Traditional Torah Study versus Scientific Analysis
מעשה ברבי אליעזר ששבת בגליל העליון, ושאלוהו שלשים הלכות בהלכות סוכה, שתים עשרה אמר להם שמעתי, שמונה עשרה אמר להם, לא שמעתי…. אמרו לו: כל דבריך אינן אלא מפי השמועה? אמר להם: הזקקתוני לומר דבר שלא שמעתי מפי רבותי. מימי… לא אמרתי דבר שלא שמעתי מפי רבי מעולם.
It happened that R. Eliezer passed the Sabbath in Upper Galilee, and they asked him for thirty decisions in the laws of sukkah. Of twelve of these he said, “I heard them [from my teachers]”; of eighteen he said, “I have not heard.” …They said to him, “Are all your words only reproductions of what you have heard?” He answered them, “You wished to force me to say something which I have not heard from my teachers. During all my life… I have never said a thing which I did not hear from my teachers.”
– b. Sukkah 28a (Soncino trans.)
Traditional Torah study and the academic study of biblical and rabbinic texts differ in purpose and genre. In academic study, the researcher is attempting to understand a phenomenon, and must be open to the possibility that what he or she is uncovering now contradicts his or her earlier assumptions.
This is not only the case for hard sciences, but for soft sciences and even for the humanities, which is the category under which biblical and Judaic studies fit. In the humanities, it is more difficult to prove or falsify a given theory, but a scholar strives to offer a plausible explanation that is as objective as possible given the type of evidence available.
Study in religious institutions, however, is not about objective inquiry. Rather, yeshiva study is about engaging the text in such a way that it comes out sounding judicious and internally coherent. The truth of the text is a given, and the job of the researcher is to bring out its wisdom and beauty for all to see.
In other words, “making sense of the Torah” and “making the Torah make sense” are not the same enterprise, though both have their place in Jewish life. The difference between the two enterprises lies not only in their respective purposes but also in their methodologies and their basic assumptions.
The clearest form of objective inquiry is modern scientific study, whose breakthroughs and paradigm shifts become the core of their disciplines. Scientists are, of course, aware of older theories and may try to work with them at first, but they must be ready to jettison or modify them when better alternatives present themselves, whether because the new ideas are more cogent or have greater explanatory power. The development of our understanding of gravity is a good illustration.
The History of Gravity
In Greek science, Aristotle explained that objects fell to the ground because all objects move toward their “natural place.” He also explained that planets revolved around the earth—this was before heliocentrism—because they were inhabited by intelligences (what he called “unmoved movers”) who guided them through their perfect spherical orbits. These explanations dominated western thought for centuries.
This changed when Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, in which he argued that the same force that makes the apple fall to the ground is what keeps planets in orbit around the sun. Newton described this force of gravity as an attractive force, positing that all objects have such a force and that it becomes stronger relative to their size.
This thinking then dominated physics for the next two and half centuries, until 1915, when Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity. Einstein argued that gravity is not a force of one object acting on another, but the result of how material objects bend the fabric of space around them. Objects moving in a “straight line” will orbit or fall depending on their size, position, and speed in warped space.
Adjusting and Improving Our Knowledge
Paradigm shifts do not reflect disrespect of previous generations or ancient wisdom; rather they reflect the fact that the core concern of science is truth rather than tradition. Aristotle remains a venerated figure in history. His understanding of the universe was intelligent and groundbreaking for his day, but it was:
- Insufficiently precise – ancient natural philosophers did not formulate theories quantitatively or mathematically.
- Discordant with empirical facts – such as the heliocentric model, the fact that orbits are not perfect spheres, and the existence of empty space.
- Required more assumptions – thus violating “Ockham’s razor” or “the principal of parsimony” (lex parsimoniae), that the simplest explanation is more likely correct.
Similarly, Newton’s theory of gravity was tremendously important in its day, and Einstein had the greatest respect for him. Nevertheless, Newton’s theory was less elegant than that of Einstein, and could not explain certain facts such as the shifting forward of Mercury’s perihelion (when the planet is closest to the sun) after each orbit or the phenomenon of gravitational lensing (how large objects can bend the course of light). Thus, Newton’s theory of gravity had to be replaced with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, at least for certain calculations.
In other words, the goal of scientific inquiry is to find the best explanation for any given set of facts. Older theories may end up being confirmed, or they may be modified or even falsified. The same approach is taken outside of the hard sciences.
Vikings Versus Columbus
Take history, for instance. For a long time, it was popular wisdom to say that Christopher Columbus’ expedition of 1492 was Europe’s first contact with the new world. The Icelandic Vinland Sagas (12-13 centuries C.E.), however, tell a different story, namely that in 985 C.E., a man named Bjarni Herjolfsson, having overshot Greenland, first noted the existence of a landmass further on. That was followed by the Norse expedition of Leif Erikson (ca. 970-1020), who set up a colony in Newfoundland.
