Meiri's Educational Critique of Rambam's Mishneh Torah

As an educator, it is fascinating to consider the following passage in Meiri's introduction to Beit Habechira, where he explains why he found Mishneh Torah inadequate as a restatement of Jewish law:

And this is because the natural inclination of a person is to achieve an understanding of matters on the basis of analysis and investigation, and testing the essence of matters with potential contradictions, more so than achieving them by way of transmission alone. For this reason, no investigator is satisfied until he has seen the analysis of the matters in the place of their foundation and rock of their hewing, and the reason for their contradiction and extended discussion of what occurs to it through give and take. Only after seeing the source of the matters, their roots and the way of their analysis, does one enjoy coming to know that which emerges as a matter of practical halakha, and to assess based on the analysis what is the straight path that a person ought choose regarding the matter. And this is the opinion we have held regarding Talmudic interpretation.

Meiri here levies a stinging pedagogic critique against Mishneh Torah. Whereas many others sharply criticized Maimonides for having omitted the Talmudic discussion and range of opinions regarding its interpretation, Meiri instead contends that Maimonides’ approach is simply disinteresting. Students will be best motivated to analyze the sugya if they are first exposed to the ambiguities of the Talmudic text. Therefore, instead of simply presenting the conclusion, Meiri begins with the Talmud, presents a variety of views, and only then addresses the practical halakhah.

Strikingly, though, even as he veers from the style of Maimonides’ code on the basis of a perceptive educational critique, Meiri implicitly assimilates major elements of Maimonides’ style. For while he opens each section by outlining the pertinent Talmudic discussion, Beit Habechira is ultimately a highly systematic presentation whose focus is on presenting the halakhic and hashkafic bottom line. What is more, while he does cite a broad range of scholars from Languedoc, Ashkenaz and Sepharad, Meiri specifically omits the names of all the scholars he quotes, instead inventing sobriquets for Rashi, Tosafot, Rambam, Ra’avad and many more. As Gregg Stern has observed, here too Meiri seems to hew to Maimonides’ summative style.

Still, Meiri touches on a tension that is central to education, namely that between presenting material clearly and encouraging students to engage in the creative process of learning. As Meiri notes, presenting a clear summary of the content matter might not prove sufficiently intellectually stimulating for students. On the other hand, as Rambam insists and Meiri partly concedes, simply encouraging students to engage with the Gemara runs of risk of the material remaining disorganized. Teachers at all levels grapple with this tension, and different educational models put forward different solutions in seeking to resolve this tension. But whatever one's solution, it is intriguing to consider that the Meiri and Rambam differed on precisely this question many hundreds of years ago.

comments powered by Disqus