How to Review Shiur: A Practical Guide

How to Review Shiur:

A Practical Guide

By Matt Schneeweiss


Reviewing Shiur: A Practical Guide – Version 5 (11/23/06)


This guide is a compendium of my knowledge of the art, or skill, of reviewing shiur. I claim no expertise in this area, and am fully aware that my advice may be incorrect and incomplete. Likewise, I admit that I do not consistently employ the methods and techniques described herein, and as such, I cannot fully testify to their efficacy. The content of this guide is based primarily on the lessons I have derived from my own experiences and mistakes. In this sense, it is highly subjective. It is quite possible that some or most of what I say applies only to someone who possesses my particular strengths, weaknesses, and personality. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to formulate the lessons I have learned, both for myself and for others who may be able to benefit from what I have to say.

A note on style: due to the nature of this guide, I have chosen to write in both first and second person. I have written in first person to stress that the majority of what I say comes from my own experience. I have written in the second person because it would be very easy to read what I write and immediately decide, “This doesn’t apply to me;” the use of second person increases the difficulty of this particular rationalization.

In case you want a second opinion on this treatise, there is one Rabbi who gave me a haskama: Rav Pesach. Since I didn’t get it in writing, I’ll just recount the exact dialogue. I gave this treatise to him and asked him if he’d mind reading it. A few days later I asked him, “Did you find anything objectionable in what I wrote?” He responded, “No, but I just think it’s kind of scary how closely you watch me!” Take from that what you will.

Also, I would like to apologize ahead of time for the disorganized, haphazard manner of this guide. This is a work in progress, and at this point I am more concerned with content than structure.

Before outlining the procedure of reviewing shiur, there is one point which must be stated. Without this point, successful review is impossible.

Clarity and Intellectual Dishonesty

In order to benefit from reviewing shiur, there is one middah which you must have: intellectual honesty. The Torah maintains that a human being is endowed with the ability to perceive abstract concepts. While it is possible that you did not clearly understand a certain idea presented in shiur because your intellect is insufficiently developed, it is not, in my humble opinion, the usual cause (unless, of course, you are a beginner and have not yet been exposed to ideas, or are in a shiur which is too advanced). In most cases, you do not see ideas clearly because you do not make the attempt. This is the epitome of intellectual dishonesty. Intellectual dishonesty exists in an inverse ratio to clarity – the more intellectually dishonest you are, the less clear you will be, and the more clarity you seek to achieve, the more intellectually honest you will have to be.

In order to become a lamdan you must abandon all intellectual dishonesty and strive for absolute clarity, even if it means confronting painful realizations, such as “I am lazy, and I want to get this over with as soon as possible;” “Gee, I guess I didn’t really pay much attention in shiur today;” or even, “I’m not really as smart, or as proficient in the derech ha’limud, as I thought I was.” Realizations such as these are a tremendous blow to the ego, and create a great deal of pain and conflict. As such, there will likely be an overwhelming psychological need to avoid facing these realities. You will likely find yourself using all sorts of evasive tactics to escape this conflict and maintain your intellectual dishonesty. Unless you are able to break your addiction to these evasive tactics, you will fail in your pursuit of clarity.

There are three steps to breaking this addiction:

  1.  The first step is to admit the problem – hakaras ha’cheit. Recognize the following: “I am a human being with a big ego. I would like to view myself as perfect. Admitting that I don’t clearly understand this idea would mean admitting that I am imperfect. I do not want to view myself as imperfect. Hence, I would rather remain content with unclear ideas than risk exposing an imperfection in myself.”
  2. The second step is to recognize the particular evasive methods which you regularly use to avoid clarity, maintain your intellectual dishonesty, and promote your false self-concept. Here are several methods, or approaches, which you may find yourself using:
    • The Loss of Concentration Approach: In one way or another, you lose concentration. There are two types of concentration-loss: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary concentration-loss usually takes the form of daydreaming and mind-wandering. The most extreme form of involuntary concentration-loss is loss of consciousness (dozing off, or for some, falling into REM-sleep); for this reason, you should never review while lying in bed. Voluntary concentration-loss occurs when you actively seek out forms of distraction, such as food, mundane conversation, mundane reading (the newspaper, advertisements that came in the mail, etc.) or fiddling with some manipulable physical object (writing implements, cell phones, the leg of the table). Before you know it, the time you have set aside for review is over. Worse yet, you may decide to convince yourself “I’ve had enough review for today.” If, when you look back on your review sessions, you find that the proportion of time you actually spend thinking is minimal, chances are that you have fallen for the Loss of Concentration Approach.
    • The Façade Approach: You outwardly engage in the activity of review, but hide behind a low standard of clarity. By “outwardly engaging in the activity of review,” I mean the following: sitting down with your Gemara and/or notes in front of you, holding your chin, furrowing your brow, waving your thumb, appearing to be in deep thought, pacing, talking to yourself – all of the behaviors of learning, minus the clear thinking. You become so comfortable with reviewing shiur in a vague and superficial manner that you never even realize that you have failed to understand shiur clearly. This approach is more harmful than the first, since it involves a greater “fake-out,” as Rabbi Moskowitz would say. The harm caused by this approach is compounded if it is employed b’chavrusa, since a chavrusa provides a greater façade and offers reciprocal validation of this approach.
    • The Tangible-Review Approach: You find a tangible manner of reviewing shiur – whether listening to a recording, reading your notes from shiur, or writing out the sevaros – and after completing the task, feel as though you were “yotzei” the obligation of review, regardless of your level of clarity and understanding. Remember, sitting through shiur again in auditory form is not the same thing as review. This approach is similar to the Façade Approach in that its effectiveness stems from its fake-out value. It is also common to combine the Tangible-Review Approach (in the form of listening to a recording of shiur) with the Loss-of-Concentration Approach by clicking “play,” and then wandering around on the internet, chatting on AIM, or playing mine-sweeper.
    • The Negation Approach: In one way or another, you consciously decide not to review. This decision is supported with a variety of rationalizations, such as “I don’t need to review; “Review is not for me;” “I have more important things to do;” “Review is a waste of time;” or “I can’t review – simply lack the ability, personal disposition, and/or attention-span.” Of all the approaches, the Negation Approach is the farthest off the derech, since it doesn’t even recognize the validity of review. “Have you seen a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him!” (Mishlei 26:12). If you find yourself utilizing this approach, I strongly recommend that you take up a thorough investigation of the benefits of review and the harmful consequences of failing to review (which I plan to elaborate on at a later date).
  3. The third step is to break your addiction to these tactics – azivas ha’cheit. Without taking an extreme route (like going through psychoanalysis) the only way to do this is through vigilance and will-power, backed by the awareness of what you are missing out on by continuing in your erroneous ways. Be aware that you are addicted to these evasive tactics, and do your best to prevent yourself from giving into them. If you find yourself using one of these approaches, you must tell yourself one thing, “I am faking myself out; I am sacrificing clarity for comfort, and forfeiting intellectual development for a false self-image.” In practical terms, you must ask yourself two questions at every step of your review: “Am I clear on this point?” and “Am I faking myself out?” Unless you can answer “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second question, your review will be lacking.

The Procedure

In my opinion, a complete review consists of four steps. Although these steps can be understood from their headings alone, I have listed all of the techniques I use and have found to be effective for each step. Needless to say, my exposition of these steps is not intended to be comprehensive. I am sure that there are many more techniques of review than those listed here. My goal is merely to highlight the fundamental components of a good review and to provide some ideas for developing your own methods.

One more point: notice I said “a complete review.” Circumstances may warrant the omission of certain techniques, or even entire steps. For example, there may be a day when the goal of your review isn’t to understand the sevaros, but to get sufficiently caught up on the facts to be able to follow the next day’s shiur. I’ll leave it to you to decide which aspects of review are essential and which are not. That being said, don’t get overwhelmed by the vast picture of reviewing shiur I am about to paint. Do what you are able to do at your level under your circumstances.