How is one to know if this account is accurate? Perhaps it is merely a fantasy tale? A historian can look at a number of factors:
Genre – The Vinland Sagas are prose tales, about historical matters. Their form is like that of historiography as opposed to myth or fiction.
Supporting facts – The sagas also explain the founding of Iceland and Greenland by the Vikings, both of which we know from multiple historical sources to have occurred. They feature people known from other sources such as Eirik the Red and his son, Leif Erikson.
Accuracy – The sagas were written before Christopher Columbus’ expedition, and they know about the existence of North America.
Plausibility – The Vikings were excellent sailors and explorers, and made use of the most advanced boating technology of their day. We know that they sailed far and wide, since external sources describe their raids on England, France, etc. Moreover, we know that they settled Greenland, which is very close to Newfoundland, so there is little reason why they could not have found it had they been inclined to travel in that direction.
Archaeology – This is the clincher. Archaeologists have uncovered the original Norse settlement in Newfoundland, which is dated to the tenth century, the correct period of time.
Thus, the matter is proven: the Vikings discovered North America before Columbus. Historians can build on this and ask new questions such as why their settlement failed or whether Columbus knew about Leif Erikson’s expedition five centuries earlier.
Inquiry versus Creativity
Although scholarly research happens to have found evidence corroborating the core claim of the Vinland Sagas, it could have shown the opposite as well. What if the Viking claims had been riddled with contradictions? What if it had been shown that their boat technology was inadequate for such a trip? What if it turned out that the Sagas were written after North America was well known among Europeans, and that Leif Erikson was a purely mythological character? What if the archaeological study of Newfoundland yielded no Norse remains during this period?
If all or any of the above had been the case, the conclusion could easily have been that the Vinland Sages are not factual accounts but myth or fiction. In traditional Torah study, such a conclusion is simply impossible, however, because the truth of the text is a given. Traditional Torah study does not investigate the book’s truth claims; instead, the goal of this enterprise is to demonstrate the abiding logic and coherence of the biblical or rabbinic text. Even when asking questions or posing problems, the goal is to answer such questions in a way that brings to light the texts’ deeper meaning.
Shiur Kelali – The Traditional Lecture
One classic form of such a study is the shiur kelali, literally, the “communal lecture,” which is generally given by the Rosh Yeshiva (the chief rabbinic scholar) to the entire yeshiva. Starting with a core text or texts, the maggid shiur (lecturer) begins by asking logical questions that make the text appear incoherent, or finding contradictory passages in the Talmud that seem irreconcilable with the core text. To amplify the problems, the maggid shiur may show that traditional commentaries have had similar problems with this text, but only offered weak answers or let the matter stand as puzzling.
At this point, when the kashyas (the Ashkenazi pronunciation of kushyot, problems) appear unanswerable, the maggid shiur will offer a novel sevara (theory) or chakira (differentiation) that will provide the necessary key with which to unlock the “real meaning” of the original text or texts. By the end of the shiur, all the problematic sources will make sense and work together harmoniously.
On the surface, this looks like scientific inquiry at its best. Examining disparate, apparently unrelated or even contradictory phenomena and explaining their underlying theoretical unity is exactly what makes for great scientific theories. But a traditional shiur is not a form of inquiry since it never weighs the possibility that the texts it is studying may indeed be contradictory or mistaken.
Instead, a shiur is more like the taking up of a challenge. The maggid shiur must be creative enough to find answers, or else the shiur should not be given. Creativity is the key to a successful resolution, and the ability of the maggid shiur to offer a chiddush, a novel reading, is what makes a shiurinteresting and intellectually inspiring. A good shiur begins with strong kashas since this establishes the challenge and makes the shiur fun to experience. In that sense, a shiur is an intellectual, religious, or perhaps spiritual type of acrobatic act.
Inquiry with a Safety Net
Acrobatic acts require great skill, but they are often performed with safety nets, which minimize risk to the performer. The existence of safety nets calms the audience, who experience a controlled thrill. A traditional shiur is also performed with a kind of safety net, namely the shared faith of the performer and the audience that a good answer is available, and that the canonical texts are true no matter what questions the speaker may raise.
A shiur can thus be compared to an intellectual or spiritual bungy-jump or roller-coaster ride. These latter activities allow participants to feel the rush of falling from a great height or speeding out of control, all the while knowing that they are actually in a safe and controlled environment. A shiur similarly allows participants to feel the thrill of challenging their sacred texts, all the while knowing that none of the questions pose any real danger to their faith or religious identity.
A shiur is different than an inquiry not only in its premises and methodology, but in its psychological purpose. Human activities that appear to be similar in nature may fill niches that are quite different. This is the case, I would argue, with traditional learning and academic inquiry. In the modern world, the attractiveness of a traditional shiur is in its ability to support the coherence of traditional ideas, whereas the attractiveness of academic inquiry is in its ability to test or update old ideas and uncover new ones.
