Thursday, November 10, 2011

Talmud and liberal arts education

POLITICS DAY! In this case the politics of the higher education bubble in Israel and the relevance of Talmud studies to the discussion.
Think Again: Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

11/09/2011 21:27 By JONATHAN ROSENBLUM (Jerusalem Post)

Put in terms of a choice between a no-nonsense course of study and what – the study of nonsense? – perhaps we should rejoice in the declining number of humanities students.

The Jerusalem Post’s November 1 editorial “In praise of liberal arts” lamented the everdwindling percentage of Israeli students opting for bachelor’s degrees in the humanities.


IF ONE key test of a liberal education is the ability to learn new skills, then talmudic learning could be an important component. True, talmudic learning will not teach one math, unless one studies the rabbis’ complex calculations of the lunar cycle; nor will it provide grounding in a specific science. But it is not irrelevant to any of these pursuits. And the combination of intellectual rigor, discipline and concentration required is unsurpassed.

The great Harvard medievalist Harry Austryn Wolfson described talmudic study as “the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.” Hypotheses are continually being formulated and either successfully defended or rejected. The Talmud says that one who studies alone grows stupid, and the battles between study partners are nothing less than the “wars of Torah.” Even when one studies alone, he must act as his own study partner, constantly asking: Does my theory fit all the facts? Is there another way to explain all the relevant data? Students must learn to follow complex arguments that proceed over pages of text, and to hold firm at each step as to whether the argument is being advanced or questioned. Ten-year-olds learn to apply, without being aware of it, the tables taught in mathematical logic to actual cases.

At every level, the student is exposed to conflict and competing views. The Tannaim of the Talmud argue with one another; the Amoraim argue with one another and over the proper understanding of the Tannaim. The Rishonim (early commentators on the Talmud) differ from one another over the principles that emerge from the debates of the Talmud, and sometimes over the text itself. Each Rishon must be understood on his own terms, and in terms of why he argues with another Rishon.

But while a single right answer can never be given in talmudic debate, it is often possible to demonstrate that a particular solution is wrong. Thus Talmud study is the antithesis of much of contemporary academia, which, in Mead’s words, “encourages mushy thinking about mushy disciplines.” One cannot just offer opinions; one must argue propositions. That itself is a healthy antidote for the young for whom the height of wisdom is: Everything, including morality, is a matter of opinion, and all opinions are equally valid – a view, incidentally, held by no great thinker of the past, no matter how greatly they differed with one another.

Though the study will not teach elegant prose style, it demands clarity of expression and the ability to structure a logical argument. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the great 19th- and early 20th-century talmudic genius, whose style of analysis dominates much of contemporary talmudic study, emphasized that there is no such thing as a concept that cannot be expressed.

Finally, the study of Talmud places one in a dialogue with many of the greatest minds in Jewish history, and grounds a Jewish student in his own culture – one in which the legal and moral realms are seamlessly intertwined.
A traditional liberal arts education (as opposed to, say, deconstruction-of-the-Justin-Bieber-canon studies) introduces students to the best thoughts and literature that humanity has produced. It also teaches them to think critically about those thoughts and writings and to write well-thought-out, well-organized, grammatical prose containing their own critical thoughts. These are skills that employers are desperate to find. Liberal arts degrees, properly done, (and including Talmudic studies as a liberal arts discipline) accomplish all of this as long as the students have the ability to master the material in the first place. (And if they don't, they don't belong at university.) As for the STEM subjects, those studying them still need a good selection of individual liberal arts courses to refine their writing and reading skills and develop their broader critical-thinking skills.

Another recent post on education and Talmudic studies is here. And note also my post from last year on Why we need Akkadian (and the humanities).