By Yaakov Eric Ackland
Imagine wanting to be a neurosurgeon and beginning by doing an extended and intensive study of the hypothalamus alone, rather than first studying general anatomy and the principles of medicine, and instead of even studying the general schema of the brain itself. Would you buy a lobotomy, let alone a sophisticated surgery from this person?
Imagine wanting to be a historian of the United States, and starting by spending a year learning all about the city of Cleveland, and the next year learning all about the city of Little Rock, and yet never picking up a general history of the United States, or even a volume about the states of Ohio or Arkansas. Will someone with this strategy ever attain any semblance of comprehensive knowledge, even in, say, 75 years of diligent daily study?
Imagine spending a year or two re-reading and studying Chapter 8 of The Brothers Karamazov both in the original Russian and in translation, along with dozens of commentaries on the chapter by the finest literary critics from the past 125 years without ever having read the rest of the book. Imagine taking daily classes on Chapter 8 given by a professor who had also never read the entire book, but had read chapters 12, 15, and 3 with commentaries. Are you at all likely to ever be able to truly understand the chapter, let alone the book?
These are all obviously poor strategies for success. For not only will one never achieve comprehensive knowledge by such narrow focus, one won’t even have true understanding of the area which he or she is focusing on, because context is everything.
Imagine wanting to be a knowledgeable Jew. Would you attempt a similar strategy to attain your goal? Alas, this same misdirected tactic of “learning in-depth” known as “b’iyun” learning dominates the yeshiva world, both for FFBs and BTs, children and adults. Ever since I became religiously observant, this has frustrated me. The narrow focus on “in-depth” learning (which is a misnomer, as there can be no real depth without breadth) over broad based (b’kius) learning is sadly a recipe for cumulative and individual inadequacy and relative ignorance.
The general disregard for serious study of Tanakh (The “Old” Testament) and Mishnayos (terse densely encoded statements of law) and broad-based Gemara (Talmud) study in favor of in-depth Gemara study is awry by almost any pedagogic gage. It’s putting the ox before the cart. It’s building a castle of sand. It’s like heaping cliché upon cliché in a futile struggle for clarity. We all know that Rambam wrote that first one should learn Chumash (The Five Books of Moses), then Mishnayos, and only then should one learn Talmud. Yet few do it this way, and consequently few ever attain anything resembling comprehensive knowledge and depth.
I think fondly of the 1963 World Book Encyclopedia set that my parents kept in the attic. My favorite thing was a multi-layered diagram of the human body. The base sheet showed the skeletal system. A transparent plastic sheet illustrated with the nervous system would be lain over that, and another sheet showing the musculature would be lain over that. It would have been futile to try to understand how the muscles work without understanding the systems underlying them: without the context. In an imperfect yet useful analogy with Torah, the Tanakh is the skeleton, the Mishnayos, the nerves, the Gemara the muscle, and the practical Halakha (Law), the skin.
To spend a year learning a chapter or two of a mesechta (tractate) without at least having a broad view of all of the Mishnayos of the Gemara is like reading a chapter of a great novel over and over without even having at least read the Cliff’s notes, let alone having read the novel. You might enjoy it, and you might find it intellectually rewarding, and you may feel that you’ve accomplished something significant, and you may even feel that you understand it, but the triumph is in significant part illusory, because you can’t contrast the fraction with the whole.
I’ve talked with Rabbis and others about this, and I’ve heard lots of explanations: how people need to get and stay interested and enthused and thus they need to get into the “heart” of Torah learning quickly, and stay there; how learning Gemara in-depth really trains one’s mind to think meticulously in a Torah way and how it reshapes character; and about the “weakness” of our generation and our “inability” to achieve anything like what our forefathers did. Some turn the question around and point to the Daf Yomi (program for learning a daily page of Gemara) as evidence of widespread and largely superficial b’kius learning, making it the sole representation of breadth learning. Many just say, “Both ways have merit. This way for this person, that way for another.”
Though there are truths in these objections, and though virtually all the people I’ve spoken with are respectable and vastly more learned and pious than I, these seem like weak answers to me. As I’ve illustrated, no matter how stone cold you think you have a line, paragraph, chapter, or masechta (tractate) down, you can’t really have it down if you don’t have comprehensive context. I agree that it is crucial to know how to learn in-depth, but it is more crucial to first have breadth of knowledge, for that’s what truly makes depth possible. Depth should be the ultimate goal, but real depth, not the shallow imitation.
