What Studying Text can Teach Us About Our Place in the World

By Rabbi Michael Shire

Learning Jewish texts has long been the practice of Jewish education, though I personally was not exposed to a rabbinic text in its original language and printed setting until late in adolescence. I remember it being a thrill to see a passage in an edition of the Talmud and slowly make my way through the Mishnah and some commentary on the side of the page. It felt truly authentic and a spiritual exercise to be connected to centuries of interpretation and discussion. I would hope that in this generation, students in non-Orthodox educational settings are experiencing that thrill a lot earlier than I did!

We talk about exposing our students and children to Jewish texts, but often that means handing out a copied sheet or preparing sources on an online tool like Sefaria. However, there is nothing like handling a bound volume of a rabbinic or medieval text with all of its nuance, texture and depth. Despite our penchant for technology, I hope we never lose our love of the book or indeed the scroll, as a form of ritual and close reading.

Once we open the text, we may wonder what meaning it offers to contemporary students and families who are engaging with Jewish schools, synagogues and other learning communities. Two shiurim I attended this month gave me further insight into why Jewish texts and the acquiring of literacy is so crucial to understanding and leading a Jewishly engaged life. The first shiur, led by our Hebrew College teacher and Rabbinical School Rector Rabbi Art Green, introduced us to an esoteric text that seemed so far away from any contemporary meaning. It was a Jewish mystical text that spoke of the hairs on God’s beard (Zakan) and connected it to Abraham’s growing old (Zaken) “and coming into his days” (Genesis 24:1). You can’t get a closer look at God than that! The text explains that Abraham comes into his days when he finds the wisdom from God’s presence and lives a life connected to that awareness. This is the wisdom of growing old and becoming a ‘greybeard’ or ‘wise woman.’ This is a surely a goal of Jewish education; to bring to awareness and cultivation, the spiritual awareness in students and the guidance to draw upon it in making decisions about their lives.

The second shiur was led by one of our students who boldly asked the age old question: What is more important to study or to act? Famously Rabbi Akiva had debated this subject with Rabbi Tarfon with the sages in the Talmud and they had not agreed. Rabbi Tarfon was sure action was greater but Rabbi Akiva exclaimed study was greater. The Talmud then offers a third opinion which left me thinking what it really meant. The third opinion, put into the mouths of ‘everyone,’ is that “study is more important because it leads to action”! At first I thought that was a nice compromise, putting together the two rabbis’ opinions and then combining them so both feel good and both categories are included. But then the shiur helped me realize that actually ‘everyone’ was really supporting Rabbi Akiva. ‘Study is greater,’ they said as Akiva had done. It was refutation of Tarfon. You may remember that Akiva supported Bar Kochba against the Romans and died a martyr in their hands, so he was not averse to action. I think of him seeking God’s presence in his study and learning and letting it bring him to momentous decisions about his living in the world and trying to achieve his aspirations for the Jewish People. Tragically it was not to be in his generation.

My learning this month has reminded me that just studying some more for myself has opened me up to thinking about my place in the world. Where can I show wisdom? Where can I repair the world and do justice? I may find myself volunteering or demonstrating or serving, but soon I will go back to the texts to stroke my beard and see where I am going next!

Rabbi Dr Michael Shire is Chief Academic Officer & Dean of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.


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