Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Academic Torah

One of the big mistakes people make with Torah study is approaching it like it's just another field of knowledge.  I know that I often do this, comparing a concept in Torah to one in medicine or science or trying to use an approach that works for me with secular studies when it comes to Gemara or halacha
This is generally a mistake because Torah isn't just another field of knowledge.  It's a piece of the Divine, a chance to share an enounter with the Ribono shel Olam.  We don' learn Torah simply to know facts but to gain an insight into existence itself.  It must be approached with reverence and awe. 
That's why, for example, Professor Marc Shapiro isn't a posek (nor does he wish to be, I would assume).  While he may have a broad and deep knowledge of Torah sources he analyzes them from the point of view of a modern academic.  Here's the big hint: when you read an essay and the Chofetz Chayyim is repeatedly referred to as Rabbi Kagan you know something's missing.
This is also why some folks don't like Rav Natan Slifkin's approach to Torah.  The man is brilliant and erudite but some of his work comes across as academic more than religious.  Presenting the Rationalist Judaism approach as an academic one detracts from what is important - that the only real Torah study is done through a religious, "irrational" (for lack of a better word) approach.
This flaw in learning and promulgating Torah isn't restricted to the MO academic world.  The Gemara, in discusssing the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) lists various reasons as to why the Churban happened.  One of them is that people who learned Torah didn't recite bircas haTorah before studying.
Obviously this is absurd.  Is it reasonable to assume great Torah scholars sat down to learn all day long but didn't recite the blessing beforehand?
The deeper answer, as I've heard from various sources, is not that they didn't recite the blessing but that the blessing was disconnected from its source.
There are two ways to relate to a blessing over a mitzvah or a benefit (for example, food).  The preferred way is to concentrate on the meaning of the blessing, that we are acknowledging the kingship of the Ribono shel Olam and His requirements for us or thanking Him for a benefit He has provided us.  The not-so-good way is to treat the blessing like it's a secret passcode.  I want to wave the lulav so I mumble the requisite words and get to do it.  The only thing standing between me and this apple is a sentence so I fire it off without really thinking about it.
Too often we all (I'm especially guilty) pronounce the blessings in the second way.  It's a formality or an annoyance to get through on the way to our goal.  The blessing is not about taking an instant to recognize God's kingship but instead is detached from its holy source.  It's a ritual with no depth.
This is what Chazal meant when they said that the Churban was due to scholars not reciting the bircas haTorah.  Of course the scholars said it but that's all they did.  It was a formality and then they sat down to learn Torah all day.  Not God's Torah.  Just Torah.  It became a field of knowledge no different than biology and physics, a body of facts to know and understand.
This approach to learning seems to be the dominant form today.  How else to explain people who dress the part, act the part. speak the part, spend their days swaying in prayer and learning and who then go and steal, cheat and abuse?  Are they doing the right thing?  Yes, absolutely.  Their observance of ritual is punctillious but it is superficial.  Even their prayers are empty.  They provide the lip service and none of the heart.
Thus while the academic approach to Torah is obviously cold and lacking religious meaning the opposite approach is similarly empty but hides it quite well.
It's time to take a step back and look again at how we interact with God and how sincere and meaningful our observance is?  Both from the left and right we have distanced ourselves from the Source of all existence and turned our religion into a series of activities devoid of true meaning.  In order to become the moral beings we are meant to be we therefore must find a way to reconnect.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The reason (among others) that people don’t recognize Torah as from G-d in their study is that all religious claims should be viewed as suspect from our modern day vantage point. Since people who study Torah today are living at this particular time, that’s how they should view the religious claims that rabbis make about the Torah, Jewish history – as suspect.

Obviously, if they lived way back when they would know whether they really left Egypt or were led by Moses or received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. But they can’t know that today, and should not believe it, at least if they value rational thinking above all else.

Basically religion tenets are not rationally arrived at, so we have every right to have misgivings about them (it would be strange not to have some misgivings – which I guess is why they call people who are religious, people who have “faith.”)

I think Judaism took a severe wrong turn – actually I think it adopted a goyishe way of believing and thinking about religion. We were stronger once – and we are weakening by becoming like the goyim, who are somehow our superstar believing prototypes now.

The Jews discovered G-d. No one really debates this. We know this statement is true. We don’t know if G-d discovered us, but we know we divined him. We know tikkun olam is our problem, not his – our ancestors telegraphing to us the idea that our discovering G-d is normative Judaism -- it is up to us, not him. There’s a perspective buried in there that is lost today.

We never cared about who wrote the Torah. The existence and primacy of the Talmud, which so famously argues with the G-d and the Torah, telegraphs this concept to us even today.

Related to this, we never cared about science, evolution and an old universe – because we never cared about the literalness of the Torah. The Torah’s value was as a Rorschach for the Talmud. The Talmud is what really mattered. Why? You know why.

Today, we feel afraid. And the orthodox are the most afraid outwardly – everything they do now to keep out the outside world is a reaction to this fear.

And in their fear the orthodox insist that we know the Torah is from G-d, and that G-d found us in the desert. And that evolution is impossible (even scientifically), and the universe must be young and Noah’s flood must have happened, etc.

We have become the goyim! The strongest religion (which had the weakest claims and most rock solid claims) has become the weakest of religions (which now makes the strongest and most unstable claims.)

We’ve given up the thin thread of faith for the certainty required by the insecure and afraid. We’ve inverted the whole formula that made Judaism so breathtakingly powerful. It’s not too late to change!

Tuvia