Talmud Torah as Spiritual Practice

The enterprise of Talmud Torah tunes our ear to listen for the Divine voice. It is a lifelong project that connects us to the shared consciousness of the Jewish people as we/they have sought God throughout time.

One of my favorite sounds, to make and to hear, is the AHHHHH! of sudden understanding.

It’s that sound you make when the light bulb switches on over your head. It’s the joy of breaking through the hard resistance of confusion into the expansiveness of understanding. It is the joy of suddenly seeing—sometimes something that has been there all along—in a new light. I especially love hearing this sound in the beit midrash, sitting with others studying Torah.

Talmud Torah, the practice of Jewish learning, has been a part of my life since I was a child. In my young, romantic stage, I loved the stories and the tragic heroism of so many of the personalities. As I grew older, I came to love the precision in reading, in turning a phrase this way and that. I began to appreciate the exacting considerations within halakhah (Jewish law), the way each case was viewed from every angle. I saw the way cases expanded to become principles of law. And later, I started to understand, through the interweaving of narrative and law, what it means to have a mythic story that shapes you and propels you to build a life and society of goodness and meaning.

I am now 60 years old, officially an “elder” according to the Mishnah. My life and relationships have been blessed by the wisdom and the mysteries of Torah. I have had amazing teachers, hevrutot (study partners) and students who have expanded my vision of the world and of myself. I have had the privilege of engaging in that cascade of acquisition-verbs laid out in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that precedes the morning Shema, “grant that our hearts might understand, internalize, hear, learn, teach, keep, perform and uphold the words of Your Holy Torah.”

This daily prayer asserts that it is through encountering words of Torah that our God becomes known to us. Similarly, in the early morning berakhah for Torah study, we say, “let us become learners of Your Torah and knowers of Your Name,” implying that it is through the enterprise of Talmud Torah that we might get a glimpse of what it means to “know” the Divine Self. Engaging in Talmud Torah, I want to tune my ear to listen for that Divine voice.

To “translate” this into Reconstructionist language: Learning Torah for me is a lifelong project that connects me to the shared consciousness of the Jewish people as we/they have sought God throughout time. Through that shared Jewish consciousness, I glimpse ways of being and ways of seeing that are no longer accessible in our time-bound, space-bound world. I can enter the holy zone of the Temple, where the life blood of daily sacrifices is still offered to the power that keeps the cosmos spinning. I can enter the ordered universe of Maimonides and discover the commanding benevolence of the Metzaveh (Commander), the Source of Mitzvot. I can consider, through the language-playing minds of the kabbalists, the words mi, WHO? and mah, WHAT? as different names for God at the edges of our perception.

The lifelong project of studying Torah—beyond the deep pleasures of the AHHHHHs of discovery—is, for me, a received mitzvah to be a part of the Jewish mind and heart. I feel commanded and invited to join Jewish memory and mission. I join for my own sake, for the sake of my students, my children, my grandchildren and for the sake of our ever-evolving human consciousness. My learning is a continual prayer that we may discover and spread the love and truth of the Holy One throughout time and space.

The way in is the obstacle, too.

As a modality of spiritual practice, the activity of Talmud Torah is noisier, busier and more agitating than most! Studying Torah does not take us away from linear, analytical thinking into an altered awareness. It does not still us and bring attention to breath and body. It is ultimately an intellectual activity, inquiring into language and expression, “How does this word function to effect meaning? How does this story unfold? What is being stated explicitly and what implicitly?”

Through deductive analytical thinking, we discern and reason. Through inductive associative thinking, we follow imaginative midrash or innovate our own. We use memory and an internal filing system to store accumulated knowledge and information. The more cross-references we call up from our store, the more deductive and inductive moves we can follow or generate.

All of these activities, which can indeed lay the path for eventual awakened seeing, being and loving, are not directly focused on that present state of seeing, being and loving. Talmud Torah often takes us to a place of sharpness, to a land of theorizing, to proving and out-proving. Engaging in a culture of classical Torah study engenders a stance of “yes, BUT …” Sometimes, I find my mind on automatic “BUT,” listening at the same time for the hole in the argument as I listen to the argument itself. “BUT” is confrontative. It’s a fighting word. And we have cultivated its stance through millennia of Jewish legal and homiletical discourse.

The sages of the Talmud speak of milkhamtah shel Torah,[fn]Sanhedrin 42a is the source of the term “milkhamtah shel Torah” and the Rashi on that lemma expounds on its meaning.[/fn] the warfare of Torah study. Makhloket, dispute, is likened to the sharpening of swords one against the other. And among the ultimate achievements of Talmud Torah is the triumph of stumping and undoing your teacher or opponent with the “sharpest question yet!!” There are tales in the Talmud describing the joyful laughter of our sages (and even of God!) as they realize they’ve been bested. But perhaps more often, there are tales of fear and embarrassment at the prospect of being shown up. The tale of the death of Resh Lakish following the barbed comment of Rabbi Yohanan[fn]Bava Metzia 84a on the fatal argument between Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan.[/fn] stands as an extreme example of the vehemence that halakhic dispute might breed.