The four steps of review, with their techniques, are as follows:

  1. Clarification of the Facts:
    • Be able to read, translate, and understand every word inside the text, complete with correct punctuation and pronunciation. When I say “every word,” I mean every word. It is a common error to read the text in Hebrew, and begin translating with the statement, “Basically, it’s saying . . .” Never use the term “basically” when translating! Translations are concrete and definitive, not “basic” and vague. Put differently, translating and paraphrasing are two different activities; if you commit yourself to the activity of translating, do not paraphrase, and if you find yourself paraphrasing, admit to yourself, “I am skipping the step of translating, and in doing so, am sacrificing clarity and risking error and inaccuracy.”
    • When translating, do not add in something which is not stated in the text. As Rabbi Fox constantly says, “Don’t editorialize – just tell me what he is saying.” It is common for people to incorporate factual and conceptual premises into their translation of the text, which often causes them to miss out on what the text is really saying. To a certain extent, this cannot be helped. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware when you are editorializing so that you can examine whether or not it is appropriate.
    • Be able to say the facts concisely, in your own words, without looking at the text. Many people fall into the trap of reciting the facts verbatim, which is a convenient way to avoid thinking about them. Also, bear in mind that “concise” is not the same thing as “vague.” When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of verbosity.
    • When summarizing the facts in your own words, break them down into discrete points. Rather than lumping everything together (“Rashi is basically saying blah, blah, blah”) you will be much clearer if you identify specific points (“Rashi is making three points”).
    • When breaking the facts into discrete points, it is important to identify the character, or objective, of each. Work with some system of statement-classification, for example:
      • Ma’amar: factual statement
      • Rayah: proof, or evidence to a particular point
      • Sh’eilah: factual question; a request for information
      • Teshuvah: factual answer; supplying the missing information
      • Kushya: conceptual problem, or contradiction
      • Teretz: resolution of a problem, or contradiction
    • Do not content yourself with merely labeling each point and moving on, but follow through and fill in the particulars. For example, if the statement is a rayah, ask yourself, “What is this coming to support? What type of proof is this? What is the strength of this evidence?” If the statement is a kushya, clearly identify both contradictory statements, and clearly understand how the teretz removes the contradiction through making a subdivision. And no matter what type of statement you are dealing with, be sure you know who said it. This may seem obvious, but I’m always amazed at how much confusion is generated by a failure to correctly identify the author of a statement.
    • If the facts consist of what we call cheshbone, be able to “cheshbone-it-out.” In other words, do not content yourself with memorizing the words of the cheshbone, but become so familiar with the facts that the cheshbone becomes a living entity in your mind whose every step you can reference at will without having to start from the beginning. If the cheshbone is not lateral (question, answer, question, answer) but consists of multiple positions or opinions stated in no particular order, it is a good idea to make a chart. This not only helps you to envision all of the positions as an integrated whole, but also helps you to break free from the tendency to memorize the words of the Gemara.
    • As Chazal say, it is useful to create mnemonic devices in order to remember and be able to reference the facts. Rebbi, when interpreting this piece of advice of Chazal, extended it to highlighting or underlining important parts of the Gemara – anything to aid memory.
    • A final word on Clarification of the Facts: the Gemara in Avodah Zarah 19a states the following: “First a person should learn [the facts], and [only] afterwards should he conceptualize, deeply analyze, and definitively understand that which he learned.” The obvious question is: what is the hava amina? Without even going into the answer, one thing is clear: a person naturally desires to involve himself in sevara before mastering the facts. Especially in this yeshiva, where sevara is venerated above all else, it is easy to overlook and belittle the importance of factual clarity. If you feel within yourself an urge to proceed hastily through the facts, know that you are skipping a fundamental step, and have began the journey down the road to un-clarity.
  2. Clarification of the Questions:
    • Identify and concisely formulate all of the questions which the rav raised in shiur.
    • Take the time to think about the questions. Let them roll around in your mind. Without clearly understanding and appreciating the questions it is impossible to clearly understand and appreciate the sevara; this is true both in review and in preparation, due to the close relationship between questions and sevara. Rabbi Moskowitz illustrates this point with the following story:
