Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Refuge of the Imaginative- Some thoughts on my approach to study and thought

There are two questions that cause me discomfort when I hear them (well, three actually, but hopefully the third is only temporary). The first is when I am asked where I learned in yeshiva, and the second, where I studied in college. When I hear the former, I fear that my answer will show me to be a pretender in the world of Torah study, while the latter question will expose my lack of qualification to be seriously dealing with the academic subjects which fascinate me.

I came to serious Torah learning late, even later than my Modern-Orthodox peers who “flipped” in Israel after high school. I blew off most of my year in yeshiva, and barely treaded water in learning in the subsequent years. It was only after I had married, spent two years in chinuch, and been accepted in an Israeli kollel, that I finally started to learn seriously. Even then, I made a lot of progress on my own and with chavrusas, and never had a real “rebbe” or developed a single derech halimmud.

On the secular side, I also came to my interests in academic bible study and philosophy way too late to benefit from any formal study. Though I’ve made some progress through reading and relationships with rabbis, professors and knowledgeable friends, I’m still essentially an advanced-beginner in these fields.

It is only recently that I have begun to see these weaknesses as partial strengths. Though I sometimes wish that I had learned the Brisker derech of learning, and often wish that I had a PHD or two (or three…), my lack of a particular system has enabled me to develop in a way that feels more organic and true to myself. Is it odd to like Rav Tzadok and William James? Strange that I read Sarna and study the Heamek Davar and learn the Moreh and the Nesivos Shalom? Perhaps, but somewhere in that mix of frum and “heretical” and academic and rational and mystical and existential, is not only where I find myself, but also, where I have found myself. I comfort myself by thinking of quotes like that of Oscar Wilde, that “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”. Somehow in this stew of the religious and secular, intellectual and intuitive, I have found my voice.

This is not to deny that I sometimes (ok, often) find myself thinking of the “what ifs” and dreaming of somehow going back to school to study once again, but here I am, and it is in the here and the now that I must live, think, write and teach. When I am asked those questions that make me uneasy, I am forced (or choose, perhaps) to focus on my weaknesses, but when I am more at ease, I recognize that through the very same experiences which have led to these weaknesses, I have managed to find strengths, and more importantly, myself.

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