How is My Learning? Proposing an Annual Checkup
by Rabbi Mishael Zion
“The crown of Torah is ready and waiting for all… all who want are invited to come and take a share”
(Maimonides’ Code, Talmud Torah 3:1)
Here is a proposal for Shavuot beyond the cheesecake. If the High Holidays are the time we inspect our behavior towards others, and Passover the time we take stock of our freedom, then Shavuot, being a celebration of our becoming the “People of the Book,” should be about how we are doing at learning.
Granted, the number of people who maintain a practice of Jewish learning might be slim, but judging by the joy I get from reading articles on exercise and yoga without being much of a practitioner of either, I hope this project can garner some readership. Thus I offer a “Jewish Learning Checkup” for maintaining a healthy and generative learning practice.
This is not a prescriptive brow-beating checkup (we’ll leave that for Yom Kippur), but rather an aspirational diagnostic tool, five categories through which to examine ones practice:
A Jewish Learning Checkup:
- Kevah: How can my learning be more than leisure?
- Canon: What are the texts I wish to engage with?
- Hevruta: Who are the partners challenging me in my journey?
- Hiddush: Is my learning generating innovations – in the text and in myself?
- Action: Does my learning inspire my actions?
Reflection and context on these five questions follows.
1. Kevah: Learning as a regular practice
“Do not say, I will study when I have the time,
for you may never have the time.”
How can learning be embedded into an already overstuffed life? How do we prevent it from being relegated to a sporadic leisure activity?
In the age of the Netflix-induced decline of communal cultural campfires, the experience of living in a shared cultural rhythm is even harder to attain in our lives. This shift is also disruptive to the first floor of Jewish learning which has always been connecting a canon to a communal calendar. This cyclical approach informs everything from the ancient “Parashat haShavua” (weekly Torah portion) to the recent “Daf Yomi” (daily page of Talmud). Text becomes a routinized practice which is weaved into the fabric of the busy life, synchronizing individuals with the pulsating rhythm of a community of learners. It is less about content and more about constant.
Today’s world calls for a learning practice which is a personalized journey, where content and relevance reign supreme, and thankfully so. Yet much can be adopted from the communal calendar approach: Timed benchmarks, even in the smallest of doses, are meaningful – as long as they are regularized. There is enormous power to commitment, whether it is reading “one midrash a week” or “a new Jewish book each year.” It might be a low bar quantitatively, but placing the project of Jewish learning as a fixture of your own story is the significant act here. Celebrating success with a “siyyum” is another great institution: Friends (and smoked fish) are invited to celebrate a learning milestone, adding a healthy social element to a personalized practice, and providing an opportunity for the learner to become a teacher – sharing with others what they’ve learned.
To be sure, knowing that one should maintain a practice is a far cry from actually starting one. What makes you go out and do, and then keep it up? Think of your physical exercise practices – what can be learned from those? For the learning you already do – how can you share and celebrate it with others?
2. Canon: Weaving canonical texts into life
“Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it”.
I remember the mystified look my daughter gave me when she first saw me kiss a book that fell on the floor. Canonizing is the practice of deciding that a certain body of texts is of elevated status, and is thus worthy of returning to time and again. This higher status changes not only the frequency in which the book is read, but also the way in which it is read. Canonized texts are read with a classicist assumption: that one can find personal meaning and relevancy in the text beyond the context in which it was written. The canonized corpus is constantly returned to, creating a language and a collective imagination which shape the learner’s world view. The more regularly we enter the magical kingdom of the text, the more that kingdom becomes the overlay through which we understand our own life and society.
Many think the Jewish canon is a closed one, comprised solely of texts written centuries ago in an imaginary Jewish vacuum. But the Jewish learning canon has always been wider than perceived, and in modern times we have seen an expansion to include Jewish novels and literature, modern poetry, academic scholarship, art and film (in a Bronfman Fellowships learning session, Yehuda Amichai is as canonical as the Talmud… ). One could also advocate for a learning practice that highlights shared canons: the American canon, a World Religions or Western Philosophy canon, to name but a few.
