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An Anthropologist Goes to Yeshiva

Jonathan Boyarin meditates on what can be gained from studying Jewish tradition

Jonathan Boyarin
March 18, 2021
Courtesy the author
A scene from the author’s days studying at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ). The late Rav Dovid Feinstein sits at the head of the table.Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
A scene from the author’s days studying at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ). The late Rav Dovid Feinstein sits at the head of the table.Courtesy the author
An excerpt from The Meaning of Leshma, a chapter from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side.
An excerpt from The Meaning of Leshma, a chapter from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side.

Leshma and the Enduring Record

Every year I dutifully attend the annual dinner that benefits both the kollel of MTJ and that of its sister yeshiva (run by our Rosh Yeshiva’s brother) in Staten Island. The fried chicken at the cocktail-hour buffet is the best part. The sit-down dinner and speeches, not so much. My spouse does not join me, because although women do attend, they are separated from the larger area where men sit by a high barrier that makes the speakers invisible to them. At the dinner in May 2015, a young man (evidently a rabbi according to the seating chart, although he didn’t use the title when he introduced himself) sat down next to me. He’s a social worker who works with Shlomo Farber, another alumnus of the Rosh Yeshiva’s shiur, in a federally funded school tutoring program. When I mentioned that I’m an anthropologist and I wrote a book about my shul, he asked my name and got excited: “You wrote the book about the Stanton Street Shul! I loved the story about the man in the daily minyan who used to say in Hebrew, ‘today is every day’ instead of ‘today is the nth day of the week.’” Later he said to me, “I’m jealous of you, but it’s OK because it’s kinas sofrim [literary envy]. You get to write things that are lanetsakh [a permanent record, as opposed to ephemera].” This suggests that, at least in some corners of the yeshiva world, the opportunity to do the kind of academic writing I’m committed to is seen as a privilege, rather than a distraction.

Can Leshma Be a Form of Censorship?

During my kollel year, I found myself the confidant of a young man who was clearly ready to move on from the beis medresh, which he found somewhat intellectually confining. One day we were discussing the ArtScroll Talmud. I frequently see it being used in the beis medresh, yet it is regarded with a certain degree of ambivalence, as a kind of cheat sheet, a shortcut to what should be arduous study. My friend criticized this attitude: “The Soncino [an older translation into English] and ArtScroll aren’t [considered] kosher … Well, it depends what your goal is. Do you want to know it [academically] or do you want to learn it? To know it, you have to use any means possible.”

Though I did not draw him out further, I think his suggestion here was that if a tool is available, it should be used, and that to insist only on older and slower means of study is to indulge in a kind of mystification for which, perhaps, the ideal of leshma might serve as a vehicle. And although he expressed impatience with those who may not be primarily interested in “knowing” it, his comment also implicitly recognized that “learning” might also be a goal in itself.

To be sure, some of the rabbis of the Talmud might have taken umbrage at my half-serious suggestion above that I can tell I’m studying leshma because I don’t remember most of what I’m studying. Yet certainly they were concerned with questions of memory and forgetting. Ulla said: “Thoughts [Rashi says: ‘worries about sustenance’] cause one to forget Torah.” Rabbah said: “Those who are engaged in Torah study leshma will not forget as a result of such worry … [for] counsel that contains the word of God will last forever” (Sanhedrin 26b). Nasanel, too, counseled me that “just doing it” in the moment, without any concern for the accumulation of knowledge, isn’t sufficient. One day when I was quite content to spend almost an hour in philosophical conversation with him, I asked him whether Torah can be a contemplative practice. He answers: “I addressed that question already. I told you that. Subconsciously you remember. The Vilna Gaon said that if all was required was yegiya batoyre [effort in Torah], he could have spent his entire life on the first folio of Bava Metsiya. But we need to have yediyas hatoyre [knowledge of the Torah] as well.”

Future Reward

I don’t know how much the expectation of reward in the World to Come motivates my comrades at the yeshiva. As I’ve mentioned, it’s not talked about very much. Yet when it does enter the conversation, it seems entirely normative, rather than pietistic or overly credulous. Before I departed one afternoon, Rabbi Cantor asked for a few minutes of my time. He had given me a blessing the day before, and he repeated it, while holding my right hand in both of his: I and my entire family should have nachas (emotional satisfaction) and I should, so to speak, give nachas to God as well. He had two specific recommendations to help me realize that blessing. First, in addition to having a set time for my studies, I should make sure to spend some time studying both during the daylight hours and at night, as the Torah says, “You shall meditate on it day and night” ( Joshua 1:6). Second, he told me I should study at least two halachos (points of applied Jewish law) a day, as the rabbis say: “Whoever studies halachos [the term is plural, hence requiring at least two] every day is assured of being a ‘son of the World to Come.’”

