Sunday, February 8, 2009

Maharal On Learning and Teaching Torah

Learning and teaching Torah has always been the cornerstone of Judaism. Throughout the years many Jewish scholars have contributed their theories of how best to learn or teach the Torah and its many components. One of the most influential and original thinkers on this subject is the Maharal MiPrague. The Maharal has written several sefarim that discuss his ideas on how to achieve success in learning and teaching, but one of the most prominent places that his opinion appears is in the introduction to his book Tiferes Yisroel. In his introduction the Maharal discusses why everyone can achieve success in learning Torah, the difficulties with teaching Torah to others, the proper intentions that one needs while learning and how learning Torah ultimately brings people closer to Hashem. In this influential work, it is obvious that the Maharal was strongly affected by the events that occurred in his generation. He even mentions specific deficiencies apparent in his time period that seriously crippled aspiring learners.

The Maharal lived in a time when society was experiencing a change in culture. The Renaissance was starting around the time of the Maharal and it affected several Jews. Science became more popular and people were questioning Hashem at every corner. The Renaissance was especially active in Prague where the non-Jewish community was more open and therefore more accepting of Jews. This accepting society is the reason more Jews were able to go to University. University education along with an open society caused a large amount of assimilation among the Jewish community. The amount of Torah learning, according to the Maharal, decreased during this period since more people were becoming secularized and assimilated. The affects were so dire that many Jews became great secular thinkers. Baruch Spinoza, who lived right after the Maharal, is a great example of a Jewish genius converting into a secular philosophizer.

In order to understand the Maharal’s position a little better the Renaissance must be further explained. The dominant intellectual movement of the Renaissance was humanism, a philosophy based on the idea that people are rational beings. Humanism originated in the study of classical culture, and it took its name from one of the era’s earliest and most crucial concerns: the promotion of a new educational curriculum that emphasized a group of subjects known collectively as the studia humanitatis, or the humanities. Humanities disciplines included grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and ethics. The humanists also stressed the general responsibilities of citizenship and social leadership. Humanists felt that they had an obligation to participate in the political life of the community.

Underlying the differences between the old philosophies and the humanists’ philosophies was the humanists’ deep conviction that society had outgrown older ways of thought. According to the humanists, the old ways of thought emphasized abstract speculation and relied too heavily on religious teachings. Many of the humanists were townspeople who were not directly associated with religion. These urban residents tended to object to an educational system that was largely monopolized by religion. Humanists were accustomed to the ever-changing, concrete activities of city life and found the rigid and closed systems of abstract thought to be both useless and irrelevant. In total, humanism reflected the new environment of the Renaissance. Its essential contribution to the modern world was not its concern with antiquity, but its flexibility and openness to all the possibilities of life. 
The Maharal wrote most of his books to counteract the secular ideas of the Renaissance and to help Jews focus on the important ideas in Judaism. The new secular ideas of philosophy and of the humanists were very attractive during this time and in order to give a Jewish perspective on these ideas the Maharal came out with a lot of Jewish philosophical books. The book Tiferes Yisroel is one of these philosophical books. In his introduction to Tiferes Yisroel, the Maharal tries to describe, to a crowd of people who need explanations and without the Maharal would probably not be learning at all, how to learn and why learning Torah is important.

The Maharal begins Tiferes Yisroel by talking about the verse in scripture that one recites during the lifting of the Torah after reading it (hagba). The verse is “And this is the Torah that Moshe placed before Bnei Yisreol.” The Maharal uses this as a springboard to discuss his first issue, success in Torah learning. He says that the verse specifically chose the wording of "The Torah was placed before Bnei Yisroel," implying that the Torah is something that anyone who wants can come and take since it is sitting there waiting to be learned. The Maharal is trying to emphasize that the Torah is not only for the extremely wise or bright, but for anyone who is willing to involve themselves with it. He points this out since, in his time, people thought that learning Torah was only for the elite. There was a preconceived notion that only the best and the brightest go to Yeshiva and learn, but everyone else does not have to, or may not be capable of learning. Most people probably thought this because they equated Torah knowledge to regular secular knowledge. By doing this they thought that Yeshiva must be similar to University where only the top students can attend. This thinking led the Maharal to tell us that everyone has the ability to learn Torah and he proves it from this widely known verse.

