Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Post-Yeshiva Yeshivaman

Anybody who went to yeshiva and has internalized its ideals, feels it’s important to maintain those ideals throughout life. Many people have remarked that, in an important sense, no one ever leaves the yeshiva; a yeshiva education is permanently embedded in one’s consciousness. I want to address the question of how can a post- yeshiva yeshivaman (the ‘an’ is pronounced like the ‘on’ in Ludwig von Beethoven), away from the actual yeshiva and in the world, maintain yeshivish values? I want to concentrate on the value of life-long learning and education.

The problem is of interest only to a minority of Orthodox Jews. Many Orthodox Jews don’t have time to breathe, let alone to be confronted with questions about what to read and what to study. As a background condition, I’m assuming a person has the good fortune to be able to fulfill all of his duties and obligations and still have time left over to learn. My question is when a yeshivaman faces a long life ahead, post-yeshiva, how is he to organize his intellectual studies? Since we’re talking about yeshiva educated people, one fixed point will obviously be the study of Torah, and here, I think, there’s a general consensus that there are three main books in Jewish life, the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar. A person who doesn’t study any of these books, especially the Talmud, can not be described as yeshivish.

There are three other potential libraries that might have to be integrated into Torah study. The first is Jewish studies, which include both books about the history and culture of Jewish life and other books that may be relevant to the understanding of the three core texts. If you have a “Torah, Torah, Torah!” view, the question doesn’t come up because all the time will be spent in Talmudic study and the like. Nevertheless, it is true that many yeshiva people, as they get older, take an interest in Jewish Studies, and the question arises how they should go about their reading.

There’s also a library of secular knowledge that is interesting for its own sake, beginning with art history and ending with zoology. Each of these disciplines could take a lifetime to master. What is one to do? Next, there are areas of studies that are relevant to one’s special duties in life. Lawyers have to keep up with the law. Doctors have to study developments in medicine and so on. There are also bodies of knowledge that are associated with one’s particular existential situation. A family in which somebody is sick will eventually learn all there is to know about the illness.

So here is the grown-up yeshivaman potentially faced with four almost endless libraries: a Torah library, Jewish Studies, interesting secular knowledge, and practical secular knowledge. Can anything be said about how one is to go about integrating all of this? I want to offer two principles; not rules, principles. The first is that curiosity is the surest guide of what to read. There can be no better motivator than natural interest. Learning should not be like taking cod liver oil. It should be more like licking the honey off a page. A study program devoted to material that a reader finds uninteresting will not endure for any substantial period of time. Everything else equal, a yeshivahman should allow his natural curiosity and desire to know more to organize his studies.

The second principle is coherence that leads to depth. At the end of a life, all this study should amount to something. The person would have found a way to connect the various subjects and interests. The studies should reinforce each other and enable the person to get past the exterior level to something deeper. In yeshiva jargon, it is a bkeius that leads to an amkus, an encyclopedic knowledge of many different subjects that leads to a deeper knowledge that is so integrated that the whole is more than the parts. At the end of a life a person should be able to say, “I now understand, in a deep way, what I did not understand but very much wanted to know when I set out on my intellectual journey.”

The view I’m offering is in contrast to an idea popular in secular Jewish life. People frequently say a person ought to be a “Renaissance man.” They say it’s important to know a little bit about everything, so that at a cocktail or dinner party, one can always speak up and offer an intelligent opinion. Too detailed knowledge of any particular subject makes for a geek or a nerd, but not for an attractive dinner party companion. I don’t like this view because it frequently leads to a sort of “culture vulture” type of consumerism. Did you see? Did you read? Did you go to? I loved it, I hated it, so-so. At the end of life, all this vulturing doesn’t add up to an organic, unified whole, and frequently doesn’t push the person to greater depth and wisdom. I am not opposed to participating in a culture. I am opposed to a sampling ‘wine tasting’ approach to culture.

