Since my M.A. is in Talmud from Revel and I studied mehqar under the tutelage of Dr. Yaakov Elman, you could imagine where I stand on the issue.1 But when I was in Gruss, I had the opportunity at one of the open “press conferences” to ask R. Aharon Lichtenstein what he felt about academic Talmud study. I expected R. Aharon to have an interesting take considering that one of his sons is heavily involved in mehqar and that academic Talmud is directly at odds with the brisker derech2
Now the thing about these press conferences is that people tend to ask horrible questions. Either they’re intentionally vague or they’re trying to bait R. Aharon into saying something which agrees with them. For example, a common question is “what does the Rosh Yeshiva think about X.” Since R. Aharon answers the question precisely as asked, he will tend to expound philosophically, wax poetic, and generally lose his audience by going well over their heads.
So instead of asking the open ended “what do you think about Talmud criticism?” I asked “What do you like/approve or dislike/disapprove about academic Talmud?” Unfortunately I no longer have the transcript of his response. However I can report that in a nutshell he approved of the methodology i.e. the use of manuscripts and stylistic analysis of the Talmudic texts, but disapproved of the attitude of treating the Talmud as an “academic” subject. Meaning, the tools employed are fine, but Talmud study is not the same and should not be treated like English literature.
In terms of the practical consequences of academic Talmud, I remember him citing Whitehead in distinguishing between “Facts” and “Truth.” I did not have the opportunity to follow up with a discussion as to what that meant, but I don’t think I would have agreed with the answer.
1. An irrelevant but cute line by R. Dov Linzer on Talmud criticism: “What are they going to do, tell me it had multiple authors?”
2. Or as one professor explained, “Brisk works if you accept its premises and ignore all contradictory data.”