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The Haunted Yeshivah: Abaye and the Torah of ADHD

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Elli Fischer

This article is in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Zechariah Yehuda Fischer on 22 Sivan 5779

One of the most important developments in contemporary Talmud study is the questioning of the stark division of the Talmudic corpus into “Halakhah” and “Aggadah.” Though different modes of discourse are present in the Talmud, it does not itself distinguish them as distinct materials with different rules of interpretation. Some passages are hard to place in just one category, as they contain both halakhic and aggadic features. In other passages, halakhic and aggadic elements are positioned in ways that invite us to read them as complements that shed new light on one another. The Talmud moves seamlessly from legal statements to theological statements and back without any indication that it is transitioning between genres. 

Aside from these relatively recent developments, though, the Talmud has been the object of a sustained effort to impose discipline on it. Its rough edges have been smoothed, ambiguities clarified, genre-bending features elided. But the Talmud resists discipline. It is undisciplined in that it refuses to stay in its lane or color within the lines, and it is interdisciplinary in that it transcends familiar categories of knowledge: law, literature, theology, mythology—the Talmud is all of them, and none of them.

The Talmud’s messiness sometimes reflects the presence of a struggle between different impulses on the part of its Sages. On one hand, the Talmud evinces an attempt to offer clear instruction, without dispute or ambiguity. It exhibits features of legal codes. On the other hand, something in the Talmud, and in rabbinic literature more generally, seeks to represent reality as it is, with all its complexities, quirks, and loose ends. The tension between these two trends can find expression in a variety of ways and contexts.

The two Talmudic passages that the present essay addresses exemplify how different modes of expression and different genres are not only in tension with one another but are also embedded within one another. The central figure of these passages is Abaye, one of the best-known Sages of Babylonia, whose presence in the Talmud is ubiquitous. Reading these passages within their immediate contexts and in light of one another will yield new insight into Abaye’s personality and how the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli), in its portrait of Abaye, externalizes anxieties about the reductive, one-size-fits-all nature of apodictic legal statements. 

The first passage appears in Kiddushin 29b:

Our rabbis taught: if he and his son must study, he takes precedence over his son. Rabbi Yehudah says: if his son is energetic and seasoned, and he retains his learning, his son takes precedence, like the case of R. Yaakov, son of Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov. His father sent him to Abaye. When he returned, he saw that his studies were not sharp. He said, “I am preferable to you. You return, for I am going.” Abaye heard that he was coming. There was a destructive force (“mazik”) in Abaye’s rabbinic academy. When they entered in pairs, even during the day, they would be harmed. He [Abaye] said to them: “Let no man give him lodging; perhaps a miracle will occur.” He entered and lodged in that rabbinic academy. It [the mazik] appeared to him as a seven-headed serpent. Each time he bowed, a head fell off. He said to them on the morrow: “If the miracle had not occurred, I would have been endangered.”

The larger context of this passage is the discussion of a mishnah (Kiddushin 1:7) that states: “All obligations of the son upon the father, men are obligated, but women are exempt.” The gemara (29a) cites a baraita that offers a list of the mitzvot that are incumbent upon a father vis-a-vis his son: “The mishnah teaches that which the Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: ‘A father is obligated vis-a-vis his son to circumcise him, redeem him, to teach him Torah, to marry him to a wife, and to teach him a craft. Some say, also to teach him to swim.’”

The mishnah and baraita state blanket laws, lists of who is obligated in what, without recording any exceptions. Moreover, they offer no insight into how the father should fulfill his obligations: What sort of craft should the father choose to teach his son? What qualities should he seek in a potential mate for his son? Are there any particular pedagogical strategies he can employ when teaching his son Torah? These sources offer nothing in this regard, as it is not their purpose. They lay down the law; the details of their implementation must be sought elsewhere.

