Talmud as mussar and synthesis vs. analysis

I believe that Talmud study can make one into a more refined, sensitive, moral, integrated person. Head knowledge can be transformed into heart knowledge. However, this won’t happen naturally. A deliberate process is required.

My idea is not new. The mussar movement was a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Eastern Europe among religious Lithuanian Jewry that was founded for this very reason.

In a basic sense the study of mussar leads to growth in one’s sensitivity to the feelings of others, self-discipline, self-esteem, greater faith and general heightened moral stature.

Thus people today have picked up the mussar ball and mussar continues to thrive in numerous evolving forms.

Not everyone was in favor of mussar when it was first established. There were voices of dissent.

For example, a well-known motto of the school of thought that objected to the musar movement was that musar can be learned from Talmud study itself. There was no need for a separate discipline, they insisted.

I want to challenge the claim that we don’t need mussar, only my challenge will be from a unique perspective. Yes, I agree. We don’t necessarily need to learn ethics from a separate body of musar literature. It is possible to learn ethics from Talmud itself. But not by studying it in the traditional way!

The traditional method of Talmud study does not lend itself to personal growth and change. Change may take place naturally but then again it may not. Why not supplement the process with a different kind of process?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that the method of Talmud study is incorrect and should be replaced with something else. I’m suggested that it should be supplemented with something else. A second stage can be added.

This is similar to the topic of health. One can get over a fever by purely natural means. Drink plenty of hot fluids, get plenty of rest and keep warm. But does this mean one should never supplement this self-care with medication of any kind? No one would say that.

Similarly supplementary study, which we will call synthesis, is the next stage of what would take place after the stage of intellectual understanding, or analysis.

What is the difference between synthesis and analysis?

A discussion that is geared towards analysis, as the first stage of Talmud study must be, manifests a process that makes use of proofs, counter-proofs, finding rationale for a position and bolstering that position, and so forth.

A discussion that is geared toward synthesis manifest a process that makes use of interdisciplinary applications, personal lessons and integration of perspectives. This is described in my post of January 18: Synthesis in group process

Synthesis describes the process that takes place in my chevruta study of the book Alei Shur. Analysis describes the process that takes place at the midrasha for women where I assist students during preparation time in clarifying points where they get stuck in understanding the text.

I don’t believe the reason for the difference in approach between my personal chevruta study and my tutoring of students in Talmud is only a function of one being mussar study and the other being Talmud study.

The reason for the difference is that synthesis is and always has been a missing element in Talmud study. My post of The Ultimate Trusting Relationship on November 23 was written after having studied a piece of Talmud and a piece of the mussar book Alei Shur during the same time period, and finding a point of synthesis between them that I believed held an important message.

The piece of Talmud was talking about a case in which someone caused another person a loss to his property. He saw a fire some distance from his neighbors crops and proceeded to cover his neighbor’s crops with a blanket. The wind blew and the crops caught fire in spite of his effort to save them.

But were his intentions good or not? If he knew the law that stipulates one cannot claim damages for covered goods, then by covering the crops he in effect made it impossible for the owner to claim insurance.

After the damage has been done the court says to him: “Whether your intentions were good or not, only God knows. Even if your intentions were good, you could have thought this through more carefully and realized that by rushing to “help” you’re making things worse and may possibly cause your neighbor a loss. We’re letting you off the hook by a loophole, but we want to make it clear that if you did have malicious intent, in the heavenly court you’re guilty. Even if you meant well but failed to think things through, then this could have been avoided and you’re responsible for his loss. In other words we can’t force you to pay but we want you to know that in God’s eyes you need to pay your neighbor, and if you care about God’s eyes you’ll pay him.”

The piece of Alei Shur I had studied related one of the elements of trust in God as knowing that God knows you better than you know yourself. God knows your intentions as well as your unconscious thoughts. You can’t hide from God.

From the perspective of synthesis, this aspect of trust in God is the unspoken, underlying basis of the penalty of monetary payment issued by the “heavenly court.” That is, if you truly believe that God knows you better than you know yourself, you will accept and be totally at peace with both judgments: the one given by the earthly court and the one given by the heavenly court!

The Talmud student would never pull this message out of the text by analysis alone because it is a message that can only come through synthesis.

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2 Responses to Talmud as mussar and synthesis vs. analysis

  1. Shel says:

    I think you may be using the term ‘Talmud’ to refer to study of halacha per se.

    Remember that the Talmud, just like the Torah itself, is comprised of both halacha and aggadah. Careful study of the Talmud as a whole will yield, I believe, the kind of mussar results of which you speak.

    One of the striking things which happened after the redaction of the Talmud was the creation of works which were (nearly) solely comprised of halachic content. This has sometimes had the effect of divorcing the halacha from the other aggadic aspects with which it was thoroughly interwoven in the Talmud.

    Mussar works can indeed help to re-synthesize these elements but I would argue that the true student of the Talmud will gain these insights precisely by synthesizing the halachic and aggadic aspects therein.

    • logogroup says:

      Thanks for the additional point of what needs synthesizing – halacha and aggada. It doesn’t conflict with my point so there’s nothing to argue about. My point was that one can synthesize the halachic content alone with a topic such as trust in God in a way which will yield mussar.

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