On my view, what is true for a yeshiva bochur post-yeshiva also holds true for the general issue of Jewish literacy that affects all Jewish denominations and groups. I say the fixed point is Torah, followed by Jewish Studies and secular knowledge and special knowledge, in some combination, governed by curiosity and coherence. As to the exact way to travel down the road from curiosity to depth, the answer differs for each of us. We have different interests, life experiences and therefore different lessons to learn and roads to travel. There is no guarantee of success, and it is easy enough to go down a path that lead to nowhere. The possibility of failure and the promise of success are all part of the excitement and glamour of being a yeshivahman.


At 10:21 AM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

Have you ever met or discussed this issue with either R S Z Leiman or R D D Berger? They may have some insights on this issue, especially given the fact that they are both Talmidie Chachamim who are well respected authorities in their aspects of Jewish history.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger B. Spinoza said...

Interesting post. I was just thinking about this issue the past few days. I agree with you that forcing yourself won't last for long.

Most people say that the study of Kabbalah should come only after you have mastered everything else. But, I'm not so sure this is the right approach for everybody. If you have a real passion for it and you have a real solid background in Judaism, then you shouldn't wait to be a Talmudic master before studying it.

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Litvak said...

"The first is that curiosity is the surest guide of what to read. There can be no better motivator than natural interest. Learning should not be like taking cod liver oil. It should be more like licking the honey off a page. A study program devoted to material that a reader finds uninteresting will not endure for any substantial period of time. Everything else equal, a yeshivahman should allow his natural curiosity and desire to know more to organize his studies."

You are very right. In fact the gemara says this (Talmud Bavli, Avoda zoro 19a - see Rashi, Maharsha, etc.). Unfortunately, this important principle seems to be ignored by some nowadays or sometimes even actively dismissed. I have heard in the name of the Chofetz Chaim that someone who is learning one thing, e.g. one mesechta in Yeshiva, and loses interest, should switch to another.

I could see some difficulty implementing this principle in a modern Yeshiva set-up though - where there is a class/shiur consisting of a group, where different people may want to learn different things. What should be done then? Take a vote ? Nevertheless, the principle still stands, and anyone who ignores it does so at their own peril.

I think this is related to the idea of enjoying learning. Some people - I think this error may be especially prevalent among some (not all) Litvishe types - think that one should learn because it's a mitzvah, which is how they define 'learning lishmoh', and look askance at enjoying learning too much (I believe however, that the famous Avnei Neizer against that outlook, that enjoying the learning is an integral and important part of talmud Torah, is the correct way here though.). They stress ameilus baTorah - that learning is difficult work. I think that's the wrong approach and that it has left many victims, Rachmono litzlon.

I once heard a somewhat prominent Rav (of Hungarian background, but considered part of the moderate Yeshivish world), say, at a symposium on talmud Torah re this gemara, that a person should make, whatever they are learning, into a 'mokom shelibo chofeitz'. With all due respect, I think he was migaleh ponim baTorah shelo kahalocho, by sidelining that important Chazal with such a cute 'pshetl'.

I think that interest in learning is like appetite in eating. Just like someone ignores signals from their body with regard to when, how much, and what to eat, at their own peril, so too, they ignore signals from their heart and mind re their learning appetites at their own peril. Just like force-feeding is not healthy, compared to eating when one is naturally hungry and wants to eat, as Rambam says, forced-learning isn't either.

At 4:35 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

One concern in writing this post was with the problem how to read in secular studies, which, however large Torah and Jewish studies are, is considerably larger. How does one know if study of philosophy will be more worthwhile than literature,and what should one study within a discipline, etc. when the problem is understood against a background of Torah study. I am convinced that a key reson why people get nowhere in their adult studies is that they don't know what they should read, and because of that failure, their studies are not as rewarding and productive as they could be.

At 6:56 PM, Anonymous daat y said...

There is a concern when leavingYeshiva of loing that interest..'ein le'hkbh ela daled amos shel halacha after the churban.So what happens when you leave the daled amos.So Rav Lifshutz zt'l answered you can take it with you wherever you go.

