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The Nature and Value of Torah Study

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

            In Jewish thought and experience, few values are as cherished as talmud Torah, the study of Torah; and few cultures, if any, have assigned to learning of any kind - let alone the mastery of scriptural and legal texts - the status it enjoys within Judaism.  That priority is not the result of much-vaunted Jewish intellectualism.  Quite the contrary:  it is, if anything, the latter's cause rather than its effect.  Its true source is the specifically religious role that Jewish law and tradition have accorded talmud Torah.             This religious role is multifaceted.  The study of Torah constitutes, at one level, a halakhic act, entailing the realization of a divine commandment - and one of the preeminent commandments at that.  As such, it has a dual basis.  On the one hand, it is a distinct normative category, positing specific goals and prescribing, like other mitzvot, clearly defined conduct enjoined by a particular mandate.  The mitzva of talmud Torah charges the Jew to acquire knowledge of Torah, insofar as he is able; but it addresses itself primarily to the process rather than the result.  Its minimal demand, some daily study of Torah, is formulated in verses included in the first portion of the Shema:  "Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.  Impress them upon your children.  Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up" (Devarim 6:6-7).  On the other hand, it is included in the far more general charge enjoining the Jew "to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul" (Devarim 11:13) - that service requiring, as the midrash postulates, the study of Torah, apart from ritual and prayer (Sifri Devarim 5).             At a second level, talmud Torah is viewed axiologically - both as an independent value and as a means of ensuring and enriching spiritual existence, both personal and collective.  Engagement with Torah for its own sake, lishmah, is a prime goal.  Its raison d'etre need not be sought by reference to other categories, moral or religious.  Can study that "only" entails live contact with the revealed and expounded divine Word be less than invaluable?  Obviously, that contact can ordinarily have instrumental value as well - in two respects.  First, study provides knowledge requisite to halakhic living, even as it deepens halakhic commitment.  Second, since talmud Torah enables a person, within limits, to cleave unto God, it has moral, passional, and pietistic repercussions.             These elements exist on the collective plane as well.  Beyond them, however, one may note a more strictly public aspect.  As Torah itself is the basis of Israel's covenant with God, so is its study a means both of cementing that bond and of providing communal uplift.  In one sense, this applies to the oral Law in particular, as the intimacy of the covenantal relationship is experienced within it uniquely.  "Rabbi Yohanan stated:  'The Holy One, blessed be He, entered into a covenant with Israel only because of oral matters, as it is written [Shemot 34:27]:  "For after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee, and with Israel"'" (Gittin 60b).  The principle, however, applies to Torah in its entirety, with its full conceptual and experiential import.             At a third level, the role of talmud Torah is conceived in cosmological and mystical terms, bordering, in some formulations, on the magical.  From this perspective, it attains continuous cosmic significance as a metaphysical factor affecting the fabric of reality - indeed, as that which supports and sustains the very existence of the universe.  The Talmud cites this concept in the name of Rabbi Eleazar, who, interpreting a biblical verse in this vein, saw it as attesting to the significance of Torah:  "Rabbi Eleazar said:  'Great is Torah for, were it not for it, heaven and earth would not exist, as it is stated [Yirmiyahu 33:25], "If my covenant be not day and night, I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth"'" (Nedarim 32a); and elsewhere the Talmud explains the gravity of bittul Torah - literally, "the negation of Torah," that is, the failure to study it adequately - on a similar basis (Shabbat 33a).  Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner, founder in 1802 of the archetypal Lithuanian yeshiva and the most vigorous modern proponent of this view, went so far as to arrange for some measure of Torah study at his yeshiva at all times in order to ensure cosmic existence.  To many, this may surely seem naively bizarre anthropocentrism.  Be that as it may, the underlying attitude, shorn of its literalist application, is deeply rooted in rabbinic tradition.             The object of study can of course be any and every part of Torah.  The Midrash, commenting upon the verse "Give ear, my people, to my teaching" (Tehillim 78:1), notes:  "Let not one tell you that the psalms are not Torah, for they are indeed Torah, and the prophets are also Torah ... as are the riddles and the parables" (Midrash Tehillim ad loc.).  And from a purely normative standpoint, the mitzva is fulfilled, regardless of which area of Torah is being studied.  Historically, however, the major emphasis - particularly, but not exclusively, at more advanced levels of scholarship - has been upon the Torah she-be-al peh, the corpus of law and tradition, homily and exegesis, primarily formulated and preserved in the Talmud.  Jews often recited psalms as a pietistic exercise, but learning was more likely to deal with the Mishna, the Gemara, or the collection of talmudic aggadot, Ein Ya'akov.  The Talmud itself postulates that periods of study should be apportioned, "one third to Scripture, one third to midrash, and one third to Talmud [that is, Gemara]" (Kiddushin 30a).  However, one classical medieval authority, Rabbenu Tam, held that the study of the Babylonian Talmud sufficed, since all three elements were blended within it, while another, R. Moses Maimonides, stated that this counsel applied only in the early stages of intellectual development, during which the raw material of Torah was being absorbed and digested, but that once the infrastructure existed a person should devote himself to the subtle analysis of the Gemara.  