The cited passage begins with another baraita that introduces a conflict between the first baraita’s assertion that a father must teach his son Torah and the father’s obligation to study Torah himself. Here there is already an acknowledgment that life often complicates the implementation of one’s duties. In real life, duties compete for finite resources, and so they must be prioritized. The anonymous first opinion of the second baraita resolves this conflict by deciding that, with respect to Torah study, the duty to oneself takes priority over the duty to one’s son.

Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion qualifies the first opinion by introducing an exception: if the son possesses qualities that mark him as a potential Torah scholar, he takes precedence over his father. Thus, according to Rabbi Yehudah, the principle of the father’s priority over the son is not absolute but contingent on the son’s aptitudes.

The Talmud then cites the story of Yaakov, the son of Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov, as an example of the practical application of the baraita. There is a transition here from the Tannaitic baraita to a story involving figures from the later Amoraic era. In the story, Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov first sends his son to study under Abaye, and then decides that the son should return home so that Rabbi Aha himself can study Torah. But which view in the baraita does the story support? Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion? According to the first view, Rabbi Aha should have gone to Yeshivah himself from the outset, and should never have sent his son. According to Rabbi Yehudah, the conclusion makes sense—Rabbi Aha takes precedence over his unexceptional son—but what was the “hava amina?” Did Yaakov exhibit enough potential to trigger Rabbi Yehudah’s qualification? 

Indeed, the only way that the story functions as a prooftext to the baraita is if Rabbi Aha thought that his son possessed the potential to become a great Torah scholar. Once the father was disabused of his hopes for his son, he reverted to the default ruling that the father’s Torah study takes priority.

This story adds a new layer of complexity to the discussion. It is the first instance of “case law” in the discussion, and it also shows that Rabbi Yehudah’s qualification implies that the decision about the son is a judgment call, and that sometimes parents misjudge the aptitude of their children. The apodictic “If the son is energetic… the son takes precedence” sounds simple but is hard to implement in practice.

Rabbi Aha’s decision to replace his son in Abaye’s Yeshivah seems an excellent place to end the discussion. The point of the baraita has been taken to a new level of complexity, but ultimately reinforced. However, the Talmud continues with the story of Rabbi Aha’s visit to Abaye’s academy, and it is in this latter part of the story that things become truly bizarre. 

Abaye thought to take advantage of Rabbi Aha’s visit to solve a problem that plagued his Yeshivah. There was a mazik, a destructive, demonic force, that was disturbing students when they studied in pairs, even in broad daylight. The Talmud had already informed us that Yaakov was not succeeding in his studies at Abaye’s Yeshivah, and it now tells us that Yaakov was not alone. Some destructive force posed a barrier to the other students as well. By withholding hospitality, Abaye sought to force R. Aha to confront the demon that haunted the Yeshivah.

During the night, the demon manifested itself to Rabbi Aha as a seven-headed serpent. The sage responded by praying, and each time he bowed in prayer, another head fell off. He told the community the next day that he was placed at risk and that their reliance on a miracle was unwarranted.

This segment of Talmud has progressed steadily from laconic legalistic statements to the story of a fantastic beast, where to find it, and how to kill it. It has also moved from the generic to the specific, beginning with a blanket statement that ostensibly covers all scenarios, working through increasingly complicated exceptions, and ending with a story that required a miracle. 

But what purpose does the second part of the story serve within the larger passage? How does it further develop the discussion about how to prioritize the Torah study of the father and son? The setting of the battle between Rabbi Aha and the seven-headed serpent is “bei rabbanan de-Abaye,” Abaye’s rabbinic academy. It is here that the demon lurks, harming students by the pair even in broad daylight, keeping them from their studies. And so it is to this academy and its headmaster, Abaye, that we turn our focus.

Talmudists until today accept that the characters who appear in the Talmud are portrayed consistently within a single work. Descriptions of Abaye throughout the Bavli can be read as originating in the same “rabbinic imagination.” To be sure, Abaye is one of the most frequently mentioned Sages of the Talmud, and attempts to detect consistent patterns and ideas in thousands of his statements across the Talmud have filled entire books. The goals of the present essay are more modest: developing a particular aspect of his personality through descriptions scattered across the Talmud. 

