The In-Depth Study Trap
By Shlomo Tikochinski | 18/11/2010
The study method developed by Rabbi Haim of Brisk in the 19th century requires the learned student of Torah to delve deeply into particular Talmud tractates. This method, which is naturally slow, comes at the expense of broad and comprehensive learning of the entire Talmud, and is suitable only for a select few. Although this is photo: Eyal Onne
a long-known fact among yeshiva heads, and although HaRav Shach waged a fierce war against it, it still reigns strong. The result is generations of yeshiva students trapped in a world of in-depth, but terribly narrow study
It seems that the days are already gone when the question of “what do they do there” hovered in the air, or, “what do they get when they trade in their military service, studies and career”? As a result of its growing involvement in Israeli society, ultra-Orthodox society is more exposed today than ever. And still, the world of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva still lies far from Israeli eyes. In what follows, I will try to illuminate one corner of the daily routine of the Lithuanian yeshivas, which are considered the tone-setting stream in all that relates to Talmud study in ultra-Orthodox society: the Talmud study format and analytical and interpretive method it employs. An understanding of this matter can serve as a key to understanding the processes that ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel has undergone in recent decades.
Goal-seeking as educational failure
It is probably superfluous to state the well known fact that the official study format in the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas includes only Talmud and its commentaries, and does not including studying halakha, Midrash or even Bible. These yeshivas have no formal systems for demonstrating achievement, and distribute no certificates or degrees. This is because the goal is not rabbinical training, but the fulfillment of the ideal of study for its own sake, in order to produce more learned scholars of Torah for the Jewish people.
The study is individually ordered, for the most part, based on the individual's motivation to build his personality and plan his Torah future. Since the days of the “mother of all yeshivas” in the town of Volozhin in the early 19th century and to this day, these are the assumptions that underlie the study program (or, more precisely, the lack of a study program) in yeshivas. The yeshiva provides a framework, forums and appointed study times and a supportive society, but presence in lessons and achievement were and remain changing variables from yeshiva and yeshiva and from period to period, and to a large extent, from individual to individual. In the rich literature of memoirs we have from Lithuanian yeshivas from the end of the 19th century, it is often told that when a young man learned for the purpose of rendering halakhic decisions – i.e. to consider taking a rabbinic post – he was immediately suspected by his friends of having a “goal” and viewed as having abandoned the ideal of study as an end unto itself. In the mussar yeshivas of the Novhardok stream, this was thought of as true educational failure.
The path of Brisk Hasidism
The history of Lithuanian Torah study can be divided into three stages: from the beginning of the 19th century and through the 1870s, the pervasive path of study was that of the Gaon of Vilna (1750-1808) and his students. This path, whose main value was to understand the text's literal meaning and strive towards a halakhic conclusion, was developed as an antidote against the longwinded analyses – "pilpul" – of the Polish yeshivas. The revolution in the manner of study in the Lithuanian yeshivas took off in the 1880s, with the emergence of the analytic method of R. Haim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918) and his contemporaries. At the beginning of the 20th century, and mainly after WWI, the yeshiva heads in Lithuania developed an additional level built atop the Brisk approach, and this remains the predominant method in the Lithuanian yeshiva world to this day.
What is this Brisk approach that conquered the yeshivas? Not "pilpul" on the one hand, but not broad familiarity either. Rather, it comprises a slow deconstruction of the Talmudic discussions using analysis and logic absorbed from modern legal thought in order to identify and define the abstract principles underlying the discussion. It is important to note that this manner of study does at all address meta-halakhic issues at the level of ideas and philosophy; rather, it deals with legal principles formulated in internal Talmudic language. The focus on the legal aspect of halakha promoted the status and decisive role of the intellect in religious life, and from a social standpoint, promoted the social standing and prestige of brilliant students. The historical timing was appropriate: during the period that the Lithuanian yeshivas were dealing with the waves of enlightenment and secularization in the Jewish street, the yeshiva students gained tremendous satisfaction from the investigative way of learning, and this helped the yeshiva student shake the feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis enlightenment and scientific research of modern Jewish studies.
Depth versus breadth
Close study of a Talmudic discussion using the analytic Brisk method requires time and intellectual resources, and the proliferation of the method in the world of Torah scholarship brought about changes in the way yeshiva study was conducted. Tension arose between two competing trends – depth versus breadth. A higher status was awarded to “in-depth” study. This method involves a concentration of intellectual investment, acquiring a study ability in which study was conducted with a debating partner ("hevruta"), and through which the student establishes his social status.
