Judaism's Basic Law: Torah Study

The Jewish nation must study Torah and that study must take place on three levels.

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Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

Hareidi soldiers study Torah
Hareidi soldiers study Torah
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The Vision of Talmud Torah

When attempting to present a vision for the State of Israel, it is imperative to first address the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (Torah study), since the unique vision of the Jewish people is revealed in the Torah. The further we expand and deepen our study of Torah, the more we will understand our special role as a nation, as individuals, and as members of family and community.

This mitzvah is so great that our Sages said it is equivalent to all the commandments.

“Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper storey of Nithza's house, in Lydda, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater, for it leads to practice. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to action” (Talmud Kiddushin 40b).

There are two meanings to the conclusion of our Sages: First, that Talmud Torah is great. Second, that it leads to action. Accordingly, if Talmud Torah does not lead to action, it is not great. From this we also learn the importance of action when it stems from the Torah.

The Three Levels

The Jewish nation’s study of Torah must take place on three levels:

1) Study aimed at promoting great Torah scholars who elucidate issues for the benefit of the clal (general populace), including morei hora’ah (law deciders), community rabbis, dayanim (judges), and ramim (rabbis) for advanced yeshiva studies.

2) Study aimed at training rabbis working in the fields of education and counseling: teachers, instructors, counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

3) Torah study for all Jews to know the basics of Torah – general rules and details – in order to manage their lives according to its path. To achieve this, significant study time must be dedicated in the formative years of life, and afterwards throughout the years, times must be set for Torah study.

Facilitating the Study of Torah Scholars

The first level is the study of Torah scholars who delve into the Torah to understand its foundations and reasoning, and to reveal its illuminating light for the clal, the family, and the individual – to clarify its laws and instructions, i.e., what is permitted, and what is forbidden; what is commanded, and what is optional; the Sabbath, and the holidays; the administration of justice, personal and public conflict resolution, setting decent work arrangements, and long-term planning for a sound spiritual, social, and economic life.

These Torah scholars will also lead the communities, teach in yeshivas, and serve as judges in the rabbinical courts.

Only then we will then be able to influence the entire world with goodness and blessing. At present, the advanced technology and power placed in the hands of man are in desperate need of moral guidance. Today, mankind possesses enough bombs to destroy the world a number of times over.

There are countries living in unprecedented wealth, but the people’s lives have become dreary and futile, to the extent that the future of the nation is at risk. Bordering these countries are others with countless desperately poor and frustrated people suffering from hunger and disease, while at the same time, a handful of their fellow brothers are rich, possessing control over sophisticated weaponry and all of technology’s wonders.

Israel’s role is to spread the light of Torah and ethical behavior in the world. “For from Zion will go forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem”.

For this purpose, we must advance Torah scholars who devote themselves to their studies and also realize the responsibility placed upon them – to enlighten and guide the daily life of the individual and society.

Talmud Torah to Train Educators

The second level concerns the training of Torah scholars who will engage in education, teaching, counseling and therapy. There is no need to expand upon the importance of the field of education; nevertheless, it is important to mention that to the extent both men and women teachers know Torah – both in scope and in depth – the higher quality their teaching will be.

Talmud Torah for the Various Counselors

An additional challenge is for all the various types of counselors and advisors to also be Torah scholars. It would be fitting that within religious educational frameworks such as yeshivas and michlalot (colleges), alongside serious Torah study, suitable students should also study the knowledge that mankind has accumulated in recent generations.

All the subject material that social workers and psychologists normally learn in university should be taught, but in the light of the Torah and leading to tikkun and spiritual elevation. It appears that genuine b’nei Torah (Torah scholars), who are willing to faithfully serve the public as psychologists and social workers can bring great tidings to these important professions.

Currently, these fields are at odds. The rift is deep and stems from the academic mindset which tends to divide up the fields into separate departments. And thus, we often find a situation where a child suffers from learning disabilities and mental health problems, his parents have marital problems as well, and to top it off, their finances are poorly managed. Even if they receive the best possible care, it is carried out by four different people who usually are uncoordinated, and at times, hold differing value systems.

This is why so many problems reach the desks of the rabbis, who are forced to engage in numerous areas which often are far from their world and expertise, and only on account of their dedication to their communities do they offer their time. Thanks to their wisdom, experience and intuition – together with the assistance of various experts, and with the help of God, they are usually more successful in assisting people than the professionals.

