Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

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7 Responses

  1. S. says:

    “The great Harvard medievalist Harry Austrn Wolfson described Talmdudic study as “the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.”

    Wolfson defends what he calls “the Talmudic hypothetico-deductibe method of text interpretation.” He describes it for more than one page, and then he dismisses criticism of such a study method as “Talmudic quibbling or pilpul.”

    However, we also realize that even within the rabbinic tradition there is a constant attack on pilpul, which is often seen as exactly what Wolfson says it isn’t. There is pilpul which is considered good, and pilpul which is considered exactly that – mere quibbling. Furthermore, in describing great ge’onim, we constantly hear how so-and-so eschewed extreme pilpul, and was interested in pshat. In fact, I’ve hardly ever heard of any ga’on described by an admirer as someone who chased after pilpul, even if he was a also a great charif.

    In today’s prevalent method we skip such things as language and jump straight to lomdus, whether it is פלפול של הבל or not. So while Talmud study “properly done” may well be “the application of the scientific method to texts,” isn’t that in reality still all too rare? Furthermore, the idea that there are no correct answers unfortunately does encourage plenty of mushy thinking.

  2. DF says:

    Agreed with everything in this article, especially the point about the college bubble, but the notion about Talmud study must be qualified. Talmud study CAN be a wonderful intelellctual exercise, IF part of it included things like routine testing, or writing requirements, or drawing final conclusions from study. As things stand right now, there’s an awful lot of people in yeshivah doing little more than spouting out “boich sevaros” [wild hypothesis with no foundation] who recall little or nothing of the masechta they studied only the semester (zman) before, and reach no meaningful conclusion from the material they learn or study. Whiling away one’s time in such exercises might still conceivably be better than wasting time in a liberal arts course, but its still not real learning. It’s pseudo-learning.

  3. Dr. E says:

    Not sure where Reb Jonathan is really headed with this, by way of extension. But, if he is revisiting the Yeshivish axiom which posits that a “Gemara kupp” is necessary and sufficient to be competitive in today’s job market (a.k.a. “Yeshiva/Kollel guys will be top candidates for corporate jobs because they are smart and have good ‘analytical skills’—despite the fact that they lack college degrees and experience), that is inconsistent with empirical reality.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    The students entering American universities have often been under-prepared by their politicized, dumbed-down primary and secondary schools. It’s hard to imagine a university straightening all this out on its own, even with the best intentions.

    Anyway, why are we focusing on the woes of secular education? Why are we comparing the actual state of the secular system with the theoretical state of our system? Before we get too pumped up about others, let’s look at the many areas where our own educational institutions need to reflect and improve, so that all Jewish students, not only the elite, can find their way.

  5. YM says:


    How do you know that “there’s an awful lot of people in yeshivah doing little more than…”? What study can you cite that proves this? I think this is slander and you should apologize.

  6. joel rich says:

    the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.” Hypotheses are continually being formulated and either successfully defended or rejected.
    But the difference is in science (hard) we continually seek new data with which to test hypotheses (e.g. spend a ton of money on the large haldron collider), in gemara there is no new data, so several hypotheses can be supported in each generation and they can propogate very different sub theories over the generations with hugely different halachic implications.

  7. Dovid Kornreich says:

    in gemara there is no new data,

    The thrill of a talmudic chiddush is seeing how a very familiar source can be creatively (but rigorously and with internal consistency–not pilpulisticly) interpreted to support an hypothesis in a way that no one did before. In a sense, this is a genuine intellectual discovery–not unlike a discovery in the hard sciences when you apply a new experimental paradigm to old, well known and allegedly well understood phenomena.

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