Talmud Torah al Levavenu: Learning Transformatively

BY: Ilana Gadish.

One of the most famous appearances of God in the Gemara is found in the aggadeta (homily) about the tannur shel Akhnai (the oven of Akhnai).[i] At the beginning of the story, R. Eliezer is found disagreeing with the Rabbis regarding the purity of an oven that has been cut into pieces and put back together with sand. After citing multiple proofs and arguments to prove to the Sages that the oven is impure (all of which they reject), R. Eliezer calls upon a carob tree to move, a river to flow backwards, and the walls of the beit midrash to fall down, attempting to use these miracles as divine confirmation of his position. Though all three miracles end up occurring (except for the third one, which only partially occurs, as the walls stop midway once R. Yehoshua demands that they not fall), the Rabbis ultimately declare that such occurrences cannot be used as proof for a halakhic position. R. Yehoshua then makes his famous proclamation about the Torah being in the hands of men and not under God’s jurisdiction: “lo ba-Shamayim hi – not in the Heavens is she [the Torah].” Following this, R. Natan asks Eliyyahu ha-Navi what God was doing at the exact moment of this event, and he reports, “He [God] was laughing and said: ‘My children have defeated me; my children have defeated me.’”[ii]

While this aggadah has been fleshed out and interpreted in various ways to shed light upon approaches towards Torah and the halakhic process, one idea that can be gleaned from this aggadah is that God, as a character in rabbinic literature, is quite removed.[iii] From a historical point of view, it is obvious that God is “removed” during this period – prophecy no longer exists, and thus, God is surely displayed as less involved, not openly revealing Himself like He does in the Tanakh narratives. Within the text of the Talmud, it is more difficult to find God as the focus of a discussion, for it is primarily a legal work concentrated on deriving laws and understanding them from their original sources and is less explicitly focused on relating the laws back to God. In this specific story, God does appear as a character, but explicitly states His non-involvement in the halakhic process. So while Tanakh presents characters with whom, and stories where God is involved, the Gemara only portrays God as a character in order to inform us that He will not be involved.

It is no surprise, then, that students sometimes remark that studying Gemara is not the best means towards achieving devekut ba-Hashem, a state of cleaving to God. This is especially true for students who did not grow up in an environment that cultivated a love for learning Gemara from a young age. Many might argue that Torah learning is a mitsvah li-shemah, for its own sake, and thus is not focused on achieving the distinct goal of increasing one’s connection to God.[iv] Similarly, one might claim that it does not matter if one enjoys figuring out whether the three years it takes to establish a hazakah[v] on a house is based on the concept of three gorings of an ox or some other logical deduction based on shetarot, documents, for example.[vi] It should not matter if you revel in hakirot (halakhic inquiries) or not. However, we know this is not exactly true – the Torah does want us to have some sort of internal connection to the mitsvot and their study: “ve-hayu ha-devarim ha-elleh asher Anokhi metsavvekha ha-yom al levavekha – and let these statutes that I am commanding to you today be on your heart.”[vii] The more pointed question is not whether or not it is important that learning is enjoyable, but rather, does learning need to have an internal effect on a person, and, beyond that, how does one go about achieving this effect?

In an article discussing the importance of identifying existentially with Tanakh, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein writes:

“This means that (1) it [Tanakh] should be part of our lives and (2) that we involve ourselves in its life, i.e., the lives of its protagonists. Thus, the ethos of the neviim (prophets) should challenge us to live according to their charge, and we should turn to them in times of tragedy and triumph as a source of inspiration and direction.”[viii]

Such an approach stresses the need to respond to life with a consciousness of Torah. By learning Tanakh with this goal in mind, we confront the texts and connect with them existentially so that they impact our personal lives. Though the scope of R. Lichtenstein’s article focuses more on Tanakh, I think this approach is equally relevant to Gemara study. However, the application of learning Gemara with this goal in mind might prove to be more challenging. Tanakh presents existentially compelling stories, stories with dilemmas and well developed characters. The relationships between the characters are complex, the narratives are thrilling; even the “boring Vayikra stuff” is filled with the notion that one must be meticulously careful in the avodah, the service of the Tabernacle and Temple, as well as with the korbanot, sacrifices. One can read those perakim and understand that the Torah is talking about aspects of the avodah that are filled with kedushah, holiness. In contrast, when studying technical details and halakhot in the Gemara, one is potentially less inspired, and thus it is harder to have an existential connection with such texts.

