August 24, 2006
Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning
Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.
The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the "path" that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.
Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God's world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.
In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither "too baffling" nor "beyond their reach." He poetically anticipates their objections -- that the words of God are too far way, either "in the heavens" or "beyond the sea," for a mere human to even approach.
Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: "No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."
When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are "observing" the Torah, creating a path to God through study. For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.
Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew -- not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.
I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women's section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.
It was a long, hard slog -- college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.
Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time -- through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.
But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I've seen them in the adult b'nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that "maybe I'm too old to learn," worry that "everybody but me knows what they're doing already" -- all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they'll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.
Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.
The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table -- this kind of learning doesn't happen with rows and a dais -- although that kind of learning has its place too).
I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.
Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it's often an adult b'nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.
For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women's study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God's actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.
Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader's role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).
The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning -- from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts -- in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.
Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week -- although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b'nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children's Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.
Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz's "Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts" (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is "The Commentator's Bible" by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.
Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma'asim tovim (good deeds).
When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are "observing" the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master's degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.