Not all texts are worthy of becoming canonical – it is the exclusivity that makes canons work. The important question is: what are the canons I choose to engage with? What are the canons that my community invites me to explore? What are the texts in my life which I elevate, return to them again and asking: how is this text relevant to me now?
3. Hevruta: Finding partners for adventures in learning
“A person who studies alone – is like a lone branch aflame. A group of friends studying together – are like a bonfire of many branches.”
(Yossef Gikatila, The Book of Parables, Spain 13th C)
The library, taking its cues from the monastery’s scriptorium, is a place of solitary, silent, devotional learning. The Beit Midrash in contrast is loud, noisy, heated and, well, sweaty…. Texts are read aloud, and the more noise and contrasting readings and opinions one can produce – the better. Jewish learning is most generative with partners – be it the havurah/study-circle/book-group, or the hevruta/one-on-one friendship.
Finding the right Hevruta has all complexities of dating, but Hevruta is also a frame of mind. There is a healthy pluralism to learning when it is done in Hevruta. The “Hevruta personality” seeks to be challenged, and demonstrates openness towards other perspectives. In the hands of the right partner, vulnerability and a willingness to be “at risk” in front of the text are be present. Even rejecting a text requires enough understanding of both the text and oneself in order to understand why the learner is deciding to reject it.
Which partners do we wish for ourselves in our learning practice – which are already there? How can we turn friends and colleagues into Hevrutas? Are we challenging ourselves to new perspectives that make us think differently?
4. Hiddush: Innovations in interpreting text and self
“One cannot have a Beit Midrash without Hiddush (=innovation)”
(Talmud Bavli Hagigah 3a)
One who engages in Jewish learning is always asked “What hiddush was there in the House of Learning today?” (Bavli Hagigah 3a). A regularized canon has an aspect of passivity to it, a repetition by rote of things one has already heard before. Thus Talmudic tradition balances the regularized with the innovative, mandating hiddush: the desire for innovative readings, fresh understandings and surprising turns in the plot. There is a theology at play here: just as God “recreates the world anew each day,” so we recreate and innovate, rejuvenating the text, the learning, and ourselves. Generating Hiddushim is a daunting task, one that requires producing Torah as much as learning Torah.
A learning practice that is committed to Hiddush is also about being committed to personal innovation. In Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s words, each human life is considered “the greatest hiddush!” When learning and innovating in Torah, we must strive to be innovating in ourselves, recreating ourselves, rediscovering our story and sharing it with the world anew.
What innovative connections can I make through my learning? How do I not only consume Torah, but create it? What is it about myself that I want my learning to help me better understand?
5. Action: Connecting learning to doing
“Great is learning which inspires action”
(Bavli Kidushin 40b)
What is at stake in our learning? Not just this or that intellectual attainment or private self-understanding, but the very way we are in the world. This is not just about reading texts as normative authorities which provide answers to specific dilemmas (i.e. Halakha, which has prime place in Jewish learning), but about the way Aggadah – the stories, imagination and language of Jewish texts – inspire our behavior. Our learning should inform our disposition towards others, our political decisions, the way we exercise power and authority at work and in the home, the way we consume and purchase, eat and buy – this is a learning that is worthy of its name.
In mussar circles there is a practice of stepping back from each text learnt and asking “What is this in avodah, in my work?” What can I take from this text to my own life’s work? What question can I be asking to allow my learning to inspire my action?
On Shavuot night, thousands of Jews will place learning at the center of Jewish life, encountering texts and ideas late into the night, across Jewish practices and ideologies. What does it mean to take Jewish learning into the year? The Midrash describes how Ben Azzai was –
“Stringing the words of Torah, and from Torah to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the Writings, and the fire surrounded him, and the words were as joyous as when they were given at Sinai” (Shir haShirim Rabba 1:10)
Maintaining a practice of Jewish learning is not a simple endeavor. But when the text, the hevruta and the learning is on, surely the fire of hiddush can be felt, and for a moment, you know the Torah was given at Sinai, simply because the words are so joyous.
Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”, and blogs regularly at textandcity.blogspot.com.