What are we looking for when we're studying Talmud? personal meaning or talmudic language?
Why do we study gemara, or Torah more generally? How does that ‘why?’ affect the ‘how?’ – the method or process – of the study itself? In this short essay, I want to look at two primary, somewhat opposing aims in Rav Shagar’s approach to Talmud study. I will call these two aims ‘Meaning’ and ‘Language.’
By ‘Meaning’ I refer to Rav Shagar’s urging that Talmud study should be personally meaningful and relevant. When studying Talmud, we must find ways to make it personally relevant to us as students. What meaning does the sugyah bear for our lives?
By ‘Language’ I refer to Rav Shagar’s idea that we can and should learn to speak the language of the gemara, as it were. The gemara deals with plenty of issues that may not be directly relevant to our lives, but which provide a vocabulary we can and should adopt for speaking about our own lives.
These differing aims give rise to two different methodologies for studying talmudic texts.
If the goal of studying Talmud is ‘Meaning,’ then the method of study must involve ‘translating’ the sugyah into the language we use in our everyday lives–not ‘nisuin’ but ‘marriage,’ not ‘sho’el’ but ‘borrower.’ In this manner, we can see how the gemara takes positions on or makes statements about situations we encounter in our everyday life. We should also bring in whatever philosophy, literature, art, etc. that will help us explore and clarify the meaning of those situations.
In the most intense form of this approach, a student simply reads the text in a straightforward manner and asks ‘What does this mean to me?’ or even just writes down or expresses whatever the text makes them think of. This is the sort of learning often engaged in at Rav Dov Zinger’s Beit Midrash for Renewal.1
If, however, the goal of studying Talmud is ‘Language,’ then the method of studying must involve becoming internally familiar with the language of the sugyah. Study gemara, like learning any language, is thus about immersion and repetition. That way, when we go from studying back to the rest of our lives, we can think and speak about the situations we encounter through the language of the Talmud – we don’t get engaged, we are mekadesh/mekudeshet. If ‘Meaning’ translates the Talmud into everyday language, ‘Language’ teaches us how to translate the everyday into the language of the Talmud.2
For Rav Shagar, both the issues of personal meaning and talmudic language are deeply connected with our covenant with God, something embodied in the very act of studying Talmud.
Our covenant with God ought to reach to the deepest part of who we are, and we should bring ourselves fully to our Torah study. It’s not something separate from the rest of our lives or personalities. We must therefore ask what meaning the material we are studying bears for us and for our lives.
However, our covenant with God is also manifest in the fact that we are born into the Jewish people and participate in the national-cultural covenant of the Jewish people with God, as concretized in the Torah. When we learn Torah, we learn to speak the language of our people, culture, and covenant, three things which are inextricably bound together. Part of what shapes us as members of this covenant is the way we learn this language and use it to think and speak about our lives.
Notably, these two options aren’t mutually exclusive – they might even be complementary. As Jews in the modern world, who are deeply both modern and Jewish, the ability to ‘translate’ in both directions – between all the different parts of ourselves – may represent an important aspect of the Jewish covenant with God in the 21st century.