Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Peter Pan, Kolel Yungerman

Sometimes when I read the very frum blogs I get that Yogi feeling of déjà vu all over again. Why are we fighting battles that were decided by the world hundreds of years ago? Who can possibly believe knowledge of the arts and sciences is bad? Who can be against reading a serious work of science or literature? Who can be against education? I don’t quite get it, and yet I do understand. I understand where the kolel people are coming from, and I admire their sincerity and idealism, their willingness in many instances to undergo poverty for the sake of Torah study, to avoid college, to refuse the joys of modern culture.

Here is the crux of the problem. Torah is too big. It is too big to know what you want to know, what you are supposed to know. There is not enough time to know it all even if one studies all day and all night from 6 years old until you die. The idea that one’s memory is large enough to remember the entire corpus is an illusion, something like an imaginary oasis in a desert. Our heads, our mental capacities are too weak to download the material in the requisite amount of time.

The kolel problem is economic only because it involves allocating a scarce resource, not money, but time. Imagine if the time we have on earth was much longer say by a factor of 10 to the 10, or imagine Torah was much smaller, everything would be relatively easy. A Jew, a Torah Jew would sit and learn and learn and learn until she came to the end. She would celebrate her completion of her goal, giving new meaning to the idea of a siyum (conclusion of a tractate), and she’s done. Now what is she going do for the rest of her life? The rabbis might say chazir over, learn it again, but in our imaginary world there is nothing to chazir, to learn one more time. You already know it! Go chazir 2+2 =4. There would be time to study science, learn mathematics, go to college, maybe even take in a concert or visit a museum.

There are many subjects that are too BIG for anyone’s head, in the same way as Torah is too big for our heads. Mathematics for instance. No single mathematician today knows all of mathematics. One guy is a topology mavin, another is into algebra, a third works in number theory. The same is true for the sciences, physics, biology. The same for medicine. We live in the age of specialists. The last man who knew everything in the arts in sciences lived in the 16th century. History has even recorded his name. Since then science & the arts have grown exponentially, and we now recognize and accept our limitations.

The early commentators, Rashi the Rambam, the Ramban give their readers the feeling they were conversant in the entire Torah. It appears they knew everything. Every nook and cranny in the sea of Torah was at their fingertips. This isn’t exactly correct. Rashi having lived earlier didn’t know the Rambam, the Rambam didn’t know the Ramban. The Ramban knew some kabbalah, the Rambam might not have known any. That’s the arrow of time doing what it does best, moving forward. Later authors read the books that preceded them but not vice versa. Nevertheless we do feel, and maybe we should feel the early great commentators really knew every single thing there is to know about Torah, even if they were in fact far away from knowing it all.

So here we are young and dewy eyed, smart, ambitious wanting to know it all. We’re 9 years old; we’re 10 and 11 learning how to make our way through the first pages of Talmud. And we read all these stories, how this savant knew it all, and that gaon (genius) knew it all and then some. And we say to ourselves, “Why can’t we be like them? We’re smart, we are willing to work.” Our teacher tells us the pun: The Vilna Gaon used to say “oib man vil nawr ken man zein a gaon.” The name of the city of Vilna sounds like the Yiddish words for ‘‘if you only will it”. If you only will it, you too can be a gaon. (Shades of Herzl’s “Im tirzeh…”, if you really will a Jewish homeland it will not be a fairy tale.) We read the hagiographies of great Talmudists. We study their faces. We slowly internalize this burning desire to know it all. It is encouraged by our teachers to be sure, but it is our ‘yetzer harah‘(negative, morally bad impulse) so to speak, our ambition, our grandiosity, our narcissism that the teachers are playing off.

A person who has had this burning ambition never gives it totally up. It becomes over time an insatiable hunger for knowledge. It is a desire that is so deep, that is so much part of our ambitions and ideals, our very self, the world has to hit us over the head with a 2 by 4 before we even think of becoming more realistic. And that is the inner secret why so many yeshiva people want to learn and learn and learn and never ever stop. Who says you have to grow up? Show me where it says*, what page is it written: GET OVER IT. GROW UP. ACCEPT REALITY? We might call this dream of kolel people an example of the Peter Pan complex. Who doesn’t love Peter Pan? Who has not dreamt of being able to fly?

In a review of the deeply depressing, somewhat obscene, French writer, Michel Houellebecq, (NY Times, 6/11/06), the reviewer makes the following distinction “In the English lad novel, the raffish cad learns to accept normal human limitations and eventually grows up. In the French lad novel, he not only refuses to grow up, he begets an entire anti -civilization.” In this respect, kolel people are more like the French. Their dreams have revolutionized Jewish life.

* Freud said the meaning of life is love and work. There is no mitzvah in the Torah requiring work, or a career or a job. The first positive mention of work in the Bible is in Proverbs 6:6-11, in the passage beginning with “Lazybones, go the ant; Study its ways and learn.”


At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Doresh said...

ashi is understood to have been able to understand the gemorah such that he didnt need guidance from other rishonim. The derech that was used before the mishnah was to use the 13 middos and to derive most things from pesukim. OF course there were some things in torah she baal peh alone but they were few. The gemoroh knew all the possible questions of the rishonim but they were thought to be obvious and not in need to elucidation.

The same idea applies to the rishomin. They were aware of the possible questions of the acharonim but all was abvious and clear to them.

Nothing that I have just said I presume is new to you. You probable learnt in a yeshiva, maybe even kollel.

You talk about learning as though its not also a spiritual pursuit. The gemorah itself says that the torah is impossible to master without siyatta dishmaya.

Also note that the point is to learn not to finish. The famous drasha of anu ameilim vheim amailim applies. We do it for the process not the end.

So why you say what you say baffles me. Unless you dont believe it. Do you think we make stuff up as we go along embeleshing bits in the style of former commentators adding our own flavor?

I see this so often. You cant jusge the values of system in terms of another. Learning torah is seen by its adherents as something entirely different to studying anything else.

And yet soemthing tells me you know this but despite it you blog stuff you know to be irrelevent to the point.

I think this is struggle for redefining what orthodox judaism should be and its an emotional one based on very little deep logic.

At 12:34 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Doresh, I very much appreciated your comment, which was deep and to the point. I very much agree that Torah is a spiritual pursuit and success, real success in the sense of arriving at some "madregeh" is rare and very difficult.

I don't want to comment on the "we make it up as we go along" issue, I do want to ask you a question. Assuming for the moment there was not a hidden, unbeknownst to us, secret mesorah, would the various commentators, early or late, have been able to arrive at their conclusions simply using deductive or inductive reasoning? If you're familiar with mathematical logic, is Torah recursive?

I hope you continue reading my blog. I like what you said.


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