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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Learn Gemara - Part I

Before we investigate the nature of the halakhic system and process we will ask two interrelated fundamental questions: Why is there an Oral Torah and why must we learn this Oral Torah? Of course, these questions can only be understood in their depth when we first understand what is the Oral Torah.

The question of "why learn gemara" takes for granted that it is important to know practical halakha. This is important for the obvious reason that one must “learn in order to do.” On a deeper level, one needs to know halakha in order to understand the flow of Jewish life. It is possible to keep halakha but not really be in tune with the Jewish way of life. Through actively learning about the halakha one learns the rhythm of the Jewish life, much like a dancer naturally and flawlessly moves in sync with the music. The discussion is concerning the importance of intimately knowing the halakhic system and process (“Shas and Poskim”). This is obviously important for one who is aspiring to render halakhic rulings (“posek”), especially on new issues or complicated cases, since before one can create a program or use the system one must be extremely knowledgeable of the mechanics. Furthermore, many halakhic rulings must rely on intuition, and thus the posek must have acquired a “da’at Torah” (a personal and integrated understanding of the Torah system and philosophy).

But before we delve into ta'amei ha'mitzvot we must be clear about our starting point. As R. Hirsch writes (Introduction to Horeb), " Even if every Divine precept were a riddle to us and presented us with a thousand unsolved and insoluble problems, the obligatory character of the commandments would not in the slightest degree be impaired by this."


Learning Torah is a mitzvah and, therefore, one shouldn’t need reasons to justify learning. The only possible way to ever become motivated to learn the will of Hashem is if you care about the will of Hashem in the broader sense. A person cannot motivate himself to learn the will of Hashem if he is fundamentally not interested in the will of Hashem. For example, a sinner is going to have a lot of difficulty searching earnestly for the will of Hashem – he is immersing in a mikva with a rat in his hand! Therefore the first requirement necessary to come to ahavat ha’Torah – a desire to learn the will of Hashem – is to learn only because it is the will of Hashem to learn!

Lastly, asking "meta" questions can be compared to trying to see the forest. It is certainly important to take a step back and see the big picture but ultimately one can only intimately understand the forest by going into it and seeing the individual trees. This is a dialectic - sometimes we learn and practice mitzvot in simplicity and let ourselves naturally come to answers, while other times we must try to intellectually assess the meaning of Torah, mitzvot and ourselves.

1 comment:

Neil Harris said...

Great post. When I was in a yeshiva for the first time, it was explained to me that learning Halachah/Gemara gives us an insight into Hashem's "thought process". Your explanation is great.