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David C. Flatto

David C. Flatto, a professor of Jewish studies and con-

stitutional law at Penn State University, recently

received his doctorate with distinction from Harvard

University’s department of Near Eastern Languages

and Civilizations.






M y first exposure to the academic study of Talmud (referred to herein interchangeably as the “academic method,” the “critical method,” or the “modern method”)1 came after completing nearly a decade of learning at Yeshiva University and yeshivot hesder, when I audited several seminar sessions led by Professor David Weiss Halivni at Columbia University. Prior to the start of the semester, I met Professor Halivni who informed me that he would be teaching the second chapter of Bava Batra. Anticipating the opening “shiur,” I asked him whether he will be focusing on the sugya of gerama be-nezikin (indirect damages), which is one of the few “lomdushe” subjects in that chapter.2 My enthusi- asm for this topic hardly registered with him, and he said that we would be proceeding sequentially, and intimated that there was not much in particular about that topic which would occupy his attention. I remember my sense of surprise and disappointment at his response, and my certainty that I was not in the right venue.

1 Throughout this article I refer to the critical method and traditional method in uniform terms, and disregard the significant diversity of approaches within each school. Nevertheless, for purposes of this article I believe that this simplification is jus- tified. I am assuming that the reader has much familiarity with the traditional method, and will elaborate below on aspects of the critical method. See also notes 35, 38 and 44.

I would like to thank the 2010 Orthodox Forum coordinators and participants, and numerous other colleagues and friends for their many thoughtful responses to earlier drafts of this article.

2 See b. Bava Batra 22b-23a. Traditional yeshivot focus primarily on the first, third and eighth chapters of Bava Batra in their course of study.

TRADITION 43:4 / © 2010 1 Rabbinical Council of America


My strong reaction can be traced to my years of learning at Yeshiva University, whose hallmark mode of study is the traditional analytic method, especially the Brisker method (referred to herein interchangeably as the “traditional method,” the “conceptual method,” the “analytical method,” or the “Brisker method”). Developed in the illustrious yeshivot of Eastern Europe, especially Lithuania, in the nineteenth century, this methodology dominates yeshiva study to this day, including traditional and Modern Orthodox yeshivot.3 Schooled in the Brisker method, with its preference for conceptually intricate sugyot, I found the distinct emphases of the critical method to be alien and misguided.

Considered from a distance, Yeshiva University’s choice (I will focus on Yeshiva University as an exemplar of Modern Orthodox yeshivot) of the traditional method—although well known to all who have passed through its corridors—is not entirely obvious. Marching under the banner of “Torah U’Madda,” Yeshiva University ideally promotes the highest forms of religious and secular study. At first blush, forging a synergy between these disciplines by applying secular academic tools to Jewish knowledge, in the manner of the critical method, would seem to afford an ideal mode of study. Moreover, one would imagine that the origin and prevalence of the traditional method in pre-modern yeshivot would suggest that it is tailored to a world that does not embrace components of modernity which are at the forefront of the vision of Yeshiva University.4 Just as Parsha or Tanakh are often studied 3 For a more precise account, see Mordechai Breuer, Ohole Torah: ha-Yeshivah, Tavnitah ve-Toldoteha (Merkaz Zalman Shazar le-Toldot Yisrael: Jerusalem, 2003);

and Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshivah ha-Litait be-Hithavutah ba-Meah ha-Tesha-esreh (Merkaz Zalman Shazar le-Toldot Yisrael: Jerusalem, 1995). On the conceptual method, see Chaim Saiman, “Legal theology: The Turn to Conceptualism in NineteenthCentury Jewish Law,” Journal of Law and Religion 21:1 (2005-2006), pp. 39-100;

Lomdut, The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning, ed. Yosef Blau (Ktav Publishing House: Jersey City, 2005); R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning: The Method and Its Prospects,” Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning (Ktav Publishing House: Jersey City, 2003); Marc Shapiro, “The Brisker Method Reconsidered,” Tradition 31:3 (1997), pp. 78-102; and Norman Solomon, The Analytic Movement: Hayyim Soloveitchik and His Circle (Scholars Press: Atlanta, 1993). For a discussion of the relationship of the Talmudic rabbis to conceptualization, see Leib Moscovitz, Talmudic Reasoning: From Casuistics to Conceptualization (Mohr Siebeck: Tub̈ingen, 2002).

