Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Musings on the Proper Way to Learn Chumash

Learning Chumash (the Pentateuch) is controversial of late, so allow me to offer a few thoughts. I was taught that an important goal in learning Gemara is to try to think like earlier sages. Thus, if you asks a question that one of the rishonim (medieval commentators) asked, it means you are on the right track. And if you suggest an answer that one of the rishonim offered, then you've scored a major success. So the general measure of success is how well your mind is in tune with medieval commentators. And if you offer a new explanation, the measure of its success is in whether it seems like something a rishon would say. Sure, you can find acharonim who aren't like rishonim. So if you ask a question or offer an answer like them, you're also on a good path. But if your question or answer is not something any of them would have asked, you aren't following in any established way of learning.

Does this mean that there is no room for new methodologies? Not necessarily. They just shouldn't be your main approach and you should be very hesitant when offering any new idea. You shouldn't use these approaches for anything controversial.

The same goes for learning Chumash. If your question and answer are what a rishon would ask and answer, then you're doing great. If not, well, maybe you're doing something wrong. You shouldn't be going out on any limbs that way.

So if you make a deduction that is critical of one of the Patriarchs, you have to ask yourself whether this is an explanation that a rishon would offer. If it is in the same style, then you're on solid ground. If not, then you should be extremely careful and perhaps should not say it at all. Just because rishonim criticized the Patriarchs does not mean that all criticism is fair game. You need to be taking their approach to the text and utilize similar sensitivities. If you can intuit their questions and answers on other issues then you can offer your own questions and answers in a similar vein.

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