Rav Shagar-B’Torato Yehageh: The Study of Talmud as a Quest for God Part I

Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) B’Torato Yehageh: Limud Gemara Kibakashat Elokim (In His Torah He Meditates: The Study of Talmud as a Quest for God) Hebrew, 290 Efrat 2008

I caught up on a variety of summer reading and will post some of my thoughts on what I read. I just got around to reading Rav Shagar’s sefer on how to learn Torah, which came out three years ago.

The Anglo educator who brought me a copy told me how he read the sefer on his flight over and he told me how in Israel everything is now a shitah unlike the monochromatic quest for single lines in the US. People will say I am learning Hazon Ish, or learning Telshe, or learning Brisk or learning Rav Nahman or learning like the Gra. They say: I am using academic Talmud or I am using philosophy or I am using film theory. Discussions of this phenomenon are found in Rav Cherlow’s books on Torat Eretz Yisrael. It is also found in the writings of the Rammim of Othniel, Maaleh Gilboa and Beit Morashah. There is a group think by this generation of middle aged ramim, who wish to broaden the canon and to create many voices. But the acknowledged exemplar of this new approach is Rav Shagar Zl.

Rav Shimon Gerson Rosenberg (Shagar) was educated at the Kerem B’Yavneh Hesder Yeshiva and later moved on to Yeshivat HaKotel. He also studied with Rav Yisrael Gustman and Rav Shlomo Fisher. He became a ram at Yeshivat HaKotel. At a later stage he was the Rosh Bet Midrash of Bet Morasha and then founded Yeshivat Siach-Yitzhak. He died young at the age of 57 in 2007. His lectured caused many to emulate his approach or at least to create their own version. He created the new “Israeli Hasidut” which was a Neo-Hasidism for the Hesder Beit Midrash that combined hasidut, Zionism, new age and post-modernism. And was one of the pillars of the group think that created this new Torah Eretz Yisrael of pluralism and meaning.

Whereas his rabbinic contemporaries tended to discuss the nature of this new Torah, Rav Shagar asked about the person. They formulated the hefza but he focused on the gavra. One cannot spend much time in the Datiim Hadashim world without hearing a call for Rav Shagar’s magical word mashmaut –meaning. All Torah has to have personal meaning. And meaning (mashmaut) transcends words (milim), or even halakhic conclusion (maskanah).

In this thoughtful and fruitful new book, Rav Shagar’s students collect all his speeches, lectures, and essay on Torah study into a very quotable book. It is a light read with discrete separate sections, ideal for a Shabbat or Yom Tov.
Rav Shagar’s thesis is that in addition to traditional learning we also need in our Torah study the fruits of academics, Hasidut, literature, Jewish thought, and aggadah. For Rav Shagar the post-modern pluralistic Jew cannot be satisfied with the older approaches to learning. It needs to be broader and have meaning.

But what is novel in Rav Shagar’s thought is that these other fields cannot and should not be done in the University but in the beit midrash. And they should not supersede Gemara learning rather be part of study session and on the list of sources for the shiur.

Rather, than look to the University or to Chassidus as places of character formation, for Rav Shagar the beit midrash and the study of Talmud is the character formation of the yeshiva student. A ben Torah is formed in the beit midrash and can only create a personal relationship with Torah in a beit midrash. So the hasidut, academic Talmud, mahshevet, poetry, modern literature, scholarship, sociology needs to be done by Ramim in the beit midrash. One should not replace Talmud with a more relevant field because that is doomed to failure, rather the other fields need to be part of Talmud study. Kafka, David Grossman, and Rav Nahman in the tosafot, Archeology and Moshe Idel in the Rambam, Academic Talmud and van Leer conferences in the Talmud shiur.

For Rav Shagar Torah study is the crucial component of the Brit, the covenant, between God and the Jewish People, and the in-depth study of the Talmud must remain the cornerstone of that covenant. The Ramim need to know the other fields and the students should be allowed to integrate them into their Talmud study.

