Thursday, May 15, 2014

Moreshet Yaakov- Ensuring That Every Jew has Their Portion in Torah

What is the goal of Torah study? Who should teach it? To whom should should it be be taught? How should Torah be taught? These are some of the questions which I have been thinking about. I suppose it began with MK Ruth Calderon's historic speech after she joined the Knesset. I was already fascinated by her back-story, as a founder of a secular beit midrash. I began to reconsider what Torah learning meant and how to approach it. For a long time, I had thought of it as an endeavor of those who are already observant or looking to be, or have academic interest in it. Suddenly there was another possibility; learning Torah to learn Torah. An article this week by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo “God is Relocating: A Critique on Contemporary Orthodoxy”, which is quite long but tremendously thought provoking, as well as an article by Beth Kisselef “Where Denominations Lose Their Meaning”, about various venues where Torah is explored together by Jews of various stripes, brought this issue back in focus. What follows is not meant to be a halachic analysis, or even my permanent conclusion. I write this as a way of sharing and helping shape my thoughts, and, of course, to get feedback.

In Eichah Rabbah the rabbis imagine God as saying “Would that they (Bnei Yisrael) abandon me and guard (keep?) my Torah”. On the surface, this seems to suggest that by observing God's Torah, we would return back to him. There is an obvious difficulty here. Part of observing God's Torah involves not abandoning God. Therefore, I believe the midrash is saying that by learning Torah, we are led back to God. I would agree that, at the very least, one who attempts to learn Torah with a goal of reaching God will be led back to Him. What of someone who learns without that goal? Assuming that they are not doing so for negative reasons (as per Tosafos), will it lead back to God? Sometimes.

What I do know is that, to echo Kierkegaard, our objectivity is inherently subjective, and thus, I have no desire to do kiruv, in the sense of trying to convince someone that I have the truth. What I do want to do is teach and learn Torah with my fellow Jews. Not as a hidden way of doing kiruv, but simply as a way of learning Torah. What about learning Torah from my fellow Jews? Am I really prepared to hear Torah from someone who does not believe in God, or believes differently? Absolutely. As much as for some of my fellow Orthodox jews, this might be shocking or forbidden, I wonder whether they have ever thought about what message is given when we are only willing to teach them, but not learn from them. To be clear, I am not talking about polemics, where they or I would be trying to push a belief system. The goal would be to learn the texts of Torah together, trying to understand the text. Is there a danger in this approach? I don't think so. I am not afraid to hear ideas which might be different than my own. None other than the Rambam advised us to consider the message and not the messenger when looking for truth. I do however think that learning in this manner might not be ideal for younger students.

Of course, I am not saying this is the only way that learning should take place but I do think there is great value in this approach. If we truly believe that Torah is the inheritance of every Jew, than seeing to it that as many Jews as possible learn it has to be the goal. To those who insist that it will be on Orthodox terms, by us, in our institutions, I would say that you are automatically limiting the amount of Jews who will learn Torah. Many Jews do not feel comfortable in our institutions, something which we ought to think about on many levels. If we will only teach Torah on our terms, that is another way of saying we are okay with many Jews never learning Torah. I, for one, am not

Finally, what's the end game? What's my agenda? Very simply, my goal is that as many Jews as possible should learn Torah, wrestle with Torah and think about what it means to them. I want the head of Jewish Federation to know how to learn gemara. I want a Hillel director to wrestle with the sugya of Tanur Shel Achnai. I want it to reach a point where a secular MK sharing Torah in the Knesset is as common as arguments in the Knesset. Finally, I want Orthodox Jews to be part of God's directive to ensure that His Torah is shared. V'sein Chelkeinu B'Torasecha.

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