How to Learn Torah
Is Aleph Beta Methodology "New?"
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Aleph Beta methodology seems so new and exciting, is it possible we've uncovered a new way of learning that was unknown to Biblical commentators in previous generations, or did they too utilize what we've coined "Aleph Beta methodology?"
Join Rabbi Fohrman in conversation with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, an internationally acclaimed bible scholar who shares Rabbi Fohrman’s passion and penchant for the “intertextual” study of the Bible, as they discuss their backgrounds and thoughts about how to learn and teach Torah.
Eitan: Recently, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, a well-known and incredible teacher of Torah from Israel and a peer of Rabbi Fohrman's, came to visit the Aleph Beta office. We thought it would be really exciting to get them together to discuss their backgrounds and their thoughts about how to learn and teach Torah. Rabbi Fohrman and Rabbi Leibtag are both leaders in their methodology of Torah study, a rich textual analysis of Torah, along with some of the other names that they'll mention in this conversation, like Rav Yoel Bin-Nun and Rabbi Yuval Sherlow.
The jumping off point for this conversation was a question sent to us by a member of our Producer's Circle. She pointed out that intertextual studies seems somewhat "new." She was wondering if Rabbi Fohrman and Rabbi Leibtag agree and think that this type of Torah study is a new approach. Or could it be traced back to the approach of earlier commentaries? That is a great question. Rabbi Fohrman and Rabbi Leibtag thought so too. So with that, let's jump into the conversation.
Rabbi Fohrman: Hi everybody, this is David Fohrman, and I am here in Aleph Beta studios with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag. Rabbi Leibtag, it is a thrill to have you here. I guess what I'm curious about is a little about your own journey. You must have, growing up in Ohio, just been exposed to kind of a standard approach to Chumash which is very different than the way you see things now. I'm just wondering how that journey worked for you. When did you first come across something different? At some point did the lights go on for you? What was that journey like for you?
Rabbi Leibtag: Well, I had one big advantage that I went to public school until Ninth Grade. I didn't grow up within the system because my father was a shul rabbi in Akron, Ohio.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right.
Rabbi Leibtag: Then I went to Baltimore Talmudical Academy for high school and got a regular Jewish education. I was a ba'al koreh so I knew the pesukim pretty well. I went to Israel for a year and then did college in Israel which I was planning to be an engineer. I did electro-optics and applied physics. Then I did hesder in the army, in Yeshivat Har Etzion, and I guess by hashgachah pratis my chavrusah happened to be Rav (inaudible 00:02:29) Freilicht, who was a rebbe in yeshiva. Whose downstairs neighbor was Rabbi Yaakov Medan.
Every Thursday night Rabbi Medan, in his apartment, had a little chaburah with Yoel Bin-Nun, Rav Zev Weitman and a guy Yulov Cherlow and I was like a fly on the wall. I had no idea what was going there. I knew the pesukim so it's like this is really interesting because I never heard this before. Then Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun gave shiurim in yeshiva and I really like his stuff. Rabbi Mordechai Breuer gave shiurim in the yeshiva. Rabbi Mordechai Sabato. My main rebbe in this was Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun. I was simply impressed that he had a derech, he had an approach, which made sense. He gave a chug called, Mib'nei b'seder, structure and order, in Chumash. Where a book was a book. Instead of just reading a bunch of stories, that pretty much opened up my eyes to things (inaudible 00:03:15).
After I got married, I decided to stay another year in yeshiva and learn. I was about to go to work in engineering and someone get a different job and they needed a madrich for the overseas kids. I liked the yeshiva a lot, so I volunteered when I was married to be a madrich for a year. As madrich I was just in charge of the Americans and the things on Masa but I made sure they had good stuff. So I made chugim for them in Tanach, I had Yuval Cherlow teach them, David Natit (ph) taught them.
That was for two years and then after about two years all these people left yeshiva and became rabbis somewhere else. There was no one in yeshiva to teach the guys. It was stuff I really loved but I never really taught in my life. So because no one was around to teach I started teaching them. Simply as a plug until I found someone else to teach. That's how I got into teaching. And most of the things I learned and have come up with has been in the middle of the class. I'll give you one example, which is almost like a Mr. Magoo story. You know Mr. Magoo?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah.
