Defending the Opponents of Nakh: A Reluctant Devil’s Advocate

I would like to start this article by offering the following disclaimer: I am personally a major advocate of studying Nakh.  While Gemara study has been the primary pursuit of my years at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University, the study of Nakh has played a significant secondary role in my learning.  It is my intention in this response to ignore personal predilection and present several arguments against the sustained study of Nakh that were understated or unstated in Gilad Barach’s article, “Nakh: The Neglected Nineteen.”[i]  My goal is to provide a corrective to his presentation, both in the interest of intellectual honesty and as a justification for those who follow a different path from Mr. Barach’s in studying Nakh.

My first point of contention relates to the interpretation of Rabbeinu Tam offered by Mr. Barach.  He writes that Tosafot’s presentation of the opinion

reflects to a certain extent, a be-di’avad (less than ideal) approach.  Tosafot in Avodah Zarah quote Rabbeinu Tam as saying, “Dayeinu,” “It is sufficient for us”; in Kiddushin, “Somekhin,” “We rely”; and in Sanhedrin, “Poterin atzmeinu,” “We exempt ourselves.”… The three terms all indicate resignation, and suggest that something makes Rabbeinu Tam uncomfortable with his own hetter (permission).[ii]

I believe that the simpler reading of Rabbeinu Tam is not that of resignation to a non-ideal practice but of a contented justification of it; For one’s Tanakh study, nothing beyond the verses picked up during Talmud study is necessary for a serious student, Rabbeinu Tam argues.  This is underscored by the fact that these hetterim are phrased in plural first person – it is sufficient for us; we rely; we exempt ourselves – he is happy to present the hetter not only as a theoretical leniency but as a hanhagah (practice) of his tsibbur (community).  This reading makes it very difficult to read Rabbeinu Tam as merely providing a de facto limmud zekhut (justification), as Mr. Barach claims.  Mr. Barach may disagree with Rabbeinu Tam if he wishes, and he has support within our mesorah to do so, but Rabbeinu Tam is a proud supporter of Tanakh non-scholarship.[iii]

Mr. Barach also cites R. Samson Raphael Hirsch as a proud supporter of Tanakh study.  That he certainly was, but it is important to look at parallel Jewish intellectual leaders of R. Hirsch’s time in order to find alternate positions and see the backdrop against which he was writing – the major clash in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe over the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment).  A relevant piece of the Noda bi-Yehudah’s (1713-1793) Talmudic commentary should suffice to provide some of that background.  A cryptic Gemara advises, “min’u beneikhem min ha-higgayon - distance your children from higgayon,”[iv] which Rashi interprets as Bible study. [v]  The Noda bi-Yehudah expounds upon this Rashi in his commentary, the Tselah.  He writes:

It appears to me that [regarding] studying the Bible, the apikorsim (apostates) also learn it for the language, the way they learn other languages, and if you are not responsible for your son in his youth and he only studies Bible, you might take a teacher from one of them because they also know how to teach it, and through that your son will also be dragged after them to unsavory beliefs.  And particularly in our time, when the German translation [Mendelssohn’s Bei’ur] has propagated, and it draws people in to read the books of the gentiles in order to be knowledgeable in their language… And there is much to admonish about this in our generation where this blemish has spread much, and from Heaven they will have mercy.[vi]

This commentary takes a clear shot at Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), as well as the other Haskalah leaders of the time.[vii]   Among the goals of the Haskalah were to promote the study of Tanakh at the expense of Talmud, as well as to take a more peshat-style approach to Tanakh study that favored proper understanding of grammar over study of Midrash.  As the Noda bi-Yehudah warily notes, many maskilim were melammedim, personal tutors for rich children, and he saw this movement as a major threat for eighteenth-century traditional Europe.[viii]  Mendelssohn also wrote a German translation of the Torah, known as the Bei’ur (published in the 1770s), which the Noda bi-Yehudah explicitly labels as a danger.[ix]

Against this backdrop, R. Hirsch (1808-1888) emerges as a middle position between the Noda bi-Yehudah and the Haskalah of Mendelssohn.  R. Hirsch argues for changes to education, including a focus on Tanakh, while simultaneously combating the newest generation of maskilim, who were now demanding changes to Halakhah.  R. Hirsch focuses on educating Jews with a pure, unadulterated Jewish approach to their Torah, studying a text “from the inside.”[x]  He is able to support the learning of Tanakh for a traditional community by making it clear that maskilim do not belong, and by allowing for only traditional and internal approaches to Tanakh study.  In fact, Hirsch notes that grammar is to be studied, just as the maskilim had advocated, but that the grammar was for the purpose of understanding Tanakh, and not vice versa.[xi]  In this manner, he responds to the Noda Bi-Yehudah’s critique while advocating a middle position.  Thus, Hirsch was a supporter of Tanakh study, but he was opposed by some of the leading Torah scholars of his era.

