May 24, 2019

When Does Learning Begin?

“[I]t would seem that [the Talmud] depicts the fetus as wholly without knowledge at some point it in time. But that cannot be, according to the Greek conception. Whatever knowledge you have, you’ve always had. . . . The soul has simply seen it all, and seen it with its own eyes. This is important, because Plato holds that teaching—the gift of knowledge from one person to another—is fundamentally impossible…

[I]n the talmudic passage, it is noteworthy that the initial mention of fetal omniscience really does seem to be of the Platonic, internally self-sufficient kind: “And above its head a candle is lit, and it gazes and looks from one end of the world to the other.” This is a depiction of supernal enlightenment, with the soul transcending the narrow confines of any worldly here-and-now, enjoying an instantaneous view of the whole not from a finite somewhere but from the infinite everywhere. But . . . notice that this is emphatically not how the incipient child comes by its knowledge of Torah, [which] is not simply swallowed in a flash of enlightenment. Rather, “they teach it the whole entirety of the Torah.”

In the context of Platonic philosophy, then, the point made by the text is that, in direct contrast to worldly wisdom, knowledge of Torah is not merely known or recalled but taught and learned. And so . . . it follows that learning Torah involves a relationship between teacher and disciple, a relationship for which the unique identities of the teacher and the student and the intercourse between them make all the difference. It is not an impersonal, objective exercise, but rather a relationship between personal subjects…”

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