I and my family are living in Israel for the next 5 months on sabbatical. Though we are living in Jerusalem I commute each day to the city of Lod to learn torah in the kollel of Rabbi Israel Samet. It is a small group of mostly young married men who have finished their army service and have chosen to learn in Lod with Rabbi Samet due to his unique and creative approach to Gemara (Talmud).
Often we see Gemara, especially the Halachic (legal) parts, as just legal discussions interspersed with quotes from the Torah. We usually see the function of these interspersed verses as proofs for laws or as derashot (exegetical sources), for deriving laws from Biblical verses. If there is anything in the halachic Talmudic sugyah (legal section) beyond the law, in the realm of philosophy or spirituality, in most yeshivot that is left to kabbalists or academics.
The approach in Rabbi Samet’s yeshiva is different. Every halachic sugyah is seen as a hot bed of not only legal ideas and categories, but of philosophical and even human existential and psychological ideas and viewpoints. Many of these are accessed by looking closely at the biblical sources for the halachic section not as a source of legal proofs or derashot but looking at the biblical narrative and context and using this as a wedge with which to open the (seemingly hidden) more philosophical and literary aspects of the sugyah.
From my experiences in the many yeshivot in America in which I learned, from branches of Lakewood and Ner Yisrael to Chofetz Chaim and Yeshiva University it seems that in America there are only 2 ways to study gemara. In yeshivot it is studied using the method of Rabbi Chaim Solovetchik, the “Brisker method” of conceptual categorical analysis, and in universities it is studied with an academic approach, either viewing the page historically with an eye to its development over a period of time and the layers which comprise it, or with an eye to the social and cultural surroundings that influence the legal progression of the sugyah. Rarely is there anything in between.
In Israel in the world of religious Zionism, in contrast, it seems thee is an openness to much subtlety in Talmud study, a lack of fear in bringing many varied methodologies to bear on the Talmud.
Over the next few weeks I will write more of this creative approach to Talmud and how I think it can open our minds as Morethodox Jews to the personal psychological and existential relevancy of the Talmud’s (seemingly) solely intellectual and legal sections of questions and answers. If we are to make sure that the Talmud remains personally relevant to each of us, to our children, and to our people as a whole, I think such openness will be highly important, and can help us to see the Talmud with even more depth than that with which it is usually presented.