Whence Good Questions?- Guest Post by Jon Kelsen

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers; he’s one who asks the right questions.” -Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), 1964

I spend a lot of time asking questions, and a lot of time learning and teaching Talmud. These pastimes are deeply related; the process of uncovering and addressing qushyot u’ba’ayot constitutes the meat and potatoes (or tofu and quinoa, for some of our readers here) of the Talmudic enterprise. The Bavli is a text explicitly animated by query, and we know the joy of the Talmudist who discovers that she or he has “asked like a lamdan,” who has raised the question of Abbaye, the Stamma d’Talmuda, Tosafot, or R. Akiva Eiger. To be a good learner, and certainly a good learner of Talmud, therefore, includes being able to ask good questions.

But, chancing upon the type of question asked by the masters of the discipline can oftentimes feel like a lucky shot, thrown up unskillfully and difficult to replicate. So I’ve wondered, what makes a good Talmudic question?

In this, the first of a series of blog posts on questions and Talmud education, I will focus on how to educate students to ask good questions. In part 2, I will share my thoughts on how teachers can use questions effectively. In part 3, I will discuss how to create a climate that encourages students to ask good questions.

Prof. Jon Levisohn has created a helpful map of ten orientations (understandings of the goal or purpose of studying a text) which a teacher of rabbinic texts might adopt. Two examples: A teacher who adopts the “Literary Orientation” will aim to “generate insight into a text on the basis of its literary features.” One who adopts the “Jurisprudential Orientation,” on the other hand, considers the rabbinic text primarily as “the work of a legal system… Legal argument, debates about legal concepts and rulings, are the heart of the subject.”

In the concluding section of his paper (“How to Use a Menu”), Levisohn lays out what he sees as the benefit of this map of orientations, which includes its potential use as a type of ‘mirror’ which teachers might hold up to themselves in order to make their own orientations more explicit to themselves and their colleagues. By this I think he means that the more a teacher is self-aware of the orientation(s)/fundamental assumptions and goals she is working with/towards, the clearer she can be to herself and her students about everything from the goals and methodologies of the course to what she is looking to highlight in a particular text.

I have been intrigued by the potential of Levisohn’s map for the development of question templates for the study of rabbinic texts. A question template is a set of  questions which a master of the field employs when analyzing a text; and implicit in each of the orientations Levisohn details are a series of questions which a virtuosic practitioners of said orientation asks herself or her students whenever approaching a rabbinic text. This is a major benefit of question templates—they allow one to form habits of inquiry, directing one towards useful, skillfully crafted questions.

Again, each orientation Levisohn identifies in his map will promote different questions to be pursued. A teacher/student utilizing a literary orientation might ask, for example, if there are repeating words or phrases in a given text; whether it engages in word-play, deliberate inter-textual allusions; and whether the text employs a known structure (e.g. chiastic, envelope) in presenting its content (see, for example, Avraham Walfish’s “Methodology of Learning Mishnah“). One employing the Jurisprudential Orientation, on the other hand, will ask questions such as how to categorize a given law or relationship between concepts discussed in a text; what conceptual disagreement might account for divergent rulings or debate; what is the relationship between two different concepts as they interact in a given scenario (Moshe Taragin’s methodology series on the Virtual Beit Midrash often concludes an article on a sugya by articulating the types of questions employed in the analysis of the core texts encountered).

Therefore, what we need is the development of question templates for each orientation. Developing these could go a long way in improving Talmud education.

I conclude this brief piece with an illustration drawn from my own teaching experience, which my students seem to have found helpful. 

Say we are in an educational milieu characterized by a skills orientation—an attempt to develop students ability to independently read and analyze a sugya. Beyond decoding structure and language, there are also basic analytic questions that we’d like the learner to ask. I teach my students that when they encounter a rabbinic ruling, they should ask themselves: Is this ruling to be read as “davka (דווקא), lav davka (לאו דווקא), or afilu (אפילו).” As an analogy, if I say “I like pizza,” I can intend:

  1. Davka pizza—specifically, to the exclusion of other foods (say, hamburgers);
  2. Lav-davka pizza—pizza is the example of a broader set of foods (say, fast-food, which would include hamburgers);
  3. Afilu pizza—one might well have thought I would NOT like pizza (ka mashma lan, I do). This strongly implies that there are other foods which I enjoy even more.

Now, let’s apply this rubric to a (somewhat randomly chosen) talmudic ruling. Several meimrot make up the backbone of the extended sugya regarding hannukah, redacted in TB Shabbat 21a-23b. One of the issues raised in the sugya (22a) is whether or not one may benefit from nerot hannukah; and in the course of that debate, the following meimra is recorded:

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב אסי (אמר רב:) אסור להרצות מעות כנגד נר חנוכה.

What is the meaning of this ruling? Well, if we have been trained to always ask ourselves “davka, lav davka, or afilu,” we will quickly come up with three possibilities:

  1. Davka: it is specifically prohibited to count money via the illumination of nerot hannukah; other uses might be permitted;
  2. Lav davka: the prohibition of counting by money is one example of a broader set of prohibited activities, e.g. reading by the nerot;
  3. Afilu: even the relatively innocuous utility of counting money via the nerot is prohibited; how much more so more problematic activities.

