Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 9 August 2012

What Learning Has Value

With the recent completion of the Daf Yomi cycle we have all heard the expected shouts of "Kol hakavod!" which is not surprising considering the herculean task that completing the Talmud Bavli in seven and a half years.  Indeed, kol hakavod to everyone who has persisted through, many for the third and fourth times in their lives.
But mixed in with all the praise are some grumpy refrains. Statements like "Well learning the daf isn't really learning because it's too superficial" or "There's no real benefit to going through the English in the Artscroll" get bandied about here and there.  Is there any merit to these statements?
I would suggest that there is not.  I think people who state things like this have no clue what real learning is.  Let me enlighten you.
In his comments on the first mishnah in Avos, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, states that the goal of Jewish behaviour is the maximum dissemination of Torah.  The more Torah Jews know, the better.  Not the more Vilna Shas pages, not the more Rishonim in particular, but the more Torah.  This is in consonance with various statements from the Chazal about the obligation to learn Torah based on the pasuk in Yehoshua stating that we should be learning it day and night.  Someone who simply recites qrias Shema can, in the right circumstance, be said to have learned Torah; how much more so someone who sits and goes through a daf of Gemara every day.
I think one reason this idea is often forgotten is because of the access to information people have nowadays when it comes to learning.  Remember that this was before Artscroll and Feldheim made the English-Hebrew learning experience we have today so commonplace.  Go back only thirty years and what resources were available to a person who couldn't spend all day learning with an experienced Rav?  Or to someone who became chozer b'teshuvah?  When it came to Talmud there was only the Soncino edition which, while a huge accomplishment, isn't the most user-friendly way to start learning.  When it came to halacha there was the English translation of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.  And there was a venerable English-Hebrew Chumash with Rashi.  Not much more.
As a result, those people who learned Talmud could proudly look around at the high level they were accomplishing.  Even just doing the daf yomi was an exceptional achievement in that environment.  But things have changed.  When it comes to English and Hebrew speakers there are multiple options available for the new learner.  New commentaries in Chumash, Talmud and halacha make once elite sources now accessible to everyone.  Is this perhaps why the bar has been raised?
Keep in mind the following: yes, we are all of us obliged to learn Torah to the best of our ability.  More than kashrus and other Jewish behaviours, a fixed routine of learning Torah is what defines us as frum Jews.  However, we are not all of us obliged to become poskim and sometimes I think people forget this especially as a result of the ease of access of important learning materials.
An average shlub like me, for example, does not need to know if the Rashba didn't like the Ritva's take on the Ramban's analysis of the Rif on an obscure subject in the back of Bava Metzia somewhere.  An average shlub like me needs to know how to behave properly al pi halacha on any given day and something about why we behave in that kind of way.  This is not meant to depreciate the importances of deeper learning, chas v'shalom.  The more the better, the more depth the greater, it goes without saying but the idea that one is not learning Gemara unless one spends three months on a single sugya is ludicrous.  For some folks, yes, anything less is not really learning but for many of us it doesn't enhance our limud Torah experience.
What do I recommend as a "real" learning schedule for the average shlub?  Do an aliyah of Chumash a day, starting with the first aliyah on Shabbos afternoon so you finish on Friday afternoon.  Do a daf a day of Mishnah Berurah or Aruch HaShulchan (I'm preferable to the latter but Feldheim has a Hebrew-English version out) and a daf of Gemara in any format that makes sense, either in Hebrew, Hebrew-English or even just plain English.
Don't let people think that you're not really learning because you don't do it the way "they" did it in the alte heim.  The goal is a person learning as much as he can in the short time he has in This World.  All that matters in that we give it our most honest effort.


AztecQueen2000 said...

How many people in the alte heim even learned that much? Bear in mind that those were the days when even getting water took half the day, never mind milking cows, chopping wood, growing food (assuming you were lucky enough to have any land) and even starting a fire to cook supper. Besides, who even had access to seforim? Maybe one masechta for a dozen learners? We're fantasizing about something that may not have existed.

JT said...

This knock on Daf Yomi, that it's not real learning because it doesn't delve to the ultimate depths the way a proper talmid chahcam ought, is not new. It started in the Litvish Yeshivos of the time of R' Meir Shapiro, the originator of the program.

It's also true. Someone who has the talent, the background and can devote the time to learning on an advanced level certainly ought to.

Having said that, commentor AztecQueen2000 is certainly correct that in the "alte heim" the vast majority of good, frum Jews didn't learn much past bar mitzvah. They might attend the Rav's drashah on Shabbos. The joke is that even today, with all the resources available, far too many don't learn seriously at all. All too often "Daf Yomi isn't real learning" isn't a boast of one's greater accomplishments in Torah, it's an excuse not to even try.