      • One Sukkos, all of us – Rabbi Chait, the guys, and I – were sitting outside learning in a group. We were learning a very difficult Gemara which had a seemingly insurmountable question. After a long period of time, Rabbi Chait came up with an excellent sevara. The guys were focused all of their attention on the sevara itself, but I’ve always been interested in methodology, so I went up to Rabbi Chait afterwards and asked him, “Why were you the one who came up with the sevara and not us?” He replied, “Because while all of you were busy trying to think of the answer, I was just thinking about the question.”
    • It is important that the questions do not seem forced, unnatural, or petty to your mind. If they do, it is likely that you do not understand them properly, in which case you should reconsider them from a different angle. If this doesn’t work, it may pay to think about the sevara first and working backwards to see which problems it solved and how it solved them. Sometimes the strength and place of a question will only become apparent after seeing the answer.
    • In the majority of sugyos there will be primary questions and secondary questions – that is, questions which are closely related, or lead, to the main sevara and questions which are and do not. In hindsight it is usually very clear which questions were which. Take the time to think about why certain questions were primary and the others secondary; this will enhance your ability to classify the questions in your own preparation, which is necessary for sevara. If, in preparation, you viewed a secondary question as primary, and vice versa, attempt to understand your error and its cause. Of course, this may not always be possible; your rav may have started with a particular question, made an observation, or gone in a certain direction for intuitive reasons which are beyond your mental grasp. Nevertheless, it is important to make the effort and understand what you are able to understand.
    • If you didn’t see a particular question during your preparation, attempt to understand why you didn’t see it. Likewise, if you had a question during preparation which, over the course of shiur, you discovered was not a valid question, analyze why it was invalid. Did your failure to see the question stem from a false premise, or a distorted way of learning the sugya? Did it stem from a methodological error, such as thinking that something was a real hava amina, or creating machlokes where there was none? Did it stem from a mistake in learning technique, such as failing to look at the pasuk in its context, attributing too much weight to a girsa-change, or failure to consider a hava amina? Did it stem from a misreading, mispunctuation or misattribution of a statement? Only by continually considering questions such as these will you be able to eliminate such errors from your learning.
  3. Clarification of the Sevara
    • Identify and concisely formulate all of the sevaros which your rav said in shiur.
    • The premise of review is that seeing a clear sevara (or, more accurately, seeing a sevara clearly) affects the mind and develops, or hones, intuition. From this premise, we can draw several practical deductions:
      • Repeatedly exposing the mind to vague, unclear sevaros will, at best, dull the intuition, and at worst, distort it. In other words, if you fail to properly review shiur, you aren’t just missing out on perfection of intuition, but actively promoting its imperfection and stunting its growth.
      • Reviewing a sevara is different than, for example, computing a math problem. In a math problem, once you find the solution, there is nothing left to be done, and you are free to move on to the next problem. When reviewing sevara, it is very important to bring the sevara before your mind’s eye and allow it to make an impression. Do not have the attitude of “Okay, I’ve got the sevara. Let’s move on.” Allow the sevara to sink in and make an impression on your intuition.
      • The more you review a particular sevara, the more of an impact it will have on your intuition, hence the statement of Chazal, “One who learns something 100 times is not comparable to one who learns it 101 times.” (Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that a person should sit in his seat, cradling himself while neurotically rocking back and forth, reciting the sevara 101 times).
    • It is very important to take time to enjoy the beauty of the sevara. Reviewing shiur should ultimately be an enjoyable experience which strengthens your attachment to Torah. It shouldn’t be a burden, like homework, or studying for a test.
    • Be sure that you understand two things: the sevara itself, and why your rav said it in that particular manner. If you feel that you understand the sevara but think that your rav’s formulation sounds funny, chances are that you don’t really understand what he said. The sevara should sound natural to the mind, and should flow from the facts and the questions. If it sounds forced or unnatural, it is either unclear or wrong. If this is the case, rethink it, hit it with questions, and tackle it from every angle until you either understand it or have a clear, solid reason to reject it. If the latter is the case, discuss it with someone who claims to understand the sevara or take it up with your rav. Indeed, we once asked Rav Pesach how he knows, for instance, that the sevara he came up with is really what Tosafos meant. He responded that a very good gauge is to ask yourself the following question: if I had this sevara, would I write it like Tosafos did? If the answer is affirmative, then you can assume that you have their sevara; if not, then you may have a sevara, but don’t think it is the sevara of Tosafos. Rebbi made a similar point in the shiur entitled “Allocation of Learning Time.”