Rabbi Leibtag: One time I came to class and we were doing Parshat Chukat. I was a little bit late and I came and I gave them -- I had to get a cup of coffee, but I didn't want them to talk so I gave them an assignment. I said, what did Moses do wrong? I said, look in Parshat Chukat in Perek Chaf, find me the command where Moshe was told to hit the rock.
Rabbi Fohrman: Were he was supposed to speak to the rock you mean?
Rabbi Leibtag: Yeah, yeah, in Parshat Chukat, Perek Chaf, Pasuk Zayin. I told them to look at all the commandments God gave to Moshe Rabbeinu and look at -- because I knew there was a big machloket parshanim. So to teach the machloket parshanim my whole approach is before you read commentators it has to bother you what bothered them. The commentators don't share with you their objective analysis. They only share with you their subjective interpretation after they've done the objective analysis. But they never share with you their objective analysis, they think you've done that yourself.
So I told them this methodology. Look in pasuk Chet and count up all the commands that Moshe's given by God and then make a list of those commands and match it up with what he does. So that's what they did. Then I came back 10 minutes later and we went in class and matched them up. Then, all of a sudden, oh my gosh, everything came into place. I never did it myself before. You saw every single parshan that worked out perfectly. Then you realized that Moshe never really sinned. It's like -- I don't want to do the whole shiur now but I just gave an assignment of methodology and just simply following the methodology, all of a sudden, everything just fell into place.
Then I realized that must be what the parshanim have been doing all these years. That's pretty much what I try to do in my class. I try to teach students how to read Chumash the way like Rabbi Brody used to say, he studies Chumash like Rashi studied Chumash. You won't appreciate what bothered Rashi unless it bothers you. Not like Nechama Leibowitz was great, but she always asks what's bothering Rashi, a little different, what's bothering you? When you study a text the teacher will give -- you'll read the pesukim and come up with five questions. Or they'll give five questions to answer.
What happens is the student is looking for questions instead of understanding. I try to give an assignment that forces understanding. Like divide it into paragraphs or in search for understanding the questions will find you. So it's good being inquisitive but the main approach to learning is read it, and treat it like a book. In other words, if something doesn't flow then read it and try to understand. In the midst of your search for understanding that's usually when you'll find all the things that bothered all the parshanim.
Rabbi Fohrman: There is so much of what you said that I wish I could go back in slow motion and just ask you about each little piece. I'm never going to remember all of those little pieces but just to talk about some of them. We were talking before we came on the air here about some questions we might want to talk about. One of those was this question of, whether this is similar or different, this methodology, to classical parshanim. Whether they're Gemara times or whether they're Rishonim or whether they're Acharonim. It feels to me that part of what you're saying, Menachem, is it really does dovetail, in a way, with what those commentators are doing. What you're emphasizing is the part that never makes it into their book. Which is that there's a certain kind of focus on fundamentals which is unseen. Which is basic reading comprehension. But that's where the real guts of the work gets done, this pre-reading comprehension stage.
What strikes me as what's interesting is you are arguing that the guts of the methodology goes back into that stage which was never really seen at the level of the mefarshim. Some of the things the way I talk about a similar kind of thing is that I'll say that a lot of what we're doing is using methodology of say the Midrash in some cases. But some methodology is more Rishon-like. Some methodology is more earlier Midrash-like. Let's say that the Midrash wasn't a methodology textbook, it was there more or less to give you it's conclusions.
It's like going to the mechanic and you ask the mechanic what's wrong with my car. The mechanic will tell me what's wrong with my car. Then you say, but how did he know what was wrong with my car? Did he listen to the tail pipe? Did he listen to -- hey, Mack, if you want you can go and enroll in the school for automotive, you want to be a mechanic? Here's how you be a mechanic. I'm telling you what's wrong with the car. That's what the Midrash was. The Midrash tells you what's wrong with the car, right? It wasn't the methodology textbook that teaches you how to look under the hood.
