batra 663.

[vii] See the introduction to R. Ovadia Yosef’s Yabbia Omer for a vitriolic attack on those who choose to focus on theoretical conceptual study rather than practical-legal study.

[viii] See Responsa Ri Migash 114.

[ix] See the concluding discussions in both Masekhtot Berakhot and Horayot.

[x] Exegesis refers to the study of texts to derive the meaning of the texts themselves, while eisegesis refers to the study of texts by reading one’s own ideas into them.

[xi] See n. 4.

[xii] See, for example, the introduction to Yabbia Omer, R. Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh ha-Hayyim, Sha’ar 4, and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, ch. 10, etc.

[xiii] For further discussion on these issues, see Kol Hamevaser’s issue on Academic Jewish Studies, Volume 3, Issue 3, available at: