In one of his best-selling books, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the “ten-thousand-hour rule.” Based on a study by Anders Ericsson, he asserted that the key to achieving true expertise in any skill is simply a matter of practicing in the correct way for at least 10,000 hours. He argued that we should place greater emphasis on preparation and practice than innate talent when it comes to accessing cognitively demanding fields. Greatness requires an enormous amount of time investment in any particular field.
I was thinking about the “ten-thousand-hour rule” when I listened to an 18Forty podcast last week with Dovid Bashevkin interviewing my Rebbe, Rav Michael Rosensweig. I had the privilege of learning in his shiur while I was at Yeshiva University and much of my religious worldview emanated from my exposure to him during and after my tenure at Yeshiva University. Rav Rosensweig’s Torah is not as accessible to the general public as, let’s say, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Torah, so many people in our community may not be so familiar with his Torah and religious outlook. However, Rav Rosensweig is the Rebbe of so many leading rabbanim and rebbeim both in America and in Israel, so he is responsible for shaping much of the religious thought of our community leadership. For those who have not benefited from his Torah and scholarship, the podcast provided a taste of his religious worldview. I want to share with you two of his many messages that strongly resonate with me.
First, Rav Rosensweig is a proponent of the philosophy underlying the “ten-thousand-hour-rule.” He may disagree with some of the details, but the “ten-thousand-hour-rule” stands for the position that anyone can achieve with hard work even if he or she may lack some innate talent. Rav Rosensweig’s shiur has often been termed an “elitist” shiur, as only top caliber students can join the shiur. He dismissed that notion, arguing that his shiur requires an investment of time. The most successful students in his shiur were not necessarily the brightest, but they were the ones who spent a lot of time working through the halachic sources and trying to uncover the complexity of any topic that he covered.
He pointed out that he also gives weekly shiurim to adults which require a time commitment to attend the shiur on a regular basis and perhaps even to review the shiur afterwards. The more time that one spends on Rav Rosensweig’s shiurim, the more that he can understand Rav Rosensweig’s overall methodology. It’s all about the time investment.
This religious outlook is an embodiment of the passage in Masechet Megilla 6b:
וְאָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק, אִם יֹאמַר לְךָ אָדָם: יָגַעְתִּי וְלֹא מָצָאתִי — אַל תַּאֲמֵן. לֹא יָגַעְתִּי וּמָצָאתִי — אַל תַּאֲמֵן. יָגַעְתִּי וּמָצָאתִי — תַּאֲמֵן.
Rabbi Yitzcḥak said: If a person says to you: I have labored [in the study of Torah, according to Rashi] and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him.
The key to success in Torah study is an investment of time and energy. Rav Rosensweig is not a Rosh Yeshiva who speaks with fire, brimstone or passionate intensity, but he is someone who lives an intensely passionate life completely centered around commitment to an investment in Torah study.
On the one hand, this approach places a tremendous responsibility on ourselves and on our children. Yes, we can argue that we are not so talented in the study of our halachic tradition or we did not receive a rigorous talmudic or halachic background in our yeshiva high school years. However, if we decide to put in the time commitment, even as adults, then we will find success and growth in Torah study. But this tremendous responsibility also means that he has a faith in each one of us and our abilities. His Torah is not elitist. His Torah requires a time commitment and he has faith that those who wish to put in the time to plumb the depths of our halachic tradition will be successful in beginning to master our halachic literature. There are no shortcuts to success in Torah study.
Secondly, Rav Rosensweig believes in the importance of studying and developing an approach to a Torah topic through analyzing the classical sources well. Rav Rosensweig is neither the master of the soundbite, the story or the clever hook to entice people to listen to his message. As a pulpit rabbi, I am aware that I can deliver an hour-long shiur and many congregants may only remember the story or the soundbite or the cute opening with which I began my shiur. And sometimes I may be tempted to build a shiur or other teaching opportunity around a story and the Torah content may not be that important, as long as there is a compelling message. For Rav Rosensweig, the Torah that we learn and the Torah that we teach must emanate from a rigorous analysis of the chumash, the mishna, the gemara and the classical rishonim. That’s our starting point. If we do this well, then we gain a real understanding of what God wants from us. He also follows in the tradition of his rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, that we can attain authentic religious meaning through rigorous study of the fine details of our halachic system.
Torah study is the engine that drives our religious growth. I feel so fortunate to have studied under a Rebbe who in his own humble but passionate way has inspired a generation of Torah leaders and students about the commitment to excellence in talmud Torah. I hope and pray that even as adults with all of our other responsibilities, we continue to push ourselves to achieve this excellence. Now that would be a wonderful Yom Kippur resolution!