    • If someone from your shiur – especially someone whom you consider to be more advanced – is bothered by a question on the sevara, be sure that you are able to answer it in your mind. Don’t brush it off and say, “That’s his problem.” If you can’t answer his question, that makes it your problem, just as much as his. If your answer satisfies you but does not satisfy him, discuss the problem with him to make sure that you understood his question correctly and clearly. Try to understand why your answer doesn’t satisfy him. If, after all of this, you are 100% convinced that you have answered his question in your mind and cannot, for the life of you, understand what is bothering your friend, then your task is complete, and the problem becomes his problem, not yours.
    • Do not be led astray by Brisker terminology – just because you can say the sevara with all of the proper words doesn’t mean that you understand it. Remember that Brisker terminology is only valuable insofar as it clarifies the idea. If you find that you do not have a clear grasp of the idea, or if you feel that the Brisker terminology obscures the idea, it may be necessary to temporarily revert to one of your rav’s earlier, more descriptive formulations of the sevara (of course, make sure that it is, in fact, the same sevara and not a different approach). Thinking about the sevara in non-halachic terms may help you to clarify it in your mind and see the necessity of formulating it in halachic terms.
    • Sometimes, failure to understand or clearly perceive a sevara may stem from a misunderstanding of what your rav was attempting to do. For example, if you were under the impression that your rav was trying to pinpoint the precise chakirah at the root of the machlokes, when in reality, he was just defining each position, then his idea is bound to appear incomplete. Be sensitive to the extent of your rav’s definition, and don’t make it into something that it was not intended to be.
    • While you are there, try to understand why the rav only went as far as he did. Ask yourself the following types of questions: Why didn’t he want to “go farther back” in his definition of the machlokes? Is it because he felt it would be speculative and not certain? Is it because he felt it was going beyond the “what?” and into the “why?” Or is it simply because he couldn’t go deeper? If, in spite of this, you feel that you should or could go further in definition, try to understand why you are wrong. If you cannot, ask a senior member of the shiur or your rav.
    • If you partially understand a sevara but feel that you don’t see it clearly, it often helps to find an analogous concept, either a “real-life concept” or another halachic idea in a different area. For example, I know someone who often translates sevaros into sports analogies. Of course, exercise caution – there is always the danger that the analogy you choose isn’t truly analogous to the sevara. Many times, a superficially analogous example will come to mind and you may accept it and use it without making sure it actually correlates.
    • If you (or someone else) had a sevara or approach which was different than your rav’s, try to understand the difference in the sevara and the approach, what caused it, and why he preferred his way over the other. If your rav rejected your sevara or approach, try to understand where you went wrong. If you had a sevara or an approach which was in line with your rav’s, but underdeveloped, identify the difference between his formulation and yours, what was lacking, and how he fixed it.
    • Do not fall into the trap of assuming that your sevara was exactly the same as your rav’s – you may be projecting your idea onto his and misunderstanding it. Even if your sevara had exactly the same words as your rav’s, don’t assume that the idea was the same. Moshe Meisels describes the following scenario to make this point:
      • You are in shiur and Rebbi asks, “What is the sevara?” To you, it’s obviously cheftza/gavra, and that is exactly what you tell Rebbi. Rebbi stops, thinks silently for a few minutes, and concludes, “Yeah . . . it’s cheftza/gavra.” In such a scenario, you may be tempted to think “Wow, I got Rebbi’s sevara by myself!” – don’t. Do not think that what Rebbi meant by cheftza/gavra is the same as what you meant by cheftza/gavra. The fact that it was obvious to you, and nevertheless, Rebbi had to give it some serious thought, suggests that the conclusion he arrived at is not the same as the conclusion you arrived at, even though both of you expressed it in the same words.
    • Though this is not the place to discuss the method of preparing for shiur, nevertheless, I believe that these words of Rabbi Reuven Taragin (Taken from his article: “Limud Torah She’ba’al Peh – the Goals and Methodology of the Brisker Derech”) provide a beneficial perspective of the relationship between preparation and shiur which can also be applied to the relationship between shiur and review:
