My father, an Orthodox rabbi and educator used to famously tell me when I was growing up that if I wanted to be an apikores – a heretic, I had to learn what I was rebelling against first. Considering that I spent all day in Yeshiva and then nudged by him to learn more Torah in my free time, I thought I knew it all or at least enough to validate my heresy. Of course in retrospect I knew little – certainly not enough to qualify as sufficiently informed to make such a calculation. One of the ways of youthful rebellion is seemingly going with the program but not absorbing the message.
My father always stressed the important Jewish value of setting aside time for Torah study, as did all of my teachers. While I grew up in the pre digital age I still found plenty of excuses to ignore that ethos. Like many people, it took me until the age of thirty and having kids of my own, trying to bring them up with a Jewish education and conscience to really appreciate my father’s hard work and his ethics. It took another fifteen plus years and various religious reincarnations to finally understand the attraction of learning.
Career circumstance over the past few years has me travelling overseas for extended periods. Boredom can set in quickly if you don’t regiment yourself and plan for down time. Out of mental necessity, I stepped outside of my old self. I exercise more frequently, I read more, I write and I set aside time daily to something I never undertook before in my life, consistent voluntary Talmud study. I like to tell people that I travel with my two best friends Johnny and Art, Johnny as in Walker and Art as in Scroll. I had access to Johnny when I was young but Art didn’t start publishing until I was an adult. Too bad! Art Scroll is a great tool that enables people like myself who never really got it before to open up a whole world that simply evaded my psyche in my youth even if it’s translation has a certain fundamentalist tilt. Sifting through that is part of the joy.
My learning is an exercise in intellectual challenge and religious curiosity. Intellectually, I had to ask my questions from the point of view of knowledge that can only be obtained from intense study. Theologically, I needed to see what the big deal was these rabbis and my father were making out of Torah study all these years.
Admittedly, I supplement my daily Talmud study with other religious related texts including biblical criticism. I was not going to be wooed into learning by some predetermined religious obligation; the Torah would have to seduce me in other ways. I don’t need any book to get closer to God and my people. In my own self-assessment I am a good, conscientious and involved Jew and frankly that’s enough for me.
I chose the tractate of Sanhedrin, which deals with the Jewish judicial system to start. Again, this is not my first foray into Talmud just the first time I studied it alone and on a non-school regular basis. I am proud to say that after two years I now qualify to lead a “Siyum,” a traditional, joyous ceremony upon the completion of a full tractate.
I have been lured, hook, line and sinker into this mysterious world of banter and argument over every single aspect of law. I am fascinated by legends and stories that are often tangents in the text. I was not reawakened spiritually or religiously by the experience, if anything I am more curious and have more questions than ever before. I choose to learn because I realize now that belief is only a part of the equation. Jews learn because learning is a tool, a means to an end. The incorporation of study has sustained us and guided us to accomplish great achievements both within the Torah world and in the secular sphere. A culture that stresses study is bound to succeed and endure. Belief is a secondary ulterior function in my view.
Yet I now appreciate more than ever that the Torah is a living document that has matured and is subject to evolution just as any discipline is. It has to be; things change. Talmudic law does not consider women free to own property and are treated as the chattel of their husbands or fathers. I certainly don’t take the words “renew our days as before” from our liturgy to mean that I want to own my daughters and wife or to go back to stoning adulterers and homosexuals.
Torah does have a spiritual attraction it is just not one I get. For me, Torah is connection to my people, my heritage and my roots just as Thanksgiving and the Declaration of Independence connect me to my Americanism or Yom Haatzmaut connects me to my Zionism. Rediscovering learning in middle age gives me a different perspective, one that comes with an already critical worldview. Purists might say that it is sacrilege, that Torah study must be accompanied by total faith in its divinity and purpose. I see it differently; it’s all in the sales pitch and that varies from person to person.