Whatever the rationale, the primacy of Torah is fairly clear.             The primacy derives, in part, from concern about potentially heterodox tendencies springing from direct and independent study of Scripture.  Primarily, however, it is grounded in the centrality of law and rabbinic tradition within Jewish consciousness and experience.  The encounter with God as commander lies at the heart of Jewish existence; to the extent that it is realized through talmud Torah, the legal corpus, as developed within the oral tradition, is a prime vehicle for this encounter.  To an outsider, much of traditional talmud Torah no doubt borders on the absurd.  From a purely rational or pragmatic perspective, the prospect of a group of laymen studying the minutiae of complex and often "irrelevant" halakhot may indeed be bizarre.  In light of Jewish commitment and experience, however, it is thoroughly intelligible.             That commitment is the key to the traditional conception of the nature of talmud Torah.  Study is, of course, an intellectual and largely critical activity, but in this case it is significantly molded by its religious character.  The effect is both enriching and constricting.  On the one hand, Torah study, regarded as an encounter with the Shekhina (the divine Presence), is enhanced by an experiential dimension.  Hence the importance that the rabbis assigned to the confluence of prayer and study:  They urged that one should preferably engage in both at the same place, even if in most views this entails praying in private rather than in public.  In this vein, talmud Torah can assume an almost visceral quality, and aggadic texts abound with similes comparing Torah study to sensuous and even sensual activity, elemental and exotic alike.  Commenting upon the verse "A lovely hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy thee at all times" (Mishlei 5:19), Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman expounds:  "Why were the words of the Torah compared to a hind?  To tell you that the hind has a narrow womb and is relished by its cohabitants at each and every moment as at the first hour... Why were Torah words compared to a nipple?  As with a nipple, however often an infant fondles it he finds milk in it, so it is with Torah words.  As often as a man ponders them, he finds relish in them" (Eruvin 54b).             Conceived in such terms, talmud Torah is invested with a dual nature.  In part, it is oriented to accomplishment, with the acquisition of knowledge and skills being obvious goals.  Teleological considerations aside, however, the process, as has been noted, is no less important than its resolution; and even if one has retained nothing, the experience itself - live contact with the epiphanous divine will manifest through Torah, and encounter with the divine Presence, which hovers over its students - is immeasurably important.  Talmud Torah is not just informative or illuminating; it is ennobling and purgative.  He who studies Torah, says the Mishnah, "is called friend, beloved, lover of God, and lover of men.  He rejoices God and men.  The Torah invests him with modesty and reverence and enables him to be virtuous, pious, upright, and faithful.  It distances him from sin and draws him near to virtue" (Avot 6:1).  It is this emphasis upon process and its purgative character that renders abstruse study both possible and meaningful.  From a pragmatic standpoint, much talmud Torah is futile or irrelevant, or both.  Religiously regarded, however, it is eminently sensible.  The bather is refreshed, regardless of where he dips into the ocean.  Does he refrain from going to the water merely because he cannot reach the other shore?             But if the religious conception of talmud Torah extends its horizons in one sense, it constricts them severely in another.  The religious view implies, in effect, that study that is not grounded in commitment is, at best, of limited value, and that has indeed been the traditional position.  With reference to more extreme cases - presumably those involving patently negative attitudes - the rabbis stated that while Torah is life-giving to those who approach it rightly, "to the sinister, in relation to it, it is a poisonous herb" (Shabbat 88b).  However, even purely dispassionate study, the very ideal of much of the academic world, has been regarded with great reservation.  This attitude has not been grounded in a mystical view of Torah as a gnosis to be reserved for the initiate; it has sprung, rather, from the perception that talmud Torah cannot be realized by approaching sacral material from a secular perspective.             While the sacral character of talmud Torah has generally been universally assumed by Jewish tradition, its scope has been very much in dispute.  Of course, relatively few have doubted that much learning is a desirable thing; but opinions have differed over how much could be normatively demanded or ordinarily expected.  Some have held that while the mitzva of talmud Torah clearly required a modicum of daily study, anything beyond the barest minimum was more a matter of lofty aspiration than of halakhic duty.  Others, however, have insisted that while minimal daily study could be singled out as an inescapable and irreducible charge, maximal commitment - flexibly perceived - constituted an obligation rather than a meritorious desideratum.  As Rabbenu Nissim, one of the last of the great medieval authorities, put it in the fourteenth century:  "Every person is obligated to study constantly, day and night, in accordance with his ability" (Comm. on Nedarim 8a).             The key phrase is, of course, "in accordance with his ability" (kefi kocho), but its practical substantive import remains wholly amorphous so long as one has not come to grips with the critical question of the relation of talmud Torah to other areas of human endeavor, secular or religious.  In one sense, this is simply a variant of the broader problem of the definitions of priorities and the apportionment of energies, resources and commitment between the mundane and the spiritual realms, respectively.  