2012-10-26

Talmud study at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva

One and a half week has passed since I started my Talmud study after about 12 years' absence at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I spend about two hours every morning studying what I consider the most difficult book I have every studied with a rabbi and several other students. The ever growing general feeling is that it is a great privilege to be able to study the Talmud from someone who is part of the presumably unbroken chain of oral tradition. I also feel that it is probably impossible to study and understand it unless you are initiated to it in this traditional framework.

There are at least three factors that make the study of the Talmud very difficult and challenging. The first obstacle is its language, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, which is far less known and described grammatically and lexically than, for example, Biblical Hebrew. But knowing the literal meaning of each of the words comprising a sentence does not guarantee you to understand it as it is written in a very cryptic style, so you have to supplement it with many missing words. Even overcoming this second obstacle does not guarantee you to understand it, which is always quite frustrating. But the most serious obstacle is its logic; it is often necessary to read the same passage many times.

What has impressed me in this traditional method of Talmud study is that you are required to understand what we study 100%; even understanding 90% is considered a compromise. The best way to check if you understand something 100% is to explain it to someone else using your own language. To attain this goal, our teacher explain the same passages at least seven times, and you are also required to review it alone or preferably bekhavruta/bekhavruse with someone else.

Even in our early stage of learning we are required to review what we were taught with someone else from the same group. I still do not understand why this method works. I and my study partner are more or less is the same low level, so we often find ourselves totally lost, unable to go beyond the literal meaning of what we study together. In this respect it is a great help to be able to continue to study the Talmud once a week bekhavruta/bekhavruse with a good old haredi friend of mine, who is far more advanced than I. We used to study other chapters, but since I started my Talmud study at the yeshiva, we simply make a weekly review of what I studied during the week.

In the meanwhile I enjoy my daily Talmud study. I hope I will be able to persevere until the end of the program in the middle of next July. I am already curious to see how I will feel when I reread the same passages I am struggling with now after the end of this nine-month program.

2012-10-12

Why I prefer an English-speaking ultra-Orthodox yeshiva to a Hebrew-speaking modern Orthodox one

Every time I tell someone, whether a friend or a stranger, that I am planning to spend the morning hours of every weekday during my sabbatical in Jerusalem, studying at an English-speaking ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, almost everyone asks me, and that with good reason, why I will not study at a Hebrew-speaking modern Orthodox yeshiva, which seems to them to be a more natural option for me. Here is my public reply.

First of all, I believe that one of the benefits or even obligations of a sabbatical is to break the routine. This can be done ideally by living in a foreign country. But since this is not a practical option for me, the best I can do is to spend at least part of my sabbatical in as different an environment as possible within Jerusalem.

Secondly, I feel (and have seen) that ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are more "authentic" than their modern Orthodox (or "national religious") counterparts in a number of respects. Being a linguist who prefers tradition to innovation, I like the fact that the former still preserve the traditional Ashkenazic pronunciation in reading the Tora and the Talmud and davening, even when their mother tongue is Modern Hebrew, while the latter have completely abandoned this traditional pronunciation. And I am also affected by the difference I have witnesses in the results of the ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox education, especially in derekh-erets.

Ideally, I would study at a Yiddish-speaking yeshiva, which is the closest to the yeshiva tradition. But this option is available only for very advanced students in a very small number of elite yeshivas in Jerusalem. It goes without saying that I meet none of the requirements for this option. I would also like to have some rest from Hebrew and Israeli society by being at an English-speaking "ghetto". Besides, only ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for the beginners like myself are available only in English even in Jerusalem, at least to the best of my knowledge.

Last but not least, I simply love the specific English-speaking ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem where I spent about four months about ten years ago: Ohr Somayach. This is the place where I was first exposed to ultra-Orthodox Judaism and its philosophy. I still remember vividly the intellectual surprises I experienced there. I am so happy that finally I can study there again from next Tuesday, though only in the morning.

2012-10-05

Exemption from teaching on sabbatical

My long-awaited first sabbatical started this week. I am really excited that I will finally be able to have one whole academic year exempt from teaching (and bureaucratic obligations). This does not mean that I do not like to teach. I will surely miss the thrice-a-week opportunity to interact with motivated students. But I have been feeling more and more strongly in the past few years that I am getting worn out.

I started teaching in the university in October 1991, when I was still a PhD student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since then I have been teaching for 21 years with no sabbatical. It was only eight years ago that being on sabbatical became a possibility since I was "saved" by Bar-Ilan University.

The main reason why I have been feeling that I am getting worn out is that my "output" in teaching has already exceeded the "input" I made previously, that is, I have been feeling as if I were in "overdraft" pedagogically.

In addition to studying the Talmud at a yeshiva and working on one project of mine, I want and have to recharge myself with new and/or more knowledge in those areas in which I have been offering courses, whether obligatory or elective, including morphology, lexicography, sociolinguistics and onomastics. I am sure that this one-year period of "input" will benefit not only myself but also my students-to-be after the sabbatical.