If b’nei Torah were to engage in these fields in a professional manner, their approach would be a comprehensive one, with the objective of achieving a complete tikkun. Even if they have to split up the care between different individuals, a singular objective would remain – to improve the patient’s situation, with Torah values serving the professionals and their patient’s as a powerful motivator for tikkun, and as a foundation for shared, moral values.

The Immense Tikkun Involved

In compliance with this vision, those people delegated by society to treat personal and social problems (psychologists and social workers), will be Torah scholars who constantly engage in Torah study, giving classes to adults and youth in their communities, combined with an eagerness to respond to the different needs in their surroundings. If no one comes to them, they will continue delving into the Torah and wisdom, with an emphasis on their various fields. Thus, each problem will be answered in the best possible way, the level of the counselors will constantly advance, and the condition of our society will be infinitely better.

Talmud Torah for All

The third level involves the mitzvah of Torah study required of every Jew – to encompass all the foundations of the Torah – in halakha, mussar (ethics), and machshava (Jewish thought). In this respect, the study of Torah is different from the study of science and the humanities, which are generally termed as ‘external wisdom’, as compared to the inner, essential wisdom of the Torah.

In regards to the fields of external wisdom, not all are required to study them. It is sufficient that a group of talented people devote themselves to their studies and develop all of society’s needs, while the rest of the populace benefit from their work.

Torah, however, must be learned by every Jew since the study of Torah reveals the soul, perfects character traits, and leads a person to perform good deeds. Without this, it is impossible to live a proper life.

In this regards, Rambam (Maimonides) wrote:

“Every Jewish man is obligated in Talmud Torah ; whether poor or rich, whether healthy or afflicted; whether a young man or an old man whose strength is gone; even if he was a poor man taking his sustenance from charity and going door-to-door; even a family man is obligated to establish a time for Talmud Torah during the day and at night; as it says ‘vehagita bo yomam valayla’ [and you shall meditate upon it [Torah] day and night] (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:8).

Each Individual’s Torah Study Benefits All

Moreover, the benefit of each individual’s Torah study is not only to guide his personal life, but it is directly related to the grand vision of tikkun olam. First, because it is impossible to create a good society without all its members being full partners in its vision. By way of the Torah study of each individual, all of a person’s social circles – family, community, and work – are increasingly imbued with substance, and constantly enhanced.

Furthermore, since no two people are alike, every Jew who learns Torah reveals a unique spark in it, and discovers a positive point all his own. Since some of the learning is done in groups, people’s individual insights emerge as questions or answers, are integrated into the general learning, deepen the understanding, and share in the complete revelation of the Torah.

Unfortunately, in the religious educational system – including high school yeshivas, and perhaps even beyond this stage – the students are not adequately taught what they need to know to guide their lives according to the Torah. We must strive to improve the educational curriculum, and develop frameworks that enable adults to set times for Torah study.

Men and Women

Here, we must touch on the difference between men and women’s obligation to study Torah. Women are obligated to study the fundamentals of emunah and mussar (faith and ethics), and all the halakhot (laws) needed to guide one’s life. Beyond this, however, they are not obligated to learn Torah.

As for men, even if they have learned everything needed to guide their lives according to Torah, they are still obligated, according to their capability, to continue going over and delving deeper into the words of the Torah without limit.

Women wishing to do so fulfill a mitzvah, and the more society progresses and grows, the more women will want to study and deepen their Torah learning (see, Rambam, Yisodei HaTorah 4:14).

In any event, today, when life has become more complex and complicated, and no field exists in which serious study is not required – above and beyond what was acceptable in the past – even women’s required Torah study is so vast that, regrettably, most religious men fail to adequately encompass it. This is in view of the fact that all the practical halakhot must be learned, and in order to fulfill them properly, their explanations and foundations must be clearly understood. Furthermore, the fundamentals of emunah and mussar must be studied seriously and in depth, including the special role of each and every individual, and the Jewish nation as a whole (see, Pininei Halakha, Hilchot Nashim 7:2, footnote 1).

Even if a woman managed to learn everything, she is required to continue setting times for Torah study in order to refresh her knowledge, so Torah can continue enlightening and guiding her life. All this is a precondition to voluntary study beyond what women are required to learn.

The necessary Torah study for women today in effect includes the subject matter teachers and therapists in training learn, nevertheless it is desirable for women who choose to work in these fields to continue deepening their knowledge in matters connected to their occupations.

The Basic Law

In order to firmly fix this utmost national value in our public life, a Basic Law of Torah study should be enacted, affirming that “The State of Israel is committed to encourage and fund the study of Torah in Israel”, along with detailing the three levels of study mentioned above.

This article appeared in the ‘Besheva’ weekly newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.