At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a related question: Do yeshiva bachurim end up committing themselves to life-long study of depth and personal transformation at a greater rate than the general population? (Assume the definition that you have provided, which to my mind excludes much of what passes for gemara shiurim and chevrutot in contemporary Orthodox circles.) My inclination is that the statistical difference would be negligable -- educators of all stripes still haven't figured out a reliable way of teaching people to be smart, curious, and motivated to learn in large numbers, and if the Jews had, then no doubt their methodology would have been investigated and adopted/adapted as appropriate.

(Regarding your definition, I would tweak it in two related ways: 1) the course of study ought to have some practical implication, and 2) should lead the person to develop in a positive rather than negative direction. Yes, the terms "positive" and "negative" are entirely relative to one's personal preferences and cultural values. To use my personal example, my study of halakha, an area which I love, led me for a while to become more simplistic, boiling complex situations down to a facile "mutar" or "assur" and also to be sharper with people and less forgiving of human nuance. Fortunately, I was eventually shown how to learn halakha in a way that deepened my relationships and my decision-making process.)

At 8:52 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Anonymous…interesting comment. I disagree, but in a way that raises new and interesting issues. I think that the yeshiva’s teaching how to make a laining (sp.? a first tentative reading ) on a Talmudic sugya(unit) is special, and enables graduates to do the same on entire subjects without the necessity of classes. Whether it makes a statistical difference is hard to measure because not everyone continues to study, the default culture is not high brow and many lack a strong liberal/arts education.

I disagree that a course of study must be practical as such. Mathematics, classics, philosophy, literature, the arts are all not practical, and are wonderful subjects that could be tightly integrated with Torah if done properly .Study, given the coherence constraint must enhance the totality of a person’s knowledge base, but that is not a practicality in terms of doing. I believe depth does not carry any of the weight of positive and negative. I may be all alone on this pt., but I believe strongly that secular studies must be unencumbered and free. It will lead where it will lead. Dayaw tsuraw beshaataw. It is essential to the romance and excitement in learning.

At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Maran said...

Tanach, Talmud and Zohar? How many yeshivamen ever open a Zohar? I would replace Zohar with Shulchan Aruch. Even the Nach element of Tanach is only arguably a part of a yeshivaman's library. This is not a value judgement on my part, merely an observation.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Bob Miller said...

Trivial point:

It's "van", not "von" Beethoven. His family's origin was Flemish.

Non-trivial point:

As EJ notes, learning is lifelong. The path it takes for anyone, not only yeshiva grads, depends on the person and the situation. I think it's healthy for one who wants to broaden his knowledge to do a form of "guided experimentation". That is, not to try really long-term planning of his future learning "career", but to go stepwise and make any necessary adjustments as he goes along---with advice from those he trusts. There will be blind alleys and changes of interest and changes of need, and the mature person striving to gain knowledge has to be flexible enough to deal with these.

At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you think is special about teaching people how to leyn a sugya? Without a more substantial definition of "leyn" (i.e., a methodology with which one approaches a sugya, be it mekhkar, brisk/lomdus, pilpul, etc.) it sounds like this is congratulating the system for producing people who can read -- something I'd think is below basic expectations! (Sort of like congratulating the public schools for helping students learn how to read English -- and yes, admittedly, they fail even at this basic task in alarming numbers.)

Regarding the statistical comparison, it actually seems perfect -- general culture is not high-brow, default Orthodox culture is not high-brow; general culture lacks a _strong_ liberal/arts education, as does Orthodox culture. (Unless you mean plain old exposure.) Now that we've controlled for two extraneous elements, it seems like we can then run a perfect statistical comparison on the the results of the two educational systems, and, comparing apples to apples, find out if the Orthodox system does any better at producing commitment to kind of life-long learning you're talking about.