One of the common questions which I think you get a lot, or we get a lot, is in the methodology which people like you or people like me use, there's a lot of different tools. There's a lot of closed reading tools. One of the things I heard in what you were talking about, is that you can boil down a lot of those tools. If you had to boil it down to one thing, what you're really saying, to coin a phrase, is treat it like a book. That is what impressed you so much about Yoel Bin-Nun and it sort of gives a sense of logic and coherence to all this methodology.
It's not just 15 different things you could do. You can pay attention to this intertextual read; you can pay attention to the book ends; you can listen for the milah hamenachah, for the word that clues you; you can play take it apart and put it together again. What you're really doing -- or another way to put it is, is seeking understanding. You're not seeking questions, you're seeking understanding. If I were just reading --
Rabbi Leibtag: On the other hand, one of the worst things people do is people are looking for chiddushim.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yup.
Rabbi Leibtag: The disaster of all learning. The chakira has to find you, you can't look for it. When you're looking for a chiddush you'll end up with something crooked. So if you're looking for understanding the chiddush will find you.
Participant: How does a person read? How do you begin your process of reading? When you're saying you're waiting for it to come to you, you're not reading it for that and you mentioned earlier that you give assignments that force people to try and find the meaning. What do those do? What should people do when they sit down with their Chumash or their Tanach at home by themselves and they want to start somewhere?
Rabbi Leibtag: So the first assumption is, what book are you reading? A lot of people think it's a history book. The first Rashi in Chumash deals with that question. Rashi's assumption is what everyone thinks that this is a book of Jewish Law so let's start with the first Jewish law. Then, oh I need the summary of Bereishit to know the Land of Israel belongs to us, it's a little bit of a Zionist interpretation. The Ramban disagrees and now I need the book not to tell you laws but to understand why you're chosen. There's going to be alters intent.
Now, my opinion, when you're reading Sefer Bereishit, you have to understand the book was given first and foremost to a nation of slaves that came out of Egypt who God wants to transform into His people. When I'm reading Sefer Bereishit I have to put myself in that position. I was a slave in Egypt, I had all these mesorot, traditions, about different things, but I never had a written text that we studied. We maybe had a tradition of brit milah, maybe about our forefathers et cetera.
Now I went through this rollercoaster of events, I'm in the desert on life support from this amazing God, and now we're about to enter a brit, a covenant, with God at Har Sinai. God gives Moshe Rabbeinu a book to teach them, in preparation for Har Sinai, as some call it Sefer Habrit is Sefer Bereishit. When I read Sefer Bereishit it's a book written for a nation that just came out of Egypt and ask myself, what's it trying to teach me? I think that's important because that solves tons of problems that you can come up with. The question of did this really happen? How come all this Mesopotamian stuff is sneaking in there? Is it copy pasting? Like (inaudible 00:11:26) would say.
When you understand it, the people coming out of Egypt were not living in a vacuum, they were living in a foreign culture. They had different ideas. They had heard of creation myths and flood stories and things like that. Chumash was written to these, first and foremost, for that generation and if I don't know their mindset, I can't appreciate sometimes the message. That doesn't mean that it was only written for that generation. It's written for all generations and the meaning of the book is for all generations, but it was given at a certain time period. If I really want to appreciate it, I have to take that into consideration. I might not always know, and you can understand even without knowing all the intricacies of that time period, but it's something to take into consideration.
Participant: So one thing to do at the beginning is to put yourself in the position of being somebody who just left Mitzrayim. Step one.
Rabbi Leibtag: At least when I'm reading Sefer Bereishit.
Participant: Bereishit, for sure.
Rabbi Fohrman: But there's that interesting balance. Part of, I think, the implication of it being a divine book, at least how I see it, is the ability of the book to speak powerfully to people in every generation.
Rabbi Leibtag: Not only ours.
Rabbi Fohrman: Not only ours. I remember, actually, Mortimer Adler, in a book I tend to quote a lot, How to Read a Book, where he argues that most books aren't worth reading but there's about 100 that are. He gives you --
Participant: Including his?
Rabbi Fohrman: He doesn't include his but he puts the Bible and the Talmud in there, but he gives you a derech halimud, a way of approaching those books. He says the books that are worth reading are books that are above you, that you have to struggle to understand; books that when you come back to them at any stage in your life you'll see something different; and books that can be read by people from all different cultures at all different times and the book is going to perennially speak to them in a fresh kind of way.