Pride, righteous indignation and condescension are the collateral damage of the fierce and exacting culture of Torah study. Talmud Torah can generate a hierarchy of honor, competition and self-doubt. Aware of this pitfall, it is important to exercise caution and stay focused on the objective: becoming knowers of the Divine Name. The Talmud describes Torah as the elixir of life and the elixir of death. Use it well, and it will bring you life. Abuse it, and it will be your death.

When I was a student at RRC, Rabbi Art Green defined the ultimate question that the mystic ponders: “How does the MANY proceed from the ONE?” When I think of Talmud Torah as spiritual practice, I hear that question backwards: “How might we access the ONE through the many?”

The very word for “word,” milah, denotes something that is separate and distinct. The act of separating grains is called melilah, and l’mallel is “to speak words.” Language, in its essence, going back to the biblical story of the tower of Babel, is a phenomenon of separation. Accessing the One through the “separate” and “many” is indeed a spiritual conundrum! Even in proclaiming God’s unity as we do each day in the Shema, we enact this with quite a hefty number of words.

Language and words are the field and the fruit of Torah. In traditional Torah study (as in the study of all language expression), there are two directions to go in the interpretation of a word: there is mi’ut, curtailing the meaning, narrowing it down, as we do with the deductive “BUT,” and there is also ribbui, widening and extending what a word might include in its meaning. The ribbui brings us to the AND and the MAYBE.

The faculty of imagination—our ability to project and extrapolate—is an absolute necessity for learning Torah. Into the lacunae of terseness we color in stories, motives, the expansion of cases and the application of the ancient to the contemporary.

Just as the exacting eye of discernment can lead to contention, the creativity and intuition of expansive reading comes with its own dangers. Rav Tzaddok HaCohen Rabinowicz of 19th- century Lublin cautions against hiddushim, innovations in Torah that come through a personal negia, a vested interest. It is all too easy to read into Torah what we wish it were saying. We can notice this at play when distant camps exploit Torah to strengthen their points of view; it’s harder to notice when we are doing it ourselves.

As Reconstructionists, we have our own version of this pitfall. We, too, might, over-read the messages that we wish to find in Torah. We, too, inadvertently decide what “fine ideas” are worthy of our attention and what “backward ideas” ought to be dismissed. This challenge calls us to become aware of our own blind spots. How can we know that what we find in Torah is not the wishful thinking of our minds looking for confirmation?

What originally drew me to RRC 30 years ago was the cultural discourse that engaged that very question. From a sociohistorical angle, we inquired of every work we studied: What were the forces shaping the Jews’ and the author’s visions at that particular time? And regarding ourselves: How is each of us stationed in space and time and person, allowing some signals to penetrate and others to bounce off?

Many years ago, the faculty of RRC articulated four objectives of Reconstructionist learning. I paraphrase them here:

1. To cultivate the understanding that Judaism is not a monolithic entity, but that it is an evolving civilization—a living, changing enterprise.

2. To generate compassion and understanding for the Jews of the past by looking at Jewish ideas and practices from within their original historical-sociological context.

3. To cultivate appreciation for the treasures and gems within Jewish civilization.

4. To acquire a solid base of traditional knowledge so that we have a base from which to reconstruct.

These four points teach us, respectively, about openness, non-judgment, appreciation and humility. We study the same sacred texts that the Jews before us studied, and we study their responses and reactions to those texts. And now, in turn, we add our thoughts, our BUTs and our MAYBEs to the ever-expanding field of Jewish consciousness. Torah study constructs our world, and in this way, it is personal, collective, political and spiritual.

As we do this work, kindness and listening are invaluable. Kind listening to ourselves as we encounter ideas that soothe and ideas that rankle. Kind listening to the aching or hopeful hearts of our people through time as their voices participate in the ever-continuing conversation of Torah. Kind listening for the beauty often obscured behind the foreignness of distant cultures. It is the attitude of kindness and understanding that enables us to cultivate the perception of the expansiveness of the AND.

The sages embrace this AND with the famous teaching of eilu v’eilu divrei elohim hayyim: “These and these are the words of the living God.” In its perfection, the very warfare of Torah can bring us to a wide view that encompasses our own views alongside the views of our opponents. This is the vision referred to as seventy faces of the Torah.

In reaching for the One through the many, we find that the all-encompassing view is not a dissolving oneness as much as it is the viewing of a multi-faceted gem. Each face of the gem catches the light in its own distinct way.

This is perhaps why, as a spiritual practice, Talmud Torah will always be busy and noisy. Each person, in the image of the Divine, working their voice into what will become a polished face of the gem of the Jewish people: a bright collection of dazzling depth and beauty, refracting the Original Divine Light of Awareness.  

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