Monday, February 26, 2007

Learning with the Yated

From the Yated's spectacularly stupid article on the irredeemable evils tolerated and spread by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah:
"Rabbi Milgram ... specializes in lower and higher criticism of the Babylonian Talmud and the intersection between these studies and the historical development of Jewish law... We will not venture what "criticism" of the Babylonian Talmud means for fear that finding out might require rending our garments."
Why do I say this is spectacularly stupid? Only because the methods so dramatically decried by the Yated are practiced on nearly every page of the Talmud itself. Here's a brief explanation. (DovBear accepts no responsibility for torn clothing.)

Higher criticism is nothing but an attempt to ascertain the origins of a particular text and the meaning and intentions of its authors. It happens, in all its horror, every time the amoraim discuss the meaning and intentions of a particular Mishna. When you see Shmuel and Abaye attempting to puzzle out the context and purpose of a Mishnaic statement you are studying higher criticism.

Lower criticism is a little scarier, I suppose, but it, too, is all over the Talmud. A famous example of LC is at the beginning of meseches betzah when Rabbi Yochanan tells us that words of Hillel and Shammai have been misremembered, and the received text, therefore, is wrong. When the Vilna Gaon emended the text of the Talmud he was engaging in lower criticism. I understand the consequences of saying that the text of the Talmud has been corrupted with the passage of time, but facing this unpleasent reality with open eyes is part of what it takes to learn Torah like a grown-up.

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