One of the challenges is, yes, on the one hand this book is written, principally, for the generation that receives it but also for all different kinds of generations. I think that's where the notion of reading it like a book --
Rabbi Leibtag: I'd switch it around. I'd say it's written primarily for all generations --
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes.
Rabbi Leibtag: -- but given in a certain generation. In other words, it wasn't written first and foremost for the first generation it was written for all generations but given to the first generation.
Rabbi Fohrman: But given within the context of that first generation. Right, to me one of the powerful things that I felt underneath the surface when you were saying what hit you about Rav Yoel Bin-Nun and Rabbi Yaakov Medan's approach was this notion of reading it like a book. Is that it feels like it gives the one who seeks to approach Chumash a certain kind of confidence. Because on the one hand it's so easy to be intimidated in trying to understand the Chumash because it's God's book and there's so many smart people who've seen it before you and do you really think you're going to see something that the Seforno didn't see? Or that Rashi didn't see? So everyone has this imposter complex and inferiority complex reading this book. But who in the world am I?
It causes you to sort of turn off and just say, well the best I can do is try to hear what maybe Rav Chaim Shmulewitz had to say about what Rashi really means. Maybe if I could say it over at shalosh seudos I can be yotzei and that's pretty much it that I can do. I think what I hear in you, just read it like a book, is the sense that, no, it is a book. God chose to write a book. A book is a very tangible thing that we all know what it is.
Rabbi Leibtag: And a book that was written to be studied, not read. Do you understand the difference? It's not information like a technical writer. It's a book that was written to be studied and God wants you to study the book, not to read it. In other words, it's clear when you read the book, it has to be a book to be studied. I'll give one real quick example which I think proves it. When you study the days of creation it doesn't tell you pay attention to the parallels between the days. But when you study it, you realize that Day 1 is parallel to Day 4, and 2 to 5, and 3 to 6. We've discussed this many times. It's so obvious to the student. When I give that class, now I don't tell them that, they uncover that.
When the uncover that they are so convinced that that was the Chumash's intention. That they're convinced that God wanted the student of Chumash to uncover that. But wants the student to uncover that and doesn't tell them ahead of time.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, and I think this gets to another point about this kind of methodology which we're using -- to some extent I'm using -- which is that I think that when a good reader reads, and what I mean by good reader is a careful reader of any book, part of what you're doing is you're paying attention to the voice of the author. You're paying attention to how the author is writing and you learn it after a while. So if I'm reading a Tom Clancy book I know I'm going to expect to hear about all the details of the submarine and that's how he's going to establish authority. If I'm reading Harry Potter, I know I'm going to look and say, oh, one of the things J.K. Rowling is doing is building this world which feels immersive in a J.R.R. Tolkien sense.
One of the remarkable things about --
Rabbi Leibtag: Let me just go to Harry Potter. When you catch on, when there's all this cat running around in the first thing, you know that sooner or later that cat is going to be important.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes.
Rabbi Leibtag: Even though you have no idea what it's talking about in the beginning because there's no reason there'd be so much detail in the cat if it's not going to come back into the story.
Participant: Unless you're relying on the first scene, unless it would --
Rabbi Leibtag: And that's Chumash exactly.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. That's Checkov's famous line about the rifle --
Rabbi Leibtag: About the k'ruvim and the teiva and that's all the imagery in the beginning.
Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. But in a way I think there's a certain kind of process in reading where a reader learns to trust the writer. Let me explain what I mean. If you're reading a bad book and you'll read about the cat and the cat just doesn't come back, right? It just falls off. In other words that just got me interested, but they never got back to the cat. At some point you lose confidence in an author like that. So an author's going to win your confidence over time with the sense of, now I'm going to get back to the cat and everything's going to start coming together.
As you, as a reader, pick up on more and more artistry you feel more and more taken care of by the author. The author's paying attention knows what he's doing, there's a story there to discover. Therefore, you invest more because you're seeing the work of the author. It strikes me that the careful reader of the Chumash is meant to go through that process with God. He's written this book then inspires confidence with them.
