For centuries, Jews turned to the Torah to learn how to live, to derive their guiding principals and construct their values. The study of Torah (I use the term in the wider sense of all classical Jewish texts) has always been among the most important tenets in Judaism. From the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, to the first public reading of the Torah in the days of the prophets to the study houses of Babylonia and Europe, ongoing spiritual and intellectual investigation of ancient scriptures has stood at the core of Jewish life, its chief occupation and highest of values.
With the birth of the modern era Torah study was widened substantially to include historical, linguistic and ethical concerns. Questions of authentication and source (“Is the Bible true?”), led to a dramatic shift in the methodologies and approaches to the sacred texts. More importantly, the newfound openness to secular sciences, the increasingly busy lifestyle and the proliferation of diverse intellectual pursuits meant the value of Torah study could no longer be taken for granted. For the first time in Jewish history the question arose: “Why learn Torah?” The necessity, meaning and nature of Torah study remain a real question for most Jews today.
Several answers to this question can be found within our tradition. Closely examined, they may be categorized under four primary models.
“Oh how I love your law, it is my meditation all the day” (Psalms 119:97)
In the first model, Torah study needs no rationale; it is simply inspired by a natural desire to hear the word of God. A love of Torah, for the Psalmist, emerges from a love of God and desire to know the Giver of Torah. Torah, as our best access to God, is a living entity - affecting everything about one’s existence as all real love does. Studying Torah is a way of encountering God, engaging the Supreme Teacher of law and ethics in conversation, and coming to know God’s character and will.
“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them” (Deuteronomy 6:7)
The second model, followed by the majority of Jews today, views Torah study as part of a basic, rudimentary Jewish education. Torah becomes the source of one’s knowledge of Judaism, its central stories, holidays and values. A great deal of resources are thus invested in teaching Torah to young people, ensuring every Jew starts out her or his life with the basic knowledge of the narratives and principals of Judaism. Yet because this learning is rarely continued into adulthood, for the majority of the non-Orthodox Jewish world Torah study is about as relevant to adult life as 8th grade geometry. Nonetheless, most Jewish adults still desire a basic Jewish education for their children, many seeking much greater depth and detail then they themselves had.
“And he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law”(Deuteronomy 17:19)
In the third model, Torah is a source, not only of knowledge, but of religious authority; learning it is a way of perfecting one’s religious practice, garnering the necessary information for performing rituals correctly and with the proper intent. Adherents of this model consult the Torah whenever they have a question relating to Jewish law: What is the ethical way of giving money? How should one get married? What are the laws of Shabbat? When is the right time to recite the morning prayer? Torah, according to this model, remains relevant throughout one’s life, but as little more than a technical guide, given by God and thus not to be questioned other than for the sake of clarification.
"Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it."(Pirkei Avot 5:27)
The fourth model also regards the Torah as a source text, though in the widest possible sense. Far beyond being a mere handbook of Jewish law, the Torah is seen as a wellspring of wisdom on virtually every aspect of one’s life. Whether it is a question of religious practice or ethical conduct, political ideology or economic policy, metaphysical conviction or aesthetic creed - followers of this model, a precious but growing few, seek the Torah’s guidance at every turn, as a source for spirituality and a foundation of values.
While all four models provide tenable answers to the question “Why learn Torah?” it is this last model which, I believe, could dramatically enhance the place of Torah in modern Jewish life. We must strive to establish the Torah for ourselves, our families and our communities as a vital, dynamic text - as relevant to our lives today as it was 2,000 years ago. We must become fully engaged in Torah study, appreciating its power to guide us through our daily existence, inform our understanding of the world around us, challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions and inspire us to always achieve more. It is only once we allow Torah to enter our lives and to permeate every aspect of our being that we may someday come to exclaim - with the Psalmist,"Oh how I love your law, it is my meditation all the day.”
This essay was originally published in July 2009 with Gila Fine for the Shalom Hartman Institute.