Ethan (איתן) Yakhin
A few months ago I was sitting at a family member’s kiddush table and he said something that didn’t sit right with me.
According to him, “Charedim” don’t learn Tanakh at all. “Charedim” is the name for the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel, and the Tanakh is what is referred to as the “Old Testament”.
His point was to belittle the religious, pointing out that it is hypocritical for them to keep a Torah that they don’t even know. Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t end there. I unsuccessfully tried to defend Charedim, and in the process, became quite upset.
In the weeks since, I’ve thought about it. Are we learning enough Tanakh?
I became religious as an adult and as such, I never got the Jewish Education that religious children typically get. So when I went to Yeshiva, I understood that there wouldn’t be so much emphasis on our Scriptures as there would be on other works. After all, Jewish children in Israel learn Tanakh in school growing up, even to the point of memorization.
But still… what about the rest of us, the ones that only connected to Torah study later in life?
I put these thoughts out of my head, but they resurfaced weeks later when on my show, a guest, Rabbi Francis Nataf, brought up the same point that my uncle had made weeks earlier.
The Yeshivot aren’t focusing enough on Tanakh.
On the show, Rabbi Nataf mentions that when he was learning under the legendary Nechama Leibowitz, maybe the best Tanakh teacher of our generation, he didn’t appreciate it as much as he should have. At that time, the focus of his learning was on Gemara. Gemara, Gemara, Gemara.
In time, of course, he shifted to a greater understanding and appreciation of our Written Tradition (to the point of writing a phenomenal series of essays on Chumash, titled Redeeming Relevance).
But what about the rest of us? What’s going on here with our education?
Even I, having gone to a baal-teshuva Yeshiva, where most of the students likely knew very little Tanakh, had an incredibly hard time learning the Scriptures. Why was almost no one willing to do a chavruta on Tanakh with me? If I went to an institute where most of the students learned it growing up, this would’ve made sense. But that wasn’t the case.
I mamash had the sense that my peers considered learning NaCh (Neviim and Ktubim) to be somewhat juvenile, something that I found utterly confusing. And it just wasn’t my peers. I also had teachers that told me that NaCh is for self-study. When the Great Sages wrote on the importance of having a study partner (Pirkei Avot), they surely were referring to study of both the Oral Law AND the Written Law. But still, our books from thousands and thousands of years ago get pushed aside in favor of the Talmud, or for books written mamash in the past 500 years.
I’m not sure what to attribute this phenomenon to, but I do know one thing. Tanakh is not just the backbone of our religion, but the very blueprint from which the world was created. Any good Sefer is going to quote Tanakh. Even the Talmud. And especially the Talmud. Even though I’m sure there are great answers, I still wonder why I spent a year sitting in a Gemara class when I should’ve been learning words from the very Prophets that God spoke to.
On some level, I’m sure our teachers wanted us to be up to par with other Jews. They wanted us to catch up and to know how to read a Daf. Great. But I can’t help but feel that that is a bit similar to suggesting you build the 10th floor before the first nine. On what foundation are you gonna build it?
The Torah is compared to water. We need water to nourish us physically, and so too the word of God can sustain us spiritually. I want to know what he’s saying. I don’t want to hear garbled messages, translations.
I want to know the word of God.
Ethan Yakhin is the co-host of Open Book with Eitan and Itai, a Podcast both with and about Jewish Authors. To stay updated on upcoming episodes, you can follow Open Book on Instagram. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts. You can have a look here at their podcast page.
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