Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 30 December 2011

Modern Orthodoxy - The Solution Part 2

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.


Anon1 said...

Will North American Modern Orthodox kids be persuaded to value study over sports and entertainment?

SJ said...

>> we do not simply practice what our fathers told us to.

yes you do.

>> Ours is not a religion of mindless observance

yes it is.

Stop fooling yourself Garnel.

Avraham said...

In general I am kind of skeptical about the value of most of what is called Jewish learning. While there are some major masterpieces like the Torah and the Talmud and the books of the Rambam but after that it mostly falls flat. However I sometimes try to stifle my objections because I know Rebbi Nachman emphasized the regular Jewish cannon and even went so far as to name the books by name --Shas Rif Rosh, writings of the Ari, etc. including the big Shulchan Aruch with the regular commentaries. The story be told I have always loved learning the regular people on the Shulchan Aruch but there was a time that I was learning with a Chavruta who had a razor sharp mind (he was a convert) he could point out the flaws in logic of any achronim and even rishonim except Tosphot and the regular commentaries like the Maharsha. But the people on the Shulchan Aruch he could point out the flaws in their logic instantly.
I had always known that Tosphot's logic was always rigorous but this experience gave new weight to my conviction that books of later authorities (achronim) almost always have some major flaws. many times you don't need to trust me for this. just open up any page of Shulch Aruch yourself and you can see the shach and taz demolish the Shulch Aruch and then go on to demolish each other. It does not take long to make a person want to get back to the regular gemara with tosphot.
The thing about Tosphot is that almost not Talmud scholars have any idea of what is going on there because they all gain their reputations by wearing black rabbinic clothing. It is no wonder the real Jewish talent left that world to go into the universities where there is a little bit of intellectual honestly at least in the natural sciences. what was left was orthodox rabbis that are self appointed fools that pretend knowledge that they don't have

Nishma said...

To expand upon Garnel's words, I believe that what he is truly describing is the need to distinguish between what I would term 'academic' learning and Torah learning. This is not to say that Torah learning is in any way less rigorous -- in fact, to strive for the standards that Adam is presenting must be one of our tasks. (I should note, however, that the fact that one is attacked by others should not be seen as a weakness -- if the person welcomes the attack. The thing about the Shach and Taz is that they welcomed the dialectic and debate. It is not up to us to be all but to participate in the communal attempt to reach the ideal.) What is different about Torah learning is that it must breathe and live with life. The concept of shimush talmidei chachamim is on point. This is deemed to even be more significant than hearing a shiur from the very same talmid chacham. It's ideas, thoughts and education in action; the scholar has a personality. This brings the Torah study to life. It is shmoozing beyond the curriculum and at times in spite of the curriculum -- but not at the expense of the mind's rigorous analysis. This is what is missing in modern Orthodox Torah education.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Avraham said...

The Shach and Taz -- I simplify got to a point that i don't know what to do with them. maybe in my mind they probably have about a 1/1000 error rate. I personally I find them fascinating.

But it was disconcerting to learn with someone that could take any achron apart in in a few minutes.
(i hope it is clear i am not criticizing the great achromim like akiva eiger and the like whose logic if not unassailable is at least somewhere in the realm of Tosphot and the Rambam.))

And the point about hearing and seeing Torah from a real scholar I also accept.
This the fact that many Orthodox rabbis do not have experience with real Torah scholars might be one of the sources of the problems that Israel faces today. But i don't know this for sure. it is just a guess. But it does make sense. If the rabbis would have learned Torah at the feet of someone like shmuel berenbaum i definitely think that the world would be different and better.