While Tanakh gives us broad values by which we should live – “…leahavah et Hashem E-lohekha lalekhet bi-derakhav ve-lishmor mitsvotav ve-hukkotav u-mishpatav – to love Hashem, your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances,”[ix] or “tsedek, tsedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue”[x] – the Gemara provides the finite examples in which those values find normative, legal expression. Tanakh characters teach us about how (or how not) to relate to God and to each other; characters in the Gemara give us insight into how to relate to Torah and how to relate to the mitsvot with the most fine-tuned accuracy. It is precisely this fine-tuned accuracy and extrapolation of mitsvot in the most exaggeratedly detailed manner that oftentimes engenders a feeling that learning Gemara is more about the intricate details of a halakhah than about Godliness.

It is easy to get frustrated with the level of detail into which the Gemara delves in laying out the parameters of a halakhah. Take, for example, the mitsvah of hashavat avedah, returning a lost object. The Torah tells us, “Hashev teshivennu – You shall surely return it to him.”[xi] The second chapter of Bava Metsi’a is dedicated to expounding upon that very mitsvah. Almost thirteen dappim, full pages of Gemara, are spent laying out the parameters of when, where, and what to return to someone. When a student is inside the sugya, it is easy for him or her to get lost in all of the details. Consider this complex discussion about returning lost coins:

“All [coins] not arranged conically, the Tanna designates as scattered. R. Hanina said: This was taught only of [coins of] three kings; but if of one king, he need not proclaim them. How so? If they lie pyramid-wise, then even [if they are] of one king [the proclamation should be made]; if they do not lie pyramid-wise, even if they are of three kings there should be no need [to proclaim them]? – But if stated, it was thus stated: ‘This was taught only of [coins of] one king, yet similar to those of three.’ How so? When they lie pyramidically, the broadest at the bottom, the medium-sized upon it, and the smallest on top of the middle one; in which case we assume that they were placed thus. If, however, they are of one king, all being of equal size, then even if they are lying upon each other they belong to him [the finder]: we assume that they fell thus together by mere chance. R. Johanan [however] maintained: Even if of the same king, he must proclaim them.””[xii]

The sugya does not end there; the intricate discussions continue. Detail-oriented sugyot such as the one above hardly proffer the opportunity for a personally transformative learning experience. It is quite difficult to feel devekut in determining whether a stack of coins is considered distinguishable enough to return or not based on the number of coins found and the manner in which they are stacked.

Similarly, for a student who spends hours breaking down the lengthy sugya about determining who has to do bedikat hamets, the search for leavened bread, in a case where a person rents someone his house on the eve of Pesah, it is hard to remember that the conversation there really stems from an obligation related to a holiday commemorating Yetsi’at Mitsrayim, the miraculous Exodus from Egypt. The inability to remember the divine framework of a halakhah adds to the challenge of establishing a personal and existential connection with complex Gemara sources. When learning Gemara, especially be-iyyun, in depth, it is important to remember the sugya’s context. It is always helpful to try to work out in one’s mind the development of the halakhah or legal concept being discussed and to work backwards to the place from whence it originated. Zooming out of a sugya can be helpful every now and then to remember what exactly it is that one is learning, how it relates back to the broader picture, and what about it is existentially compelling.

It is also important to pay attention to the surrounding aggadot of a sugya. While many aggadot are perplexing and sometimes strange, many can be understood and can provide enduring themes and messages relevant to the legal discussions of the surrounding sugyot. These can only be gleaned if one spends some time thinking deeply about an aggadah as opposed to skipping over it. While many aggadot have weird anecdotes and incomprehensible plotlines, it is not helpful to characterize all of them as “fluffy aggadot” that can be ignored. It is difficult to imagine that Hazal thought they were very fluffy.

There are many examples of aggadot that provide insight into complex legal issues in the Gemara. After a series of halakhic discussions about the laws regarding returning new, indistinguishable vessels to their rightful owners, the Gemara recounts this story:

“Mar Zutra once had a silver cup stolen from one of his guests. He saw one of the students there wipe his hands on his friend’s cloak. Mar Zutra then declared. ‘That is him – the one who was not considerate of his friend’s property!’ They pressed him and he admitted to it.”[xiii]

The Gemara continues with the discussion of whether or not one must return new vessels. Preceding this aggadah, there is a legal statement by Mar Zutra, so one could conclude that the story is simply added here because it is about the author of the previous statement. But Hazal did not include short aggadot about an Amora after every statement he made (this would be absurd). Hazal’s inclusion of this story is an interjection within a heavily halakhic discussion about hundreds of distinctions made between different types of objects and their characteristics that would determine whether a person is required to return them or not. This interjection reminds us of why we are steeped in such a detailed discussion: one’s attentiveness to the smallest details (i.e., minute details about the arrangement of coins, as mentioned above, or, here, someone merely drying his hands on his friend’s cloak) is indicative of one’s attitude towards larger, more important values (such as taking the time to fulfill the mitsvah of returning a lost object, or here, stealing someone’s expensive silver cup). Aggadot can offer a breath of fresh air that reminds us of how the elaborate details in a halakhic discussion in the Gemara are microcosmic expressions of the important mitsvot and values that Torah learning espouses.