The next problem the Maharal brings up with learning Torah is someone worrying about making mistakes. A person might not want to learn because he may read a word incorrectly or understand the Halacha in a faulty manner. To this concern the Maharal brings down a Midrash in Song of Songs that says G-D loves someone even if they read the text incorrectly or misunderstand the Halacha. The Midrash explains that G-D will overlook the mistake of even a misread word and that Hashem understands what the person truly meant. This is used to encourage all of the people who can not correctly read Hebrew and to support them in order that they will still try their hardest to read Hebrew and not give up.

This problem also reflects on the Maharal’s personal experience. People in his time period lacked the ability to read Hebrew. In fact, the Maharal’s writings reveal his own lack of Hebrew vocabulary. For example, the Maharal uses the word “Rak” which means only, in an interchangeable manner with the word ela, which means but. This shows the Maharal’s lack in Hebrew capabilities and leads to the conclusion that his generation must not have been any better. Still, the Maharal wanted to give hope to all of those in his community and tell them that they can try and learn even though there will be many mistakes. The Maharal figured that positive reinforcement was the best way to inspire people to learn and keep tradition.

Based on the problems the Maharal thought were rampant among his community, making mistakes with learning and the lack of confidence that people were having with learning itself, the Maharal explains the blessing recited before learning. The blessing recited before learning is “to deal with words of Torah” and not only “to learn Torah.” This discrepancy feeds the Maharal’s idea that one should learn and not be worried about his lack of confidence or his concern for making mistakes. He says that the very fact that the blessing is “to deal with words of Torah” and not to actually “learn Torah” means that all one has to do is try to learn and even if the learning is incorrect then merit is still received. The whole idea is that learning is a commandment in the Torah and in order to fulfill that commandment one must do an action of learning. The action is speaking out the words, but even if one is incorrect he is still fulfilling the commandment. Whereas, if the blessing would be “to learn Torah” that would imply only fully comprehending the ideas of Torah counts as fulfilling the commandment and if one did not actually understand the true law being learned then he would not have fulfilled the commandment. Nevertheless, the Maharal points out that the true bracha is, in fact, “to deal with words of torah” and, therefore, even if one does not comprehend the true law he is still rewarded.

Another problem with learning torah is trying to teach it to others. The Maharal brings up this difficulty since the primary way of learning Torah in his time was through pilpul. Pilpul is when two people learn together and discuss or argue about the different points in the Gemara or Mishna in a heated way. The Maharal was against this type of learning, but since it was the method used, he tried to help people through the discouragements of this process. The first of the two difficulties is that how does one know he is learning the Gemara or Mishna correctly that he will be able to enlighten the person he is trying to teach the law or idea. The Maharal adds that it is especially a problem in his (the Maharal’s) generation since wisdom has been lost and true explanations are much more difficult to come by. The second problem is that even if a person is able to get to the true law or idea how will he convince the person he is learning with into accept his understanding of the law or idea. This second problem is more disparaging than the first since after a person has worked so hard to achieve the truth it is painful for his understanding to be denied by someone else. It is human nature for a person to want his hard work to be meaningful and not be disregarded.

These two different problems are evident from a prayer that chazal provided for everyone to recite before learning. It says, “May it be your will that I should not stumble in a lawful matter, that I should not say something that is pure is impure and then my friend will be happy at my expense and also do not allow my friend to stumble that I should be happy at his expense.” This prayer is used to counteract human nature, that one person is usually happy when another person fails or is lacking something. This is true since a man is usually happy when he sees that he is better than his friend in some area, even a great and righteous person will have some degree of joy. Also, from the fact that a person is supposed to pray that he should not say something is pure when it is really impure instead of saying that he should say what is pure when it is pure shows that one doesn’t necessarily learn the proper law or idea. From this prayer we see the two problems facing someone while learning with a friend.

The Maharal answers up these two problems with a simple retort. He says that if when a person is learning he learns for the right reasons, which is for the sack of getting close to Hashem, then Hashem will give him the true understanding since the Torah comes from Hashem. This is proven from the language of the blessing one makes on the Torah in the morning. In the morning one says a prayer that Hashem gives us the torah, in a present tense, instead of saying that Hashem gave us the Torah. However, this seems to only answer up the question of a person becoming disheartened from the fact that he might not find out the true law or idea, but what about other people accepting his way of learning as truth? What about the problem that other people will not readily accept another persons understanding of the Gemara or Mishna? Rav Hartman answers this in a footnote to the Maharal and tells us that when a person is learning for the right reasons not only does he understand the true meaning, but this will help overcome human nature and people will accept his understanding as truth and not disregard his opinion.