Perhaps the most suggestive anecdote about Abaye appears in Berakhot 48a:

Abaye and Rava were sitting before Rabbah. Rabbah said to them: “Whom do we bless?” They said to him: “To the Merciful One.” “And where does the Merciful One dwell?” Rava pointed to the roof beams. Abaye went outside and pointed toward the sky. Rabbah said to them: “You will both be rabbis.” This is what people say: “Gourds are known by their sap.”

This story, too, is embedded within a halakhic context. The Talmud is discussing the age at which someone can be included in the quorum of three necessary to make a zimmun, the joint blessing after a group meal. It cites a view that a “minor who knows Whom we bless” may be counted as the third member to complete the quorum. It follows this assertion with the tale of young Abaye and Rava, illustrating that even at a very young age, they were already on the path toward greatness in Torah, for they knew where God lives. 

However, the distinct reactions of young Abaye and Rava may indicate that they were on different paths toward greatness. Rava’s staying inside and pointing to the ceiling somehow reflects his personality, while Abaye’s going outside and pointing to the heavens tells us something about his. 

Several years ago, when teaching this story in a high school Talmud class, I asked the students to hypothesize what the Talmud might be suggesting about the personalities of Abaye and Rava. The question turned into something of a Rorschach test, as students offered explanations that mapped onto their views of the world. One student suggested that Abaye is more of a hasid and Rava more of a mitnaged. Another proposed that Abaye is more artistic and Rava more science-oriented. A third averred that Abaye was Reform and Rava Orthodox. It was one of the most memorable Talmud lessons of my life. 

The common denominator between these suggestions is that whereas Rava finds God within structure and detail, Abaye finds Him in their absence. In truth, I tend to think that the Talmud was trying to produce just such an impression, a contrast between Rava’s motionlessness within the building and Abaye’s movement to the outside. Readers will unpack these impressions using their own religious/spiritual lexicons. 

This is precisely what Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook does in Ein Ayah (Berakhot 7:27). His reading of the differences between Rava and Abaye burns with intensity, and it is clear that Rav Kook identifies with the latter: 

There are sages whose penchant for knowing God is through things that are delimited and quantified. For example, by scientifically ascertaining the truth…and by knowing Torah in all its details and halakhot, they find themselves cleaving to their Maker and knowing His name. And there are some who, due to the nature of their spirit, cannot be content with seeking limited things…. They sense ineffable things with the logic of their heart….

So Rava pointed to the roof beams, for he was inclined toward diligent Torah study and seeking every truth through its defined details. This is how he comes to know his Maker. This tendency governed his spirit, even in his youth, to find repose in the shade of the tent. And through this he reaches an exalted consciousness and repose. 

Abaye, however, strove for breadth of knowledge through inner understanding that reaches higher, beyond all boundaries. His inner nature drove him to express the stirrings of his soul, [agitated by the question,] “Where does the Merciful One dwell?” by going outside and pointing to the heavens, to limitless space…. This is supported by their statement: “Rava [sic], who engaged in Torah, lived for forty years. Abaye, who engaged in Torah and in  acts of kindness, lived for sixty years” (Rosh Hashanah 18a). For one who ascends to an expansive place through the striving of his imagination cannot imprison his spirit in merely one form of wholeness. Just as he fans out into every form of exploration, he also ascends toward all branches of wholeness. Thus, in consonance with his character, his engagement in acts of kindness and his interactions with people did not prevent him from achieving the wholeness consonant with his character, which he found through this inner logic. Rava, on the other hand, found the object of his desire in the Torah [Psalms 1:2]. In his love for Torah, he could not detach himself from it. He was infinitely exhilarated by his love for it [Proverbs 5:19]. He found happiness only in it, and his highest consciousness in its sanctity.

