Studying Torah is a Mitzvah… In fact, I believe it is THE highest mitzvah… But what does it all mean? How does one go about “studying Torah”? Is it simply reading the Five Books… The Tanakh (The Holy Scriptures)?
The other night at a class Marc F. mentioned that many Jews, observant Jews, he has spoken with, do not even know all of the Ten Commandments. This was shocking to so many of us… And then of course, I had to check myself… Okay… Got ’em!
How can one be truly Jewish if we don’t really understand Judaism and the Torah? I am not necessarily one to speak, as I have always felt Jewish, but have really not studied since my Bar Mitzvah. I know many people who call themselves “Cultural Jews,” which I define as celebrating the holidays and enjoying the culture… and probably digging on a nice onion bagel or bialy with cream cheese, onions, tomatoes, capers, lox and a schemer. Until recently, I would put myself in that camp.
But knowledge is power. Knowledge defines us, and in order to truly share Judaism with others, you have to understand it, you have to be knowledgeable, you have to be studied. In the same class we discussed how important it is to study with a Rabbi who you like and respect… and even better, if you have a friend or study buddy to go on the journey with. Support is key!
So to me studying Torah means understanding who we are, where we came from, what Judaism is all about and how to share it. It makes me happy to have someone look to me for an answer or for information. I love to share whatever I know, and I feel a responsibility to be as learned as possible. My nickname is the Human Zagat. If you are traveling anywhere and need a restaurant or food place, look me up! Seriously!
So… I had NEVER read the Torah word for word and not until very recently, and I have to say it is not an easy read. It is challenging. It brings up questions and concerns and confusion. It is repetitive and at times dense… Sometimes, as in Numbers, it seems like it’s just lists… or laws… or do this or do that.
I have learned that the Oral Torah is just as important and that must be part of the study. I have learned to be careful and not take things too literal or literally, yet there are certain things that are very clear… things that make me uncomfortable.
What I love about the Rabbis that I am studying with… Shlomo Seidenfeld… and Avi Rabin from the Chabad of West Hills… and the brilliant non-Rabbi Howard Witkin at AISH for Pirkei Avos... is that they want me to question… they want me to wrestle and be uncomfortable… to really prod and dig deep. This is how one grows… To roll over and accept things is not in my nature… I want to get my hands dirty… to deeply consider and understand them viscerally… to connect!
I also study with Jason through Partners in Torah, discussing and dissecting a variety of topics. It is all moving me forward and making me more learned.
To study something is not simply to read it. That is part of it, but it is really, and most importantly, to comprehend it, to understand it… to… I don’t want to say master it, though I think that is a goal to strive for… but to truly make it a practical, living, breathing thing for you.
If it is something that is kept at a distance, that does not find a way into your life in a practical manner then ultimately, what good is it? For me, Torah must manifest itself spiritually and practically… it must help me understand how to become a better person or at least a better version of myself.
The more knowledge you have, the better able you are to converse with people, to engage with them… and also to defend yourself and your beliefs, which unfortunately you have to do a lot more in the world these days. Understanding the situation in the Middle East as honestly, and thoroughly and truthfully as possible, will allow you to have a much more honest discourse on the subject of Israel… which comes up a lot, and frustratingly, sometimes when you are threatened with an anti-Semitic or anti-Israel comment or commentary.
Knowledge allows you to engage in a productive conversation. You are not trying to change someone or win them over, but you are trying to get them to a point of understanding and perhaps even acceptance.
In my mind, studying Torah means learning as much as you can about the actual books, as it does Judaism, about the history and culture and rituals of the Jewish people… And so when your opinion is asked, you are able to share it in an excited and positive way, without shoving it down someone’s throat.
Judaism and studying Torah should be a celebration… it should give you a sense of joy and pride and an understanding of who you are… because when you understand the rituals and the culture and the holidays and Shabbat and why you are doing them… and then sharing that with others is magical, uplifting, powerful and joyous.
So let’s study Torah!