A guest post by Dr. Michael Schweitzer
On the centrality of learning
Traditional Jewish practice divides into two even components - doing and learning, na'aseh v'nishma. While the comments on those two words are legion, the basic principle is simple: we do not simply practice what our fathers told us to. Ours is not a religion of mindless observance but rather we are expected to understand what we do, learn its reasons and sources and make that knowledge part of our practice. The idea of learning about Judaism for its own sake and no practical purpose, is the highest value we can aspire to and one only rarely truly achieved. Whereas in any practical discipline like science or accounting the learning serves as an aid to practice, for us learning is part of the practice and, according to the Chazal, of enough value to be equal to all the rest of the mitzvos.
It is therefore important that Modern Orthodoxy add to its definition an acknowledgement that the centrality of learning is what defines Judaism now and always. It is admirable to never cease learning and to always seek to expand one's horizons. What's more, this knowledge cannot be seen on par with other fields. A well-educated doctor is a good professional but a well-educated Jew is a holy person. As a result, a person's commitment to Orthodoxy, in addition to daily practice, must be measured with the level of his commitment to learning. A person who does all the right things when it comes to keeping kosher, Shabbos and davening but who does not see having a time set aside each day exclusively for Torah study, who does not set learning goals for himself, who is not constantly trying to increase his knowledge of Torah Judaism may be a sincere and decent person but is not behaving in a genuinely Orthodox fashion.
However, the slogan "Learning Torah is important" is merly that, a slogan with all the emptiness the term implies. While we recognize that learning Torah lishmah is of supreme importance it is also important to realize that Torah study should change a person into something better. One who spends his days commited to learning but has no problem behaving like a boor in public to those he does not identify with is a naval b'rhus ha Torah. His learning has not changed him. Like the difference between hearing and listening, he may have studied Torah but he hasn't learned any. This is not an idle thought considering the events that are even now convlusing Jewish society in parts of Israel.
Therefore Modern Orthodoxy needs to further define proper learning as the kind which creates a better Jews, not simply a more educated one. Does the learning lead to the formation of a kinder person? Is a person inspired by his learning to be a better member of society? Does he take both the legal and the moral lessons of the Gemara in front of him away from the Beis Medrash or does he, as the old Israeli saying goes, divide and say Zot hadat aval zeh haesek?
It is therefore important for Modern Orthodox institutions format the education experience of their students along these lines. Which is more important: to produce Jewish children who can know Bava Metzia off by heart but who don't appreciate the moral importance of the material therein or those who understand that we are to be a positive example to the world through our behaviour and that knowledge of the Gemara is a means to that end? Who is the better student: the one who can recite the entire chapter of Eilu Metzios along with Rashi but never realizes how it applies to him or the one who goes above and beyond to return lost objects even when the halacha doesn't strictly demand it because he feels to do otherwise would be wrong and not in consonance with what God and Chazal would want of him?
It is also important to teach children that Torah study is an ongoing process of inquiry, of discussion and of increasing depth. Simple answers, dogmatic phrases and the like are things they should be taught to be wary of. And more than anything else they should be encouraged to challenge teachers with the simple question: Why? As opposed to systems in which deference and limitation of thinking is encouraged to avoid challenges to a pre-determined ideology, Modern Orthodoxy's "dogma" should be one of exploring Torah to its fullest depth since the greater the understanding, the greater the reward.