Rav Kook’s description of Abaye is clearly autobiographical. Elsewhere, he uses the same terminology to describe himself: “Who can comprehend that I cannot take interest in anything delimited due to the magnitude of my yearning for the eternal delight of the infinite expanse? That I am lovesick?” (Shemonah Kevatzim 3:222). “My soul ascends ever higher, transcending all the lowliness, the smallness, the limits imposed by a natural, corporal, social, conventional life, crushing it with their vise-grip, incarcerating it in a torture chamber” (ibid., 290). 

Rav Kook acutely feels how a Rava-like exclusive focus on the details of the Torah would “imprison his spirit.” For Rava, God is in the details; for Abaye (and Rav Kook), God is in the expanse, beyond the confines of any discipline (again, in both senses of the word). Rav Kook emphasizes that for Rava, the study hall is a shelter, a place of spiritual repose. Abaye’s soul, by contrast, has no rest; it takes delight in expansion and exploration. In the most literal sense, Abaye is spiritually and intellectually “restless.” 

Two other passages seem to reinforce the emerging portrait of Abaye. Rav Kook alluded to the first:

“And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house will not be purged with sacrifice nor offering forever” (I Samuel 3:14). Rava said: With sacrifice or offering it is not atoned, but it is atoned through Torah. Abaye said: With sacrifice or offering it is not atoned, but it is atoned through Torah and of acts of kindness. Rabbah and Abaye came from the house of Eli. Rabbah, who engaged in Torah, lived forty years. Abaye, who engaged in Torah and in  acts of kindness, lived sixty years. (Rosh Hashanah 18a)

In contrast to Rabbah, who only engaged in Torah, Abaye both preached and practiced the integration of Torah study with acts of kindness, and as a result he lived far longer than the average man of his pedigree. Another passage offers further evidence of Abaye’s integral approach:

Abaye said: Many have acted in accordance with Rabbi Yishmael [combining Torah study with working for a living] and it worked for them; many have acted in accordance with Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and it did not work for them. (Berakhot 35b)

Here, Abaye does not decide between the views of Rabbis Shimon and Yishmael, but speaks with the authority of experience: whichever Tanna is correct in an ideal world, Rabbi Yishmael’s approach is more effective in practice and has a greater degree of success.

It is not my place to diagnose Rav Kook or Abaye with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I am not a mental health professional, and even if I were, diagnosing revered rabbis who have long since departed for the next world would be problematic at best. Moreover, ADHD, like other psychiatric diagnoses, is specific to the culture that describes and diagnoses it; in fact, one can learn a great deal about a culture by studying what it deems abnormal, and there is no indication that the Talmud considers Abaye’s response to Rabbah’s question “abnormal.” On the contrary, Rabbah takes it as a sign of future greatness. 

Nevertheless, this story about young Abaye, and Rav Kook’s autobiographical reading of it, resonates very deeply with me and my experiences with ADHD (and parenting children with ADHD). Rav Kook’s autobiographical reading, in fact, gives us license to see something of myself, my children, and many acquaintances in Abaye. It permits us to rethink and critique a culture that labels this condition as a “disorder.” Consider Thom Hartmann’s work, for example. Hartmann recasts ADHD as a set of characteristics that became disadvantageous as humanity transitioned to agrarian and then industrial societies. He emphasizes that there are still contexts in which the “wiring” of an ADHD mind can be advantageous and make unique contributions. The story of Abaye, and Rav Kook’s interpretation of it, invite us to consider whether these ideas apply to the world of Torah study, and whether bright but restless and undisciplined students have unique contributions to make to the culture of Torah. 

Rav Kook concludes his exposition of the divergent characters of Abaye and Rava by suggesting why the law always accords with the latter:

Perhaps one who follows the path of delimited wisdom is closer to practical wisdom, and so is more aligned with Halakhah. The Halakhah therefore accords with him…and for this very reason, Halakhah accords with Rava over Abaye.