As a result of the reduced pace of study, the scope of topics studied in depth was drastically reduced. The Babylonian Talmud is, as is known, divided into six “Orders” that together contain sixty tractates, spanning a total of 5,500 pages. And yet, in contrast to the tradition of the Volozhin Yeshiva, in which the entire Talmud was studied from start to finish in cycles averaging seven years, the yeshivas of the 20th century focused only on select Talmudic discussions, and in so doing, retreated from their own heritage and from the ideal of the “talmid hacham” – the Torah scholar who has comprehensive mastery. The character of the lessons taught by the teaching staff has also changed. The yeshiva heads in the Lithuanian world of Torah scholarship and their deputies began establishing their reputations as their lessons became more incisive, and as their brilliant innovations captured the intellects and hearts of the young yeshiva students.
During the period between the two world wars, the Lithuanian yeshivas became elementary educational institutions for members of traditional society who desired advanced studies in Talmud. With a decline in the level of religious observance in the age-old Eastern European communities, the a-geographical communities – those new communities with rabbis and yeshiva students at their center – rose to ascendancy. The strengthening of the yeshivas led to a bolstering of the status of their leaders, and with the development of the Jewish newspapers and politics in Eastern Europe, the yeshiva heads became the leaders of the Orthodox community overall.
And yet, the Brisk-yeshiva style of study also became a target of criticism, both internal and external. The external critique came mainly from the Hasidic head rabbis and the Hungarian yeshivas, which still promoted the ideal of broad familiarity with Talmud and responsa literature. The internal-Lithuanian critique came from conservative circles, which continued to uphold the path emphasizing reaching a halachic conclusion based on the legacy of the Vilna Gaon. In the mid-20th century, similar charges could be heard also from deep within the yeshiva establishment, and the principle of the Brisk analytic method began replicating itself, its technical approach growing ever distant from the practice and even from the ideas at the basis of the halakha.
A methodological and social problem
The blossoming of the world of Torah study in Israel after the Holocaust brought with it a resurgence of internal critique. Rabbi Joseph Shlomo Cahanemanof Panevezys (1886-1969), founder of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, identified the problem already in the 1960s, and, according to the testimony of his student, Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, one day the rabbi convened the top students and in an impassioned speech, warned them against the new phenomenon in the world of study: “If, in the past, the concept of 'a great ignoramus' referred to a person who did not read or study, and knew almost nothing, in our times, a new catchphrase can be discerned: 'an ignoramus is great,' (referring to) a person who studies and engages in longwinded interpretations ('pilpul'), and innovates in Torah – but in truth, he is an ‘ignoramus' since he has no expertise in Torah, due to the excess of 'pilpul' at a young age.” (Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, Kinyan Torah, Jerusalem, 1991, p. 94)
Rabbi Cahanemanwas not attempting to instigate a revolution and change priorities in the world of study, and yet, he touched on an essential problem. The desired process of improving the ways of thinking constitutes, in the yeshiva world, a more exalted goal than acquiring informative knowledge, since it advances the central challenge of being “studious.” At the same time, it is agreed by all yeshiva educators that the ability to analyze and interpret is impaired when a student lacks broad mastery of the material; therefore, studies fostering broad familiarity are imperative for in-depth study. Yet here, the yeshiva leadership faces the problem that the “broad familiarity” studies are secondary, and that they are unpopular among the students. The hierarchy in yeshiva society was and remains based on intellectual achievements, the various yeshivas are ranked based on these measures, and the leadership must support and promote “in-depth” studies that maintain the high academic voltage.
And so, what is to be done? An initiative that changes the priorities is out of the question. The yeshivas are proud of their heritage, and they will certainly not allow it to be changed. And in general, in the Lithuanian yeshiva world, as in ultra-Orthodox society overall, there is no open debate regarding the way study is conducted, and there are not even any writings that systematically describe the methodology being implemented.
In addition to the theoretical problem of methodology, a graver social problem arose. The late 1970s witnessed a pronounced numerical increase in the yeshiva world in Israel, mainly after the coalition agreement between the Agudath Israel party and the Begin government, which expanded the exemption from army conscription. Dozens of new yeshivas were established during this period, based on the old format, but the path that suited the ambitious student-elite was not appropriate for these yeshivas. Expansion of the yeshiva world led to a natural increase in variety, and created an inter-institutional hierarchy, but the leadership took no initiative in reshaping the study format or in launching a new type of yeshiva for the mid-level students who faced the harsh competitiveness of the Brisk-based study method.
Internal ultra-Orthodox critique surfaced from a source external to the yeshivas – a Torah scholar from Toronto by the name of Shimon Furst. In a brief pamphlet entitled: “Give Honor to the Torah,” which he distributed in numerous editions from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, Furst presents a dim picture of the decline in quality of studies and students in the U.S. and Israeli yeshivas. The pamphlet was written with great emotionality based on the author's strong impression from encounters with many young people, who, according to him, mourned the loss of their best years in yeshivas that left them only with longwinded analyses ("pilpul") and halakhic theories that they didn't understand, and reported a sense of personal failure and deep frustration. These young people entered yeshiva with great ambitions and expectations, and the yeshiva did not live up to their expectations due to the rampant neglect in the areas of "broad familiarity" and the competitive preoccupation with "in-depth study." Furst claims that the prevalent study method in yeshivas was failing to do its job, and was not faithful to the traditional principle of Torah teaching. Despite his position outside of the system, Furst succeeded in recruiting the heads of three large yeshivas in Israel: HaRav Shach of the Ponovezh yeshiva, Rabbi Shmuelevitch of the Mir Yeshiva, and Rabbi Moshe Hevroni of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem – in the spring of 1975, all three made a public plea to all yeshiva students to restore the balance between "in-depth learning" and "broad familiarity."
