2022 What's Pshat?
Chananya Weissman

December 15, 2022


This week's Torah class is a fundamental lesson on "pshat", which is the subject of much confusion. The recording is available here.

Serious Tanach study is almost entirely neglected in the Orthodox world today. Most people still understand Tanach on the level of a 10-year old, which is approximately when the cookie-cutter yeshiva they attended transferred them to the Gemara assembly line.

Why is it this way? Because it's good PR for the yeshivas, and more impressive for a Bar Mitzvah boy, a little pisher, to read a complex pilpul that someone else wrote for him than something more suitable for his age and level. And, of course, long term it's better for shidduchim. No one's impressed by someone studying Chumash and Rashi (even though that's exactly what the Chafetz Chaim was "caught" doing) and, at the end of the day, it's all about impressing people.

That's not the official reason it's done this way, but it's the truth.

And it's a disaster.

Maybe a long time ago it was an eis la'asos and Tanach study needed to be put a little bit on the back burner. But it's a disaster today, on many levels. It was never intended for Jews to be functionally illiterate when it comes to Tanach, or to permanently relate to it on a child's level.

I have a lot to say about this. My first year learning in Israel I was in the highest Gemara shiur and I hated it. I confided in my night seder Rebbe, who I was close with, that we were sitting and learning Gemara all day, but I didn't even know Chumash and Rashi.

We started a seder together in Chumash and Rashi, and I continued learning all of Tanach on my own. It bothered me that I didn't know Tanach. It didn't bother anyone else in the yeshiva, and presumably they still never bothered to open the books written by our greatest prophets.

The yeshiva was not happy with me. I dropped out of the shiur, didn't join another one, did my own thing, and almost got thrown out because of it. I got into more trouble for carving out my own learning program (which included Gemara) than people who got drunk every night and fooled around, because what I was doing was dangerous to them. I was succeeding, and I wasn't doing it their way. That's an existential threat.

The same story repeated itself my second year in Israel in a different yeshiva, and in Yeshiva University. I was told by two prominent rabbis, one in Israel and one in YU, that studying Tanach was bittul Torah. Yes, they uttered those words.

Someone in my family, a young woman in her twenties, recently spoke proudly about how she is learning Gemara. She later asked me in all seriousness what the big deal is about Rashi's commentary on Chumash. After all, she said, all he does is quote Midrashim. She wasn't being disrespectful, she genuinely didn't know.

This is progress? This is education?

For the last two years Erev Rav have been able to get away with telling people that we have to do whatever doctors say, because a pasuk says that doctors can and should heal. They take a simple pasuk, twist it in ways that would make even a Karaite blush, and yeshiva-educated Jews have no idea how badly they are being played.

Then yeshiva-educated people, people with semicha themselves who give Torah classes, tell me in all seriousness that we have to do whatever "the rabbis" say, because of a pasuk that says we cannot veer to the right or left of what the judge tells us. No context, no boundaries, no explanation.

Of course, this is a complete distortion (I wrote about it here and spoke about it here), but these people understand Tanach about as much as a Christian with his King James Bible. So the pasuk says, that's the pshat, end of story. Go take the shot and jump off the cliff if they say so.

So yes, it matters if people are ignorant of Tanach, even if they can dazzle you with a brilliant dissection of a line of Gemara twelve different ways, which will make no practical difference in anyone's life, except when it comes to fundraising for the yeshiva and getting the "best" shidduchim.

So Tanach has been left for children, pseudo-intellectuals who have no respect for Chazal, Bible critics, and missionaries. Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, apparently wrote three books that have nothing important to teach us. The Rishonim wasted their time writing commentaries when they could have been learning even more Gemara. And we should just keep the assembly line moving as it is, because maybe we will churn out a few more Talmudic scholars, even if everyone else gets turned off to Judaism, even if many of those who stick around are cold and hollow inside and just go through the motions of "being frum" in observable ways. A little Tanach learned properly wouldn't solve all their problems — our problems run very deep — but it would go a long way.

I have a lot more to say about this, but this is enough for now. If you can relate to any of this, you will probably enjoy this week's Torah class. And if you can't relate to any of this, you need to listen to this week's Torah class more than you know, even if it infuriates you, because all the gedolim this, and all the gedolim that. That's never true anyway, I don't care if people are infuriated, never did, and I'm not about to start now. This needs to be said.

Because it's tragic for Jewish adults who went through the yeshiva world to be ignorant of Tanach, and even more tragic if they think that's exactly the way it should be.

The class is available here.


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