Some things are hard if not impossible to understand unless a person has a good background of knowledge about the subject. One would not expect a person to understand the philosophy of Aristotle or Maimonides if the individual never took a course in philosophy, even if he or she spends twelve hours a day “learning” Talmud.[1]

For example: Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts were very enlightening, generally, but not always. His presentation for his beginning of his tenth season, where his theme was “What is Mode,” was a rare exception. Even the two narrators who introduced the show on TV years after the concert admitted they did not fully understand it.

Bernstein explained that there are many modes. Many people are familiar with two of them, the major and minor modes. But there are many more. A mode, he explained, are scales, the distance of notes from one another. He demonstrated more than half a dozen modes in the music of Debussy and Mussorgsky.  He pointed out that as we listened we would hear musical notes that we did not expect. This is because the music was not in the major or minor modes, but another one.

I like good classical music, have listened to it for many decades, attended many concerts, and have some knowledge of music, and I liked this Bernstein show and the music of Debussy and Mussorgsky, and I heard the unusual notes when Bernstein pointed them out. But like the two men who introduced the show, I do not think I understood much about modes, and I do not think that when I hear another piece of music in the future I will be able to identify that what I am listening to is not in the major or minor mode. The day after I watched this Bernstein show, I listened to a disc containing Balalaika music, I heard musical phrases that seemed to me to be different than in none Balalaika music, but I had no idea if this meant that this music was in a different mode.

It made me think of the people who may know lots about Jewish law and who studied Talmud for hours thinking that knowledge in these subjects made them experts in philosophy and gave them the right to criticize the rationalistic approach to Judaism of Maimonides. It reminded me also of the fact that for centuries, the Bible, the Tanakh, was not taught in yeshivas. We were told that we do not need a teacher to understand Tanakh. Just read what God said and the explanations of Rashi. Many rabbis had this kind of Bible education and think they understand the Torah.


[1] Although many who spend hours reading the Talmud call what they do “learning,” they learn very little because of the way they study. They are satisfied that they understand the Talmud text if they know what Rashi and the Tosaphot and some other commentators say. They fail to compare what the Talmud states on the page they are reading with what is in the Tanakh, why the talmudic rabbis changed or elaborated or diminished what is in scripture, how the Gemara differs from what is in the Mishna, how one Mishna differs with another and one Gemara with another, why a Beraita and/or a Tosefta has another view, what caused the differences, and more.