Sunday, 12 December 2021

362) Between Talmudic and Academic Academies

Rabbi Dr Binyamin Lau - a man straddling both worlds of Talmudic and Academic Judaism. 


Is Torah study like drawing water from a well, involving a preoccupation only with a set group of ideas laid down by earlier authorities – or is it like a spring, with space for a constant flow of new ideas? This article, based extensively on the research by Rabbi Dr Binyamin Lau[1], explores the question of whether or not only old or precedented material qualifies as Torah study.

Two Talmudic scholars; two different approaches

 The tractate Avot records a debate as to which of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s disciples was the most esteemed: R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (described as the בּוֹר סוּד, orplastered well” who only drew from earlier sources) or R. Elazar ben Arach (described as the מַעְיָן הַמִתְגַבֵּר, anever-flowing spring”.)?[2]

The plastered or cemented well only allows what it already contains to be drawn from it, while the ever-flowing spring simply becomes the means through which new material constantly emerges.

R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus

R. Eliezer, the plastered well, is known for his more conservative and traditional approach to Torah study, as he famously declares in his latter years:

In all my days I never said anything that I did not first hear from my teachers.”[3]

Under normal and typical circumstances this would have been par for the course. Many, if not most Torah scholars, fit the profile of R. Eliezer exactly, diligently studying and teaching only what they received from their books and teachers. But R. Eliezer was actually out of place and out of step with his environment. He was, after all, in Yavneh. Lau (2013:33) explains that at around this period that:

“the differentiation between biblical and rabbinic injunctions…enabled the sages to diminish the severity of various prohibitions and allow for leniencies under certain conditions.”

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai (30BCE- 90CE) moved his beit midrash (study hall) from Jerusalem to Yavneh. His approach was to combine memories of the old with visions of the future, as Avot 2:8 records:

“R. Yochanan ben Zakkai received from Hillel and Shammai.”

Shammai represented the old and more static traditions while Hillel represented the same tradition but presented in light of new developments. Shammai was strict and inflexible while Hillel was lenient and innovative. In Yavneh:

“Anyone who wanted to adopt the stringent view would have to work hard to substantiate his position.” (Lau 2013:90)

It was also at this time that voting was introduced to the beit midrash in order to establish the prevailing law. R. Eliezer was vehemently against this democratic practice as he felt everything was already contained in the plastered well of Torah which had existed since Sinai.

According to the Mishna[4], on one occasion R. Eliezer rather sarcastically asked a student from the beit midrash:

“What novel teaching was expounded in the beit midrash today?”

The student responded that voting had taken place with regard to a certain matter. The Mishna records that R. Eliezer wept. He sent a message back with the student saying that he already had a tradition going back to Sinai that he knew the Halacha. There was no need to vote as everything was already in the plastered well. Voting on Halacha was just foolishness and folly. The beit midrash was not a place to try to establish new laws or explore new ideas. Its purpose was only to preserve the past (Lau 2013:94).

Lau (2013: 32) writes:

“Yavneh was dominated by the students of Hillel, who celebrated intellectual debate and human ingenuity as essential elements of Torah study. The students of Shammai, who had stood at the forefront of the old guard…were no longer prominent.”

Yavneh was the new centre of Torah study after the fall of Jerusalem and it was based on insight and creativity. It had to adopt this approach in order to survive into the future, and the ideology of the plastered well was not in keeping with the ethos of Yavneh. Lau continues:

“But Rabbi Eliezer categorically rejected this approach. He held fast to an older style of learning that viewed Torah as a fixed body of knowledge, transmitted intact and constant from one generation to another.”

In the end, sadly, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, with all his good intentions, is excommunicated. After the famous story of Akhnai’s oven where R. Eliezer call on G-d to prove that he is correct in a certain ruling. G-d responds accordingly (after a river starts flowing upstream and the walls of the beit midrash are about to collapse). R. Eliezer’s opponent in the debate is R. Yehoshua who defiantly call out – even against G-d’s blatant intervention:

“The Torah is not in heaven”[5]

The Torah is meant to be innovated by man because it is an ever-flowing stream and not a plastered well that only preserves the past even as it came from G-d! And ironically, R. Eliezer who only wants to maintain tradition is ousted by the very system of voting he so profoundly resented:

“On that day…they voted on him and excommunicated him.”[6]

Another great yet significant irony is that R. Eliezer was excommunicated for being conservative. Usually, it is only those who dare to be radically innovative who suffer in the indignity of ex-communication.

R. Elazar ben Arach

Almost as a polar opposite to R. Eliezer, is R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s other student, R. Elazar ben Arach. He emerges not as a plastered well that only gathers rainwater that had fallen long ago, but rather as an ever-flowing spring unafraid to innovate within the parameters of Torah.[7]

While there is some debate as to whether R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus or R. Elazar ben Arach is the favourite student, in the end, R. Elazar ben Arach is considered the most worthy. This is significant because it shows that from the time the beit midrash moved to Yavneh, innovation in Torah became not just a permissible but indeed the preferred approach and the hope for the future generation.