      • Meaningful preparation prior to shiur transforms the shiur from a mere lecture to the completion of the talmid’s personal analysis. With attempted independent inquiry, the shiur can serve as a litmus test confirming or refuting the preparation. For the beginner, the shiur helps realize what central questions and issues should have been identified during preparation. As skills develop, the talmid successfully determines the central conceptual and technical issues, relying on the shiur to merely sharpen the relationship between them.
    • Rav Pesach once mentioned to me that one of the biggest problems that some of the guys have when listening to shiur is the inability to identify and focus on the Main Idea. In every shiur there will always be one or two Main Ideas, and every talmid must make it is his priority to identify them, since they are the essence of the shiur. Rav Pesach added that many guys will get caught up on a certain point, not realizing that it is only a technicality or a tangential issue, and will miss the main idea.
    • Of course, you will naturally ask: how does one go about identifying the main idea? Unfortunately, that is one of those skills which is like weight-lifting: the more you do it, the better you are able to do it. There is no real advice except that of Shlomo ha’Melech: “Emor l’chochmah achosi aut” – “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister’.” The Rav explained this idea as follows: How do you know who your sister is? Not because of any concrete, rational, demonstrable proof, but because of the subtle way she moves, the glint in her eye, the manner in which she smiles. In other words, you have a certain, deeply rooted intuition which stems from your familiarity with her, and confirms for you the fact that she is your sister. The same is true for chochmah: you must become intimately familiar with it, to the point where you can recognize it in all of its subtleties.
    • Indeed, I once asked Rebbi how he reviews shiur. He responded by saying as follows:
      • In every shiur you hear, there will inevitably be one or two ideas which stand out in your mind as primary. When you begin to review, start by just thinking about those ideas. Gradually, you can work your way outwards until you end up covering the entire shiur.
    • This advice was surprising to me, since at that point in my development I was accustomed to reviewing shiur in a strictly chronological fashion, beginning with the questions on the sugya and proceeding forward with the ideas in the order in which they were presented in shiur. Of course, this doesn’t mean to say that Rebbi was recommending this approach for everybody. Someone, for instance, who is not clear on the facts or the questions, might do more harm than good by beginning with the sevaros. I only mentioned this piece of advice to show you that reviewing shiur, when performed on the highest level, will begin and center upon the Main Ideas, and thus, it is important to develop the skill of recognizing these ideas early on.
  4. Miscellaneous
    • Almost every shiur contains tangential points which are unrelated to the main sugya at hand. In order to completely benefit from shiur, it is necessary to review these points as well. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
      • Sevaros from other areas outside of the sugya
      • Ideas in philosophy, mussar, psychology, and science
      • Halacha l’ma’aseh
      • Anecdotes
      • New vocabulary (both English and Hebrew)
      • Jokes (you may laugh, but remember the statement of Chazal, “Even the mundane speech of chachamim requires analysis”).
    • When your rav makes a biting, or sarcastic remark to you or someone else in the shiur, chances are that it is loaded with insight. During shiur, make a mental note of such remarks. During review, try to divest the comment of its sarcasm and formulate it definitively. In other words, try to abstract a general principle which you can apply to your own learning and life.
    • Do the same for all methodological points: make a mental note of any point in shiur which is relevant to methodology of thinking and learning, and try to abstract general principles.
    • Take note of any pedagogical techniques your rav used, and understand why he used them. For example, if you would have responded one way to a particular comment or question, and your rav responded the other way (either in content or in style), analyze the difference. If your rav was faced with the challenge of presenting a set of complicated facts or a particularly abstract sevara, analyze his method of presentation – what techniques did he use to facilitate understanding?
    • The same is true for techniques of interpersonal communication. For example, you may notice that your rav responded to one person harshly and the other person gently – ask yourself, “Why did he differentiate? Was it because of the nature of their questions? Was it because of their personalities? Was it because of their moods?” If your rav cracked a joke, was it in order to diffuse tension, or to capture interest? If there was a guest or someone new in the shiur, how did your rav change his style?


