|Why One Should Learn Torah
The Torah consists of the written Law, which is the Bible, the oral Law given to Moses, a systematic formulation of the commandments, and the unique method of analysis which has been taught from generation to generation. The latter two are generally included in the term Talmud. Although the oral Law has been committed to writing for fear of it becoming lost, the particular method of analysis has always required verbal transmission from teacher to student to this day. In order to become a Talmudic scholar one has to have studied personally under the guidance and tutelage of another Talmudic scholar. The unique method of Talmudic analysis with all its intricacies requires years of personal tutelage and cannot be acquired from written words. All who have attempted to do so, perhaps most notably historians, have failed in their endeavor, revealing their ignorance in their writings.
The study of Torah is an intellectual activity; it engages the same part of the mind that is employed in the study of natural science and mathematics. In contrast to mathematics its emphasis is on inductive rather than deductive reasoning. I do not mean that there is quantitatively more inductive rather than deductive reasoning in the process of learning Torah but that the beauty of Talmudic thought is revealed through the inductive process. Talmud employs a very definite type of categorical thinking which when mastered remains as a model in the mind of the Talmudist. All ideas, no matter how creative, original, and insightful will always conform to this model. The model, however, is not responsible for creative thought. Creative thought stems from the intellectual abilities and the work of the individual.
When one studies Torah one is not merely involved in the accumulation of facts (I mean, of course, the study of Torah on a scholarly level) but in the creative process of understanding and formulating hallachic structures. The hallachic structures are objects of great beauty. The Rabbis tell us that if a scholar's rendition of a particular Talmudic point or issue is not intellectually beautiful he should refrain from expounding it. "If it is not as sweet as milk and honey, keep it under your tongue." In the study of Torah one is engaged in comprehending God's ideas. As such they must be aesthetically appealing. This reminds one of the great physicist Dirac who used to say it is more important for one's theory to be in line with beauty than with one's experiments.
Because the study of the Talmud is the study of God's thoughts, it has an epistemological value. The unique method of Talmudic analysis is intellectual modus operandi par excellence; it is employed when approaching any area of knowledge. Every subject becomes translated into the categories of Talmudic thought. A Talmudic scholar is not satisfied until all of his knowledge attains the precision and clarity of a Talmudic formula.
The importance the Talmud places on the beauty of ideas gives a different meaning to the process of induction. the process of induction derives its power of conviction from repetition for most logicians. Commonly the process of induction is seen as deriving its power of conviction upon the human mind from repetitiveness. If an experiment is performed many times and if the same result is obtained each time, the experimenter concludes that the result will always follow. Thus the essence of induction is construed as resting on the fact that one observes repeated occurrences of the same phenomenon and concludes the phenomenon will always recur. The fact that the sun will rise tomorrow is considered an induction based on its having risen daily in the past.
The Talmudic concept of induction is different. Here the power of conviction lays not in the repetition but in the beauty the intellect perceives in the formulation of the ideas. True, repetition and consistency are necessary in order to test the ideato demonstrate its veracity; however, they are not the essential source of conviction that the theory is a true one.
The difference between the two concepts of induction can clearly be seen in the case of the sun's rising. According to the common view this is a case of induction, i.e. that the sun will rise tomorrow based upon its rising each day in the past. According to the Talmudic view it is not. There is no less intrinsic beauty in the idea that it can rise only a fixed amount of times, that fixed amount not having as yet been reached than the idea that there is some principle at work which will cause it to rise indefinitely. (According to present scientific knowledge, the former is the case). Again, according to the Talmudic view an induction may be constructed out of even one case if the theory conforms to beauty of thought, simplicity, while according to the common view it cannot.
In the Talmudic view the intuitive intellect is at the heart of the inductive process. It can be argued that even in the most scientifically controlled experiment repetition alone cannot be responsible for scientific knowledge and advancement. In any experiment there are myriads of factors at play. In order to obtain a cohort of data a process of isolating factors is necessary. But from where does this process stem? How does the scientist determine what to isolate in setting up and interpreting his experiments? The scientist sets up his experiments with only a suspicion of the cause and effect they involve. Here we must make recourse to a type of intuition that grasps certain relationships without even knowing why. The Talmudic model of induction merely carries this sense, this intuition, to its full conclusion. It bases the validity of an induction on its degree of theoretical beauty.
For some the Talmudic model may seem more tenuous. One feels more secure basing his theory on concrete physical evidence rather than upon abstract intuition. But any sense of security we may gain from the fact that we base our ideas on physical evidence is short lived when we realize the classical weakness of induction, namely that there is always the possibility that we simply do not have enough evidence. The two positions are embodied in the antimony of materialism vs. mentalism. The Talmud opts for the latter.
