Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Importance of Review

Since Pesah, many of us have spent our Shabbat afternoons reflecting upon Pirke Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers. One of the key themes of Pirke Avot is the incomparable value of Torah knowledge and the importance pursuing it wholeheartedly. Although we all attach great significance to Torah wisdom, few people take the time to seriously consider practical strategies for acquiring it effectively. We have a tendency to simply "dive" into the texts of the Torah or Talmud without too much forethought.

In order to enjoy the most enriching Torah Study experience possible, we must turn to the masters of our tradition for guidance as to the proper method of learning. An examination of the words of our Sages reveals that they placed an unusually strong emphasis on the importance of hazara, review. Remarkably, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) asserts that "anyone who learns Torah but does not review is considered like one who sows seeds but does not harvest his crop."

Obviously, no farmer who has spent long hours tilling, sowing and fertilizing his field would pass up the opportunity to profit from his investment. Indeed, the reason for all of his toil is his desire to eventually benefit from the produce of his land. If a farmer neglects to reap what he has sown, all of his efforts are retroactively rendered meaningless. Intriguingly then, the metaphor that the Rabbis employ suggests that one who diligently engages in the study of Torah but fails to review his studies has literally labored in vain.

Certainly no one would question the practical, mnemonic value of review - without review, one is likely to forget at least some of what one has learned. When a student reviews material, he revisits information and ideas that he has explored in the past so as to improve his capacity to remember them in the future. This repetition does not contribute anything to what he knows; he is simply making use of a strategy that will help him hold onto the knowledge he has already acquired. Nevertheless, the Rabbis maintained that if a person does not review his Torah studies, his process of learning itself is somehow incomplete. In their view, hazara does not simply reinforce our memories - it adds a crucial element to our understanding of Torah.

By definition, though, review involves the rehashing of facts and concepts we have already learned. How can this possibly contribute something novel to our body of knowledge?

The answer to this difficulty lies in a clarification of the Torah’s concept of review. A person who wishes to expand his Torah knowledge must begin somewhere. He selects a specific set of laws or halachic topic to research and analyze, and progresses carefully from one aspect of this subject to the next. The only way to explore a Torah topic systematically is to consider its component parts in detail, one by one. By the time he has concluded his investigation, he may have accumulated a vast array of meaningful insights - each fascinating in its own right - that have offered him a glimpse of the inscrutable depth of the Torah’s wisdom.

However, the collection of novel points he has discovered, as beautiful as it might be, remains just that - a collection, loosely knit and lacking unity. Unless the student opts to revisit these insights and synthesize them into a meaningful whole, he will not have reaped the ultimate benefit of his Torah study - the chance to perceive the magnificent conceptual structure that underlies all of the smaller hidushim he has toiled to develop and perfect. It is this search for the "big picture", this process of reevaluating and integrating the results of one’s Torah learning in order to reveal abstract principles of ever more stunning elegance, that constitutes genuine review.

With this in mind, we can better understand the value that our Rabbis attached to the review of Torah learning. What Hazal advocated was not the mechanical repetition of memorized facts or ideas but a fundamental transformation of the way we understand and conceptualize the knowledge we have acquired.

After we have thoroughly acquainted ourselves with a topic of Torah study and have subjected its details to careful analysis, we are presented with the chance to take our comprehension of the wisdom of Torah to an even more profound level. It is now the time for us to review the insights we have gained with the hope of identifying a broader, more penetrating theoretical formulation that will further integrate and illuminate them. We mull over our previous discoveries not as an aid to memory, but as a stimulus to qualitatively deeper intellectual breakthroughs.

Now it is clear why a person who learns but does not review is compared to a farmer who works tirelessly to plant but never harvests his crop. Through his toil, the student has placed himself in a position where he can avail himself of the most precious of opportunities - the opportunity to unlock a whole new realm of Torah wisdom and knowledge of God.

If he fails to review his learning and thereby move beyond his current level of understanding, his comprehension of Torah will never reach its zenith. In effect, he will have abandoned the most delectable fruits of his labor, leaving new vistas of Torah knowledge unexplored.

On the other hand, one who performs hazara in this unique manner experiences the breathtaking beauty of the Creator’s wisdom with an added dimension of clarity. From this new vantage point, the student gains a deeper awareness of the infinity of God’s knowledge as it is revealed in His Torah. Having perceived the untold richness, complexity and sophistication of the Torah’s wisdom in such an exquisite way, he is sure to echo the words of King David, "for every pursuit I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly vast."


David Guttmann said...

Very well put. It explains the "Eino Domeh me'ah Pe'amim leme'ah pe'amim ve'echad" as each review brings a new insight.

Interestingly in Yeshiva learning bekiut was considered part of Hazarah. One learned a messechta repeatedly during the zman. the problem was that it did not help with reflection nor understanding just a skimming of facts. That method of learning should be reviewed and revised.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

This also explains strange passages in the Talmud where Rabbis encounter new halachic expositions and then are described as having to review them forty, sixty or one hundred times. The problem was not that these Rabbis had poor memories or suffered from an inability to retain factual information.

The process of review is really a process of reintegration of prior knowledge with new information or insight. In order to truly digest novel ideas, one must take a "bird's eye view" and try to fathom how these ideas interconnect with our general knowledge of the subject in question.

Rabbis who were taught novel halachic points felt obligated to review their knowledge of entire subject areas and/or the entire corpus of Jewish law in order to see how these adjustments in outlook would mesh with their understanding of related concepts in the Torah.

Chaim B. said...

I think this is the same idea of the 'hermeneutical circle' - the parts shed light on the meaning of a work as a whole, and then the new holistic meaning re-shapes how to read the individual parts, and the process of re-reading continues ad infinitum.

Matt said...

Great idea! I had never considered the "synthesis effect" of review before.

While we are on the topic, I have a small favor to ask you. Last year I wrote a short treatise entitled "How to Review Shiur." If you have time, would you mind glancing through it and giving me your input? I can email it to you if you'd like.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Matt, please email it. I'll do anything for a fellow Adler fan!

Chaim B. said...

R' Elchanan quotes R' Chaim Brisker as explaining Kiddushin 10b 'baki atah b'kol chadrei torah v'lidrosh kal v'chomer iy atah yodeia' to mean that even though a kal v'chomer is a logical inference that can be drawn from the facts in front of you, its validity is proven only if it can be integrated into 'kol chadrei torah', the entire corpus of halacha.
(I posted this once http://divreichaim.blogspot.com/2006/04/value-of-bekiyus.html)

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Chaim, two excellent points.

It often frightens me to hear yeshiva students developing sevarot that are "poreach b'avir" despite minimal grasp of the facts. This is a major critique that the Sephardic hachamim lodge against the Ashkenazi yeshivot - the encouragement of pilpul and sevara at the expense of solid bekiyut.

Of course, many Sephardic yeshivot go to the other extreme and miss out on a great deal of the depth and beauty of limmud b'iyun.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Maroof,

I emailed you a question which has nothing to do with this topic. I emailed you at askrabbimarook@yahoo.com but I remember you telling me you do not check that email often. The reason i emailed you there anyway is because my regular email address is not working now. I was wondering if you checked that email address. thanks.

Kibibe said...

You write very well.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Thanks; unfortunately, not much writing has been happening lately!!! Now that the holidays and the election craze are over it is time to return to blogging!