4 In addition, the critical method’s objective of arriving at an exact understanding of a rabbinic teaching arguably shares more with the monistic approach of the Rishonim (at least in certain respects), than the binary analytic inquiry of the Brisker method, which was deemed by early contemporary critics to be too artificial and innovative. Of course, this is ironic given that today this latter approach has become the prevalent “traditional” method of study in yeshivot. Moreover, the innovative dimension

2 David C. Flatto

in more “modern” ways at Yeshiva University (and other Modern Orthodox yeshivot),5 so too one would imagine that its approach to gemara would reflect modern sensibilities.6 Nevertheless, although Yeshiva University encourages academic inquiry in its secular disciplines and endorses aspects of modernity, it resists academic studies within its bet midrash, deliberately assigning them to other divisions (such as the Bernard Revel Graduate School and Yeshiva College).7 Further, the specific branch of Jewish studies focusing on the academic study of the Talmud is hardly pursued at Yeshiva University altogether.8 of the Brisker method (despite often being characterized as a bridge to the past) constitutes another reason to question whether it should be privileged over other novel approaches. To be sure, if the Brisker method has an innovative side, this partially undermines my argument earlier in the paragraph. Nevertheless, the new dimension of the Brisker method differs from the “modern” dimension of the critical method, which culls from critical-historical techniques which were developed in the modern era.

Needless to say, notwithstanding the charge of innovation, the traditional roots of the Brisker method have been staunchly defended by its leading practitioners, and in any event, by now the Brisker method has been received in the yeshiva world as the traditional method of study. For more on the Brisker method and its origins, see the references cited in the previous note. See also R. Joseph B. Soleveitchik, Halakhic Man, tr. Lawrence Kaplan (Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia, 1983); and “Ma Dodekh mi-Dod,” Ha-Doar (1963).

5 See, e.g., the various writings of Rabbis Mordechai Breuer, Yoel Bin-Nun and Elchanan Samet, and studies found in journals such as Megadim. See also Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. Shalom Carmy (Aronson Press: Northvale, New Jersey, 1996).

6 To be sure, certain leading Modern Orthodox voices have underscored the relevance, and even modern dimensions, of traditional study in the contemporary era.

Thus, R. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man can be seen as a modern defense of traditional study (and practice). In addition, see R. Lichtenstein’s subtle analysis of the role of modern language in formulating traditional analytic concepts in his introduction to Shiurei ha-Rav Aharon Lichtenstein: Dina De-Garme, eds. Amihai Gordon and David Feldman (Yeshivat Har Etsiyon: Alon Shevut, 2000). See also several essays in Lomdut, The Conceptual Approach, ed. Yosef Blau. For additional reflections on this matter, as well as a post-modern perspective on Talmud study, see the various writings of R. Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), especially Kelim Shevurim: Torah ve-Tziyonut-Datit bi-Sevivah Post-Modernit: Derashot le-Moade Zemanenu (Yeshivat Siah Yitshak, Jerusalem, 2003).

7 For additional background on the history of this distribution, see Aaron RakeffetRothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia, 1972), pp. 43-134, 198-203. See also the secondary references cited in note 11 below.

