["The Content of Vacuum"- A Succinct History of My Talmudic Pursuits]
A happy American Independance to everyone. I would, perhaps, have written about it, but I already had this up last week and took it down. ...so now it's up again..
As a result of my currently having a relatively freer schedule, I have, friends, begun regular evening attendance at a community Beit Midrash. Around the time I started these attendances I was speaking with a Rabbi I I've known since I was in high school, who, when learning that I attended, agreed to help me find a study partner. After I saw him there he said something to me which I felt to be disparaging towards my level of Talmudic tutelage when he told me to sit in with a class on Pirkei Avot, since he "didn't want me staring at the walls" (as if to suggest that if I did attempt to open a Gemara, it was more likely to be upside down than vice-versa).
I actually have a long and varied history not only with the Talmud itself, but also with the different methods of Talmudic analysis. So long a history, in fact, that if I were to record the entire account here it would make for the most boring post I've ever written. In fact even this abriged version will probably be the most boring I've written, but this blog doesn't run on consumer satisfaction anyway, so...
I suppose I should start with high school, since that is where I first learned how to decipher a Talmudic "sugya". In 11th grade I had a teacher, who, with a very innovative and perhaps unorthodox use of graphs and verbal introductions of concepts made the subject of Talmud clear to me for the first time (I used what I learned there in 12th grade as well). After I was done with high school I went on to fulfill my aspiration of engrossing myself full-time in Talmud in the Holy Land.
By the first year of my attendance in the "academies of Abaye and Raba" in Israel I was already relatively proficient in deciphering the Talmud, yet for the entire first half of the year I had felt that I was placed in a class in which I learned nothing. Finally in the summer I was transferred to a class that better suited me; the Rabbi (Goodman- מחבר ספר דברי יואל על הנביאים) went through Rashi, Tosafot, and the Rishonim using a spattering of relatively "simplistic" commentators which he found to be pertininent to the sugya. But it was not very lucid, and I was not quite happy there either.
I had to return to America early that year, and I attended a small yeshiva in Lakewood called Sha'arei Torah. I ended up returning there on and off for small periods the next few years. The Rosh Yeshiva was a friendly Rabbi from the state of Georgia, Rabbi Freundlich (which means "friendly"). His shiurim were far better than those I attended in Mikdash Melech, and I was, in essence, his top student. They were based on a bed of a consolidation of the opinions of some major Acharonim (such as the Ketzot and the Netivot) and the major Roshei Yeshivot, with a topping of his own discoveries of patterns and agendas in their opinions. I always considered his shiur to be far superior than one would imagine from a small yeshiva.
In the beginning of my second year I tried out an Israeli Sefaradi yeshiva in Petach Tikva called Pe'er Moshe (which I hoped had nothing to do with the fact that the Rosh Yeshiva's name was Moshe). I studied there under Rav Chaim Shvartz. Even though it was my first class in Hebrew I clearly understood him. He was very good at explaining differences of opinion between Rashi and Tosafot, as well as giving us a clear understanding of the problems and solutions of the early Acharonim.
By Chanuka (a small interim in the yeshiva winter semester) I realized most of the students there were not serious enough for my taste and returned to Jerusalem. To make a long story short me and another individual took someones advice to attend "the Mir". Since he had some classmates of his from Lakewood there who were attending a certain shiur and I had no connections, I attended the same shiur. Rabbi Wagshal.
His approach was to try to find patterns in the sugya at hand himself, without mentioning the commentators at all, unless they were part of the agenda he was trying to prove (which was supposedly an approach advocated by the former Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Nachum). I didn't quite like it because while I'm sure he had very interesting observations, since I was ignorant of what the commentators of the past 1,000 years said about the sugya I first wished to see what they had to say about things. After a little while I switched shiurim.
I then attended the shiur of Rav Nissan Kaplan--a very interesting individual if I don't say so myself. His shiur was, as I had wished, very much based on the commentators. He brought up pertinent Rishonim and a few Acharonim (such as the P'ne Yehoshua), he gave us a taste of the 'Brisk' approach, and at times even went into the halachic opinions on the subject of his own teachers (Rav shlomo Zalman Aurbach, yet he also mentioned Rav Noigershal).
In the summer I was offered a position by Rabbi Freundlich to teach Talmud in a camp to Modern Orthodox children from New Jersey (all the teachers were bachelors there). I tried to incorporate the teaching methods of my 11th grade teacher partly by presenting very comprehensive charts, and partly by making sure that there was no premise in the gemara that wasn't clearly explained before we started. Many of the others there went on to, in fact, educate children in Talmud for a living. I felt I could do it as well, twice as good as they could!
Those summers were actually the beginning of my exposure to Modern Orthodoxy; a religious approach which I've since adopted, but that is for another time. As a result of some acquaintances I made there, I started attending Shor Yoshuv during my interum periods in America instead of Shaarei Torah. There was the first place I saw students who studied Talmud in the morning, yet went to college in the afternoon, which to me was quite a novel idea at the time. My own Chavruta was in Medical School. Nonetheless, the shiur I attended there was also, like Rabbi Freundlich's, based on the influence of the Roshei Yeshivot approach, but was noticeably more "Brisker". I enjoyed becoming aquainted with the Brisker approach, but I knew that theirs was not an honest attempt at understanding the Gemara, but rather they used the Gemara as foundation on which to base their intellectual yet fanciful ideas about the Gemara. After teaching Talmud again that summer I returned to the Mir the following year.
