The Jewish Policy Research`s (JPR) latest publication, publicised especially for Pesach, contains a number of fascinating statistics. The overwhelming majority of those interviewed (81%) attend a Seder at least most years, but only 39% of those interviewed felt that supporting Israel is a very important part of Jewish identity. Although this research was performed in England, it was the following statistic which I felt was most significant, and is reflective of an important feature of world Jewry.
When asked “How central is studying Jewish religious texts are to a Jewish identity?”, a mere 14% of respondents said that this was “Very Important” to a Jewish identity. This performed lower than many other values, such as “Strong Moral and Ethical Behaviour” (67% said it was very important), “Feeling Part of the Jewish people” (61%) and “Remembering the Holocaust” (60%).
There appears to be a real gap between the Mishna`s statement “Torah study is equal to all of them (the other Mitzvot)” and the full chapter in Maimonides Mishna Torah expounding the significance and centrality of Torah study, and the Jewish world today where such a large number of Jews feel that Torah study is not a central part of Jewish identity. How did we get to this stage?
The answer is obviously complex, but I believe that one part of the answer can be found by observing wider society. Maimonides separates in Moreh Nevuchim between two values – the betterment of society, and the betterment of man. I would argue that of these two values, the Western political and intellectual discourse, certainly in the public square, focuses primarily on the first over the second.
The questions that politicians argue about are about how to develop society economically, politically and militarily. To be an educated member of society means to have a view on Edward Snowden and privacy, U.S. Foreign Policy, the Two State Solution etc. and other major issues about society, states and nations. Without taking away from the importance of these issues, we lack a second, equally important discussion, about the betterment of man. One wonderful example of the lack of this discourse is the sheer lack of discussion about the impacts of pornography. In the last ten years, the internet has made pornography part of the life of an exceptionally high number of teenagers, yet there is very little discussion in the public square of its implications for one`s life. How many political parties or public intellectuals discuss or lecture about the impact pornography will have on one`s values, or one`s marriage? In the discourse about the betterment of society, we have sidelined the discussion about the betterment of the individual.
Strong moral and ethical behaviour fits into a discussion about the betterment of society. Torah study, however, was primarily valued as something that betters the individual. It inculcates one with the ethical ideals of Judaism, enables one to glimpse the wisdom of God, and provides the individual with a deep internal connection to their heritage and people. None of these promised to (directly) better society. But they do promise to better man – to provide him with a strong value system, a living connection with the word of God and a prism through which to view the world.
Torah study can certainly better the Jewish individual – and it`s centrality is a lesson to not lose focus on the betterment of man, even as we discuss the betterment of society.