Wednesday, 24 April 2013

different approaches to learning tanach

yesterday, i went to a shiur by r' menachem leibtag. i confess i got there late and so i missed the beginning of this particular tangent. He was teaching about the bracha of 'laasok b'divrei sorah (or laasok b'divrei torah, or however else you wish to transliterate it). he was discussing the different yeshiva approaches to learning tanach - either that of emunas chachamim, where you learn tanach through the prism of chazal, including the disinclination to teach anything negative about any biblical character (i think that there are probably ranges within this approach though), or where you first read and think about a text yourself, and then you turn to chazal to try to understand it.

R' Menachem is not a fire and brimstone person. He pointed out that both approaches have their dangers. The 'yeshivish' approach is far more successful at inculcating yiras shamayim, middos, and keeping kids 'on the derech'. But it comes at a price. (Those are his words.)

But without original study of original texts, one won't understand rabbinical statements (nor rabbinical writings such as the siddur, as R' Menachem is currently teaching us). So there are dangers and drawbacks to both sides.

And i am curious - what do you think? Do you agree that the 'emunas chachamim' approach is more successful? Do you think that the price R' Menachem refers to is worth paying? Or do you think that the 'original study' approach is better?

To speak personally, i was taught in a manner which was more in line with the 'emunas chachamim' approach. I grew up learning rashi along with chumash, and it truly affected how i read chumash. i would see the pesukim, but i would read rashi and midrash under and through and between the lines. for many years, this would be without realising it. i remember many times when my husband would raise a question on the parsha, and my response would be 'i don;t see any question, it's obvious, rashi says...' (if someone who doesn;t know me is reading this, he is ba'al teshuvah and did not grow up learning the meforshim alongside the pesukim). it would be hard for me to see the contradiction, because the rashi was so ingrained in my consciousness.

this means that i had to learn how to read the tanach simply, how to read what is there and see what could be there, should be there, shouldn;t be there. while i have no real complaints about the my limmudei kodesh education (well, i do in parts), it got me to where i am today and that is fine, it genuinely took years for me to be able to read some parts of chumash at face value - without the overlay of chazal and midrash. Nowadays that overlay is still there, but i am able to recognise it for what it is and push past it. nowadays, it means that i have a warehouse stocked with midrashic and rabbinic material which i am able to draw on, when i have spotted those puzzles and patterns that lurk amongst the pesukim.

to me, the effect of seeing rashi and midrash along with the words of tanach is like looking through smeared glasses. you can see better than without them on - but you still can't see clearly.

thoughts? opnions? experiences?


  1. Just had this at open evening, was told ahuva has to pretend she has never heard yhe rashi. Dont forget theyre teaching medrash as pshat in gan already. And yes...for me it is has been learning curve "what that isnt in the pshat???" At first i felt i had been lied to...then got over myself.

  2. We often forget that the same Chazal we are supposed to rely on for understanding Tanach are also the final editors of Tanach, deciding which Biblical era materials made the final cut and which didn't. The gemara, for example, discussed how much of the book of Yechezkel almost got removed because of their concerns over how people would understand it. This means that if there is something controversial in Tanach then Chazal wanted us to be aware of it and try to understand it. Another example: if Chazal were that worried about the David-Batsheva incidents they would have removed it from Tanach. It's still in there so we have to learn but if we do then we also have to understand how Chazal saw it and what they wanted us to learn from it. The Bible isn't a casual reading book; everything is it is there for the learning of a moral lesson and this is where Chazal can guide us.


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