By Ilene Rosenblum
Compared with 2009, in 2010 I was a total Torah study slacker. On the one hand, I know that I need to, well, cut myself slack. I’m a working woman, and a kallah at that! It would seem though, that now, more than ever, would I need some structure and guidance that I’ve found in the past from the wisdom of tradition.
Part of it is also burnout. At the end of a long day in front of a computer screen, I don’t want to stress my brain more by pulling apart some text, or listen to a shiur. In fact, even when reading an interesting novel or non-fiction book in English, I find myself dozing off, usually after no more than 10 minutes. Blame it on insufficient sleep or an inability to sit in front of a book and concentrate on that one task, in the age of internet interactivity, but it’s my reality.
There’s another issue at stake too. Given the time crunch and lack of focus/sleepiness, what do I do with my limited resource for printed media consumption in my spare time. Part of me feels that I should study some more Torah, as part of my wanting to become more knowledgeable about Jewish practice and being able to make educated decisions about what I do or don’t do. Another part of me says די כבר, enough already. You went and made some pretty drastic lifestyle changes and live in an environment with mostly observant Jews. Shouldn’t you learn about something else?
The question is “why?” My secular, liberal arts education would tell me that it’s important to understand and appreciate people of different cultures, who live differently than you do, and to have a working knowledge of politics, literature and science. But, day-to-day, it doesn’t matter to me much whether I can tell you about the British government or have read One Hundred Years of Solitude (I tried, but boy was it difficult keeping track of multiple characters with the same name!)
If I want to study Torah, and only Torah, why not? In fact, there are those who claim that the knowledge and wisdom imparted in the Torah is so vast that it is all-encompassing. That is in part why ultra-Orthodox men will sometimes not learn more than a rudimentary level of mathematics, science, foreign languages, and so on (Women are not obligated to learn Torah and some need to learn secular work skills in order to find jobs to support the family.) Learning something else would be bittul Torah, wasting time better spent in Torah study.
To what extent do we learn something new from reading the Torah through each year and bring something new to it ourselves? And to what extent should we be spending time spreading our reading wings to texts never encountered before?
Our sages teach that there is endless wisdom in the Torah. A section of the Talmud, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, says that you can find countless chiddushim in the Torah.
בן בג בג אומר הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולה בה (פרק ה משנה כב)א
It’s true that many of the laws and stories encompassed in the Torah’s teachings, particularly in the Gemara, seem to impart a much more advanced level of knowledge about human biology, psychology, and even hard science than contemporary documents and that they might be considered even “progressive” by the standards of non-Jewish cultures at the time they were penned. But are we not supposed to explore God’s creation for ourselves?
There is so much Torah I wish to study. I haven’t even gone through what I consider to be the very basics of studying the books of the Tanach. But at the same time, delving into minutiae of halachic debate or reading ancient stories doesn’t always seem like the most valuable use of my time. Were I to only study Torah, I would be ignorant of a lot of the world around me. Some would find that to be a good thing.
I’ve wondered quite a bit how much the experience of growing up in Israel is different than growing up in the United States. For one thing, how is it that all of your schoolmates and neighbors are Jewish? If you study Judaism all day long, are around Jews all day long, and you’re hardly exposed to other types of people, or at least people of other races and religions, what happens when you go abroad? What happens to your intellectual development and decision making? Is your religious faith and observance strengthened or weakened?
I’m really grateful to be living in a country and a more specifically a city where I can easily meet friends for a kosher lunch and the buses wish you a Purim Sameach during the month of Adar. It’s hard to ignore the Jewish cycle here. But I’m also thankful for having the experience of having to make a real sacrifice in order to find kosher food, go store-to-store hunting down candles, and to incorporate Judaism into my life when the world around me doesn’t stand still on Friday night.
Ilene writes at www.ilenerosenblum.com/blog.