2005 A "New" Understanding of Talmud Torah
Chananya Weissman
December 16, 2005, The Jewish Press

When I asked my sixth grade students to define the word “Torah” for me, the best they could manage was a description of its contents. One would assume that at some point during years of Jewish education (preferably at the very beginning) this most basic information would be transmitted to children, but apparently this is another essential that is just taken for granted — and thereby overlooked. I make a point of it because it is not merely the correct definition of a word that is at stake, but, as we shall see, one’s very orientation toward Torah study and Torah observance.

The Torah is not a “Jewish law book”, as many or most Jews believe it to be, for the majority of the Torah is devoted to matters other than law. The majority of the Mitzvos are contained in only a handful of parshiyos. Furthermore, a strict reading of Chumash will lead the reader to many incorrect assumptions as to Jewish law, and several fundamental Mitzvos, such as shechita, receive little mention, let alone description. No, Torah cannot be defined as a law book. The Shulchan Aruch can be defined as a law book.

Some people define Torah as “a history of the Jewish people”, but that too is incorrect. The Torah would make a poor history book. So many noteworthy details of Avraham’s 175 years are omitted, including his being cast into the furnace by Nimrod. Yitzchak’s life is almost entirely ignored — though we’re told about him digging some wells. Of the 40 years we spent in the desert, we read almost nothing save for the first year and the last. Don’t you think interesting things happened in between?

The correct definition of Torah, for those who still may be guessing, is “instruction”. (Similarly, a moreh or morah is an instructor.) The Torah is not a law book, nor a history book, nor a storybook, for the Torah transcends all these things. The Torah is a book of instruction, a user’s manual for life in this world, a blueprint for human existence and, particularly, Jewish human existence. While this book of instruction will by necessity contain the basis of God’s law and certain landmark national events, these are components of Torah, not the essence of it.

The infinite permutations of Jewish law can be explored in tomes devoted for that purpose. The fascinating story of the Jewish people can be learned more fully through historical research. Torah is concerned not with legal minutiae or folk tales, but the foundation of religious and moral instruction. The rest, as Hillel would say, is details.

As Chazal observe, only prophecies that are relevant to future generations were recorded. The same holds true for miracles. Aside from Avraham’s encounter with Nimrod, Ramban deduces that Yocheved was significantly older when she gave birth to Moshe than was Sarah when she gave birth to Yitzchak — yet only the latter miracle is recorded in the Torah. After all, the Torah is not a record of miracles.

With this “new” understanding of what Torah is really meant to be, it is easy to see that much of our community’s orientation toward Torah study has gone awry, with far-reaching and devastating consequences. For one thing, the Mitzva of learning Torah tends to be thought of as somewhat of a chok, a ritual without any clear purpose. If we study Torah simply because it is a Mitzva that God commanded us to do, then it makes little difference how we go about studying it. It makes little difference whether we understand what we learn, whether we draw meaningful and practical conclusions, whether our Torah study impacts our character and our conduct in any discernible way.

We all know people who are well versed in Torah, yet do the Torah no honor in how they live their lives and how they treat others. Now we know a significant reason why. Their Torah study may be a Jewish ritual, albeit a frequent one, but not an inculcation of God’s instruction manual.

Large segments of Orthodox society place a premium on learning Torah “full-time”, to the extent that working to earn a living, familiarizing and involving oneself with worldly concerns, and even taking time to maintain a physically healthy lifestyle are frowned upon. Even those segments of Orthodoxy that engage in these “mundane” activities at the expense of Torah study tend to idealize a lifestyle that is more appropriate for angels than human beings.

Interestingly, the Midrash teaches us that the Torah was never meant for angels, as a cursory examination of the many Mitzvos related to human existence will demonstrate. If all Jews were meant to do in this world is study Torah and engage in spiritual activities, then large portions of this same Torah are entirely irrelevant. However, since the Torah is an instruction manual for human existence, it makes perfect sense that so much of it is devoted to normal human existence. Indeed, every aspect of human existence is explored and regulated by the Torah.

One might counter that some components of the Torah are in fact purely theoretical, such as the laws related to a ben sorer u’moreh (loosely: a rebellious son). Yet Chazal teach us that we should “delve into these areas and receive reward” — the same Chazal who advise us against performing Mitzvos for the sake of reward! In reality, Chazal aren’t telling us to study esoteric things for reward, but to delve into (“drosh”) these seemingly irrelevant areas of Torah, for then we will discover moral lessons that are very, very relevant. Although we are taught that a ben sorer u’moreh would never exist, we learn educational, parenting, and other lessons that can be applied in real life. The purely theoretical components of Torah only lend credence to our “new” understanding of Torah study as a wholly practical experience, not an end unto itself!

We hear a lot about the importance of learning Torah lishma, which is almost universally translated as “learning for the sake of learning”. There is no such concept in Judaism. Learning for the sake of learning implies that learning is an aimless, self-contained pursuit. Chazal stress that, on the contrary, learning Torah is of supreme importance precisely because it leads (or should lead) to action (see Avos 4:6 and many similar statements). This is why learning Torah often supersedes the performance of another Mitzva; Torah knowledge is what enables one to perform the gamut of Mitzvos, and therefore the acquisition of this knowledge trumps a single Mitzva that can be performed by others or at a later time without detriment.

Strangely enough, many people point to this very maxim as support to shun worldly pursuits and even Mitzvos that can be performed by others, such as visiting the sick. However, Chazal never considered it an “ideal” to engage exclusively in Torah study. On the contrary, their emphasis on Torah study is because Torah study enables one to successfully engage in other activities. If one’s Torah study in fact has the opposite effect, entirely withdrawing him from the world, he has defeated the very purpose of Torah study.