I will return to the outline of the new Torah in the next post, but in order for the English reader to grasp the novelty of the agenda of Rav Shagar I will start with his discussion of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. On Page 250 of Rav Shagar’s book he quotes the 2001 essay by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein “Teaching Gemara in a Yeshiva HS” [Hebrew] Shanah bShanah 41
Rav Aharon states that those raised on intellectual knees of learned families have the qualities needed for in depth Talmud study, only they see the fruits for the long toil. In addition, the educator cannot overcome the current liberal and individual atmosphere in which the students were raised. Most students do not have the family background or the yirat shamayim to stick to Talmud study. Most of our students have a questionable knowledge of Gemara and do not desire to delve deeper. Therefore they should stick to studying mishnayot and Maimonides Mishneh Torah

Rav Shagar asks: For someone not raised in the closed religious world and who has a liberal and individual upbringing with the whole Western world open to them: why will they be happy studying only mishnayot?

Rav Shagar says he differs with Rav Aharon on two points. (1) Did we as the first generation of Hesder graduates come from learned halakhic homes? No. So do not blame the problem on culture or the level of the parents. (2) The students going to college and engaging in secular studies are not low level workers engaged in practical studies content to have concurrent low level learning. Some of those whom you question their appropriateness for Talmud study, master other fields on the highest levels including philosophy and Jewish thought.
The educated students from which you seek to find your Yeshiva students will find your approach existentially and spiritually cold and they will seek elsewhere personal and existential meaning. And furthermore the post-modern pluralism approaches without a grand narrative strongly clash with your tough emphasis on the normative.

Rav Aharon replied in the article and at the Lavi Conference on which the article is based that Gemara is not cold but springs from the heart of Judaism in which one recognizes the Holy Blessed be He as both norms and religious experience. Our fundamental relationship to God is as the commander who sets boundaries and limits. Rav Lichtenstein claims that if they are not ready to sit to study Talmud then it is a lack of interest and desire. The struggle is to achieve that inner desire. He quotes Rav Soloveitchik that the inner turmoil and the triumph is itself a religious goal.

Rav Shagar responds that Mishnayot do indeed maintain the normative and even foster a return to the balei batish. But Rav Shagar emphatically states that even if Rav Aharon succeeded with his American students to appreciate such balei-batishkeit – he will not succeed with the Israelis. Israeli youth do not want a struggle that they do not understand. They have a large gap between their lives and the norms of the Talmud. Studying mishnayot or Rambam does not address their issues or their need for an intellectual challenge.

Rav Shagar states, and this is the message throughout the book, that Torah study is to seek meaning, connection to life of the student, and integration of Torah and secular, especially the humanities. In addition, we need to use not just the intellect but also imagination, emotions, and desire. We need to connect to their literately sensitivities of the students and not skip the aggadita (and also bring literature into dialogue with the Talmud.)

For Rav Shagar, there needs to be individual creativity in interpretation of the Talmud. The student need to create. And not just chevruta but also individual projects and group discussions.

For Rav Shagar, we need to stress the existential and not the normative. We need to instill a sense that that the Gemara is my world, my culture. A world in which one lives and plots one’s inner life. We need to involve students in all their limbs, embodied and connected. Faithfulness to the Sages wont come through untrue apologetics but through identity, covenant and a recognition that that the beis medrash is one’s place. The Beit Midrash and the acceptance of the Talmud should be my personal choice because it makes meaning in my life, it offers experiential contact with the Infinite as both personal and primal

Should Ramim include Kafka, Academic Talmud, and Jewish thought in their reading of the Gemara? Should knowledge of these fields be based on the untrained auto-didactic interests of the Ramim? How can we combine so many methods of Talmud study: Gra, Brisk, Telshe, Hazon Ish, Rav Nahman, Chabad? To discuss these issues, stay tuned for Part II.

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