Rava’s path is the path of structure and discipline, of concentration and focus. The curriculum is fixed, the canon closed. Flowers are red, and green leaves are green. This is the educational paradigm that developed during the Industrial Revolution, and, despite attempts to reimagine and revamp curricula, still largely dominates formal education. Success is defined by material covered, tests passed, and skills acquired. When a curious student asks a question or makes an association based on something she learned in a different class, or wants to process some new data holistically, to assimilate it into a broader web of knowledge and not simply into the immediate, linear progression of the curriculum, she is told that she is getting sidetracked or going off on a tangent. They will tell her: “Try to stay focused.”

In Rava’s world, Abaye is often medicated, and, in truth, medication has advantages. It can be hard for someone with ADHD to sit down and write a 5,000-word essay. But the ideas for the essay, the connections and associations that lie dormant until synthesized by a mind that loves exploring sidetracks and jumping down rabbit-holes, might never develop on medication. As I have written elsewhere, albeit in a similar context, a healthy attitude toward the costs and benefits of medicating is crucial. Rav Kook thrived in Volozhin, where, as in traditional batei midrash, students learned independently if they wished, with no curriculum. Had he been in a more rigid environment and encouraged to medicate, perhaps he would not have become Rav Kook, even if it might have made his teachers happy. 

Imagine Abaye in a classroom with two or three dozen other students. The rebbe asks the students where Hashem is, expecting them to respond with a chorus of Uncle Moishy’s panentheistic paean: “Hashem is here; Hashem is there; Hashem is truly everywhere!” But this one kid thinks and acts differently. Perhaps he throws open a window to gesture toward a wider world. Perhaps he responds in some other spontaneous and unpredictable way. The rebbe gets annoyed. “Why do you have to do things differently? Why can’t you sit still? There are thirty students in this class; do you think there’s time for everyone to do their own thing? Did you take your meds today?” 

Perhaps this Abaye will learn to stay at his seat and parrot the choreographed responses. But according to Rav Kook’s reading, this would be no less than a severing of Abaye’s incipient connection with God. In Rav Kook’s reading, Abaye becomes an archetype for restless souls, for “out of the box” kids, who feel imprisoned in the classroom, who yearn to “run outside” to find God and to explore and experiment, whose constantly-firing neurons associate and combine ideas that could have come from anywhere and might lead anywhere, without any regard for disciplinary boundaries—in both senses. 

Abaye and Rav Kook affirm for us that when we pick up a thread and follow wherever it may lead, we are not “spacing out”, we are not “distracted.” Our “hyperactivity,” the difficulty we have stopping the incessant motion of our minds, and consequently our bodies, is not a deficit or a disorder. We are simply on a different path, seeking God, truth, and knowledge in a different place. When a school manages to get such a kid to see and learn about the world its way, it is not a success, but a tragic failure. The round peg that has been forced into a square hole could have been an Abaye or a Rav Kook, or one of so many others who found their place in the world of Torah, and made amazing, innovative contributions to it by charting their own course. 

But what is the alternative? How can schools and yeshivot adapt to bright but restless students, nurturing and supporting them on their path to success, without devolving into chaos? These questions return us to Abaye’s Yeshivah and the passage in Kiddushin.

We can now imagine Abaye building a Yeshivah in his own image, attracting bright but restless boys, and encouraging them to branch out beyond the walls of the Yeshivah, whether to engage in acts of kindness or to learn a trade. He urges them to chart their own course, to seek God outside the confines of the Yeshivah

Rabbi Aha knew Abaye’s reputation and thought his Yeshivah would be better suited to Yaakov’s needs. Perhaps Yaakov had already failed to thrive in Rava-style, Torah-only yeshivot, and Abaye’s academy was a last-ditch effort to unlock the potential that Yaakov so clearly demonstrated. Alas, his learning was not sharp. Rabbi Aha decided to bring Yaakov home, and to revert to the view that the father’s Torah study precedes that of the son. 

