What is Torah study?

My piece in this week’s Jewish Chronicle for Shavuot. I was not informed of the title they chose 🙂

At university one of the keenest attendees at our Jewish Society’s educational offerings was a practising Christian who would attend everything from Hebrew lessons to in-depth Talmud classes. I once asked him what the learning was like at church. He looked at me surprised – ‘We don’t do learning’. He explained that although the vicar would frequently preach based on a Biblical story, the culture of study as a religious act – with its intense debate and diversity of opinion, accessible to, and expected from all members of the community – was something uniquely Jewish.

That conversation crystallised something in my mind. Where all religions have a concept of prayer, Judaism’s unique contribution is to see study as an equally important dimension in which humans encounter the divine. The metaphor of Sinai as wedding canopy for the marriage of God with Israel is no abstract image. If Judaism is a relationship between God and His people, then the study of Torah – an interaction between people, text, and God – is the way in which that relationship finds daily expression.

A lens to view the world

In recent years, in Israel and the diaspora, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional texts amongst those who do not identity as religious. Whilst for myself I cannot separate the study of Torah from the presence of God – like trying to talk about a novel without mentioning its central character – I understand that Torah study can still be meaningful for those who are not believers. This seems to be anticipated by the Talmud itself ‘Let them forget Me but not forget My Torah, for if they remember My Torah they will eventually return to Me’. Although secular Torah enthusiasts may reject the conclusion of that statement, they would agree with its implicit assumption that Jews can be engaged with Torah even if they have forgotten God.

A beautiful image for the study of Torah which both religious and secular can share alike, I heard from ex-MK and celebrity amongst Jewish educators, Ruth Calderon. She described Jewishness as a lens for viewing life. The more one studies, the deeper ones intimacy with the ocean of texts, the more profound one’s appreciation becomes of the nuances and rhythms of life. The Jerusalem Talmud quotes a conversation between two sages as they saw the dawn over the Galilee mountains, ‘Thus is the redemption of Israel, at first a tiny glint of light, then it begins to spread, and finally its light bursts everywhere’.

Newness and Tradition

The tradition is authoritative but also diverse and to regularly study ancient texts brings that tradition alive. Hillel, Rambam and the Shach cease to be historical figures encased in dusty tomes and become members of the same study hall.

Diverse emotions accompany intensive learning. One can be humbled by the vastness of the Torah and how much there is to learn, and yet simultaneously sense oneself not only as observer but also as participant, contributing one’s own insights to the texts that millions have encountered before. For whilst every subsequent generation is further removed from the original light of Sinai, nevertheless with every new year there is more Torah in the world, more additions to the ever expanding corpus.

A shared language

Once on a flight from Tel Aviv to London I sat in my scruffy jeans and T-shirt next to an elderly Chasid. After an hour of politely ignoring one another – we were both English – my neighbour could no longer contain his interest in the classes that I was preparing using the Responsa Project – software that has digitised all classical Jewish texts.

There followed an intense and warm discussion about the sale of Joseph.

Later I went for a walk on the plane and someone I slightly knew engaged me in conversation. He was secular but had grown up ultra-Orthodox. He told me that his family had refused to speak to him for many years and that the gentlemen I was sitting next to was his great-uncle. Would I ask him if he would speak to his nephew?

I reported the request to my neighbour. He looked perturbed. He hinted that his nephew had suffered serious abuse – ‘things that should never be done to a child’ – but that his public apostasy was so severe that he could not bring himself to talk to him.

Rather than continue the conversation I searched on my laptop for the Talmud’s advice on giving rebuke: ‘push away with the left and draw close with the right’. According to the ancient story, the errant student of a rabbi who failed to mind this maxim became the founder of Christianity. I showed the screen to my neighbour. He paused and then nodded. I swapped seats with my acquaintance and the Chasidic uncle and estranged nephew sat next to one another for the rest of the flight.

Judaism must not be reduced to bagels, humour, vague values and victimhood.

Shavuot recalls that at Sinai a shared inheritance was received that has space for all varieties of Jewish self-understanding.


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