This specific point was debated in the twelfth century by Rabbenu Tam and his grand-nephew, R. Elhanan ben Isaac of Dampierre, who, in interpreting the aphorism "Excellent is talmud Torah together with a worldly occupation" (Avot 2:2), disagreed as to which component was primary.  Presumably, they dealt with practical rather than axiological primacy; nevertheless, their controversy is clearly significant.  At a second level, however, the problem concerns the relation between different elements of the spiritual life proper - between the outreach of charity and gemilut hasadim as opposed to self-centered spirituality; or between talmud Torah and prayer as aspects of the contemplative life.             Surveying much of the current yeshiva scene and its recent east European, and particularly Lithuanian, background, one often gets the impression that, as a spiritual value, talmud Torah is not only central but exclusive.  From a broader perspective, however, the picture is more balanced - especially with reference to the talmudic sages.  Statements to the effect that "talmud Torah is equal to them [that is, a list of key mitzvot] all" (Pe'ah 1:1), or the famous counsel "Turn it over and turn it over [that is, the Torah] for all is in it" (Avot 5:25), are complemented by sharp asseverations that single-minded talmud Torah is not only incomplete but distorted.  "Whoever says that he has nothing but Torah," expounds the Talmud in the tractate Yevamot, "does not even have Torah.  Why?  Rav Papa said, 'Scripture states, "Study them and observe them faithfully" [Devarim 5:1].  Whosoever relates to observance relates to study, whosoever does not relate to observance does not relate to study'" (Yevamot 109b).  Elsewhere, we encounter an even more radical statement.  "He who engages solely in Torah [study]," declares Rav Huna, "is as one who has no God.  For it is written [II Divrei Ha-yamim 15:3], 'Now for long seasons Israel was without the true God.'  What is meant by 'without the true God'?  It means that he who engages solely in Torah [study] is as one who has no God" (Avoda Zara 17b).             Unquestionably, emphases differ among both the talmudic sages and subsequent generations.  The Talmud relates that when Rav Huna saw Rabbi Hamnuna prolonging his prayer at the expense of talmud Torah, he commented:  "They forsake eternal life and engage in temporal life"; and it goes on to explain that Rabbi Hamnuna evidently held that there should be "a time for prayer apart, and a time for Torah apart" (Shabbat 10a).  Analogously, the practice of the Palestinian amora Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who "would not go to a house of mourning save to that of one who had been childless, for it is written, 'Weep sore for him that goeth away, for he shall return no more nor see his native country' [Yirmiyahu 22:10]" (Moed Katan 27b), presumably so as not to divert time and energy from talmud Torah, reflects this singular emphasis.  But one principle is beyond question, namely, that Torah exists within a larger axiological complex.  It both complements other values and is complemented by them, and even if it reigns supreme, it surely does not rule alone.             Clearly, then, the assertion of Rabbenu Nissim that one is obligated to engage in talmud Torah "day and night, to the extent of one's ability [kefi kocho]," remains, in practical terms, ill defined.  Only after one has determined the scope of other legitimate concerns and has allocated to them their respective time and effort does kefi kocho become clear.  Nevertheless, the formulation - with its implicit assumption that there is a basic total commitment to talmud Torah from which one then subtracts - is highly significant in its own right.  It clearly reflects the singular importance that, whatever the continuing dialectic between intellection and implementation, Judaism has uniquely assigned to the study of Torah, even at the popular level.  One might note that the concern with talmud Torah attains further significance as a source of the heightened time-consciousness that is so integral a part of Jewish sensibility and experience.             Finally, as to the scope of talmud Torah, it is very broad in one sense and extremely limited in another.  As a value, its range is well nigh universal.  It relates to Gentiles and Jews alike, to both men and women, to children as well as adults.  "Rabbi Meir stated, 'Whence that even a Gentile who engages in [the study of] Torah is as a high priest?  For it is stated [Vayikra 18:5], "Which if a person do [i.e., the mitzvot], he shall live by them."  It does not say, "Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites," but "a person"'" (Sanhedrin 59a).  As a normative mitzva, however, it devolves only upon Jewish men.  For others, it is regarded in part as an admirable aspiration and in part as a means for acquiring the knowledge requisite for the fulfillment of other mitzvot, but not as a duty to pursue knowledge for its own sake.  Moreover, concern lest half-baked knowledge be abused has, at times, actually led to discouraging such voluntary study.  This fear of dilettantism has, historically, been a prime reason for the relatively limited level of Torah study by women.  Given the changes in women's overall social and educational status and the nature of their total cultural experience within the modern world, many have felt that this benign neglect is no longer warranted; and, indeed, since the turn of the century, much has been done to redress the imbalance in the talmud Torah of men and women.  How far this process will develop and whether it has built-in halakhic limits remains to be seen.  Be that as it may, the axiological and historical centrality of talmud Torah remains a cardinal fact of Jewish spiritual existence. [This article originally appeared in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Free Press, 1987.] BIBLIOGRAPHY Louis Ginzberg, "The Rabbinical Student," in Students, Scholars and Saints, 2nd ed. (1958). Aharon Lichtenstein, "Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?" in Marvin Fox, ed., Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice (1975). Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (1983).

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