Learning About Life by Learning Torah
VA-ET’CHANAN, DEUTERONOMY 3:23–7:11
“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them … ” (Deuteronomy 6:7)
While we don’t agree on much, over time and space we religiously minded Jews do seem to agree on one central thing: the supreme importance of the study of Torah. From the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai to the first public reading of the Torah in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah to the study of Talmud in Babylonia and then Europe — and today, especially in Israel and North America — ongoing spiritual and intellectual investigation of our ancient scriptures is at the core of Jewish life and culture.
But what is Torah study? And why should we still study such an ancient text? Since the birth of the modern era, what constitutes “Torah study” has widened substantially to include historical, linguistic, and ethical concerns. A newfound openness to secular sciences, the increasingly busy lifestyle, and the proliferation of diverse intellectual pursuits means the value of Torah study can no longer be taken for granted. As modern movements in Judaism emerged, the methodologies and types of questions asked of the texts shifted dramatically. The Torah, while understood to be sacred, was not necessarily seen as being of divine origin, and thus its commandments were not automatically acknowledged as absolutely obligatory. Given the historicist concerns (Is the Bible true?) regarding the religious question of its source, the question arose: Why learn Torah? The necessity, the meaning, and the nature of Torah study is indeed a real question for many Jews today.
Several answers can be given to this question from within our tradition. They can, I believe, be categorized under four primary models.
“O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long (Psalms 119:97).
Torah as an encounter/conversation with God is the first model. Here, Torah study needs no rationale; it is simply inspired by one’s natural desire for the word of God. Torah, for the psalmist, is an object of love, of constant engagement, absorbing the learner and filling her entire being. Unfortunately, this spontaneous outburst of love for Torah is a foreign notion to most modern Jews.
“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them …” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
This second model, championed in this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, is followed by many Jews today. This mode views Torah study as part of a basic, rudimentary Jewish education. Torah (here I use the term in the wider sense of all classical Jewish texts) becomes the source of one’s foundational knowledge of Judaism, its central stories, holidays, and values. A great deal of resources are thus invested in teaching Torah to primary- and middle-school-age children, ensuring that every Jew starts out her or his life with the basic facts and figures of Judaism. For many in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Torah study ends here, and is about as relevant to adult life as eighth-grade geometry.
“… Let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching…” (Deuteronomy 17:19).
In the third model (reflected upon in a later Torah portion) the Torah serves as a source of religious authority; learning it is a way of perfecting one’s religious practice. Adherents of this model, mainly observant Jews, consult the Torah whenever they have a question relating to Jewish law and ritual: What is the ethical way of giving money? How should one get married? What are the laws of Shabbat? When should one pray? Torah, according to this model, remains relevant throughout one’s life, but as no more than a technical guide, rather like a useful phone book or road map.
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).
The fourth model also regards the Torah as a source text, though in a much wider sense. Far beyond a mere handbook of Jewish law, the Torah is seen as a wellspring of wisdom on virtually every aspect of one’s life. Whether it is a question of religious practice or ethical conduct, political ideology or economic policy, metaphysical conviction or aesthetic creed — followers of this model, a precious few, seek the Torah’s guidance at every turn.
While all four models provide tenable answers to the question — Why learn Torah? — it is this last model that I believe ought to be promoted in the modern Jewish world and in the Reform Movement in particular. We must strive to educate our children, our communities, our families, and ourselves to regard the Torah as a vital, dynamic text, as relevant to our lives today as it was 2000 years ago. We must come to be so engaged in the ideas and questions of Torah that it becomes a source of insight into our daily existence. Together, its ancient forms and modern commentaries can expand our understanding of the world around us, challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions, and inspire us to become more of who we want to be. It is only once we allow Torah to enter our lives, to permeate every aspect of our being, that we may someday come to exclaim with the psalmist, “O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long.”
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President’s Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.