For the interested scholar, there is a library of Jewish literature addressing the methodology of Jewish scholarship. The fact that there is a methodology of learning Jewish texts implies there is a set of principles, and one who deviates from them is in fact not learning the Jewish writings in the appropriate fashion.
The importance of having a methodology in learning canbe understood from the following metaphor: Let us suppose there is a man who applies for a job at a top notch law firm and has on his resume that he spent four years at Harvard law school. When he was asked about his experience at Harvard, he admits he was not a student at Harvard, rather he was roommates with someone who was. He tells his prospective employer he did read the books his friend brought home, and he even knows the material better than his friend who now has a Harvard degree. Do you think the interviewer will consider this fellow a lawyer of the Harvard caliber? I don’t think so. It is understood that the reason the institution of Harvard Law School is sought out is the methodology they have in passing on the information is a superior approach.
The Talmud has a word that appears quite a few times in its vast sea. The word is “teiku” teiku means “let it stand.” The concept behind this word in the context it is used in the Talmud is when there is an argument between the sages, and the sages involved can’t reach a solid conclusion. They declare, “teiku!” It is understood that when the Moshiach (Messiah) comes he will answer the halachic (Jewish law) questions that have gone thus far unanswered. Now, if it were … “only a matter of interpretation” why would the sages be stuck without an answer? If they were only making up answers, can we really assume they would come up short on explanations?
The Chasam Sofer had a great quote regarding chiddushim (novel Torah ideas): “I don’t mind if someone relates one of my chiddushim in their name, what I mind is when they relate their chiddushim in my name.” The Chasam Sofer is giving us insight into the problem of people mis-quoting Torah teachings by inserting their mistaken ideas into the texts as its indented meaning.
You may be asking: what is a Chiddush anyway? A Chiddush is a thought that adds a new dimension and depth into the given topic at hand that which is normally arrived at by tying sources together keeping them in consonanace within the overall traditional understanding of the issue. As Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (Daas Rabbi Chaim Mi’Volozhin Pg. 91 quoting his “Eitz Chaim”) explains: A chiddush is when ones makes an already known idea more tangible through deeper understanding. Many people may believe this approach to Chiddushim is too constrictive and will deprive the world of a great variety of ideas. However, as anyone with a familiarity of the current Torah writings knows well, shortage of Chiddishim is not a threat.
I would like to offer the following analogy as an insight into the mechanics of principle that true Torah scholarship succeeds only within boundaries: Violin strings are tight, and kept in a very narrow position. Yet, when they are played, they make beautiful music. Not despite of their limitation, but because of it! If they were too loose they would be incapable of making the music they were designed to play. Another example of the above idea is that the Torah itself is referred to as a song (Deut. 31:19). Torah study can be compared to a song in the following parable: a band playing a piece can have a variety of musical instruments playing the song, and they compliment each other nicely only if the instruments are playing the same piece. Diversity is allowed in Torah study, this only remains true however, if the interpretations are done within the parameters of authentic methodology for interpretation.
One of the favorite sources people quote to defend their poetic license is the section of Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) that declares that two divergent opinions are “the words of the living G-d.” Rabbi Joel Roth (on a USCJ video debating Rabbi Elliot Droff regarding homosexual issues in Conservative Judaism) expressed the flaw of this overlooking of context well: “What is really on the agenda right now is what is the limit to ‘Eliu v’Eliu divrei Elokim chaim’ … ‘Eliu v’Eliu dveri Elokim chaim’ is the classical rabbinic source that means that both words are that of the Divine. It is by the way two things: number one; the most favorite quote of Conservative rabbis, and number two; they almost never quote its conclusion: The statement says: ‘Eliu v’Eliu divrei Elokim chaim … v’haHalacha k’divrei Hillel.” Both are the words are that of the living G-d, but the law goes in accordance with Hillel.” Which means: uniformity is needed for universal application of Jewish law.
Even the Rabbis of the Talmud had limitations on how far they could interpret Scripture on their own. Their role basically entailed conveying to the nation how to apply the Oral tradition that was passed down from teacher to disciple. The source of the disagreements was based on a loss of information in the tradition, and how to try and figure out what information was lost.
The way they achieved this was implementing the 13 middos (a.k.a 13 Hermeneutical Principles) of Rabbi Yishmael. There is a methodology they used to arrive at their conclusions. Their interpretations were not based on their outlook, rather they were based on the sage’s tradition and his implementation of the 13 middos to the Torah. We can catch a glimpse of how paramount it was not to add a meaning to a text that was not already there from a Talmudic passage in Bechoros (6b): Shimon HaAmsuni had a drash (interpretation) for every time the prefix ES (Alef-Tuf) was used in the Torah (that is roughly 2,550 times) with the one exception. “Es Hashem Elokecha terah” … Hashem, your G-d, shall you fear” (Deut. 6:13). Because he could not make a drash on this one ES, he threw his entire thesis out the window. We can be assured his not being able to make up a drash on this one verse was not due to a lack of imagination.
So where do we fit into all of this? Rabbi Zechariah Fendel, in his book : The Anvil of Sinai (Pp. 234-236) articulates our current status in the world of halacha nicely: “Hence, the Rabbanan Savorai, the Geonim, and the Rishonim applied all of their considerable intellectual resources to the task of clarifying difficult Talmudic passages, codifying the vastly complex array of Talmudic law, and taking exceedingly great pains to apply the pre-established Talmudic guidelines to the contingencies of each ensuing generation. Shortly after the completion of the codification of the Shulchan Aruch (5325, or 1565 C.E.), the later generations- the Acharonim- no longer considered themselves privileged to dispute the decisions of the scholars of the earlier generations. Instead, they engaged primarily in elucidating the words of the Rishonim and in deriving from their works halachic guidelines which they might apply Responsa arose, the primary feature of which was to resolve new halachic questions by seeking to determine from the words of the Talmud, the Rishonim, and the early Acharonim, how these early halachic masters might have decided the matter in question, had it been brought before them… It is a vital responsibility of contemporary Torah authorities to retain the authentic character of the Oral Law by preserving for us the genuine interpretation of all extant Talmudic and post- Talmudic literature… The Derivation function of contemporary Torah authorities is an even more greatly modified one. Since the close of the Talmud and the termination of the era of Hora’ah, Torah scholars no longer have the key for authentic application of the Thirteen Hermeneutic Principles to the derivation of new halachos from Biblical sources [Kuzari III:73]. However,the vital process of derivation, in modified form, is, as we have noted above, still very much an ongoing one… In this Responsa, as well as in various other forms of halachic literature, these great Torah masters apply halachic guidelines, with scrupulous precision, to every conceivable type of modern contingency. Thus, by applying the various facets of the vast literature of Torah she-be-al Peh to all sorts of contemporary halachic questions, they have made it possible for us to arrive at a definitive application of Torah law to the myriad complexities and contingencies of contemporary Jewish life.”
When it comes to learning lessons of ethics and spirituality from the Torah and the Talmud we have more leeway (not meant to imply that halacha is vacant from ethics and spirituality). However, we are not entitled to undermine the principles set before us by previous generations regarding what is considered ethics and what is considered spirituality. Learning the holy works of our sages and trying to emulate their precious dedication and wisdom is in itself rewarding. One does not find fulfillment or authentic Jewish scholarship by going off the beaten path and testing the parameters of traditional Jewish learning.
Let us, as Hillel said, “Go and learn,” (Shabbos 31a) in the appropriate fashion, for “The day is short, and the task is substantial.” (Pirkei Avos 2:20)