Jewish knowledge is not just good to have. It is essential. Some may think that knowledge belongs to scholars, religious leaders and the elite. Not so in Judaism. For us, study is an essential demand upon everyone.
Of course, in history there were times when the general level of knowledge was not very high. Yet even then, study was always a major purpose and pursuit. Indeed, the very last paragraphs in Maimonides’ great work, “Mishneh Torah,” describe the grand vision of the Messianic Era: “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
Because Jewish knowledge is such a basic requirement, there have always been schools at every level, for both children and adults. Calling someone an “am ha’Aretz” — ignoramus — is a real insult, considered very offensive. Today, for reasons historical and otherwise, we are living at a time when this label applies to too many people. It is therefore our duty to enable those people to re-acquire that knowledge. The Torah says: “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). In the Talmud, Rav Yehuda comments on this verse in Rav’s name: “Whoever withholds a halacha from his disciple is as though he had robbed him of his ancestral heritage” (Tractate Sanhedrin 91b). In other words, everyone has a share in this inheritance, and depriving someone — anyone — of what belongs to them is tantamount to theft.
Study is not easy, especially if one did not receive a good Jewish education from one’s parents or at school. It is not easy for an unlearned person to acquire knowledge. A Global Day of Jewish Learning, where people from hundreds of communities around the world study the same text, is one way of encouraging study, or at least the taste of study. Perhaps this small taste will encourage participants to go on and continue their learning, either with others or on their own. The Global Day of Jewish Learning takes place this year on Nov. 16 (theglobalday.org).
Because so many thousands of people are studying together, the Global Day of Jewish Learning transforms a solitary event into a venture that belongs to everybody. We are uplifted and inspired when people from all walks of life gather together in study; our neighbors and our friends, our families and those whom we have never before met. We have not delegated Jewish knowledge to the professionals. We have made the claim that it belongs to all of us.
The Global Day serves one more critical purpose. We are a nation that is spread all over the world, divided by distance, different languages and ways of life, and sometimes also by ideas. We are more fragmented than we can afford. When people of different ages and professions gather together and are immersed in a common cause, we create new common denominators, new shared experiences and values. These will serve us well — not just on one Global Day but also at other times and in other areas of life. We can feel that there is something that unites us.
Often we feel united only in the face of calamity. But our common inheritance, too, can surely help us re-establish many connections and repair many broken lines of communication. The Global Day of Jewish Learning brings hundreds of diverse communities together in an embrace of this central pillar of our inheritance, the pillar of Jewish learning. I hope we use this experience — and what it creates in us and for us — as a ladder for climbing higher up to reach the place where we are supposed to be.
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is a leading Jewish scholar and author of an acclaimed commentary on the Talmud. This year’s Global Day of Jewish Learning, under the aegis of Rabbi Steinsaltz, will be held Sunday, Nov. 16. For further information, visit www.theglobalday.org or call (212) 840-1166.