I was in Rav Nissan Kaplan's shiur on and off for two years. After a while I became somewhat disillusioned with his pedagogic skills, much of it having to do with the fact that he was linguistically "undecided". He spoke English, Hebrew and Yiddish, yet the language he spoke was none of the above, which made it very difficult to understand his speech. I did until then, but I was unsure how much longer I would be able to hold out.
Around that time my friend had told me that he had been attending a "chabura" which he found to be very enjoyable. I told him that there were more chaburot in the Mir than one can count; why would I attend this one if I can attend any of the others. Still he insisted that "this one" was different. Without much of a choice I agreed to attend one. We were said to prepare a sugya in the first chapter which I had studied a while before, with Tosafot and the Maharsha. I went through it, as I had before, and attended the shiur.
I can say without any restraint that that was the best shiur I ever heard. He was a master orator who not only had full control of his voice and the English language, but more importantly of the sugya at hand; he never actually quoted Rashi or Tosafot or the Maharsha, but using their ideas explained the actual Gemara in a way that you not only stood Rav Huna, you felt like you were invited to a tour of Rav Huna's mind. Everything in the sugya was as clear as the sun; there was no room for doubt or confusion in anything.
As I continued coming to the chaburot I found more and more people coming from Rav Asher's shiur (the top shiur in the yeshiva) to instead hear this businessman from Georgia. After enough time it was clear to me that all the other shiurim were shrouded in darkness in regards to true understanding of the sugya. He once asked a very simple question to the gentlemen from Rav Asher's shiur about the stance of one of the (Raba's) opinions in the sugya. He gave them five minutes to think about this simple question that one would be inclined to answer instictively. After the wait he asked one of them, and they gave the obvious answer. Barry said it was incorrect. The man sitting next to him thought for a while and answered from a slightly different perspective. He was also incorrect. Barry then went on to show an extremely obvious point that they were overlooking, and again went on to explain the sugya as one who was broadcasting to us live from inside the brain of Raba.
Yet this all occured towards the end of the yeshiva year. I obviously wanted to study by Barry the coming year, but by then I had had quite enough of the Mir in general, and I wasn't sure I wanted to stay another year. I then learned that Barry was not creating this methodology on top of a fruit store. It turned out he had studied in Bircas Hatorah before he came to study under Rabbi Kaplan. After a bit of contemplation I decided to attend this yeshiva next year, where Barry Klein became who he was. Even before I came to Bircas though I was told by the faculty there that Barry's methodology did in fact sprout-up on in a fruit store, and that he only used the methodology taught in Bircas as a basis for his innovations. I thought that even if that is the case it would still be better for me to attend Bircas to obtain those same basics myself. I wanted to have a solid basis on which to dissect his methodology anyway, so that I would reveal the mechanics behind his "magic".
Before I continue, a word about "the methodology". It turned out that it was based on a reconfiguration of a form of Classic Logic for Talmud study formulated by the Ramchal in his "Ways of Reason". This book was then discovered and reprinted in an English translation by the rosh yeshiva of the diaspora yeshiva, Rabbi Mordecai Goldstein--the teacher of Rabbi Green. Rabbi Green in turn tinkered with the methodology even further to render it more palatable to contemporary Talmudists. He was meant to publish his form of the methodology in a pamphlet, but that has yet to happen (though other works from the yeshiva have been published).
Another very important facet of his methodology was the incorporation of ideas from people like Malachi Hacohen and Yitzchak Kanfanton, who were basically recording the Spanish tradition of Talmudic analysis, which is why I found a certain amount of racial pride in the methodology; it was not new, but in fact only a reincarnation of the Talmudic methodologies of the Spanish Jews.
Back to my stay in Bircas: I first studied under the Rosh Yeshiva himself, which was enjoyable, yet it seemed that he took for granted that his weathered students knew "the methodology". I therefore decided to leave after a month to attend the shiur of Rabbi Wegbreight, who supposedly stressed the teaching of the actual methodology. I can say that I learned much by him, and while some of the most studious pupils came out without a full grasp of the methodology, I not only fully understood it but was able to teach it to a friend of mine when I returned to America that summer. But still, the methodology was what I intended it to be; too mechanical, mathematical almost. There was no life in it, none of the brilliant expositions of mr. Klein. I had in fact revealed the mechanism, but not the magic.
I very much would have liked to return to Barry's shiur then, with these new foundations to work with, and discover how in fact he built such magnificent edifices, but alas, it was too late. I was already quite old to be dawdling away my time with some ancient Aramaic texts. I was 22, and if I ever wished to be considered by girls and be married and raise a family one day, I would have to leave the yeshiva.
...now I just stare at the walls..
[Hm. I find myself considering the revalation of this inormation somewhat embarassing. I'm not even sure I want it posted here. ...hm..]