What I said earlier bears repetition here: do not be overwhelmed. The material I have presented here is an example of a full review – which, unfortunately, many of us will not have the time to do on a regular basis. In fact, it would behoove you to follow the advice given by Rav Pesach with regard to this very treatise: don’t get caught up on the technicalities, but try to come away with the Main Ideas.

I’ll conclude with an idea from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (1972, 54-55) Although he is dealing with the skill of reading, which is only a part of reviewing shiur, you’ll soon see that what he says is relevant to all of the skills mentioned in this treatise:

Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious activities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frustrating, and slow. Learning to ski is one of the most humiliating experiences an adult can undergo (that is one reason to start young). After all, an adult has been walking for a long time; he knows where his feet are; he knows how to put one foot in front of the other in order to get somewhere. But as soon as he puts skis on his feet, it is as though he had to learn to walk all over again. He slips and slides, falls down, has trouble getting up, gets his skis crossed, tumbles again, and generally looks – and feels – like a fool.

Even the best instructor seems at first to be no help. The ease with which the instructor performs actions that he says are simple but that the student secretly believes are impossible is almost insulting. How can you remember everything the instructor says you have to remember? Bend your knees. Look down the hill. Keep your weight on the downhill ski. Keep your back straight, but nevertheless lean forward. The admonitions seem endless – how can you think about all that and still ski?

The point about skiing, of course, is that you should not be thinking about the separate acts that, together, make a smooth turn or series of linked turns – instead, you should merely be looking ahead of you down the hill, anticipating bumps and other skiers, enjoying the feel of the cold wind on your cheeks, smiling with pleasure at the fluid grace of your body as you speed down the mountain. In other words, you must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them, and indeed any of them, well. But in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts. Only then can you put them together to become a good skier.

It is the same with reading. Probably you have been reading for a long time, too, and starting learn all over again can be humiliating. But it is just as true of reading as it is of skiing that you cannot coalesce a lot of different acts into one complex, harmonious performance until you become expert at each of them. You cannot telescope the different parts of the job so that they run into one another and fuse intimately. Each separate act requires your full attention while you are doing it. After you have practiced the parts separately, you can not only do each with greater facility and less attention but can also gradually put them together into a smoothly running whole.

All of this is common knowledge about learning a complex skill. We say it here merely because we want you to realize that learning to read is at least as complex as learning to ski or to typewrite or to play tennis. If you can recall your patience in any other learning experience you have had, you will be more tolerant of instructors who will shortly enumerate a long list of rules for reading.

The person who has had one experience in acquiring a complex skill knows that he need not fear the array of rules that present themselves at the beginning of something new to be learned. He knows that he does not have to worry about how all the separate acts in which he must become separately proficient are going to work together.

The multiplicity of the rules indicates the complexity of the one habit to be formed, not a plurality of distinct habits. The parts coalesce and telescope as each reaches the stage of automatic execution. When all the subordinate acts can be done more or less automatically, you have formed the habit of the whole performance. Then you can think about tackling an expert run you have never skied before, or reading a book that you once thought was too difficult for you. At the beginning, the learner pays attention to himself and his skill in the separate acts. When the acts have lost their separateness in the skill of the whole performance, the learner can at last pay attention to the goal that the technique he has acquired enables him to reach.

