Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Knowledge Does Not Equal Piety

One of the common fallacies that most frum Jews believe in is that intense learning and deep knowledge of Torah are equivalent to piety.  One looks at many great Jewish leaders whose personal behaviour might have been less than exemplary in some fashion but concludes that they must have been pious because they are so learned.  This is some notion that has to be disabused.
For one thing, learning in and of itself is not a final value.  The purpose of learning is twofold.  First there is the need to know how to practically behave within the parameters of halacha.  The second is to develop a relationship with God.  We are told by the Torah that we must be kadosh because God Himself is kadosh.  Chazal tell us that the best way to engage in imitatio dei is to copy those things we call His middos.  He clothes the poor so we do.  He visits the sick so we do but the best way to come to any understanding of who He is, as if that were possible, is to learn His Torah.  Ultimately God is the most positive moral force in existence and therefore it is our duty to emulate Him and become positive moral forces ourselves.  The learning is to help us get there. Learning without progression in that direction would therefore seem to have far less value.
As a result, it should be obvious that there is no necessary connection between learning and piety.  The former is necessary for the latter to be developed in its fullness but the latter does not necessarily appear even after copious amounts of the former if the learning is not done to that end.
For another thing, consider that the word "pious" is quite malleable.  One example I like to recall appears in Solomon Grayzel's A History of the Jews in which he comments that for many centuries a Pope's piety was measured by how much he persecute the Jews of Chrisendom.
Take, for example, the Satmar Rebbe.  Here was a man who was undoubtedly a genius and one of the defining halachic authorities of his generation.  He was obsessed with reaching a level of perfection in his performance of mitzvos.  His attention to even the most minute details in a given situation is legendary.
He also abandoned all his followers in Hungary, running away to safety while leaving them to die with empty words of encouragement about how their learning and tefillos would protect them.  He saved his neck by using Zionist help and spent the rest of his life condemning those Zionists while building up a philosophy in which God never helps us but only sends us punishment which means that anything good that happens is a trick of the Satan, not a sign of His mercy.  His followers today openly side with enemies that seek to wipe out our State and even when signs of division will result in damage to the Jewish nation they continue to protest to show they're separate from us kofrim.
He was learned but was he really pious?  And if you say he was pious, what exactly is your definition?  Does he boil down to "Well he learned a lot and he was medakdek about all the mitzvos"?  Does the phrase "And he was a genuinely nice and loving guy to everyone" fit in there somewhere?
Learning must be done for a simple reason: to become a better person.  Not a more medakdek person, not a more obsessively precise about minutiae person, but to become a better, more decent and loving person.  All the learning in the world that does not lead to that end would seem to mean little since it failed to accomplished what it was meant to.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

What Learning Has Value

With the recent completion of the Daf Yomi cycle we have all heard the expected shouts of "Kol hakavod!" which is not surprising considering the herculean task that completing the Talmud Bavli in seven and a half years.  Indeed, kol hakavod to everyone who has persisted through, many for the third and fourth times in their lives.
But mixed in with all the praise are some grumpy refrains. Statements like "Well learning the daf isn't really learning because it's too superficial" or "There's no real benefit to going through the English in the Artscroll" get bandied about here and there.  Is there any merit to these statements?
I would suggest that there is not.  I think people who state things like this have no clue what real learning is.  Let me enlighten you.
In his comments on the first mishnah in Avos, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, states that the goal of Jewish behaviour is the maximum dissemination of Torah.  The more Torah Jews know, the better.  Not the more Vilna Shas pages, not the more Rishonim in particular, but the more Torah.  This is in consonance with various statements from the Chazal about the obligation to learn Torah based on the pasuk in Yehoshua stating that we should be learning it day and night.  Someone who simply recites qrias Shema can, in the right circumstance, be said to have learned Torah; how much more so someone who sits and goes through a daf of Gemara every day.
I think one reason this idea is often forgotten is because of the access to information people have nowadays when it comes to learning.  Remember that this was before Artscroll and Feldheim made the English-Hebrew learning experience we have today so commonplace.  Go back only thirty years and what resources were available to a person who couldn't spend all day learning with an experienced Rav?  Or to someone who became chozer b'teshuvah?  When it came to Talmud there was only the Soncino edition which, while a huge accomplishment, isn't the most user-friendly way to start learning.  When it came to halacha there was the English translation of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.  And there was a venerable English-Hebrew Chumash with Rashi.  Not much more.
As a result, those people who learned Talmud could proudly look around at the high level they were accomplishing.  Even just doing the daf yomi was an exceptional achievement in that environment.  But things have changed.  When it comes to English and Hebrew speakers there are multiple options available for the new learner.  New commentaries in Chumash, Talmud and halacha make once elite sources now accessible to everyone.  Is this perhaps why the bar has been raised?
Keep in mind the following: yes, we are all of us obliged to learn Torah to the best of our ability.  More than kashrus and other Jewish behaviours, a fixed routine of learning Torah is what defines us as frum Jews.  However, we are not all of us obliged to become poskim and sometimes I think people forget this especially as a result of the ease of access of important learning materials.
An average shlub like me, for example, does not need to know if the Rashba didn't like the Ritva's take on the Ramban's analysis of the Rif on an obscure subject in the back of Bava Metzia somewhere.  An average shlub like me needs to know how to behave properly al pi halacha on any given day and something about why we behave in that kind of way.  This is not meant to depreciate the importances of deeper learning, chas v'shalom.  The more the better, the more depth the greater, it goes without saying but the idea that one is not learning Gemara unless one spends three months on a single sugya is ludicrous.  For some folks, yes, anything less is not really learning but for many of us it doesn't enhance our limud Torah experience.
What do I recommend as a "real" learning schedule for the average shlub?  Do an aliyah of Chumash a day, starting with the first aliyah on Shabbos afternoon so you finish on Friday afternoon.  Do a daf a day of Mishnah Berurah or Aruch HaShulchan (I'm preferable to the latter but Feldheim has a Hebrew-English version out) and a daf of Gemara in any format that makes sense, either in Hebrew, Hebrew-English or even just plain English.
Don't let people think that you're not really learning because you don't do it the way "they" did it in the alte heim.  The goal is a person learning as much as he can in the short time he has in This World.  All that matters in that we give it our most honest effort.