Echoes of the great debate

Lau (2013:59) points out that this debate over whether the conservative or daring approach is the preferred approach to Torah study was not just confined to Yavneh. It continued to echo throughout Jewish history and continues to this day. It is only the terminology that sometimes changed but the problem was the same. In later Amoraic or Gemara times, instead of the plastered well versus the ever-flowing spring, it became the conservative Har Sinai versus the disruptive Okker Harim (Mount Sinai versus Uprooter of Mountains).

Gemara times

The Gemara[8] records a similar debate to that between R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and R. Alazar ben Arach, but in later times during the third generation of Amoraim, in around 300 CE:

“Rav Yosef was known as Mount Sinai, and Rabba was known as the Uprooter of Mountains. It came time for the sages to appoint a leader. They sent the following question [to their peers in the land of Israel]: Does Mount Sinai or the Uprooter of mountains take precedence?”

The answer, however, is not what we expect:

“Mount Sinai takes precedence.”

In this case, it is the conservative approach that is declared preferable. Why? The answer is that the sages of Eretz Yisrael were generally more conservative than their colleagues in Babylonia.

Lau (2013:60) explains:

“In the Jerusalem Talmud learning is preserved by heeding the word of God and internalizing massive quantities of Torah. In contrast, in the Babylonian Talmud, more emphasis is placed on the impassioned uprooting of traditions, which gives rise to scholarly innovation.”

Interesting, the different approaches between Jerusalem and Babylonia is reflected in the learning styles and particularly in the decorum of the beit midrash. In Jerusalem, there was quiet decorum while in Babylonia (Bavel) study became a veritable “battlefield”.

[For more on the Babylonian tendency to innovate and even take on foreign influences from its Babylonian environment see links at the end of this article.]

The debate continued as to which was the preferable approach and was never properly resolved.

Tosafist approach

Later, in Tosafist times (12th to the mid-15th centuries), Torah study became even more argumentative and dialectic in nature with a no holds barred approach. Students could even argue and challenge their teachers. Rabbenu Tam could argue with his grandfather Rashi.

This Tosafist style of argumentation would have been most foreign to the rabbis of the earlier Gaonic period (during the post-Talmudic era of 589-1038 CE) and just as foreign to the Spanish and North African Rishonim (1038-1500 CE) where it was not so easy to contradict one’s teacher. It is noteworthy to point out that the Tosafists of Ashkenaz (northern France and Germany) were so focussed on argumentation and dialectics that they did not produce a single conclusive Halachic work. That task was left to the Sefaradic rabbis like Alfasi, Rambam and R. Yosef Karo.[9]

Lithuanian approach

Later, the dialectic and combative style of argumentation which originated in the Babylonian Talmud was adopted and some would say perfected, by the Lithuanian academies. There certainly were no qualms about arguing even with one’s teacher. R. Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) writes:

“It is forbidden for a student to accept his teacher’s word if he is troubled by them. It may be that the student is the one who has grasped the truth…”[10]

Brisk approach

Lau (2013:64) continues his observations on the various Torah study methods by pointing out that Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik, also known as R. Hayyim of Brisk (1853-1918) developed an allied form of dialectic Torah which his grandson R. Yosef Soloveitchik (1903-1993) compared to precision mathematics:

“[Before the Brisk method] scholars of Torah were regarded as idle if they spent their time teaching. Only those training for the rabbinate were involved in this humble vocation. But who would have predicted that the day would come when lowly matters would be freed from the chains of facticity [a collection of facts][11], contingent explanations, and domestic speculation, and become lofty conceptual matters of abstract thought and orderly reason, coalesced into a unified, consistent theory?”[12]

He goes on to explain how his grandfather transformed “pots and spoons, and onions and radishes” into lofty concepts far removed from the mundane kitchen and converted into “a dazzling array of abstract ideas”. This was to become the model on which many Lithuanian academies based themselves and soon became the perceived ultimate perfection of Torah study.

R. Ovadia Yosef and the Sefaradic approach

When R. Ovadia Yosef, the Sefaradi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983, wrote his first book, Chazon Ovadia, R. Shai Zevin noted that:

“[t]he literature of the Middle Eastern and North African Jews lacks both the sharp dialectic of Galician and Polish Torah literature and the analytic or logical depth of Lithuanian texts. Instead, its commentaries are characterised by calmness and equanimity…”[13]

In other words, this Sefaradic literature lacks the pilpul (dialectic) style that is so typical of its Ashkenazi counterpart which the Jewish world has become so accustomed to. The Sefaradic approach was guided by more pragmatic Halachic concerns. To highlight just how different the Sefaradic approach is from the Lithuanian approach, consider the following extract from R. Ovadiah Yosef in his eulogy for R. Yaakov Adas who had been his teacher:

“[R. Adas] taught us to study Torah so as to ‘interpret the passage in conformance with halakha’, instead of following the fruitless dialectic approach which sows seeds that are swiftly borne away by the wind. Unfortunately there are yeshivot such as Ponevezh where anyone studying Yoreh Deah (the practical sections of the Shulchan Arukh) must hide himself away lest others discover him and call him an idler for studying halakhic rulings. They will shame him and scorn him to no end.”