One of the funny things is you know we say in Shema that God loved us so He gave us the Torah. But one of the really cool things, I think, is that one of the great vehicles of loving God I think is the study of the Torah. I think it's that sense of feeling taken care of by an author who cared enough to really write the good book. That you're not going to waste your time reading, that you're actually willing to listen, you'll start to see, oh, I get it, okay. So every detail does matter. This stuff, I heard echoes of that before, He's using parallels, isn't that remarkable? Those parallels bring things into three dimensions. Oh, He's using words that appear over and over again, I see what He's doing. All of a sudden, if you just open yourself up to it and come to it as an actual reader, you'll actually discover the methodology of the author because the author put it there for you to discover. You'll pick it up so -- yeah? Go ahead.
Participant: So, Rabbi Fohrman, when you mention that there was a point in time where you started to notice, oh these words, oh these echoes? Can you tell us how that started for you? The same way you asked Rabbi Leibtag, I would like to also know your side of this.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, sure. In a way very similar to Rabbi Leibtag's story. Many aspects of it were similar.
Rabbi Leibtag: Come on, really? (Laughter)
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay, I'll give you some of the things that resonate. I too, sort of, grew up in this out of town world. It wasn't Akron, Ohio but it was Berkley, California. I was also out of the system and came to the system later in life. I think that's really important. You know, one of the things I write about is what I call the Lullaby Effect. Which is that one of the problems is you just read a text and it puts you to sleep because you've seen it so many times. If you're inside the system already it's very hard to get out of the fishbowl and see what the thing looks like when you're out of the fishbowl.
Rabbi Leibtag was joking and he began his answer by saying, the great advantage he had was he didn't have a yeshiva education (laughter). It's not so funny. I often tell people that the greatest questions that they will find in the Chumash are going to asked by the non-observant Jew who's never read anything before because he has the advantage of coming from outside of the system and just being able to see the thing without any skin in the game and just saying, I don't understand what's going on.
You asked before when we were off the air about are any questions heretical? Pinchas, over here, jokingly said, or somebody said, there's no such thing as a heretical question. I think the reason why that's true is because if anything heresy is the illusion that once I'm inside the system I can only ask certain things and I'm not allowed to go outside the system and say, but what in the world is going on here? So I think one of the great advantages for me was like Rabbi Leibtag, starting from outside the system, just in Neverland.
The second thing that struck me about Rabbi Leibtag that helped him was that he was a ba'al koreh when he was young. That helps. I think one of the greatest things you can do if you want to really understand Torah seriously, is develop a bekiyos in it. Try to get the words on your fingertips and the best way to do that is to learn how to lein. I don't care if you're a man or if you're a woman in an Orthodox shul and you're never going to get a chance to actually stand up there and chant the Torah. It's still worth it for you to learn how to lein, to learn the cantillation. There's grammar in there and there's the --
Rabbi Leibtag: Cantillation is also an interpretation.
Rabbi Fohrman: -- it's also an interpretation in and of itself. It will help you remember it. To this day --
Rabbi Leibtag: The shalshelet and beit na'ama is intentional.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, it's intentional. All that stuff is amazing.
Rabbi Leibtag: We call it wake up and smell the Chumash (laughter).
Rabbi Fohrman: I can always tell in a second when you're giving a class, can't you smell the ba'alei kriah in the audience? You can get it like that (snap fingers). If at the end of the class you had to point to the three people who are ba'alei kriah, you could probably do it, right?
Rabbi Leibtag: When I use the, this one you should know because it's a Rishon. The first aliyah people know the first pesukim, because you read it three times a week.
Rabbi Fohrman: So the second thing which was similar was at a young age I was encouraged to lein. I wasn't a ba'al koreh but there were pieces that I was encouraged to lein. That was helpful for me for starters.
A second thing which was helpful for me was that there was a little bit of a moment of crisis for me. I left my Berkley upbringing when I was a young teenager and came to New York and was thrown into a standard yeshiva system when I was 14. It was so different than what I had recognized, there were certain things I just couldn't make head or tails of. I couldn't figure out why everyone was ignoring the Bible and only studying Talmud. It just seemed very strange to me.
