Tuesday, May 09, 2006

English and Torah

Throughout my high school career, discussions of Tora U'Mada always centered around the sciences. When I say discussions, of course, I mean arguments between students and teachers regarding the importance of learning secular subjects. Science was always trotted out as a sure-fire way to win an easy concession, or to illustrate a point. "I mean, like, it's really important, because, when you learn stuff like biology, you can recognize the Nifla'os of Hashem," or, if the student was more learned or innovative "You can use science to understand things in the Torah, or to help medicine, and things like that." And the teacher, of course, was forced to agree that studying science was a good thing, it was just a question of priorities. Or context, or point of view, or whatever we happened to be arguing about.

The point that was never raised was the importance of studying the soft sciences, or things like English. Of course, we had a class in the subject, and often very good teachers, but I don't ever recall somebody making the argument that studying English was important to properly understandng and appreciating the Torah. And of course, there are plenty of reasons for that- the vague whisperings about Bible Criticism that managed to insinuate themselves into our protected consciousnesses, the faith in the styles of criticism used by classical Meforshim and Rishonim, the general distaste with the idea that anything secular could add to Torah, 'hefach ba v'hefach ba, d'kula ba', and so forth.

The first author that I really came across to contradict these ideas was R' Aharon Lichtenstein, who had a Harvard degree in English literature and whose writings often focus on the usefulness of applying literary tactics to analyzing the Torah or the Gemara. But what really brought this home to me was taking my first hard-core English class in University this quarter.

The tactics that we have used in our English class- things like close readings, looking for themes or repetitions, unpacking metaphors, noticing ironies, focusing on ambiguities inherent in word choice, even inspecting punctuation- all can be applied to analyzing the Gemara or Tanach as well, but what I found even more interesting was in the questions raised by our analysis of different styles of criticism or analysis that we read. The class, entitled "Critical Perspectives" focuses not only on trying to unpack the texts ourselves, but also on analyzing various styles with which others have done so.

I was struck by the similarities between the styles and the questions raised, and debates and interests that seem to arise constantly in a Chumash or Gemara class. Thus far, we have touched on some of the following questions: how much can be read into ambiguities before you're just stretching; how important is it what the author may or may not have intended (less a question in Tanach, but surprisingly similar to the p'shat/midrash debate); how seriously should we take variant readings that the author chose to include (for us, Dickinson; for Torah, kri/k'tiv); how important it is to focus on the original meaning of the words versus studying the historical progression of interpretations; how legitimate it is to read a certain ideological concept into a text; reading out of a text versus reading into it; how the internet and hyper-text versions of text are changing the process of interpretation (I almost raised my hand to comment about the Bar Ilan CD before realizing that they'd have no clue what I was talking about); how much to attribute to the author's particular historical context; how to counter-read the text to analyze the author rather than his message; how important it may be to study original manuscripts; how broad of a context to view a work- the rest of the author's writings, the rest of the book, no context at all; how important is it that an author chose to include various things in proximity or in the same work.

There are probably more, but these are simply the ones that occur to me off-hand. I have not had a class go by without thinking of a meforash that might raise the same questions, and every day I leave with new perspectives on the answers, as well as practice at trying out different answers and different modes of taking apart poems or stories. It's a subject that we grapple with daily, and it seems a shame to ignore all the really useful things that English has to say.


Miri said...

hey, actually this topic has come up a couple times with Rabbi Kn. particularly in context of "the evils of a secular education" and how he'd trather have been in Yeshiva than at YU. but he mentioned specifically the analytical ability gleaned from an English class giving you a new analytical perspective of a text, and getting a dvar Torah out of said technique. if that made sense. what I'm trying to say is, the point's been made a couple times, although not as much as with science, clearly. what abt with languages- like Spanish, Italian, Flemmish? anything said on how understanding the various dynamics of language might be able to enhance understanding of language uses in the Talmud, etc? anyway, you're right, i"m just trying to say that similar points could be made on almost any secular topic.

Tobie said...

No, I totally agree. That's why I'm all for a liberal arts education. Everything that you learn in it teaches your mind new ways to think, which are as useful in Torah as they are in everythign else in your life. Languages for example- it's fascinating what different languages do or don't have words for, and by studying that and linguistics, you can get a lot out of Hebrew and Aramaic. Heck, think R' Shimshon Refael Hirsch, in terms of linguistics.

R' Kn. is anti-secular education?

Miri said...

No he's totally for it; he's always telling us those stories abt how self-rightously indignant he was to be at YU after shana bet, and then how he decided after awhile to get as much out of it as he could bc he realized how much he could get out of it. you remember, it was one of his rants.