We now reach the point in the story where its halakhic relevance is not obvious and where it takes a sharp turn in a demonological direction. What follows is my admittedly homiletic attempt to read the remainder of the story as an apt continuation of its first parts.

A demon was haunting Abaye’s students as they studied in pairs, even in broad daylight. When we meet this demon, it has taken the form of a seven-headed serpent. Maharal of Prague, in his Hiddushei Aggadot (ad loc.), connects the pairs of students with the seven heads of the serpent:

Know that seven is always found as the number of multiplicity…. Demons derive their power from multiplicity, for they are the antithesis of oneness…so they have power specifically over pairs.

Maharal, taking his cue from the Talmud’s extended discussion of demons’ power over even numbers (Pesahim 109b ff.), interprets them as the antithesis of oneness, of wholeness. Things that are supposed to be integral, that are supposed to merge into one, remain separate, differentiated, bifurcated. Abaye built a Yeshivah that would favor Rabbi Yishmael’s view over Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s Torah-only view, that would incorporate public service and vocational training into its curriculum, and that would appeal to students who were not succeeding elsewhere, but it failed. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s diagnosis of contemporary educational institutions comes to mind as a potential explanation for this failure:

Diffusion does entail, almost inevitably, some measure of dilution, and the pure Torah component within a “Torah im derekh eretz” approach is indeed likely to command less single-minded loyalty than the unitary goal pursued by the “shemen zayit zakh.” (“Centrist Orthodoxy, a Spiritual Accounting”, By His Light, p. 247)

It is unlikely that Rabbi Lichtenstein was thinking about the story in Kiddushin when he penned these words (though he was almost certainly thinking of the dispute between Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael). However, his contrast of “single-minded loyalty” with dilution and diffusion offers an important insight. If Abaye tried to broaden his students’ horizons by compartmentalizing the curriculum, it likely backfired. An advantage of Rava’s approach is that when applied to a single subject, it can produce profound passion. Rava, indeed, finds God within the details of Halakhah and Torah study. Its downside is a certain narrowness of horizons that is particularly toxic for those who seek God in other ways. But Abaye’s response, broadening the curriculum, did not produce students who were broad-minded like Abaye. Rather, it was plagued by a demon that manifests with seven heads, the perfect contrast to the approach that Rav Lichtenstein calls “single-minded”. Dividing knowledge into distinct disciplines produced a creature with seven distinct heads, each with a mind of its own, unable to share thoughts with the others, unable to integrate different ideas into a single whole. Abaye sought God in the astounding breadth of creation, and he tried to build a Yeshivah to teach students to do the same by exposing them, too, to the breadth and variety of human knowledge and action. The result was that the students were exposed to a range of disciplines that remained distinct, making them not broad-minded but “multiple-minded”, haunted by a demon with seven heads.

In addition to Maharal’s interpretation, it is worth noting that seven-headed serpents appear in a wide variety of cultures and mythologies much older than the Bavli. They represent the forces of chaos and threaten destruction. The hero must save the world by slaying it. Applied to Abaye’s Yeshivah, this metaphoric interpretation of the seven-headed beast points to the difficulties of educating a group of students like Abaye. Everyone has a mind of her own, pulling in a different direction. An entire school of such students would become extremely chaotic. Even two such students might have a difficult time studying together, as they are sidetracked by different interests and ideas. Even the mind of one student is susceptible to distraction and can wander off in seven different directions, especially when the subject at hand does not inspire passion.

The multiple interpretive possibilities suggested by the seven-headed serpent complement one another in our attempt to understand what haunted Abaye’s Yeshivah, but the Talmud offers no resolution. Rabbi Aha was able to vanquish the demon once, but it was miraculous. Not every prayer will be as efficacious as that one. A solution to the educational challenges of Abaye’s brilliant but restless students, and of students in schools with divided curricula, must be sought elsewhere.