The academic approach

Lau (2013:66), perhaps surprisingly, brings yet another approach into the fray, that of academic Judaism. He explains that this method has developed from around the nineteenth century, although until recently it has had no real impact on the yeshiva world:

“Today, however, Zionist yeshivot are not far removed from the academy, resulting in an interplay of ideas between the two worlds…

[O]n the one hand, more rabbis and yeshiva students are interested in the scholarly works produced by academics; on the other hand, some in the yeshiva world feel increasingly threatened by the academic method…

As a person straddling both these worlds, I believe it is important to distinguish between methodology and content. The academy does not presume to teach students what to think, but to rather to equip them with reliable tools of inquiry…

When students of Torah use critical methods available to them in order to deepen and increase familiarity with Torah, the result may be a more mature, responsible, and sophisticated level of study and understanding…

The ability to read a dispute between tannaim as it occurred and to see how it was first recorded, unmediated by the amora’im, allows us to enter more deeply into the sages’ mindsets and ideological debates.”


Not everyone will agree with Rabbi Dr Binyanim Lau (who acknowledges a strong influence from Rav Kook who aspired to see this type of yeshiva-academic integration). But many will find it refreshing to see that today, Torah observant people are writing about styles and methodologies of Torah study - and including academic Judaism in the discussion of the various approaches of the Tannaim, Amoraim, Tosafists, Sefaradim and Ashkenazim, Lithuanians and Briskers. Academic Judaism is thus accorded a place within the rubric of Torah study. This reinforces the notion that the debate over what is Torah is still raging. The original question of whether Torah is a plastered well or an ever-flowing spring is evidently just as alive today as it was when the beit midrash moved from Jerusalem to Yavneh.


For more on the differences between the Babylonian and Jerusalem approaches, see:





For more on the academic approach see:


Kotzk Blog: 343) SCHOLARLY WOMEN - “ALMOST LIKE ONE OF THE PROPER MEN”: (see But there is another approach at the conclusion of the article.)

[1] Lau, B., 2013, The Sages: Character, Content & Creativity, translated by Illana Kurshan, Maggid Books, Jerusalem.

[2] Avot 2:9-10.

[3] b. Sukka 28a.

Avot deRabbi Natan, a commentary on Pirkei Avot, has two versions (Recension A and B) and it describes how eventually R. Eliezer, after some persuasion:

         “delivered a discourse upon matters that no one had ever heard before.” (Recension A, chapter 6)

In the other version, R. Eliezer’s teacher R. Yochanan be Zakkai becomes frustrated with his student for not ‘thinking out the box’ and he leaves the study hall in frustration. Only after that did R. Eliezer expound on new:

“Torah beyond what was said to Moshe at Sinai.” (Recension B, chapter 13)

However, it seems that R. Eliezer’s expounding on new and original ideas as described above was a one-time event. It occurred during the visit of his father, Hyrcanus, to the study house. His father was initially hostile to the Torah, but after witnessing his son expressing himself so broadly, he became exceedingly proud of his achievements. Essentially though, R. Eliezer confines himself to the four cubits of the study house and its accumulated wisdom, and does not identify with the creative aspects of Torah, choosing to remain a plastered well.

[4] Yadayim 4:3. See also Tosefta, Yadayim 2:16.

[5] b. Bava Metzia 59b.

[6] b. Bava Metzia 59b.

[7] R. Elazar ben Arach was so outspoken that Avot deRabbi Natan describes all the students of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai coming to try and console their teacher after he had lost his son, but he refused to be consoled.

All the other rabbis who came to visit him quoted verses concerning biblical figures who had suffered losses and yet were prepared to be consoled. This was to no avail as he refused to be comforted. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s response was the same to all his rabbinic visitors:

“Is it not enough that I am distressed about my own matters, that you should remind me of the distress of Adam (and Job, Aharon, King David)?”

Lau (2013:37), in passing, makes the poignant psychological observation that while this is a common practice, it is of little comfort to a mourner to tell them of one’s own, or for that matter anyone else’s grief.

Anyway, as soon as R. Yochanan ben Zakkai saw R. Elazar ben Arach arrive, he got up and “went to the bathhouse”. He knew that he would not be able to resist the words of his most innovative student.

[8] b. Berachot 64a.

[9] Even the earlier Halachot Pesukot was produced by Gaonic rabbis, probably by Yehudai Gaon. See Kotzk Blog: 200) “THE TALMUD OF PERSECUTION” vs “THE TALMUD OF EXILE”:

[10] Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, Ruach Chaim Commentary on tractate Avot 1:4.

[11] Parenthesis mine.

[12] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, ‘How is Your Beloved Better Than Another?’ [Hebrew] in The Secret of the Individual and Community, ed. P. Peli, Jerusalem 5736, 222.

[13] Hazon Ovadia, part 1, p 17.


  1. Saw this posted. Wondering your response to his article.

  2. I concur with Ysoscher Katz but the article does make some interesting points. It is not at all surprising to find different approaches.

  3. Footnote 10 should probably say Ruach Chaim, not Nefesh HaChaim

  4. Absolutely correct, thank you.