JPost: Jonathan Rosenblum Confuses Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

In the JPost article, "Think Again: Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts" Jonathan Rosenblum mixes up the study of the Talmud and the Liberal Arts.

We think Rosenblum believes that because the Talmud has some logical structure and, at times, some rigorous argumentation, that makes it useful as a part of a liberal arts curriculum.

But no, no, no the Talmud is not "Liberal". It is a set of books whose aim is to propagate one special form of religious life and thought. True, it is full of argumentation and analysis as a means of achieving its aims. But overall there is nothing "Liberal" about the Talmud. The big answer and indeed the purpose of the Talmud is known and never open to question. That is, God gave the Torah to Israel and through the Talmud one can spend his time and effort studying the content of that revelation and expanding upon it. That study is a mitzvah, a religious act of merit, and not a thought exercise of the "Liberal Arts".

It seems to us that Rosenblum says that from the standpoint of the "Liberal Arts" it is not a complete waste of time to engage in this study, because in the process one increases one's "ability to learn new skills." That to us is an apologetic opinion that is directly reductionistic. It is a viewpoint that diminishes the essence of the Talmud as a religious corpus and nullifies its study as a momentous religious act.

Here is how Rosenblum unfortunately reduces Talmud to something that is a palatable part of the "Liberal Arts" at the end of his JPost essay:
IF ONE key test of a liberal education is the ability to learn new skills, then talmudic learning could be an important component. True, talmudic learning will not teach one math, unless one studies the rabbis’ complex calculations of the lunar cycle; nor will it provide grounding in a specific science. But it is not irrelevant to any of these pursuits. And the combination of intellectual rigor, discipline and concentration required is unsurpassed.

The great Harvard medievalist Harry Austryn Wolfson described talmudic study as “the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.” Hypotheses are continually being formulated and either successfully defended or rejected. The Talmud says that one who studies alone grows stupid, and the battles between study partners are nothing less than the “wars of Torah.” Even when one studies alone, he must act as his own study partner, constantly asking: Does my theory fit all the facts? Is there another way to explain all the relevant data? Students must learn to follow complex arguments that proceed over pages of text, and to hold firm at each step as to whether the argument is being advanced or questioned. Ten-year-olds learn to apply, without being aware of it, the tables taught in mathematical logic to actual cases.

At every level, the student is exposed to conflict and competing views. The Tannaim of the Talmud argue with one another; the Amoraim argue with one another and over the proper understanding of the Tannaim. The Rishonim (early commentators on the Talmud) differ from one another over the principles that emerge from the debates of the Talmud, and sometimes over the text itself. Each Rishon must be understood on his own terms, and in terms of why he argues with another Rishon.

But while a single right answer can never be given in talmudic debate, it is often possible to demonstrate that a particular solution is wrong. Thus Talmud study is the antithesis of much of contemporary academia, which, in Mead’s words, “encourages mushy thinking about mushy disciplines.” One cannot just offer opinions; one must argue propositions. That itself is a healthy antidote for the young for whom the height of wisdom is: Everything, including morality, is a matter of opinion, and all opinions are equally valid – a view, incidentally, held by no great thinker of the past, no matter how greatly they differed with one another.

Though the study will not teach elegant prose style, it demands clarity of expression and the ability to structure a logical argument. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the great 19th- and early 20th-century talmudic genius, whose style of analysis dominates much of contemporary talmudic study, emphasized that there is no such thing as a concept that cannot be expressed.

Finally, the study of Talmud places one in a dialogue with many of the greatest minds in Jewish history, and grounds a Jewish student in his own culture – one in which the legal and moral realms are seamlessly intertwined.

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