The same perspective ought to be taken here. I have listed many disparate procedures, which should all be worked on slowly, one or two at a time. Have faith: if you are diligent in your practice of reviewing shiur, before you know it you will discover that these skills have become second nature, and that you will be able to utilize them effortlessly without even being aware that you are doing so. The only way to get there is to start slow and start now.

That being said, I wish you the best of luck in your development, and have no doubt that if you apply the methods listed in this treatise, you are certain to find success. Have fun, and remember: take time to sit back and enjoy the ideas, for there is no sweeter pleasure in this world.

Leading a Worthy Life p.299

Nevertheless, despite its universality, its quest for certainty, its reliance on reason purified from all distortions of sensation and prejudice by the use of mathematical method, and the reproducibility of its findings, science does not – and cannot – provide us with absolute knowledge. The reasons are not only methodological but also substantive, and not merely substantive but also intrinsic and permanent.

The substantive limits of science follow from certain fundamental aspects of scientific knowledge and from science’s assumptions about what sorts of things are scientifically knowable. they stem from science’s own self-proclaimed conceptual limitations – limitations to which neither religious nor philosophical thought is subject. This is not because, since being rational, it is incapable of dealing with the passionate or subrational or spiritual or supernatural aspects of being. It is, on the contrary, because the rationality of science is but a partial and highly specialized rationality, concocted for the purpose of gaining only that kind of knowledge for which it was devised, and applied only to those aspects of the world that can be captured by such rationalized notions. The peculiar reason of science is not the natural reason of everyday life captured in ordinary speech, and it is also not the reason of philosophy or of religious thought, both of which are tied to the world as we experience it, even as they seek to take us beyond it.

Consider the following features of science and their contrast with the realm of ordinary experience. First, science at its peak seeks laws of nature, ideally expressed mathematically in the form of equations that describe precisely the relationships among changing measurable variables; science does not seek to know beings or their natures, but rather the regularities of the changes that they undergo. Second, science – especially in biology – seeks to know how things work and the mechanisms of action in their workings; it does not seek to know what things are, or why. Third, science can give the histories of things but not their directions, aspirations, or purposes; by self-definition, science is non-teleological, oblivious to the natural purposiveness of all living things. Fourth, science is wonderful at quantifying selected external relations of one object to another, or an earlier phase to a later one; but it can say nothing at all about inner states of being, either of human beings or of any living creature. Fifth, and strangest of all, modern science does not care much about causation; it can often predict what will happen if certain perturbations occur because it knows the regularities of change, but it eschews explanations in terms of causes, especially ultimate causes.

In short, we have a remarkable science of nature that has made enormous progress precisely by its metaphysical neutrality and its indifference to questions of being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things, scientific knowledge included.

Let me illustrate these abstract generalizations with a few concrete examples. In cosmology, we have seen wonderful progress in characterizing the temporal beginnings of the universe as a “big bang” and elaborate calculations to describe what happened next. But from science we get complete silence regarding the status quo ante and the ultimate cause. Unlike a normally curious child, a cosmologist does not ask, “What was before the big bang?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” because the answer must be an exasperated “God only knows!”

In genetics, we have the complete DNA sequence of several organisms, including man, and we are rapidly learning what many of these genes “do.” But this analytic approach cannot tell us how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee, or even what accounts for the special unity and active wholeness of cockroaches or chimpanzees, or the purposive effort each living thing makes to preserve its own specific integrity.


Leon R. Kass – Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times p.299

The Lonely Man of Faith p.8

Knowledge in general and self-knowledge in particular are gained not only from discovering logical answers but also from formulating logical, even though unanswerable, questions. The human logos is as concerned with an honest inquiry into an insoluble antinomy which leads to intellectual despair and humility as it is with an unprejudiced true solution of a complex problem arousing joy and enhancing one’s intellectual determination and boldness.


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – The Lonely Man of Faith p.8