Furthermore, the characters of the Gemara, though not always as fully developed as Tanakh characters, also offer important moral guidance.[xiv] Their devotion to Torah and the ethical lifestyle of hesed they promote should be noted when learning; this type of sensitivity and awareness fosters a personally transformative learning experience.

In our learning, we should see the characters of Hazal as our heroes in the same way that, as R. Mosheh Lichtenstein advocates in his article, Tanakh characters should be our heroes. Why should our children only look up to athletes and celebrities, such as Brett Favre or Miley Cyrus? Should our teenagers learn how to treat their parents like the obstinate, exorbitantly wealthy characters of the television show “Gossip Girl,” or should they learn from R. Tarfon, who held his hands under his elderly mother’s feet when her sandal broke?[xv] Why are the protagonists of “Desperate Housewives” discussed more often than the Talmudic heroine, Beruriah, a brilliant, learned female scholar with an outstandingly deep sensitivity to the hardships of life?[xvi] Do we not want our youth to be excited and inspired by Reish Lakish, brawny robber-turned-fierce talmid hakham? Yes, we should appreciate gifted singers, actors, artists, and sports players for their amazing talents. But should they be our community’s primary role models, the people to whom we look for ideals and lifestyles?

The Modern Orthodox community seems to value learning on an intellectual level, but, in my opinion, does not stress the importance of imbuing the values and lessons about humanity that the Gemara presents, in addition to the intellectual challenges it offers into its value system. R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, at the beginning of the article quoted above, insists on the importance of imbuing talmidim with a love of Torah: “Simply put, Ahavat Torah is indeed religiously more important than Torah knowledge, and, therefore, its needs must be taken into account as a major factor in choice of curriculum.”[xvii]

It is easy to make intellectual strides in learning, but if intellectual growth is not accompanied by a personally transformative experience, then the point of talmud Torah is being missed by a wide mark; then we are not ensuring that the words of Torah that we learn are al levavenu, on our hearts.

Ilana Gadish is a senior at SCW majoring in Judaic Studies and is an Associate Editor for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] Bava Metsi’a 59a.

[ii] Translation found in Devora Steinmetz, “Agada Unbound: Inter-Agadic Characterization of Sages in the Bavli and Implications for Reading Agada,” in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein (ed.), Creation and Composition: The Contribution of the Bavli Redactors (Stammaim) to the Aggada (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), pp. 293-337, at p. 311.

[iii] God, in a literal sense, does not appear at all: the voice from Heaven is a bat kol, not the actual voice of God, and the miracles being performed are described passively, “the carob tree was uprooted from its place a hundred cubits […] the stream of water turned backwards […] the walls of the beit midrash leaned to fall” – the aggadah does not describe the miracles as, “God moved the carob tree, God reversed the stream of water,” and so on. Even the famous statement by God, “Nitsehunni banai – My children have defeated Me,” is found in the text via a report given by Eliyyahu, and is not retold by the aggadah as “God said,” etc.  Even here, in this famous divine intervention, God is not explicitly involved.

[iv] “Many argue” refers to the opinion most explicitly developed by R. Hayyim of Volozhin in his Nefesh ha-Hayyim, Sha’ar 4. This opinion interprets “li-shemah” to mean “le-shem ha-Torah,” for the sake of the Torah, and not for the sake of God. Many thanks to my fellow Associate Editor, Jonathan Ziring, for clarifying this point.

[v] An established ownership of permanent habitation.

[vi] Bava Batra 28a-29a.

[vii] Devarim 6:6.

[viii] Mosheh Lichtenstein, “Fear of God: The Beginning of Wisdom and the End of Tanakh Study,” in Marc D. Stern  (ed.), Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God (New York, NY: Yeshiva University Press; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2008), pp. 135-162, at p. 144.

[ix] Devarim 30:16 (author’s translation).

[x] Ibid. 16:20 (author’s translation).

[xi] Shemot 23:4.

[xii] Bava Metsi’a 25a (Soncino translation).

[xiii] Bava Metsi’a 24a (author’s translation).

[xiv] While many of their statements regarding things like science or attitudes towards women are off-putting to those of us with modern sensibilities, their ethical and moral guidance, as well as their fascinating and powerful personality traits, are parts of Talmudic texts that should not be overlooked or downplayed.

[xv] Kiddushin 31b.

[xvi] As evidenced by her response to the death of her two sons that occurred one Shabbat, while her husband, R. Meir, was in the beit midrash, a story recounted in Midrash Mishlei 31:10.

[xvii] Lichtenstein, p. 139.