I would like to contrast the image of the seven-headed serpent with another, familiar image: the Menorah. On the surface, they are similar: the candelabrum has seven branches from a single stem, like the seven heads of the snake branch out from a single tail. But in truth the images mirror one another. They move in opposite directions. The serpent represents multiplicity and the division of one into many. The Menorah, which must be hammered out of a single piece of metal, from its base to its decorative elements (Exodus 25:31; Numbers 8:4). Its lights all pointed inward, toward each other (Rashi to Exodus 25:37). 

The Menorah has represented wisdom since the times of the Talmud, if not earlier (see Bava Batra 25b), and each of its seven branches came to represent a different realm of knowledge. Except that in this approach, as the seven lamps still stem from the same base, the different branchs of knowledge are parts of a whole. As Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv) explains (Ha-emek Davar to Exodus 37:19):

…the Menorah as a whole alludes to the wisdom of the Torah…and the six branches of the Menorah, with the central branch, are the seven external disciplines that are subordinate to Torah, and that the Torah requires them in order to be explained. On these are engraved goblets, for the Torah nourishes the disciplines and the disciplines nourish wisdom to understand the particulars of God’s word. And [engraved] with almond designs (meshukadim)—for all of this only comes about through diligence (shekidah)…. Diligence is especially effective in that wisdom and no other. For this reason it says, “in the one branch”—the one and only…

The division of knowledge into distinct disciplines is a fiction, a convenience developed by human beings to manage and control knowledge and its transmission, but they do not correspond to any division that exists in nature. Biology and chemistry, music and art, math and history, and as we have seen, Halakhah and Aggadah, all flow into and out of one another. Some minds—minds like Rava’s—prefer the disciplined and disciplinary approach to learning. Others constantly associate what they have learned in one realm with what they have learned elsewhere. They think associatively. Their minds are interdisciplinary and undisciplined, seeing how all the branches of wisdom nourish one another. 

The Menorah thus represents a third approach. It is neither single-minded nor multiple-minded, neither “Torah-only” nor “Torah-and”. Rather, it begins with Torah and always returns to Torah, for Torah is the base and the central branch of wisdom. Everything else branches out of Torah and turns back to Torah, enhancing our understanding of it. 

Any verse, any mishnah, any passage from anywhere in the Torah can be a springboard for exploration. A detail grabs the student’s attention and piques her curiosity, prompting her to investigate out there in the vast expanse. We do her, and ourselves, a disservice when we think of this as a tangent or distraction. Rather, we should think of this as a new branch sprouting from the main stem of the Menorah. The investigation starts and ends with Torah, but along the way it can lead anywhere, in any number of fields, along a path that has never before been charted. 

Abaye had the advantage of a great, patient teacher in a classroom of two. Some of our greatest minds developed like Rava’s, in an established institutional setting, while others specifically thrived outside of such settings. Today, entire worlds of knowledge are literally at our fingertips, yet we largely remain anchored to a curricular approach, which leads every student toward a fixed goal. If we want our future Abayes and Rav Kooks to succeed, then Torah must be the beginning, but we must be willing to let them pick up threads and follow them wherever they lead, wherever their passions and curiosity takes them. We can achieve the sort of breadth that Abaye desired not by compartmentalizing and bifurcating, but by branching out from the core, the center, our Torah. After 1,500 years, perhaps we can implement Abaye’s educational goals, harness the energy of our most restless students, and allow them to open our eyes to new and wonderful ideas within God’s Torah.

Elli Fischer
Elli Fischer is an independent writer, translator, editor, and rabbi. Previously, he was the JLIC rabbi and campus educator at the University of Maryland. He holds rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is working toward a doctorate in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. His original writing has appeared in Commentary, Moment, Jewish Review of Books, Mosaic, Jewish Ideas Daily, Journal of Halakha and Contemporary Society, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Action, and elsewhere. Among his translated works are By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, and he is the editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series in English.