Friday, June 14, 2013

Get on the Torah Train!

When I first entered cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, ostensibly there to learn how to lead services properly and chant our traditional nusah and melodies, I was struck by something odd: the use of a very familiar Hebrew word that I had never heard used in that way before. Rabbinical students were using this word all the time, and at first I found it puzzling and disorienting.

The word was “Torah.” Not, “The Torah,” i.e. the Five Books of Moses, the scrolls that live in the aron ha-qodesh, the “closet of holiness.” Not the ancient book that I had read from on many Shabbat mornings at my home synagogue in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, but just “Torah.” Torah in its wider sense, which is difficult to translate into English. But it’s a meaning that we should all get to know.

The word “Torah” means “instruction,” and it is related to the Hebrew root meaning “to teach,” lehorot, from  which we also derive the words “moreh / morah,” meaning “teacher.” Torah used in this sense means, “learning from the full complement of Jewish textual sources.” Not just The Torah, but the entire Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the Talmud, midrashim, halakhic literature, medieval poetry and letters, tefillah / the words of the siddur, and in its broadest sense, even Jewish music and art. The entire historical and cultural discourse of Jewish life might very well be included in “Torah.”

And the rabbis of the Talmud, the ones whose discussions and arguments shaped the Judaism that we practice today, saw the study of Torah for its own sake, in Hebrew, Torah lishmah, as the highest ideal in Jewish life. You might also call this activity, “recreational Torah study”:
רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה, וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְּדַאי הוּא לוֹ
Rabbi Meir taught: Whoever studies Torah for its own sake merits many things; moreover, it was worth creating the world for his sake alone. (Mishnah Avot 6:1)
The rabbis saw the learning of Torah for its own sake, solely for the pleasure of learning, as the highest ideal. Elsewhere in the Mishnah, the mitzvah of learning Torah is described as outweighing all the other mitzvot combined (Pe’ah 1:1).

So why had I not encountered the idea of Torah lishmah? Prior to entering cantorial school, I was under the impression that knew I quite a bit about Judaism: I had a decent familiarity with many of the stories in The Torah; I could read Hebrew fairly well and lead parts of many services; I could chant several different trope systems (Torah, Haftarah, Eikhah, Esther); I had grown up in a kosher home (well, OK, so we became kosher when I was ten years old); I had a solid grounding in Shabbat and holiday observances, even if we did stop off at the video store on the way home from Shabbat services; and so forth. How did I miss the greatest mitzvah in the crown of Jewish life?

So here’s the truth about Judaism’s highest ideal: it seems that for much of our history, it was relegated to a few elite scholars: those who were extraordinarily adept at studying obscure texts in ancient languages, and recalling from memory extensive tracts of interpretation and argument.

But toward the end of the 11th century CE, there was a paradigm shift.  Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaqi, whom we usually call Rashi wrote a commentary on The Torah and much of the Talmud that made it possible for many more people to learn Torah. Suddenly these students, still cloistered in the Jewish Ivory Tower, had an easy way to cross-reference midrashim and Talmudic passages. This revolutionized the learning of Torah.

And it was not until the end of the 15th century, when the first Jewish books were printed with the new printing press, that acquiring books to learn from was even possible, unless you had a wealthy supporter. Prior to that, most people could not afford to spend time learning; it was simply too expensive. That is one reason that learning has always been respected in Jewish life; historically, we have acknowledged that those who live a life of poverty in order to study Torah are making a particularly holy choice. It is an important statement about Judaism that a rabbi is not a priest; he or she is a scholar.

Still, for subsequent centuries, only a handful of these Jewish scholars were studying Torah, because you still had to learn to read and speak Hebrew and Aramaic, a ridiculously high bar for virtually all of our ancestors.

These are the historical reasons why most Jews, outside of that small circle of elite scholars, have not dedicated themselves to Torah lishmah. But things are vastly different today. We are living in an age of the great democratization of Torah. Within the last few decades, most of those ancient, obscure texts have been reprinted with new, modern translations and accessible commentaries. There are electronic resources that make everything available on your smartphone or tablet. There is a new user-edited website out there called which is busy building a collection of Hebrew and English texts, and will produce for you an study sheet of textual sources that you can select and personalize. Before all of these innovations, if you wanted to learn Torah, you had to plow through multiple heavy tomes in order even to find what you were looking for, and translations were hard to come by. Now it’s all a few clicks away.

Danny Mishkin, the Director of the Youth House and Teen Engagement, and I attended a conference two weeks ago hosted by the Jewish Education Project called, “Whose Torah is it Anyway?” One of the speakers at this conference, Rabbi Irwin Kula, pointed out that there are more people learning Torah than in any time in our history. And that’s not just because Haredim tend to have big families. More regular, modern Jews are studying Torah than ever before.

So while historically, the way that most Jews could connect to Judaism was by participating in the physical mitzvot - lighting candles, synagogue services, holiday meals, and so forth - today we can all easily participate in Mitzvah Number One: Talmud Torah, studying our holy texts.

But that is only part of the story. We are also seeing, particularly in Israel, a resurgence in interest in the texts that have given Jews inspiration for centuries, not only among very fervent Jews, but among the ranks of the secular! Somewhere near half of Israel’s population is not traditionally observant - they do not keep kashrut; they never go to a synagogue; if they celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah, it is likely just a party.

And yet, there are now springing up all over Israel, get this, secular yeshivot. Non-religious Israeli Jews are engaging in Torah lishmah for the values that it teaches, for the intellectual exercise of breaking your teeth on a tough Talmudic sugya (passage), and for the sheer nationalistic joy in learning something that our people have studied for centuries, even if it was only the sages secluded in the beit midrash, the classic Jewish study hall. In the current issue of The Jewish Week, there is an opinion piece about one initiative in Israel that is attempting to bridge the gap between religious and secular Israelis. It is for men and women who have recently finished their army service, and what do they do? They come together to study Torah. (This is, by the way, something that I would like to do in Great Neck.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we are seeing a paradigm shift, a Rashi-sized change in what it means to be Jewish. The Information Age has reached the Jewish sphere, and Torah is becoming universally accessible. As you can imagine, I am very excited about this; access to Torah is good for the Jews.

And yet, this comes in the context of decreasing involvement in Jewish life in America. Among non-Orthodox Jews, synagogue affiliation is down. Ritual practice is down. A bar mitzvah may be celebrated with a rabbi-for-hire without the need for congregational involvement or any educational requirements for the child. Commitment of any kind is down.

But it seems that learning Torah is ascendant; consider the Limmud programs hosted now in several cities that draw thousands of participants for Torah lishmah. What with all of the new tools, the bar is lower than ever for entry. And so I would like to propose the following: we need to embrace Torah lishmah. We need to make a positive statement about who we are as Jews - for the sake of our children, for the Jewish future, and for the sake of Torah - by reaching for that low-hanging, ancient fruit.

We learn in the Talmud (Qiddushin 40b) that study is greater than action, because while action is important, study leads to action. Ladies and gentlemen, we need to study more.

And here are three reasons why:

1. Learning Torah for its own sake teaches us about ourselves and the world. Not only do we draw valuable lessons about life, relationships, parenting, personal priorities and so forth from our ancient texts, but also the implicit lessons - about interacting with your study partner or your teacher, about the value of knowledge and the message it sends to our family and friends.

2. Learning Torah is an intellectual challenge that sharpens your mind. All the research shows that the best way to avoid diseases like Alzheimer’s is to keep your brain active and supple. Studying Jewish text for recreation is a great way to do that.

3. Learning Torah is fun! OK, so it’s not exactly like a day at the beach. But there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from puzzling through our holy books, and connecting it to our own lives. And, if you are studying with a friend or a group, there is a social benefit as well.

Another speaker of note that Danny and I heard at this conference was the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, whose latest book, Present Shock, is about how digital media have created a world of the eternal present. No past, no future, just, “What’s happening right now?” as Facebook eternally asks. Rushkoff suggested that Torah can be a part of what’s happening now, and would be all the more value because it comes with history and authenticity. 

In a previous book, however, the boldly-titled Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, Rushkoff suggests that Judaism might be featured more prominently in the lives of ordinary Jews if we rise to the challenge of widely-available, open Torah study for all. He laments the fact that over the centuries, Jews “lost direct access to the Torah and grew increasingly disconnected from the spirit of inquiry,” and that Torah learning was relegated to a few bits of Jewish education in the sermons of well-meaning rabbis. Rushkoff goes on to suggest that, “In order to fuel a renaissance in participatory Judaism, we will need to reverse this trend and reinvent a beit midrash for our age.”

The Beit Midrash at the Conservative Yeshivah, Jerusalem

Ladies and gentlemen, we can create that beit midrash, here at Temple Israel, online, in your own home. I hope that this will be the next wave of Jewish engagement, that of learning, thinking, discussing, sharing. It’s what’s already happening now. Let’s embrace it. Find some Torah and jump in.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, June 15, 2013.)

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