Flying high from the joyful celebration of Simchat Torah, JInsider is weary of potential letdown as we start yet another annual Torah cycle. As an antidote to post-Simchat Torah withdrawal, we asked Rabbi Eli Kaunfer to highlight the value of Torah study in everyday life. The always-cerebral Rabbi Kaunfer excerpted his popular new book “Empowered Judaism” (Jewish Lights) as the remedy. Tell us what you think or offer your own advice at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Torah study opens us up to the notion that there is something larger than ourselves in the universe. Part of the daunting task of learning Torah is recognizing just how much there is to learn. The more we learn, the more we feel there is to learn: we cannot know it all; we cannot control it all; there will always be worlds we have no access to. This is a serious corrective to a contemporary culture that makes claims to being able to access every scrap of information. The Internet confers the illusion that everything is knowable, that it is all available for searching. But Torah study is a regular exercise in humility, a reminder that we are not able to grasp the overwhelming complexity of God’s world.
Experience Meaningful Mystery
Torah study opens us up to the possibility of meaningful mystery in the world. It is a literature that is mysterious by nature, and thus meant to be interpreted, and to reflect and build upon the interpretations of others. This is in stark contrast to an American culture where everything is exposed and nothing is left to the imagination. Studying Torah is not like reading Facebook updates. Torah study allows us to connect to otherworldliness, a sense of divinity that is represented by mystery.
Confront the Difficult
Torah study is also about encounters with concepts that are foreign and sometimes disturbing. A surface-level connection to Torah is fully affirming. (“Look how nicely Torah correlates with my Western values of justice!”) But a real engagement with Torah is much more complex. It involves confronting the difficult and alienating passages rather than writing them off as artifacts of a culture long gone. The difficult parts of Torah are most often hidden from the American Jewish community — who would want to listen to a sermon that doesn’t end with a nice moral, generally applicable to today’s world? But this shortchanges Torah, and it shortchanges the person engaging with it. In a world with no clear answers, what better way to reflect on the assumptions by which we live our lives than to encounter the sometimes foreign and unfamiliar values inherent in our tradition and let ourselves be surprised, shocked and challenged by them? If a reflective life is meant to be more than just affirming our existing beliefs, then Torah provides the opportunity to engage with life more fully.
Encounter the Other
Torah study offers a way to approach the other. The fundamental method of Talmud study is to examine each sage’s opinion, open it to challenge, and then try to defend it. Taken as a value, this is a form of engagement with the other in which he is not automatically wrong or automatically right. His is a valid opinion that must be grappled with. Ideas are weighed on their merits, not because of the status of the rabbi behind them. Although everything is in some ways up for debate, everything is also given the opportunity to be relevant and meaningful, even opinions that at face value seem absurd. This is a true spiritual practice. It enables us to inhabit a world in which the opinions of others are evaluated based on their merits, where people feel comfortable enough to both challenge and protect the ideas in the marketplace that are not their own or do not speak to their values. Because Torah study is often done with a partner, this exercise of “approaching the other” is not limited to the characters in the text, but also played out with the people learning Torah together.
Torah study offers us a unique opportunity in this world: to be challenged, to be surprised, and to experience mystery, to encounter the other. The experience of simply reading a piece of Jewish wisdom, without knowing what it might say or how it might affect you, is one of the great joys of what it means to be Jewish.
Rabbi Kaunfer’s Background
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar (www.mechonhadar.org) and the author of “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities” (Jewish Lights).