Academic Reading vs. Traditional Reading

by Avi Kallenbach

I have sat in many Jewish classes in university and am witness to an interesting phenomenon.

Some people sign up for Jewish classes expecting something akin to what they learned in Yeshiva or Seminary. The class is after all titled “Talmud” or “Rambam”. These people have learned Talmud and Rambam in Yeshiva and Seminary and are hoping to learn something like that here. Alas, these poor people are often disappointed with the content of these Jewish classes and I know this because they often make their disappointment rather vocal over the course of the year. These people have made an understandable genre mistake. They were expecting the traditional study of Jewish sources. However most universities engage in a somewhat different method of text study – the academic study of Jewish texts. 

I would like to explain briefly (in this post and others to follow) what these two types of study are. What defines their different methodologies? How are they different and how are they the same? And perhaps, at some point, I can address the difficult question of whether these two methodologies have what to teach each other and can they be reconciled?

For starters let’s discuss something called charity of text. Academic study assumes that texts mean what they say. This means that when the Gemara says that semen comes from the brain it actually means that semen comes from the brain. When a kabbalistic text says that there are ten sefirot there are actually ten sefirot. This is literalism. An academic reading read texts literally and unless s/he has a good reason to think otherwise s/he doesn’t assume that the text does not mean what it says. No, the academic reads the words in front of him and reads them as they are with no embellishment and no additions.

However the traditional study of a text often does not share this assumption. It assumes that texts do not necessarily mean what they. At times texts are meant to be decoded and a deeper meaning lies underneath the surface. Literalism, simply scratches the surface without touching the deeper meaning of the text and thus misses the point or worse completely misunderstands what is going on. Dig deeper.

But enough abstract theory, let’s apply it:

Rabbi Slikfin a while back wrote about Chazal’s view about the sun and the moon: In his article he brings the Gemara:

The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam.

His article proceeds to examine the different views about these statements.

Now according to what we have said above there are two ways we can read this Gemara. We can either read the words in front of us OR we can look for a deeper meaning in the text something beyond what the words actually say. The former approach will be academic the latter traditional.

The words say: that the sages believe that the sun is hidden by the firmanent in the day and that is what causes night. The nations of the world on the other hand say that the sun is hidden underground and THAT is what causes night. Rebbi agrees with the nations of the world because it would provide an explanation for why wells hot at night. The sun goes under the ground and heats up the wells. Slifkin prefers here to take the academic approach and chooses to read the words as they are and thus concludes that the Rabbis believed in a different picture of astronomy than we do.

Those are what the words say. However a traditional approach will dig deeper than that and avoid the simplicity of the words. Thus the explanation of the Maharal of Prague (also mentioned in Slifkin’s article) that this picture represents a spiritual description rather than a physical description of the world. The words themselves give us no reason to think that we are talking about a spiritual description, and the Maharal’s explanation is adding to the simplicity of the words. This is the traditional approach. That sees the words as somewhat esoteric and that they need to be “cracked” or “explained” in order to understand the true meaning.

There are countless other examples of these two approaches especially in the field of Talmud. Needless to say many “traditional” scholars use a somewhat academic approach and many academic scholars at times use what i’ve called the traditional approach. These two categories of thinking are in no ways absolute.

BUT these models help us understand why the Yeshiva guy sitting in my Talmud class seems so confused. Someone is explaining a Talmudic text to him academically and he can’t understand why this professor is being so stupid and not looking for the deeper hidden meaning of the words. What he perhaps does not realize is that the professor is using an entirely different methodology, something the Yeshiva guy is not used to and therefore the professor reaches drastically different conclusions about the text.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Academic Reading vs. Traditional Reading

  1. yitzy

    You know what the rambam thinks about people who study (agadic) parts of the talmud literally…
    He defines 3 types of people:
    1) those who believe everything they read as being 100% literal and true.
    2) those who believe that the sages thought what they wrote was literal and true and therefore think they were all idiots
    3) those that consider that perhaps agadata was written with hidden meanings by very wise guys.

    needless to say that the rambam is not very complimentary about the first 2 types.

    I learnt this in the intro to perek chelek but a good synopsis can be found here: http://tiny.cc/5b94fw

    • I would consider the Rambam a traditional reader of texts not an academic reader. His treatment of Talmudic and Biblical texts does not strive to read the literal words in front of him. Instead he sees the deeper meaning behind the words as being his Aristotelian world view. This is a traditional approach, that sees the words as essentially esoteric and not self sufficient.

  2. avibieler

    I’m not so sure that you are correct. Academics also look at context. Some contexts lend themselves to metaphorical understandings and some cultures speak in metaphor rather than in literal terms. You’re on to something, but I think this definition may be too broad.

    • I’m not advocating forgetting about context. In fact I consider context another one of the differences between academic and traditional readings. This post is not the DEFINITION of academic reading but one characteristic of it. I plan on writing more posts which will focus on other points of disagreement between tradtional and academic such as context, eclecticism, orality etc.

      -Avi K

  3. OJ

    Ask Slifkin to comment here

  4. Chayim Alter

    I agree with the previous poster who points out the an academic meaning is not necessarily a literal one. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that it’s traditional readings that tend to be more literal, as pointed out the in the above-cited Rambam in his intro to Chelek. Also, an article in Tradition (published by the RCA) addressed this issue–it would help you to consult that article (which focused on the tension between the two methodologies).

    • yitzy

      Traditional meanings to tend to be more literal and that is exactly what bothered the rambam so much. He actually notes that the people in category 3 above, who accept that there are deeper meanings, are in the minority and laments the fact.
      Religion is based on faith and religious people tend to rely on it too much in accepting everything they are told on face value. Something the rambam was very against.

      • If anything the Rambam was a catalyst in the proliferation of what I call “traditional” interpretation. If it’s a cause of confusion or disagreement you can use a different word besides “traditional” to describe the opposite of the academic methodology. The term was “lav davka”.

        -Avi K.

  5. Chayim alter

    The Tradition article I referred to was published within the past year or so.

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