Rabbi Shach's Wars
Interestingly, while Furst's darts of critique were intended for the system and its leadership – the yeshiva directors – the latter directed their criticism at the students, charging them with an inability to prioritize and distinguish significant knowledge from supplementary detail. HaRav Shach's role in this debate regarding study shows a clear consciousness of crisis. While his open letters are directed at the yeshiva students, it seems that the teaching staff in the yeshivas was also a target of his criticism. After seeing no change in the situation, he published additional letters in the same vein during the 1980s and 90s.
In a manner similar to Furst, HaRav Shach and his colleagues place the students' experience of frustration and dissatisfaction at the center. And yet, in contrast to Furst, they are sparing in their critique of the analytic study method, focusing instead on its implementation. To an outside observer, the dynamics of the campaign appears strange: Furst demonstrated a concern for a system of which he was not a part. He critiqued it and almost explicitly blamed its leaders, but in order to carry out changes on the ground, he recruited the head of the system themselves, who in turn directed their critique inwards, toward the students. At first glance, this appears to be a flight from responsibility, but such are the dynamics in the Lithuanian yeshiva world in the 20th century. The sociology of the yeshiva world after the Holocaust manifests in the change in emphasis in all that pertains to the system's responsibility to its students. Following the numerical increase, the yeshiva's educational and social goals overshadowed its study objectives. Like every religious institution in the modern age, the Lithuanian yeshiva in Israel grappled with a built-in tension between the religious and the academic. In the case of ultra-Orthodox society in Israel, the social/worldview/ideological aspect prevailed, and the segregation from general, Zionist society was bound to take expression first of all in the yeshiva education. Study and erudition were and remain the center of the yeshiva world, but the system left the academic progress to the discretion and ability of the students, while taking full responsibility for their socialization into ultra-Orthodox society.
Perhaps this can help us understand why, in the demand for changing the manner of study, pressure was directed at the students. The system busied itself more with creating frameworks, and less with infusing them with content. Based in their fear of preserving the heritage of the yeshivas, the leadership continued encouraging analytical erudition, at the same time recognizing that this approach was suitable only for a very few. The system maintained the objective of scholarly achievements according to the old model of long-term investment in acquiring broad Torah knowledge. On the other hand, it appears that it is well aware of the frustration of the average yeshiva student, and as a result, the significant devaluation of true yeshiva learning.
HaRav Shach's conduct in the struggle over how learning is conducted reflected a typical aspect of his leadership. Despite his protests, he applied no pressure on individual yeshiva directors, although he did so regarding other issues. He apparently did not believe that it was desirable to exert all of his influence and authority to change the system under his direct leadership, including the Ponovezh Yeshiva of which he was director. This was the manner of HaRav Shach in many realms. He guided and cautioned, but was well aware of the limitations of the new generation, and was careful not to put disobedience to the test. He well knew that yeshiva erudition was still popular and constituted a powerful means of social advancement, and that it could not be changed by force. Moreover, ultimately, this has been the approach in yeshivas from time immemorial, and it is understandable that HaRav Shach, of all people, would be clearly fearful of the possibility of shocking the system and having a detrimental effect on the basic character of the yeshiva world.
In recent years, we have been witness to the creation of special study tracks based on a methodological or topical theme. There are some yeshivas for married men focused solely on "broad familiarity," which even incorporate tests and special monetary compensation. Additionally, in recent years, special yeshivas have appeared on the fringes of the Lithuanian camp, designed specially for those who struggle with Talmud studies or have other special needs. And yet, Talmud study is still the focus of every ultra-Orthodox institution for males, and the analytic Brisk-style of erudition is still dominant, cutting-edge and tone-setting.
These and other questions regarding the manners of study in Lithuanian yeshivas reflect the particular way in which ultra-Orthodoxy is grappling with educational questions that today confront all of modern society, including the State of Israel. Dilemmas of authority versus autonomy in education, of academic versus social goals, of perfectionism and excellence versus education for all, provide fodder for academia and public debate throughout the Western world. Of course, variety and social mobility are proportionally limited to the extent to which a society is closed and offers a limited range of possibilities. In the case of the yeshivas, however, fear of backlash on the part of the religious leadershipprevents it from making the difficult decisions so needed on the ground and leaving an "in-depth" problem unresolved.