“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers; he’s one who asks the right questions.” -Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), 1964
I spend a lot of time asking questions, and a lot of time learning and teaching Talmud. These pastimes are deeply related; the process of uncovering and addressing qushyot u’ba’ayot constitutes the meat and potatoes (or tofu and quinoa, for some of our readers here) of the Talmudic enterprise. The Bavli is a text explicitly animated by query, and we know the joy of the Talmudist who discovers that she or he has “asked like a lamdan,” who has raised the question of Abbaye, the Stamma d’Talmuda, Tosafot, or R. Akiva Eiger. To be a good learner, and certainly a good learner of Talmud, therefore, includes being able to ask good questions.
But, chancing upon the type of question asked by the masters of the discipline can oftentimes feel like a lucky shot, thrown up unskillfully and difficult to replicate. So I’ve wondered, what makes a good Talmudic question?
In this, the first of a series of blog posts on questions and Talmud education, I will focus on how to educate students to ask good questions. In part 2, I will share my thoughts on how teachers can use questions effectively. In part 3, I will discuss how to create a climate that encourages students to ask good questions.
Prof. Jon Levisohn has created a helpful map of ten orientations (understandings of the goal or purpose of studying a text) which a teacher of rabbinic texts might adopt. Two examples: A teacher who adopts the “Literary Orientation” will aim to “generate insight into a text on the basis of its literary features.” One who adopts the “Jurisprudential Orientation,” on the other hand, considers the rabbinic text primarily as “the work of a legal system… Legal argument, debates about legal concepts and rulings, are the heart of the subject.”
In the concluding section of his paper (“How to Use a Menu”), Levisohn lays out what he sees as the benefit of this map of orientations, which includes its potential use as a type of ‘mirror’ which teachers might hold up to themselves in order to make their own orientations more explicit to themselves and their colleagues. By this I think he means that the more a teacher is self-aware of the orientation(s)/fundamental assumptions and goals she is working with/towards, the clearer she can be to herself and her students about everything from the goals and methodologies of the course to what she is looking to highlight in a particular text.
I have been intrigued by the potential of Levisohn’s map for the development of question templates for the study of rabbinic texts. A question template is a set of questions which a master of the field employs when analyzing a text; and implicit in each of the orientations Levisohn details are a series of questions which a virtuosic practitioners of said orientation asks herself or her students whenever approaching a rabbinic text. This is a major benefit of question templates—they allow one to form habits of inquiry, directing one towards useful, skillfully crafted questions.
Again, each orientation Levisohn identifies in his map will promote different questions to be pursued. A teacher/student utilizing a literary orientation might ask, for example, if there are repeating words or phrases in a given text; whether it engages in word-play, deliberate inter-textual allusions; and whether the text employs a known structure (e.g. chiastic, envelope) in presenting its content (see, for example, Avraham Walfish’s “Methodology of Learning Mishnah“). One employing the Jurisprudential Orientation, on the other hand, will ask questions such as how to categorize a given law or relationship between concepts discussed in a text; what conceptual disagreement might account for divergent rulings or debate; what is the relationship between two different concepts as they interact in a given scenario (Moshe Taragin’s methodology series on the Virtual Beit Midrash often concludes an article on a sugya by articulating the types of questions employed in the analysis of the core texts encountered).
Therefore, what we need is the development of question templates for each orientation. Developing these could go a long way in improving Talmud education.
I conclude this brief piece with an illustration drawn from my own teaching experience, which my students seem to have found helpful.
Say we are in an educational milieu characterized by a skills orientation—an attempt to develop students ability to independently read and analyze a sugya. Beyond decoding structure and language, there are also basic analytic questions that we’d like the learner to ask. I teach my students that when they encounter a rabbinic ruling, they should ask themselves: Is this ruling to be read as “davka (דווקא), lav davka (לאו דווקא), or afilu (אפילו).” As an analogy, if I say “I like pizza,” I can intend:
- Davka pizza—specifically, to the exclusion of other foods (say, hamburgers);
- Lav-davka pizza—pizza is the example of a broader set of foods (say, fast-food, which would include hamburgers);
- Afilu pizza—one might well have thought I would NOT like pizza (ka mashma lan, I do). This strongly implies that there are other foods which I enjoy even more.
Now, let’s apply this rubric to a (somewhat randomly chosen) talmudic ruling. Several meimrot make up the backbone of the extended sugya regarding hannukah, redacted in TB Shabbat 21a-23b. One of the issues raised in the sugya (22a) is whether or not one may benefit from nerot hannukah; and in the course of that debate, the following meimra is recorded:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב אסי (אמר רב:) אסור להרצות מעות כנגד נר חנוכה.
What is the meaning of this ruling? Well, if we have been trained to always ask ourselves “davka, lav davka, or afilu,” we will quickly come up with three possibilities:
- Davka: it is specifically prohibited to count money via the illumination of nerot hannukah; other uses might be permitted;
- Lav davka: the prohibition of counting by money is one example of a broader set of prohibited activities, e.g. reading by the nerot;
- Afilu: even the relatively innocuous utility of counting money via the nerot is prohibited; how much more so more problematic activities.
למ”ד אסור להרצות מעות כנגד נר של חנוכה דוקא הרצאת מעות וכיוצא בה שהיא תשמיש רשות ושל חול וכדקא פירש טעמיה משום בזויי מצוה; אבל תשמיש מצוה ותשמיש קדושה מותר להשתמש לאורה…
Yet according to the Ramban (Hiddushei haRamban, Shabbat 22a):
הא דאמר שמואל וכי נר קדושה יש בו. ואתקיף לה רב יוסף וכי דם קדושה יש בו נראה לי דה”פ דמדאסר רב אסי אפילו הרצאת מעות דליכא משום שמא יאמרו לצורכו הוא דאדלקה…
While Ba’al ha-Maor reads the ruling as referring specifically to counting money and similar activities (note here that though Ba’al ha-Maor uses the term davka, he intends the sentence to be read as what we have termed lav davka. The semantics can be a bit slippery), Ramban reads it as forbidding even such a casual activity as counting coins.
Asking what motivations (textual, conceptual, etc…) generate these readings would be a follow-up question for our template.
I invite readers to share their own questions below in the comments; perhaps we can crowd-source question templates for each orientation together.
Jon Kelsen has taught Talmud in a wide variety of formal and informal contexts, including Drisha, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. He is the Rosh Kollel and Director of the Drisha June Kollel.