Demonstrating the coherence of traditional ideas serves an important psychological function for religious people in the modern world. For many religious people, the dissonance between the worldview presented in traditional texts and that inherent in the modern world poses a continuous challenge. Many are anxious, at least subconsciously, that the modern world will cause them to lose their religion. One way of coping with such a constant, if low key, anxiety is through acts of controlled repetition, in which the object of fear appears on the horizon only to be overcome.
Hide-and-Seek versus Peek-a-Boo
A simple but fun way of thinking about these enterprises is to analogize them to two much-loved childhood activities: academic study is like a game of hide-and-seek, traditional study, like a game of peek-a-boo. The object of a game of hide-and-seek (for the seeker) is to find the person hiding. It is a test of skill as well as luck, and it is a game the seeker can lose. Although peek-a-boo is also ostensibly about finding someone hidden, it has a different purpose entirely.
Peek-a-boo is played as a way of overcoming separation anxiety. Children and/or parents cover their faces, making the parent “disappear,” thus allowing children to experience the disappearance and reappearance of their parents in a controlled environment. The child can then experience the “thrill” of fear while at the same time knowing that the parent is really standing there; all they need to do is move their hands and they will see them again.
As in the game of hide-and-seek, scientific inquiry seeks to find what is hidden in as objective a way as possible. Proper critical study does not control the answers to its inquiries any more than the seeker in hide-and-seek controls the whereabouts of the hiders.
A shiur works quite differently, however. Certainly, the maggid shiur has multiple avenues upon which to approach the problems being addressed, and the cogency and creativity of any given answer can range from moderate to exceptional. Even so, the final answer will always preserve the truth and coherence of the traditional texts. A traditional shiur can no more conclude by saying that the canonical text lacks coherence than a game of peek-a-boo can end with the parent actually disappearing. A shiur is simply not designed to function in this way.
Controlling Religious Anxiety
In short, a shiur takes you to the brink and brings you back; it never leaves you there. In traditional learning, the maggid shiur poses hard kashas, and the participants allow themselves to feel as if these questions are unanswerable. The kashas are supposed to be compelling enough to allow the listener to murmur out loud and say things like “this is taka schver (really bad)” or “the text makes no sense”– generally forbidden thoughts in a different context. (I remember really enjoying this part in my yeshiva bachur days; undoubtedly, I was anxious.)
The reason this does not provoke an all-out faith crisis is because all involved know that the shiur’s conclusion can never be that the kashas demonstrate that the text is in error. Rather, the participants trust that the maggid shiur has an answer that will make the text seem even more brilliant than they previously thought. By definition, this has to happen every single time, since the text is holy writ, touched by the divine, and thus must always win, and this is what the participants look forward to.
Personally, I have long loved this style of learning. Its intellectual merit lies in the creativity needed to come up with good questions and answers, the range of knowledge needed to find the right texts with which to build a thesis, and the ability to offer an intellectually insightful take home. The important niche it fills for the religiously inclined is assured since the dissonance between the traditional world Torah occupies and the modern world in which we live is a fact of life. Shiurim can often be very meaningful and even intellectually stimulating and traditional Torah study will continue to occupy an important place in Jewish religious life, but its methods, goals, and achievements are not those of academic or critical inquiry.
Moby Dick vs. Chester A. Arthur
A look at the difference between literature and history may help illustrate this point further. Literature is one of the most significant accomplishments of human culture. Events narrated in fiction stories or novels often has a greater impact on the way people think and feel than actual historical events. Although historical events are all “true” in the sense that they happened, it is not always the case that learning about a particular factual nugget is more important than reading a great piece of literature.
For example, every American student studies American history and takes a course in American literature. Whereas American history offers the student insight and information about the country’s past, it is possible, even likely, that reading about what happened to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick will yield more important insights and be more meaningful than reading about President Chester A. Arthur’s veto of the Steamboat Safety Bill.
Still, one is the study of fiction and the other the study of history. Captain Ahab never existed and never chased a white whale; Chester A. Arthur was the 21st president of the United States and he did veto that bill. Writing a history of the United States in which Arthur was never president or searching the ocean bottom for the sunken remains of the Pequod would be futile and valueless enterprises.
For Everything There is a Time and Place
In theory, one could make the argument that studying the minutiae of American history to the level of knowing what bills passed and failed in each administration is a better use of time than studying literature, but this would be beside the point. Regardless of which study one prefers and believes to be more meaningful, confusing literature with history makes the study of either muddled and meaningless.
The same is true, I would argue, about confusing yeshiva learning for academic study. Yeshiva learning can be enriching, meaningful, and even inspiring, but as a ritualized form of learning in which the traditional text always comes out on top, it is limited in its ability to bring a person to uncover historical truth. As Ecclesiastes writes:
קהלת ג:א לַכֹּל זְמָן וְעֵת לְכָל חֵפֶץ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.
Eccl 3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 6, 2018
October 29, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Essays on Related Topics: