Friday, August 03, 2012

Vaethanan (Wanderings)

On Learning Torah

I wish to devote this issue to a discussion of the role of Torah study in Jewish life. This discussion is particularly germane at this time due to the confluence of several factors:

To begin with, this week’s parashah includes the first paragraph of Shema, which includes the verses: “And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart; and you shall repeat /teach them to your children [diligently], speaking of them when you sit in your home and go in the road; and when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut 6:6-7).

Second: today (this Friday, Erev Shabbat, 15 Menahem Av 5772) marks the beginning of a new seven-and-a-half year cycle of study of the Daf Yomi, the Daily Page of Talmud, the thirteenth in number since this practice was introduced by Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin in 1923. Although not in any sense an obligatory mitzvah per se, this discipline of daily Talmud study, done in tandem with tens of thousands of Jews throughout the world, has become increasingly popular in many diverse circles. Each cycle it seems to attract more and more participants (see above, HY XIII: Pinhas).

Third: about two weeks ago, one of the outstanding Torah figures in the Haredi world, considered by many the gadol hador or posek hador, the embodiment of the traditional ideal of the talmid hakham Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashev, died at age 102.

Finally: on a more controversial note: the role of Torah study and specifically the exemption of yeshiva bakhurim from service in the Israeli Army, has been a subject of great public controversy in Israel over recent months, with no clear agreed solution in sight.

To return to the above-mentioned biblical verses: while these verses are understood in the narrow sense of the twice-daily recitation of Shema, they also, or even primarily, allude to Torah study. Rav Soloveitchik, in a discussion of Keriat Shema that was the subject of a public lecture on the occasion of his father’s yahrzeit (Shiurim le-zekher Avi Mar z”l, I: 37ff.), spoke of the opening verses of Shema as reflecting three different aspects of accepting God’s kingship: 1) accepting His kingship and His unity (HASHEM Elohenu HASHEM Ehad: Deut 6:4); 2) love of God (ve-ahavta: 6:5); 3) accepting His rule through Torah and its study (6:6-7). The first two are essentially inner attitudes of the soul—what are variously called hovot ha-levavot, “obligations of the heart” (as in R. Bahya ibn Paquda’s book of that title) or mitzvot temidiot, “constant mitzvot”—that is, underlying attitudes which, because they are not dependent upon any action, may and should be a constant feature of a person’s consciousness. By contrast, study of Torah involves a concrete, specific act or activity. The fact that a practical mitzvah, albeit an intellectual one, is identified as one of the ways of accepting God’s kingship—more so, say, than prayer or sacrifice, which are referred to as “service”—lends it a cardinal position within the structure of the mitzvot generally. As Rambam puts it in Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh #5: “serve him in His Temple, serve him through His Torah.”


I once heard Rabbi Shlomo Riskin speak of Rambam’s Hilkhot Talmud Torah as giving three separate introductions or definitions of the commandment of Torah study:
First, that of teaching Torah. He begins, in 1:1-2, by stating that the parents, particularly the father, are obligated to teach their children Torah; thereafter to teach their grandchildren (which is seen as an especially powerful experience, almost Sinaitic in nature), and, more generally, for everyone capable of doing so to teach Torah “to all the students.” This definition is significant in that it is not at all concerned with an individual studying Torah for him/herself, but rather with transmitting knowledge and awareness of Torah to the next generation. In the forefront here is the concept of kehillat ha-mesorah, of Jewry as a community whose central source of vitality is based upon the tradition passed down from generation to generation, each person having personal responsibility to do his part in this process.

Secondly: studying Torah in a fixed and regular way every day. “Every person in Israel is required to study Torah—be he rich or poor, of sound body or wracked with pain and illness, old or young… he must fix a time to study Torah every day and every night” (1.8). A well-known midrash asserts that, upon his death, a person is asked three questions by the Heavenly Court: “Did you fix times for Torah? Did you engage honestly in your business dealings? Did you await redemption?” Torah study is seen as a central pillar of the well-lived life, alongside interpersonal ethics and messianic hope. This is the path of kevi’at itim la-Torah (which, incidentally, lies at the root of the Daf Yomi approach).

The third “beginning” speaks of one who wishes “to perform this mitzvah as is proper, and to be crowned with the crown of Torah” (3.6 ff.). Such a person must be prepared to submit to a very demanding discipline: to live an almost ascetic life, without comforts or luxuries; to dedicate himself to Torah intently, with long hours; to be a truly modest, humble person who eschews honor and power; and withal, not to live off charity, but to support himself in modest fashion by engaging in some form of remunerative activity a few hours a day.

(For a fuller presentation of many of the key passages in Hilkhot Talmud Torah, Chs 1 & 3, including texts, translation, and discussion, see HY V: Bamidbar, Shavuot [=Rambam]).


A few comments about the Haredi position:

The ideal described in Chapter 3 of Rambam is clearly not intended for the masses or for the majority the people in any community, but only for a small elite: for those who feel within themselves a deep inner desire to devote their life to Torah—for its own sake, and not for any side benefits that may accrue as a result, such as honor, social standing, financial support, or to avoid (evade?) the risks involved in military service in a country which has known warfare at least once every decade since its inception.

There seems something disingenuous about the Haredi claim that they are saving the Jewish people, and the argument that they “sustain the entire world” through their studies. One occasionally hears the idea that, if no words of Torah were to be studied somewhere in the world, even for one minute, even in the middle of night, the world would collapse into primordial chaos (tohu vavohu). I don’t know if this idea appears in any early source, in the Talmudic aggadah or classical midrash, or whether it is a later invention, but in either case it is clearly hyperbole and not a normative halakhah on which one can base behavior and public policy (not to mention its roots in magical or theurgic thinking). Moreover, it goes against the simple ethical insight that the lives of all people are equally valuable, and the corollary that all should be equally subject to necessary risks, implied in the rhetorical question, “Is your blood redder than that of your fellow?!”

Historically, the idea of the hevrat lomdah, in which everyone capable of doing so ought to learn Torah full time as long is possible, is an innovation. There are any number of Rabbinic sayings about the importance of Torah being combined with derekh eretz, in he sense of involvement in the world. The present Haredi ideal is an invention of the last half century or so, first developed by Rav Aharon Kutler in America and by the Brisker Rav (R. Velvel Soloveichik) and the Hazon Ish (R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz) in the land of Israel. This new Lithuanian ideas—ascetic, somewhat reclusive, pietistic—was very different from the old Litvishe type, which loved the intellectual give-and-take and creativity and constant quest for new insights and hiddushim in Torah, but which essentially lived among the “regular” Jewish people. A paper by historian Immanuel Etkes which I once translated discusses the nature of Torah learning in 19th century Europe. Outstanding scholars might be supported by their father-in-law (ess’n kest) for one to five years; if a person was an extraordinary scholar, he might receive a salaried communal post, as rabbi or judge, which enabled him to devote many hours of the day to study—but it also demanded certain duties and responsibilities, and in any event involved a small number of people, not tens of thousands of young adults who assert that “Torah is their profession.” The majority of those who studied in advanced yeshivas eventually “settled down,” married, raised families, worked for a living, and went to the Beit Midrash for an hour or two in the early morning and/or evening.

But most of all, the present situation creates a great Hillul Hashem—a situation which gives Torah and religion a bad name. Judaism is perceived by many people as something exploited to the unfair benefit of one sector of society, who contribute neither to the economy nor to the defense of the country, and expect large funds for its institutions as its due. All the more so at a time of budgetary cutbacks in such vital areas as health, education (the Israeli public school system is in deep trouble: where will the next generation of “Jewish geniuses” come from if this one is given an inferior education?), and social welfare. Moreover, one often gets the sense that the Haredi public, or at last their leadership, don’t really have a concept of citizenship, of being part of the Israeli body politic. There are those who avoid paying taxes, those who work in the “black economy” while supposedly studying Torah, who display open contempt for the authority of the police and the courts—but at the same time have sense of entitlement, that this arrangement is theirs by holy right, and not the result of political machinations funded by tax monies collected from hard-working secular or worldly-religious citizens. Some, at least the more extreme elements, see the State of Israel in much the same way as their ancestors viewed Gentile governments in the Diaspora or Europe.

Finally, the Haredi approach, as the most conservative interpretation of halakhah, has enormous influence over the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinic courts, and in such affect policy in things like marriage, divorce, conversion, etc. For me, this is perhaps most painful part: that Judaism is represented to much of the secular public, who don’t know any better, by an extremist caricature of itself.


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