Monday, December 30, 2013

Gemara, God and Goals

“If you want to know the One who spoke and the world came into being, study aggada”.

Sifrei Devarim 49

“Where can God be found? Wherever we let Him in”.

Kotzker Rebbe

I remember the day well. I was teaching gemara to one of the strongest classes I had ever taught. It was going extremely well. One student, of whom I was very fond, who was not always involved, was really into it. Still, I was dissatisfied. Braking the page (to borrow a term from theater), I turned to him and asked “Does this feel at all like a religious experience?”. He said that it did not, and we went back to learning. It is one thing to be unhappy when a class is not going well, but here I was suddenly unhappy with one that was quite good.

For a long time, it has seemed to me that rabbeim mistake successful learning of gemara, as a sign that the student has been motivated religiously. If we think about it, learning gemara well and religious motivation are two totally separate things. The possibly apocryphal tales of the maskil who sat learning gemara on Shabbos, while smoking a cigarette, highlights this idea. For those with an analytical bent, learning gemara is very engaging. A judge once told my father OB”M that the best preparation he had for a career in law, was learning gemara. One can get lost in the brilliance of the page without thinking of God even once. She can be so engaged in the details of the mitzvah, that she never thinks of the Metzaveh.

So what is the solution?

Strangely, it's right there in the very text of the gemara. Sifrei, a halachic work, tells us that if one wants to encounter God (interestingly, described as “the One who spoke and the world came into being”), should study the non-halachic, philosophical teachings of the gemara called “aggada”. This is not to deny that for some God is in the halachic details. It is saying that there is a second side that must be learned to encounter the Divine.

Of course, as anyone who has ever been in a gemara shiur from beginners level to the highest beit midrash knows, aggada is either skipped, or read through perfunctorally, without any attempt at a deeper understanding. Even if one would seek to justify this approach, by an appeal to tradition, it is not a very satisfying answer. Historically, those who learned gemara were highly motivated religiously, and often lived in a world that challenged their beliefs much less than ours does today.

It seems to me that a big reason for the lack of systematic study of aggada is a lack of knowledge and thus, comfort. Most teachers of gemara have never learned aggada in a sophisticated manner. As such, it's hard to imagine them teaching it to their students. Fortunately, there are many great resources available. Rav Kook has a peirush on the aggadot of Masechtos Berachos and Shabbos called “Ain Ayah”. It is deep and beautiful, and unlike some of his other writings, it is not flowery and is thus, more easily understood. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau has written deeply, in English, about many aggadot, some of which can be found online.

We can not bemoan the lack of religious motivation among our students and children (or ourselves ), if we do not work to change the situation. There are those who bemoan the lack of God's presence in public school. We must be sure that the same can not be said about our yeshivahs. It is time to learn aggada.

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