Rabbi Leibtag: Yeshiva's are non-profit.
Rabbi Fohrman: What do you mean?
Rabbi Leibtag: They don't study Navi.
Rabbi Fohrman: I hear you. They're a non-profit organization (laughter). That's right. So I couldn't understand that. It just felt to me like the most obvious thing was that if you're an Orthodox Jew, and you believe that God wrote this book, you probably would want to study it to see what He had to say to you. You should at least have enough confidence in God as an author to believe that He can say something meaningful. So why would you not want to read it?
I was completely flabbergasted by this. Yet, I wasn't able to do it. I would just sit down on the lawn and open up a Chumash and read, confident that there must be meaning here. It's deep but I couldn't get to it and I was kind of frustrated. Over time I remember, to me you asked what was the turning point for me. For me the turning point was actually, part of it goes all the way back to my years in Berkley where I had the benefit of listening to sermons from Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz, who now lives in Kfar Saba, who had a little bit of this approach. I got a certain smell that there was something going on here, but I couldn't replicate it once I got back to New York.
I think I was in Baltimore listening to a (inaudible 00:23:55). There was a shul that lost its rabbi and there were a couple of people who came in to do a talk. One of them was Peter Abelow, who you probably know.
Rabbi Leibtag: My friend.
Rabbi Fohrman: Is he in Efrat? Yeah. So Peter at this point was -- he was the English principal of Rabbi Riskin's school where I had gone to high school. Now it's much later than that, I'm in fourth year beis medrash, or something like that, or third year beis medrash. He gave a talk at night and I was considering becoming a rabbi so I wanted to listen to these various different drashos that these rabbis gave to see what they were like.
Rabbi Leibtag: To hear the question. To see what a hard time you're going to get when you for rabbi's (inaudible 00:24:32).
Rabbi Fohrman: I guess so. So I'm listening to Peter Abelow, and he's giving a talk on something or another and he's mentioning Yehudah and Tamar. Yehudah and Tamar at that point was -- it must've been that week's parshah or something -- he made a point about Yehudah and Tamar. He talked about the haker nah, which Rashi notes, that evokes the haker nah, the recognized pleas of Yosef. But he didn't just say that, he was really focusing on that very first Rashi and the story of Yehudah and Tamar where Rashi says, "horidu echad migidlulato," that after the sale of Yosef the bothers had caused Yehudah to descend from his political leadership over the other brothers.
He made the point that why is it that we have this strange story of this barter between him and the harlot and the stuff that he happens to give up. Why do we have to hear that level of detail of what's going on? Why would he give up his coat, staff and his signet ring? He said, who's going to wear a coat, a staff and a signet ring? That's going to be a leader. That's going to be a king. So what does it mean that he's giving his coat and his staff and his signet ring to her? It's really what Rashi's saying, which is that he's being deprived of his implements of leadership but interestingly he doesn't lose them for good. He just gives them away as collateral. Collateral is actually owned, I don't lose it, it's still mine. So the story is, how do you get back those implements? How can Yehudah retrieve them? What does he have to do in order to get his leadership back?
I remember I'm listening to this and I'm thinking that actually makes sense. That was like the first time in like 10 years that I had heard something that just had the ring of truth to it. It just seemed right. You know? I was thinking, you know if that's really true, then there really is this sort of symbolic layer of meaning. So what I was talking about before where you're listening to a book and you're picking up the, oh I see what the author is doing. My sense was that if the author's doing that then He's probably doing more of that. I remember going back to the story of Yehudah and Tamar and the very first thing I did was I built out the story of Yehudah and Tamar with that as the beginning. I just kind of built out an approach, which I saw later Robert Alter came very close to in his books, The Art of the Biblical Narrative.