The final approach that I would like to present is that of R. Aharon Kotler.[xii] His opinion had a broad influence on the American Jewish community and its educational systems, and it is probably the best response to Mr. Barach’s question, “So why does no one care?”[xiii]  R. Kotler discusses the category of bittul Torah be-eikhut, qualitative waste of Torah study time, and defines this category as follows: “Though he studies, if it is possible for him to study in greater depth, to understand and grasp more, behold - for this missing part, it is considered a waste of Torah.”[xiv],[xv]  In other words, it is important not only to maximize the amount of time spent studying Torah, but also to optimize the level of study.  This argument was the justification for focusing primarily, even exclusively, on Talmud study, to the exclusion of Nakh. This is not a twentieth-century argument; there are Talmudic sources that unequivocally support this understanding.  The Gemara writes that, for those who study Mikra, their study is “middah ve-einah middah,” valued as something but not much, while for those who study Talmud, “there is no greater value than this.”[xvi]   It follows that Tanakh study should be minimized in favor of Talmud study whenever possible.[xvii]

I agree with Mr. Barach that Tanakh study is important for all the reasons that he mentioned in his article.  However, it is important to realize that Jewish tradition has a justified position that shies away from study of Nakh, whether for fear of its corrupting influence or out of a surfeit of interest in Talmud study.  Providing tenuous re-readings of traditional sources is not the proper way of resolving these issues.  While it is definitely fair to critique the Nakh-deficient, it is also important to supply a fair defense, a limmud zekhut and maybe even more than that, for our non-Nakh-studying compatriots.

Shlomo Zuckier is a student at RIETS, and a former editor-in-chief of Kol Hamevaser.  He has completed coursework toward a Master’s degree in Bible (including Nakh) at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. 



[i] Kol Hamevaser 5:2, 18-19.

[ii] Ibid. 18.

[iii] It is interesting to consider Rabbeinu Tam’s personal opinion in regard to Tanakh study in context of the fact that he wrote a grammar book and a commentary on Iyyov.  Still, this is irrelevant to the issue of understanding his attitude towards those who do not study Tanakh.

[iv] Berakhot 28b. This translation, as well as all others in this article, are the author’s.

[v] Ad. loc.

[vi] Tselah to Berakhot 28b.

[vii] It is interesting to note that an alternate explanation in the Tselah, which understands higgayon as philosophy, attacks other Haskalah groups of the time who were pushing for the study of secular philosophers.  In that way, the Tselah makes double use of the Gemara to attack what he saw as problems in society.

[viii] For the question of the extent to which the Enlightenment was seen as a threat to Central European traditional Judaism of this time, see Moshe Samet’s “Moshe Mendelssohn, NH Wesseley Ve-Rabbanei Doram, in Mehkarim Be-Toledot Am Yisrael Ve-Erets Yisrael, Haifa, University of Haifa, 1975.

[ix] It is very possible that this movement within Haskalah was related to a similar movement among Protestants at that time, which focused on the biblical text, translating it into the vernacular in order to democratize religious study.

[x] Nineteen Letters, Letter 18.

[xi] Nineteen Letters, Letter 18.

[xii] It is important to distinguish between Central European rabbis’ responses to the Haskalah, formulated in the eighteenth-century, and those of the Lithuanian school to a later version of the Haskalah, which ran from the nineteenth into the twentieth-century.  Thus, there is no clear line connecting R. Kotler (a Lithuanian) and the Noda bi-Yehudah, though they seem to agree in opposing widespread Tanakh study.

[xiii] Kol Hamevaser 5:2,19.

[xiv] Mishnat Rabbi Aharon, Helek I, 56.

[xv] It is possible that an objection like this would allow more leeway for the education of children, as they may have a more difficult time studying more complicated areas of Torah.

[xvi] Bava Metsi’a 33b.  It is important to note that this argument applies equally to Torah and to Nakh, as do several other positions in this article.  However, this is a moot point since, between the weekly Torah reading and the mitsvah of shenayim mikra (reading the weekly portion twice, along with a commentary/translation; see Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 285), any serious Torah scholar has at least a working knowledge of the Torah.

[xvii] Interestingly, Rashbam, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah (found in Bereshit 37:2), quotes this Gemara as well, in context of arguing that the derashot (i.e. Hazal’s halakhic and midrashic interpretations) are primary, though study of Tanakh without Talmudic intervention is vitally important, as well.