By Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun
When students in Religious-Zionist and Modern-Orthodox yeshivot study Talmud and Halakha, they do so in the same way, in the same language, and with the same tools that students have been studying those texts for hundreds of years. When they encounter students of ĥaredi yeshivot, they can discuss with them the same sugyot (Talmudic sections) they are studying; they can listen to and understand the same lectures that their ĥaredi counterparts attend, and they can read and understand the same volumes of Talmudic novellae. In the realm of Tanakh study, however, there is little common ground with the haredi yeshiva world.
My educational and pedagogic experience over forty years indicates that the overwhelming majority of students of Yeshivat Har Etzion and its kindred institutions recognize the important issues that are raised in choosing to study Tanakh in the academic world. At the same time, however, they maintain their belief in the fundamental principle of “Torah from Heaven,” that the word of God comes to us through the medium of the Tanakh. Those who take our approach, coupled with the love of Torah, emerge unscathed by this encounter, even when they pursue academic degrees in Bible. In contrast, many of those who turn to general academic study of Tanakh are harmed in their beliefs, and there is often a negative effect on their religious conduct as well.
A similar situation exists when it comes to Talmud study in yeshivot. Talmud study in the yeshivot is, for the most part, focused on the halakhic sections, emphasizing understanding key fundamental, conceptual issues based upon the works of the Rishonim (medieval commentators) and certain important works of the Aĥaronim (post-medieval commentators). The aggadic sections are almost completely ignored (and are, in fact, omitted by Rabbi Alfasi entirely in his work), despite the great protestations of rabbinic giants. In addition, traditional Talmud study breeds students with the inability to delve into and understand the sections in which the Talmud explains verses of Tanakh. Questions in these areas are generally answered with statements such as “this is a gezeirat hakatuv” (a scriptural decree) or “the rabbis received this concept via tradition,” without leaving any room for further enquiry. However, when there is no room left open for questions, there is no room for understanding. Approximately half of the corpus of the Talmud remains a “closed book” to yeshiva students and scholars, and all the more so to those who study large sections of the Talmud in “beki’ut” style. Like traditional study of Tanakh, this situation cannot continue for much longer; nature abhors a vacuum, and academic Talmud study will be sure to fill the space abandoned by the yeshivot. Here, too, there is a chasm between the Torah world and the world of the academy that must be resolved.
The two centers of Jewish life offer a study in contrasts. Israel is faced with an ongoing threat to its physical and political survival, but its Jewish identity is strong, even amongst its secular populace – perhaps due to the existential threat to the country’s survival. In contrast, the Jewish Diaspora in North America is faced with the persistent threat of assimilation, while its physical survival is assured. The total number of American Jews is static, and possibly decreasing. On the other hand, the core group of Jews who are members of communities and synagogues continues to strengthen itself. It is in this core group that much important educational work is being accomplished in areas of connection to Judaism and the State of Israel.
Under these conditions, any connection between North American Jewry and the Israeli experience and the renewed study of Tanakh in the land of Israel contains within it blessing and great hope. It is possible that we will only be able to evaluate the fruits of this dedicated effort in a generation or more!
On the verse, “And to Zion it shall be said: ‘This man, this man, was born in her’” (Psalms 87:5), the Sages of blessed memory comment: “This verse is applicable to any Jew that was born in Zion and to anyone who yearns to see her” (Ketubot 75a). In the merit of this connection, let us all hope for the complete unification of the entire Jewish People in the land of the Tanakh, using the language of the Tanakh. May it be the will of God that the conclusion of this verse – “and He will establish her on High” – be yet fulfilled in our day.
Adapted from the preface of “Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and its Interpretation” by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun is the author of the forthcoming volume in the Maggid Studies in Tanakh series, on Isaiah, co-authored by Rabbi Binyamin Lau.