Finally, it's not clear to me what you mean by "unencumbered and free" secular studies. There are all sorts of contraints on any kind of learning, really any kind of human activity. Even study "lishmah" will have, broadly, one of two _practical_ consequences: 1) reinforcing one's pre-existing notions or 2) challenging one's pre-existing notions. Neither is automatically positive or negative -- but I feel like being aware of which kind of learning one wants to accomplish, acknowledging that it might turn out to be the other, seems like a good thing.

Very much looking forward to your response.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "what" is important but structure is more important. Pick a subject youre interested in, make a seder in that subject,and never miss your seder.
The key to a lasting seder is not what you learn but who you learn with. Find a chavrusa you respect, someone whose time is valuable. Youll feel bad canceling on him.
Youll be suprised how much you can accomplish by being consistent.(Take Daf Yomi for example)

At 11:35 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

MARAN…I agree with your observation. I still maintain Tanach ,Talmud and Zohar are central. All you have shown is that Yeshiva graduates do not necessarily study the central texts. How to explicate the notion of centrality such that my claim is justified is beyond me this second. I think it has to do with texts that create the impression that previous works are commentaries about it. For example the Zohar leads one to feel that various mitzvoth are instances of and therefore illustrate certain movements in the sefirot. The Talmud leads us to believe that the meaning of the written law is governed by the oral law. Tanaach is central because it contains the core epic of the Jewish people as well as the written Torah.

bob miller…I agree. I am a Bayesian most everywhere and certainly agree as the ’needs and interests ‘ and I would add knowledge base change, the learning plan must also change.

At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Dov Weinstock said...

>>>The view I’m offering is in contrast to an idea popular in secular Jewish life. People frequently say a person ought to be a “Renaissance man.” They say it’s important to know a little bit about everything, so that at a cocktail or dinner party, one can always speak up and offer an intelligent opinion.<<<

This view is a straw man, as it does not represent in any way the ideal of a renaissance man.

From Wikipedia:
Renaissance man redirects here.
A polymath (from the Greek polymathēs, πολυμαθής, meaning "knowing, understanding, or having learnt in quantity," compounded from πολυ- "much, many," and the root μαθ-, meaning "learning, understanding") is a person who excels in multiple fields, particularly in both arts and sciences. The other most common term for this phenomenon is Renaissance man, but also in use are Homo universalis and Uomo universale, which in Latin and Italian, respectively, translate as "universal person" or "universal man".

As informally used in contemporary discussion, a "polymath" is someone known to be skillful or to excel in a broad range of intellectual fields.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous (7:36)…First the comparison issue. If the comparison class is academics I think there is no question that academics as a class are more productive than grown up yeshivah people even if we include kolelim and rosh yeshivas. Torah academics are surprisingly unproductive (See my post 9/21/06). If comparison is Orthodox post yeshivah society vs. college graduates, there is no question that the ideal of life long study is embedded in Orthodoxy more than in the general population.

You feel that one has to be aware in advance whether one is reinforcing or challenging a preexisting notion. I say, you can never know. In philosophy you could be working on questions of truth and reference in analytic philosophy, which looks as neutral as it gets and you might realize there are new questions about the Brisker method in studying Talmud. In mathematics you can do measure theory or statistical decision theory and suddenly have all sorts of issues about various Talmudic ideas. Art history seems so dangerous to some that I think Rabbi H. Shechter believes much of it is forbidden. I might be wrong here. Zoology, another example of mine, can lead to Rabbi Slifkin. Leyning is more than literacy, but I have no space to elaborate.

dov weinstock…fair enough. So put renaissance man in quotes and my comments are half-parody, half-realistic about the current view in liberal society.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Nice post, but I have to disagree slightly with this bit, as you pose it as an either/ or proposition:

>The view I’m offering is in contrast to an idea popular in secular Jewish life. People frequently say a person ought to be a “Renaissance man.” They say it’s important to know a little bit about everything, so that at a cocktail or dinner party, one can always speak up and offer an intelligent opinion.

First, the expression and meaning of "jack of all trades, master of none" is as prevalent as the ideal of a "Renaissance man." In addition, the true Renaissance man doesn't know a few things about everything, but not many things about some things.


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