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Languages, Critical Inquiry and Theological Education

John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has written some very interesting posts on the need for stronger language skills for theological students. His post has resulted in a number of interesting responses. As someone who has taught rabbinical, graduate, and non-degree (לשמה) students, it is clear that language is a huge problem for many, if not most students wanting to study classical Jewish texts, with the problem more acute in the non-Orthodox world. While I agree with much of what John said, and I envy his early baptism, no pun intended, into the field of language study, I think that he overestimates both the knowledge of proper Hebrew and Aramaic by yeshiva students, and also the knowledge of the Biblical text by many yeshiva students. Consider the following statement of his,

But I disagree with Iyov when he says a Yeshiva bocher’s reading of Scripture is no less valid than ours.
Chances are, it is more valid. That’s because a Yeshiva bocher is more likely to be fully immersed in rabbinic culture’s appropriation of Scripture, and to know Scripture inside and out.

If only John knew how the study of the Bible, outside of the weekly Torah portion, is such a marginal subject in many yeshivot. Despite these few misgivings, he raises some very important points which should be of concern to those concerned with study of classical religious texts in their original languages. It seems to me that modern rabbinical schools (i.e. YU, CT, JTS, UJ, HUC, RRC, and AJR) are often re-evaluating what they are doing and how they are doing it. While for some it may not be often enough, or the changes might not be to their liking, and those involved in the deliberations might be sick of it already, that it is happening illustrates how difficult it is to educate a rabbi. In addition, for some schools the changes are of a different nature and to a different degree than others.

Lastly, a number of years ago a study was published with the title “Religious and Theological Studies in American Higher Education”. While somewhat outdated, a quick reading shows that there is still much relevance in its findings and discussions.

Update: I had a closer look at the above mentioned study and it isn’t as relevant as I had thought. It is really a pilot study, trying to explain why a more in depth study is required.

One Response to “Languages, Critical Inquiry and Theological Education”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    He is just overcompensating for longstanding christian antisemitism of the past centuries. He can’t mean what he says because he knows too well that what yeshiva bochurim gain in syntax they lose in semantics, when every subtle difference in text is taken to bear deep significance for the meaning of a text.
    Georgiel HaMalach | 07.17.07 – 11:29 am | #

    On a similar note, I once knew a German Lutheran pastor who defended to me the prohibition of stam yeinam. He almost sounded like a Chabad rabbi.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 07.17.07 – 12:23 pm | #

    >But I disagree with Iyov when he says a Yeshiva bocher’s reading of Scripture is no less valid than ours.
    Chances are, it is more valid. That’s because a Yeshiva bocher is more likely to be fully immersed in rabbinic culture’s appropriation of Scripture, and to know Scripture inside and out.

    Heh. I noticed John’s comment too, and I immediately thought that it was sort of like a yeshiva-bochur-as-noble-savage of Bible study. The truth, of course, is nothing like it, or at least more complicated than that.

    That said, there is something to the fact that yeshiva bochurim, and even young children who sing Torah tzivah lanu, are familiar with literally hundreds of rabbinic and scriptural ideas and passages, often in the original wording. I’m not sure how much more useful this sort of knowledge or weekly ma’avir sidra is than no knowledge at all on a scale or 0 to 10, but it does sort of create a template in a person when they wake up and decide to get serious about studying these texts, a template which is otherwise absent.
    S. | Homepage | 07.17.07 – 4:51 pm | #

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