8 For an important early statement of principle related to this matter, see Dr. Bernard Revel’s revealing (unpublished) essay entitled “Seminary and Yeshiva.” Authored by Revel in 1928 in objection to the proposed merger between Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, this essay underscores the different approaches


Trying to imagine what a different kind of Modern Orthodox yeshiva would look like is not just a theoretical enterprise, since the dawn of Modern Orthodoxy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced precisely such an institution in the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary (Rabbiner Seminar für das Orthodoxe Judenthum). This trailblazing yeshiva incorporated nascent academic tools in all aspects of its religious studies, including the teaching of Talmud. Its roshei yeshiva authored pioneering studies on the schools of Midrash Halakha, the development of the Mishna, the era of the Geonim, and the structure of the Talmud.9 Although the world of Berlin Orthodoxy has long since tragically faded, many of its primary values spread to the emerging center of Modern Orthodoxy across the Atlantic.10 Accordingly, one would presume that the great religious and educational experiment of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary served as an inspiration for the ideological architects of Yeshiva University.11 Nevertheless, when one enters the bet midrash of of these two institutions. It is transcribed in Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Bernard Revel, pp. 268-275.

To be sure, my sweeping characterization of the minimal role of academic Talmud study at Yeshiva University has some discrete and notable exceptions (see, e.g., my reference to the research of Prof. Avraham Weiss below), but as a generalization it holds true.

9 On the Berlin Rabbiner Seminar, see the various secondary references cited by Marc Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov R. Weinberg (Littman Library: London, 1999), p.76, n.1.

On the circumstances surrounding its closing, see Christhard Hoffmann and Daniel Schwartz, “Early but Opposed - Supported but Late: Two Berlin Seminaries which Attempted to Move Abroad,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 36 (1991), pp. 267-304.

10 These values continue to have importance over a century later. Likewise, various social and religious challenges faced by the Modern Orthodox community in Berlin over a century ago persist, or have resurfaced, in Modern Orthodox communities in the twenty-first century. Anecdotally, in preparing for my graduate school comprehensive exams several years ago, I had to read much secondary material which analyzed historic societies which were mostly alien to me. Yet, one book on my reading list conjured up a world that was uncannily familiar—Mordechai Breuer’s important study of German Orthodoxy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Modernity within Tradition: The Social History of Orthodox Jewry in Imperial Germany, tr. Elizabeth Petuchowski (Columbia University Press: New York, 1992). As this fact became increasingly apparent to me, I rapidly digested his study less as a student of the past and more as a concerned, or at least invested, member of my present community, hoping to gain insights about our present predicament.

11 In a sense, Yeshiva University embraces a more comprehensive modern ideology than the Berlin Rabbiner Seminar. For example, many Yeshiva University students study art and film and a host of secular subjects; play collegiate sports and participate in performance arts and various other extra-curricular activities; and in numerous respects live openly modern lifestyles. While this characterization applies primarily to the college and university, and not the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

4 David C. Flatto

Yeshiva University, one has abandoned Berlin for the provinces of Lithuania. The dominance of “Litvishe” learning, and especially the legacy of Volozhin and Brisk, pervades all sectors of these hallowed halls of study.

Yeshiva University deliberately secures a traditional mode of study which resists modern influences. Its bet midrash has been carefully constructed to hermetically seal off the methodological influences of the wider academy, and preserve the mode of study of traditional yeshivot of the past. The stakes and implications of this choice are evident, and continue to color the nature of Yeshiva University ever since.

Various reasons account for this choice, but perhaps the most basic one is the allure of traditional study. While the critical method of Berlin was often dry, technical and of the black letter variety, a rich and dazzling world of conceptual sophistication and piercing analytical clarity was being developed in the preeminent Eastern European yeshiva of Volozhin, and perpetuated by its progeny. Indeed, one of the crowning achievements of Yeshiva University is the quality of learning which has flourished there since its establishment, generated by the intensive mode of traditional study that transpires daily in its bet midrash. As a product of this bet midrash, I aspired to participate in this often exhilarating discourse. It was undoubtedly this deeply felt sentiment that triggered my visceral response during my conversation at Columbia University.

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