Furthermore, by taking our eye off of the goal of broad mastery, we get bogged down in largely unquantifiable learning, which can be terribly discouraging. We begin to feel that no matter how much effort and time we put in, we’re really just treading water, barely moving forward or making progress, and that we’ll never succeed. B’iyun learning fails because the proper goal has been lost sight of from the very beginning. Even those with the greatest talent, enthusiasm, and diligence can’t succeed if they have been off-course since day one. By emphasizing b’iyun learning, the tacit message is that true mastery of the whole Torah is impossible and thus not worth aiming for. The bochur (student) is demoralized and hobbled from the get-go, even if he isn’t conscious of it.
I’ve found two excellent books which endorse and expound upon the urgent necessity of learning for breadth. The first is “The Meister Plan” by Rabbi/Dr. Tuvia Meister. In one small segment of the book he shows how one can create a plan for covering the entirety of Torah in 10 or 20 years. Although he doesn’t go into extensive detail about the process, there are a number of great learning tips. The focus of the book though is stock investment strategies.
The second book is thorough, inspiring, and walks you through the process of learning systematically with a broad-based approach in order to facilitate true long-term depth. It is called “The One-Minute Masmid,” and it is by Rabbi Jonathan Rietti. He shows the reader how, even if his or her time for learning is very limited, he or she can, through methodical, structured, daily study in very small chunks, steadily accrue the comprehensive broad-based knowledge of Torah that is every Jew’s heritage. (My use of the female pronoun is not so much my being pc, but a very deliberate indicator to women that although “The One-Minute Masmid” is written with the male Torah learner in mind, the strategies within this book are excellent for anyone wishing to build a solid knowledge base in any subject, Jewish or secular. (A great secular book on the subject of how to learn is “How to Read A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler.)
Most crucially and fascinatingly, Rabbi Rietti cites long passages from Torah sources as diverse and as great as The Vilna Gaon, Reb Shach, Reb Chaim Shmuelevits, Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Moshe Feinstein, The Steipler Gaon, Reb Yoel Teitlebaum, Reb Yisroel Alter, Reb Moshe Chevroni, The Chofetz Chaim, The Ramchal, Reb Elchanon Wasserman, The Brisker Rav and more, all in strident advocacy for and defense of the primacy of b’kius learning, including mastery of Tanach and Mishnayos.
One such quote from the Vilna Gaon’s “Even Shlema”:
“First one must full his stomach with Tanach, Mishna, even if he doesn’t know how to explain each Mishna he should learn the entire Mishnayos, then he should continue to fill his stomach with Talmuds Bavli and Yerushalmi, the Tosephta, the M’chilta, Sifra, Sifri, and all the Braitot. Only after this should one engage in pilpul with his colleagues. This is the way of learning Torah. If one changes this sequence of learning, however, and learns first how to dive into pilpul without knowing a single Mishna properly, ultimately he will lose even the little Torah he heard in his youth.”
Finding these books has been tremendously helpful and motivating. They’ve enabled me to power on, albeit slowly and without a support network, to see that comprehensive knowledge isn’t an impossible goal, that I’m not alone in my perception of the misplaced emphasis of the current mode of learning, and that in fact I find myself in some pretty impressive company, such that I’d never merit to rub shoulders with in a million years. I do yearn to find a yeshiva or at least a Rabbi that takes individual students that learns this way, but am resolved to make the best of the way the world is, and still strive for and advocate for change. I don’t seek heated dialogue on this article so much as I hope that all who read this will read Rabbi Rietti’s book before responding hastily, reinvigorate their learning, and give copies to their friends and more importantly, to their Rabbis. As a final thought, the Chofetz Chaim, as quoted by Rabbi Rietti wrote, “One who invests all his energies and mind into mastering a specific area of the Torah while ignoring all other areas of our Holy Torah is likened to a person who spends his entire wealth on an expensive hat, and yet the rest of his body he leaves unclothed!” May we all have success in our learning, and not arrive in heaven virtually naked.
“The One Minute Masmid” is available only directly from Rabbi Rietti. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Meister Plan” is published by Mesorah Publications.