Pilpul can be seen as a very difficult way of learning for the reasons just discussed, but the Maharal was against the pilpul approach of learning for several other reasons as well. In a paper written by Yael Wieselberg she goes into the different reasons that the Maharal was against the Pilpul way of learning. First of all, the Maharal thought that pilpul was a flawed system of learning, which results in a lack of knowledge and a lack of understanding the written and oral Torah, which brought in its wake a ‘siluk hama’asim ve’yirat Shamayim min ha’dor ha’ze,’ a removal of good deeds and reverence from this generation. The Maharal felt that when one engages in intellectualism rather than in unity, the result is likely to be a void of mitzvos and an absence of reverence. Like the Maharal said earlier, it is in human nature to be pleased with the lack found in others and pilpul is a type of method that enhances that bad character trait instead of suppressing it.

Pilpul has a very interesting background that, at its core, seems to run counter to the Maharal’s view of Judaism. Pilpul was started by rationalist principles and the pilpulistic method originated in the Yeshivot of Germany and Italy and later found its way into Eastern Europe. By the sixteenth century in Prague, Pilpul had become the dominant mode of learning. Although Pilpul was immediately integrated into the mainstream of Polish Jewish learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, coinciding with a considerable growth in Jewish learning, the Maharal emerged in staunch opposition to its instructive principles.

The truth is that the Maharal recognized the value of “pilpul for the right reasons” insofar as it illuminates genuine aspects of existence, but he remained deeply suspicious of “pilpul for the wrong reasons,” the kind of philosophical abstraction that disconnects one from reality. In Maharal’s view, pilpul had developed into a form of learning based upon the abstract and the imaginary, upon sharpening one’s arguments to impossible extremes just in order to outwit the fellow learner. This was exactly what the Maharal feared would become of learning and did not want this to happen.

Still, there are those who argue with the Maharal and believe pilpul is a great way of learning. Those who endorsed it believed that having a focused perspective would aid intellectual development, encouraging the student to think more clearly and move on towards autonomous learning. However, at the same time because students were so concerned to extend the parameters of their argument, they would often enter the realm of casuistry, arguing that different positions could be reconciled on the basis of obscure interpretations. While those in favor of pilpul were unconcerned by those flights of the imagination that left the realm of truth, Maharal was deeply concerned that the Torah enterprise remain restricted to truth, to its applications in reality. This shows us why, in Tiferes Yisroel, the Maharal says that chasing after the truth is the most important part about learning.

The Maharal talks about  understanding the "truth" as being why learning is important. However, iIf one learns for learnings sake and does not connect it to Hashem then his learning is removed from truth. An example of this is a Talmud Chacham (wise person) that learns and loves his learning, but fails to connect it to Hashem. The Maharal tells us that this type of person will not pass on his righteousness to his children since his learning is selfish and therefore falsified. The only way to insure that ones children will be righteous is to have truthful learning and connect it and enhance it with love for Hashem. Without this love for Hashem all else is pointless and untrue.

When learning lacks spiritual direction, Maharal insists, it will not succeed in bringing us to the world to come. Learning that is separated from fear of heaven, from a relation with Hashem, is rejected as meaningless. Only when study is intimately linked with the experience of Yirat Shamayim (awe of heaven) will it succeed in opening up the channels of relationship. On the mishnah “Eizehu Chacham, Halommed Mikol Adam”, (who is wise, someone who learns from every man) Maharal explains this point in depth. The definitions chosen by the Mishna, he explains, are extremely precise, and thus the Chacham (wise person) cannot be defined by the quantity of knowledge he possesses. The judge here of what is a wise person is rather how vigorously one strives to connect himself to Hashem. One can not determine intellectualism to be the definition of a wise person, but rather a love and understanding of Hashem.

The Maharal tried to make many changes in his community that can be seen through his writings. He attempts to relate more productive ways of learning as apposed to the accepted pilpul method. The Maharal also tries to encourage people to use the pilpul method, but with many amendments to the general understanding of how it is handled. He also invokes a person’s confidence and self worth instead of allowing it to be demeaned.

In essence, the traits of a true teacher, according to the Maharal, are a person who strives for truth and looks for the best in their students. The Maharal believed that everyone is capable of performing on a spiritual level. Whether they are the brightest people or the slowest people, the Maharal tried to give advice to all. He did not discriminate nor did he discourage anyone, rather he believed that everyone could teach and learn. This is why he wrote Tiferes Yisroel, in order that people should realize learning and teaching Torah is for everyone and that no one should give up hope. Also, he wrote the book in order to counteract the anti-religious teachings of the popular Renaissance ideas that were floating around during his time.

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