We are now approaching an understanding of one of the foremost institutions of the Talmud, the machlokut, or argument. This institution is often the bane of the religionist permeating him with a sense of insecurity, but it is the very lifeline and joie de vivre of the Talmudist, opening up worlds of theoretical speculation for him. A Talmudic argument occurs when two theoretical paths are open to a given set of hallachic phenomena. If evidence is adduced that proves one path to be correct over the other, the dispute is resolved. If no evidence can be used to support one view or refute the other, the argument remains. But hallachah has practical relevancy as well as theoretical relevancy. How then does one practice in the case of a dispute? Here the scholar has a right to follow his own reasoning. Why does the Torah permit him to do so when the view of his colleague is equally tenable? The Torah permits him to rely on his own intellectual intuition. He is only bound to follow the hallachah according to the way his mind sees it. This license is granted only to one who has great knowledge of Torah. Everyone's intuition is not equal. Intellectual intuition is only recognized by Torah in one who has perfected himself intellectually and knows well the ways of the Talmud. As Maimonides states, "Man's intuitive power is especially strong in things which he has well comprehended, and in which his mind is much engaged (Guide for the Perplexed Part II Chapter 38)." An ignorant person's intuition is worthless. Maimonides contrasts the intuition of the scholar with that of the layman. He attributes the former to the intellect while the latter he attributes to the faculty of imagination and previous experience. Thus there are two distinct types of intuition stemming from two different parts of the mind (Guide, Part I, Chapter 73, note on 10th prop.).
The institution of machlokut or argument comes about when two scholars, both erudite in Talmud, differ in their intuitive grasp of a particular Talmudic point. Each one is entitled to follow his own sense of what is the correct formulation. Does this make one's religious practice tenuous and less authentic and secure? This depends on one's definition of religious practice. If one is seeking in religion a sense of salvation that is guaranteed him by the performance of a particular religious act then naturally he will feel threatened by a system based on human rationale and inquiry. In Judaism it is the commitment to the system which brings one salvation. This system has as its hallmark the recognition of man's highest activityhis ability to search for truth and knowledge.
An example of what we are discussing can be gleaned from Bertrand Russell's essay, "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism." Here Russell investigates what we mean when we say a proposition is true. He contends that true means the proposition corresponds to some fact. False then would mean it does not correspond to any fact. Russell then realizes that this is all fine with positive statements, i.e. we can say it either does or does not correspond to some fact in the world. But what about negative statements? If I say for instance, there are no elephants in this room, what do I mean if I am to say this statement is true? According to our previous definition it would have to mean negative facts. But here things become a bit murky. A discussion follows as to whether there are or are not negative facts. To quote Russell, (lecture III) "Are there negative facts? ÉOne has a certain repugnance to negative facts, the same sort of feeling that makes you wish not to have a fact 'p' or 'q' going about the world. You have a feeling there are only positive facts, and that negative propositions have somehow or other got to be expressions of positive facts. When I was lecturing on this subject at Harvard I argued that there were negative facts, and it nearly produced a riot: the class would not hear of there being negative facts at all. I am still inclined to think that there are." After an examination of the pros and cons of such an idea, Russell finally concludes, "on the whole I do incline to believe that there are negative factsÉ"
This is precisely the sort of thinking that would not do for the Talmudist. Russell's problem is that he is dealing with an idea (a very basic one at that) that is intuitively unclear. He needs this idea in order to get on with his system. One senses here an urgency to resolve problems. It becomes a type of reasoning all too familiar to us in works of modern day epistemologists where the system justifies the premises. The Talmudist would be aghast at such an affair. For him every idea must be exceedingly clear and appealing to the human intellect. It must strike the mind in a way that one senses that great light and clarity has been brought to the subject. The Talmudist would rather withdraw from his inquiry in admission of ignorance than to push through an idea for the sake of a desired goal. Reb Chaim used to say, "from a question one does not die!" His meaning was that solutions must flow naturally and not from the desire to produce answers.
There is a difference in this between science and philosophy. Such a state of affairs may be possible in science but intolerable in philosophy. Let us take for example Newton's idea of gravitation. As physicists have stated Newton taught us a strange thing, namely that one body can act upon another although there is no contact between them. This is called action at a distance. In science this is tolerable. The correspondence of the mathematical equations to reality show us that there is something here that cannot be disregarded. It is an advancement over our former knowledge. True, the basic idea may be unpalatable but our minds are now directed, due to the evidence, to this phenomenon. We admit ignorance of the most basic point of our inquiry. This is good. The Talmudist often does the same. In clarifying an issue he may reach a point where he finds himself confronted by a basic premise which seems paradoxical. He is nevertheless satisfied with his exposition in that he has advanced his knowledge, though it leads him to a dilemma he admittedly cannot explain. He reacts like the physicist.
In philosophy and certainly in epistemology where our goal is comprehending, when our basic premises are unclear the essence of our inquiry has been undermined. In the one case we recognize our idea is unclear and are guided by it to further investigation; in the other we are telling our minds that an unclear idea is a good explanation. We should never forget that all epistemology must ultimately rest on the innate appeal of an idea to the human mind. We cannot go outside our minds to investigate the mind.