So what does it mean to study Torah lishma? Mitoch she’lo lishma bah lishma; from the definition of the concept of learning not lishma we will arrive at the definition of lishma. Learning Torah not lishma is alternately defined as learning Torah for purposes of self-aggrandizement (honor, etc.) or to misuse his knowledge to create religious controversies (see Ta’anis 7A, Tosfos). Conversely, therefore, the definition of learning lishma is to learn Torah with pure motives, to increase one’s knowledge of God’s instruction and his ability to live accordingly.

Once again, it clearly follows that Torah study should always have practical significance, be it the improvement of one’s behavior or the development of one’s spiritual character. Learning Torah that is an end unto itself can, in a manner of speaking, be characterized as bittul Torah. We can only hope that those who study in this fashion will ultimately be drawn to truly learn Torah lishma, as the saying goes.

This “new” understanding of learning Torah has tremendous ramifications for the curriculum of one’s study. The curriculum for men in most Yeshivas is devoted almost entirely to picayune, hair-splitting analyses of esoteric matters. Ostensibly, this is meant to teach people “how to learn”. Yet “learning how to learn” continues indefinitely, and actual learning never seems to begin. It is a tragic irony that many Yeshiva bochurs can recite twelve different ways of interpreting an obscure commentary, yet are ignorant of halacha that pertains to daily life.

In the introduction to Mesillas Yesharim, R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato expresses astonishment that people “devote their mental energy to studies that are not obligatory, to pilpulim that bear no fruit, to irrelevant laws, yet relinquish their great obligations to our Creator [the study of mussar and practical matters] to rote.” In the introduction to the Chayei Adam, R’ Avraham Danzig has a lengthy criticism of the common practice to spend countless hours laboring on in-depth analyses without ever acquiring a broad knowledge base of practical matters.

This common practice has only gotten worse in our times. We build elaborate mansions of intellectual Torah scholarship, yet neglect to build the foundation of broad fundamental knowledge and ongoing character development.

As for Chumash — the only book dictated word-for-word by God Himself — it is considered a waste of time to study it with any degree of depth and sophistication. I personally was admonished by a Rebbe in a Yeshiva in Israel for “wasting my time” studying Navi, and informed by a prominent figure at Yeshiva University that students can’t ordinarily take more than one course in Tanach because it takes away from learning. So learning Tanach is bittul Torah!

Our greatest Sages devoted their time to a systematic study and mastery of Tanach, and wrote thorough commentaries on it. This has been true for time immemorial. The modern student of Torah does not follow in their footsteps, but contents himself with the short excerpts that are sprinkled throughout the Gemara. He convinces himself that he basically “gets it” and is using his limited time more productively. In doing so, he forever misses the many moral and philosophical lessons that can only be learned by studying Tanach in a sophisticated manner, and also handicaps his study of the Oral Torah, which is predicated on a thorough, not cursory knowledge of the Written Torah.

We must also examine the popular notion of subsidized long-term, even indefinite Torah study as a mainstream lifestyle. In many circles this is in fact the only acceptable lifestyle, with one’s social standing and desirability for marriage determined based on one’s intention either to learn Torah full-time or support one’s husband or son-in-law in this endeavor.

In truth, paying someone to learn Torah on one’s behalf has a long tradition. Those who are unable, for various reasons, to engage in advanced Torah study can acquire a share in someone else’s Torah study by facilitating it monetarily or otherwise.

However, the obligation to study Torah rests with every Jew, and is a fundamental component of his worship. After all, if one has not familiarized himself with the instruction manual for life in this world, he cannot realistically live a proper Jewish life.

Even those who are consumed with attaining their livelihood were traditionally expected to learn Torah several hours a day (the Chayei Adam notes this in his introduction). The Mitzva of learning Torah cannot be performed by an agent — only the acquisition of high-level Torah scholarship. It is sufficient that high-level Torah scholarship is present in the community, but continual Torah study is an obligation for all.

The Yissachar-Zevulun relationship is bandied about erroneously to support a distortion of the above concept. Both tribes were given materialistic blessings by Yaacov, and both were expected to study Torah in addition to their worldly pursuits. The Midrash teaches us that schoolteachers came primarily from the tribe of Shimon, and we know that the religious leaders throughout the Temple period were primarily Levites and prophets — not full-time learners from Yissachar!

Yissachar’s primary contribution to Torah scholarship consisted of mastery of the complex laws related to the Jewish calendar, and many scholars from Yissachar sat on the Sanhedrin to adjudicate these matters. Presumably, expertise in this area could only be achieved by long-term study, and descendants of Zevulun facilitated this in the form of what would today be called scholarships. There was never a concept of an entire tribe learning Torah on behalf of another and being paid accordingly. Certain exceptional individuals, generally wealthy businessmen who lacked the time for in-depth study, subsidized the learning of other exceptional individuals, brilliant scholars who were best left to their studies. It was never a way of life for whole societies.

It is not surprising that, for the ever-increasing numbers of people who study Torah full-time, our Yeshivas are not producing greater numbers of leaders equipped to face real-world challenges. On the contrary, there is an inverse relationship at work. It is also not surprising that monetary support to maintain this unnatural and unintended system is increasingly hard to find. It was never meant for untold masses not to work for a living.

It is my great and sincere hope that those who value the Mitzva of learning Torah will objectively consider these words. Torah study is meant to instruct us and engage us in this world. Confusion, ignorance, inertia, politics, and the travails of Jewish history have caused us to stray in the way we perform this most vital Mitzva. Let us study Torah only so that we may live Torah, and surely we will see blessing in all that we do.

Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org). His collection of original divrei Torah, “Sefer Keser Chananya”, can be obtained by contacting him at admin@endthemadness.org.