I kind of built it out and I just saw more and more stuff that was there. I began to see these resonances to the Yosef story. One of the great questions that the Biblical critics have is how does Chapter 38, the story of Yehudah and Tamar, really relate to the Yosef story. Once you start looking at it carefully you see all those Yosef imageries screaming out at you in there. I was completely bowled over by it. I remember taking a walk with a friend of mine, Eliezer Lochman (ph) of Ner Yisrael. Walking around Ner Yisrael campus, explaining to him this p'shat that I had on Yehudah and Tamar. He said, wow, that's really amazing. What do you make of it? I said, here's the thing, this is the only place that I've ever seen this from. I've just done this here, but if this is right then how much more stuff does there have to be in this book? I've never seen any of it, but it's got to be there.
So for me, that was kind of a turning point. How much more must be out there. So for me, that was kind of the turning point.
Participant: There's this iceberg kind of feeling moment where there's got to be more underneath this. I'm only seeing a bit. What made this feel so much more true to you? Why was this the truest thing you heard?
Rabbi Fohrman: I don't know if it was the truest thing I heard. I just gets to what I was talking about before which is there's a sense that I think whenever you read any book there's this certain silent kind of social contract being established between the reader and the author. It clicks at a certain point. A reader has to be willing to be taken care of by the author. He has to give himself over to an author in any book you read. There's a certain point -- anybody who says, wow that was an amazing book, it took me somewhere. You have to let yourself get taken somewhere on a journey. We don't let ourselves -- like a car stops and says, hey, get in my car, I'm going to take you somewhere. You're not getting into that car, do you know what I mean? What's the process of trust that needs to be built before you get in someone's car and let them whisk you away off to some unknown place? That's what you've got to do.
Participant: So you're saying there has to be faith before a person starts reading? Does there need to some kind of emunah or relationship with God before they even sit down and read the book?
Rabbi Fohrman: What I'm arguing, in a way, is that one of the greatest -- I wonder, Menachem, if you feel this way too, for me one of the greatest teachers of faith is the act of study itself. You can say faith proceeds study, but for me the amount of faith which I've gained through the process of study is far greater than the amount of faith I came in with it.
I think that's the way it's supposed to be. I really stand by that. That the act of reading any book, even a secular book, involves a certain act of faith. In as much as, let's talk about what faith is? What faith is, is the willingness to put yourself into someone else's hands. That is the act of faith. To some extent we do that when we read. To lesser extents because if I'm reading a Tom Clancy novel how much faith do I really have to have? If I'm going to waste a little bit time then I'll go there, it's not so dangerous.
In the Bible I'm talking about big stuff. I'm talking about some of the major issues so it takes more faith. But I think the Torah earns your faith if you're willing to invest in it.
Rabbi Leibtag: I think I'd use the word trust more than faith. I'm not sure what you mean by faith, but when you're trusting you're trusting that this book is up to something and it knows what it's doing. It's not just telling you words for no reason. It's not just telling you a story, it's up to something and it wants you to figure it out.
Rabbi Fohrman: To me that's -- if you want to talk about what's important about what Menachem does, or this whole school of why should it really matter? To me it's about taking people on a journey where they can experience that sense of faith themselves and they could understand that they author was up to something and be bowled over by it. With their own mind begin to see, oh, I'm just doing what the book asked me to do, which is just read it. That process is bringing me into a relationship with the author is a mind-blowing thing.
What's the alternative, right? If all I'm willing to do is listen to what Rav Chaim Shmulewitz said about this Rashi and I think that I was yotzei because maybe he said something which I can say over, right? But I never allow myself to just read. I'm never building that relationship with the author. At the end of the day the only reason why I'll ever believe anything is if I come in saying, Rav Chaim Shmulewitz is okay to believe what he says. I have a list of people who it's okay to believe.
Participant: He's a gadol.
Rabbi Fohrman: He's a gadol. He has a beard. He was very smart and because he's revered. So if I say that there are smart people who I revere and I will trust what they say, that's fine. Maybe it connects you at some level to our mesorah but I think the study of Chumash can be even more than that. It can actually be a personal relationship between you and God, but to do that you have to actually read the book.
Rabbi Leibtag, thank you so much for coming in. I really appreciate it. It was really fascinating. Please come back again soon. I always enjoy getting the chance to chat.
Eitan: I hope you guys enjoyed that. If you have thoughts about this conversation or requests for future conversations, we want to hear from you. Be in touch with us at info @ alephbeta.org.