Enough Already With Leshma

This question has, I think, been productive for trying to understand not so much the morality, but the temporality of the beis medresh. It seriously troubled me for a few months, but at some point I decided I was finished, at least for the time being, with the attempt to decide whether my time at the yeshiva was being spent leshma or not. Who needs an excuse one way or the other? said I to myself. Part of the reason I decided to let it go was that I found out why Simcha Goldman, in his study sessions with me, had decided he wanted to study the passage of the Tur dealing with the hypothetical applicability in the present of the biblical law requiring cancellation of debts in the sabbatical year. He was writing an article about it.

Anthropologists are used to being awkward beginners. Sometimes it’s because we’re engaging in the classic method of participant observation, trying to find the rhythm of a dance we didn’t grow up doing, and avoid confusing those in front of and behind us at the same time. Sometimes it’s because anthropology isn’t the smoothest career path these days, and we have to find something else to do for a living, temporarily or permanently. I found myself in the latter situation at the end of the 1990s, as a junior associate at a major New York corporate law firm. I was in my early forties, and thus as old as or even older than many of the partners under whom I was working. The gap was, if anything, intensified by my working in the tax department—a field where almost nothing is intuitive and very little can be accomplished by those without long years of specialized experience. In retrospect, it was an extraordinary experience, but at the time I was plagued by a vacillation between two equally unproductive reactions: “I’m as old as she is, how can it be that she knows everything and I know nothing?” and “I’m as old as she is, how come she makes ten times as much money as I do?”

If I vacillated in my evaluation of myself vis-à-vis more experienced others at the yeshiva, the stakes were certainly different. For one thing, money had nothing to do with it. More pertinent were my concerns about whether I was capable of learning with the big boys, and whether the academic learning (and scattered experiences of Talmud study) that I brought with me would translate into intellectual currency at MTJ. To be sure, no one ever questioned my right to sit and study at MTJ, and I never once heard a hint that I wasn’t quite ready. But on the question of the value of my secular scholarship—or at least, its relevance to Torah—there may have been some doubts. As mentioned above, I spent several months studying the Mishnah with Petrushka’s Yiddish commentary with Nasanel. Nasanel had decided we should focus on the tractate Kilaim, a rarely studied text that deals with the rules about forbidden mixtures of planted crops. He also decided that we should go back to the beginning of the entire mishnaic corpus and study Petrushka on the tractate Berachos (blessings), with the goal of eventually studying together all of the Mishnah. Mishnah Berachos 4:3 reads: “Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakana used to pray a short prayer upon entering and upon leaving the beis medresh. They asked him, ‘How is this a place of prayer?’ He said to them, ‘When I go in I pray that no harm may come through me, and when I leave I give thanks for my share [in Torah].’” I asked Nasanel whether I should recite this prayer when I go to my office at the university. He said yes, what I do there is holy work. He cited as authority the tradition of Torah study associated with the city of Brisk and the family Soloveitchik. According to Nasanel, in the tradition of Brisk they say that everything is Torah, the whole world is Torah. But when I asked another acquaintance who happened to be standing nearby the same question, he asked rather skeptically, “This [what you teach at the university] is Torah?” So apparently for him there are some things that are Torah, and some things that just aren’t.

Where I stand vis-à-vis either of these mishnayos, I don’t know.

Yet I have received perhaps more than my due share of encouragement from my fellows at MTJ. Right after New Year’s Day 2012, thus, early in my kollel year, I entered the beis medresh somewhat dopey with a head cold, only slightly relieved by Sudafed. We were working on a Gemara in tractate Gittin that was devoted to an attempted reconciliation of two parts of a single mishnah so that they could both be credited to the same Tanna, either Rabbi Meir or Rabbi Yose. The issue at hand concerned the putative validity of person A making person B his agent to convey mere words of instruction, rather than his agent to carry out a physical act. It seemed to me I didn’t follow even the preparation session very well, let alone the shiur itself. Nevertheless, as I was leaving, Yisroel Ruven graciously said, “I enjoy your presence. You know what’s going on. You add to the mix.” That was certainly heartening. The same day I had a brief conversation with Rabbi Weiss, after spending some time with him and Rabbi Karp the previous week studying Mishnah berurah. He said, “It’s a shame you’re not with us anymore,” almost like a new and jealous friend. “You sound like you learned in yeshiva.” I denied it—accurately enough, at least to the extent that I had never spent time in yeshiva in my childhood and adolescence. “You get a lot of the points what’s going on.”

Occasionally the approbation would come from outside the beis medresh, albeit still within the frame of the Orthodox community. On winter break from my first semester at Cornell in mid-December 2013, I spent a couple of hours in the morning studying the ArtScroll edition of Bava Kama by myself. Then, after a quick half hour studying the Tur with Nasanel, my spouse and I went to visit our disabled son Yeshaya in Brooklyn. Returning to the East Side, I parked the car at my lot on Essex Street, in between home and MTJ. I asked my spouse if I might go back to the yeshiva for a couple of hours. She agreed, adding that an Orthodox female friend of hers had told her that “for middle-aged guys, it’s good to spend time at the yeshiva. They feel like they’re getting to do something they didn’t necessarily count on at this stage of life.”

Excerpted from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Sideby Jonathan Boyarin. Copyright © 2020 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Jonathan Boyarin is Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University.

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