And indeed, we find that rishonim differ in their interpretations of this ruling, along exactly this axis. The Ba’al ha-Maor (Shabbat 9a) writes:

למ”ד אסור להרצות מעות כנגד נר של חנוכה דוקא הרצאת מעות וכיוצא בה שהיא תשמיש רשות ושל חול וכדקא פירש טעמיה משום בזויי מצוה; אבל תשמיש מצוה ותשמיש קדושה מותר להשתמש לאורה…

Yet according to the Ramban (Hiddushei haRamban, Shabbat 22a):

הא דאמר שמואל וכי נר קדושה יש בו. ואתקיף לה רב יוסף וכי דם קדושה יש בו נראה לי דה”פ דמדאסר רב אסי אפילו הרצאת מעות דליכא משום שמא יאמרו לצורכו הוא דאדלקה…

While Ba’al ha-Maor reads the ruling as referring specifically to counting money and similar activities (note here that though Ba’al ha-Maor uses the term davka, he intends the sentence to be read as what we have termed lav davka. The semantics can be a bit slippery), Ramban reads it as forbidding even such a casual activity as counting coins.

Asking what motivations (textual, conceptual, etc…) generate these readings would be a follow-up question for our template.

I invite readers to share their own questions below in the comments; perhaps we can crowd-source question templates for each orientation together.

Jon Kelsen has taught Talmud in a wide variety of formal and informal contexts, including Drisha, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. He is the Rosh Kollel and Director of the Drisha June Kollel.

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3 responses to “Whence Good Questions?- Guest Post by Jon Kelsen

  1. I would add to your list of davka, lav davka and afilu also the question of severity: not every prohibition is equally assur-de’oraita, de’rabanan, etc.-nor is every permission the same-le’ketchila, bedieved, bimkom tzorech, etc.

    In general I tell my students to approach the Gemara with an assumption that nothing that it says is intuitive. As a matter of fact, in most cases, what it says is actually counter-intuitive, meaning that logicaly one would have said the opposite. This allows my students to explore more deeply the chidush of each statement.

    To illustrate: R. Yochanan says in BK 68a that in order to make something hekdesh it’s not enough that one owns something, they also need to have it in their pocession. This idea is an innovation and rejection of an opposing opinion. I ask my students to identify the opposing opinion, and figure out why R. Yochanan disagrees.

    This question gives them a much deeper appreciation for the development and progression of any given idea in the Gemara.

  2. This is a delightful exploration of a topic — the asking of questions — that is vitally important to good teaching. Kol ha-kavod (and I’m honored that you’re using my suggestions about orientations in this highly productive way). Too often, instructors think about the menu of orientations (or actually about their teaching in general) in terms of what kind of insights they share with their students, and perhaps what kind of texts they chose to focus upon (about which they have those kinds of insights).

    But if the menu of orientations is about the purposes of _teaching_, then we ought to be focused on what we want our students to learn (or to learn how to do) at least as much as on what brilliant things we say.

    This leads to my first mildly critical response, which is that your article slides back and forth between questions that teachers ask (a good thing!) and questions that teachers want students to learn to ask (a very good thing!). To be sure, it may well be that, in our teaching, we consciously try to model a certain kind of question in order to help our students develop the capacity to ask that question or questions of that type. But just as we cannot assume that things we say end up residing in the heads of our students, so too we cannot assume that asking questions ourselves enables our students to ask those questions themselves.

    So modeling is not sufficient. What we need is not just a pedagogy that relies on question asking, but a pedagogy that is oriented towards the cultivation of question asking in the students themselves. We can assume that the former is more-or-less a necessary condition of the latter (we can imagine a pedagogy that is oriented towards the cultivation of the capacity of question asking, that does not itself involve lots of question asking, but that would be highly counter-intuitive indeed). But the former is not a sufficient condition of the latter.

    What might such a pedagogy look like? Well, one thought that comes to mind: students do not come to this work (of question-asking) as blank slates, any more than they come to any other topic. They come with questions. We may not find those questions satisfactory or sufficiently systematic; they may not be quite the “right” questions. So the pedagogic challenge, once we reframe the situation in this way, is not to teach them to ask questions about the sugya, simply, but to help them move from a certain question-asking capacity to a better, more developed, more sophisticated question-asking capacity.

  3. Another thought about the article.

    You suggest that your framework of “davka/lav davka/afilu” is fundamental to the Skills Orientation. Perhaps so. Ysoscher’s discussion, however, makes me wonder, given that the issue under discussion is jurisprudential in nature. To be sure, there are ways in which the orientations bleed into each other, in both theory and practice. (Which is why I prefer the term “menu” to “map.”) But my point here is just to note, again, how we often tend to assume that the most basic reading is a jurisprudential one.

    You might respond: what else is a student to do, if she encounters a ruling? Isn’t there a basic understanding of what the ruling means that she needs to attain? Fair enough. I am not suggesting that Talmud is not a legal text! But the fact remains that you chose, as an example of a “basic analytical question” appropriate to the Skills Orientation, a question that’s appropriate to a legal ruling. You might have chosen otherwise: a question that’s appropriate to the interpretation of a verse, a question that’s appropriate to a memra in order to understand something about rabbinic culture, etc.

    Given the ways that I describe the Skills Orientation, it may be hard to imagine a pedagogic setting that is single-mindedly devoted to the development of skills that is not, at the same time, teaching within the Jurisprudential Orientation as well. That is: while there are “skills” (capacities, etc.) associated with any of the orientations, the reason for naming and differentiating a Skills Orientation is that we are familiar with actual settings that focus on the development of text skills in order to provide students with a certain kind of cultural capital. Women’s yeshivot may be the paradigm here. And in those settings, the cultural capital will only be achieved if the student can encounter rulings like the one you’ve given us and know what to do with them.

    And yet: if the orientations do anything for us, it is to remind us that there are myriad (well, at least 10) ways of approaching this complicated text, that the “teaching of Talmud” is not one thing but many things, depending on setting and context, as you note in the spelling out of the Literary Orientation. I look forward to reading more!

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