"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Learning Torah with humility

Learning Torah with humility

Rabbi Y. Oliver

At first glance, both Torah wisdom and secular wisdom (lehavdil) are wisdom, and should be treated similarly. However, this is not so. Since the Torah is divine wisdom, one should approach it in a way fundamentally different, and in some ways even opposite, from the way that one approaches secular wisdom.

In the realm of secular wisdom, no concept is sacred. Every concept must be examined critically and rigorously before it can be accepted. To do otherwise is to fail to employ the principles of reason and the laws of logic in the use of one’s mind.

This process is known as critical thinking, and for the secularist, this is the highest virtue, the greatest badge of honor, the key to greatness, and the only possible method of arriving at truth. Since the human mind is the supreme arbiter of truth, if a given concept stands up to intellectual scrutiny, it might be true; if not, not. Conversely, anyone who accepts any idea without having examined it critically is dismissed as a naïve simpleton.

In Torah, however, every teaching (assuming it was taught by a rabbi of sufficient caliber) is a revelation of Hashem's will and is thus inherently sacred. A corollary of this is the Torah’s perfection, for just as Hashem is perfect, so is His wisdom, as it is written, “The Torah of Hashem is perfect.”[1] Hence, the observant Jew accepts the teaching as absolutely true even before understanding it, and will continue to accept it even in the event that he has great difficulty understanding it.

However, this is not to say that questions will not arise, and that all concepts in Torah will be immediately clear and obvious. On the contrary, Hashem designed the Torah such that it can only be truly acquired through intense effort.[2]

When a question arises on an accepted concept in secular wisdom, one (rightly) entertains the notion that the current theory might indeed be faulty. In contrast, when a question arises in one’s studies in Torah, one’s faith in what the Torah teaches is not shaken whatsoever. Rather, one views the conceptual difficulty as simply one of countless opportunities that Hashem grants the serious Torah scholar to toil in Torah in order to discover the answer to the question. Moreover, the Talmud promises that one who toils will surely ultimately find the solution to his question.[3]

In fact, questions are not only possible in Torah study, they are inevitable. As any serious student of Torah knows, any discussion of a topic (known as a sugya) involves delving into some points in great depth, discussing others in moderate depth, and mentioning still others only in passing. Questions will likely arise on the points not as thoroughly discussed, and in order to resolve these questions and reach full understanding of these concepts, one must expend the effort necessary to seek other sources that elucidate them. Of this our Sages say, “The words of Torah are poor in one place, and rich in another.”[4]

In summary, the believing Jew approaches Torah study with intense awe and humility, and attributes any lack of understanding on his part to a shortcoming in his own puny understanding, not in Torah . Accordingly, on the verse, “For it is no empty matter for you” (“ki lo davar reik hu mikem”), our sages interpret: “It is no empty matter—and if it is empty, it is from you” (“ve’im reik, hu mikem”).[5]
If the Torah appears to the person “empty,” i.e., lacking in wisdom, chas veshalom, he should know that this emptiness is “from you”—due to his own personal deficiencies.

(What deficiencies might prevent one from understanding Torah? As mentioned, if the Jew toils, Hashem promises that he will find the answer to his questions. So his lack of understanding may stem from not having toiled enough. Or he may have only studied the topic from sources that explain it superficially, and not bothered to track down the sources that explain it in depth, which hold the answers to his questions. He may be lacking in fear of Heaven, which prevents him from being a vessel to Torah and truly understanding it. And so on.)

[1] Tehillim 19:8.
[2] Megillah 6b.
[3] ibid.
[4] Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 3:5.
[5] Ibid., Shabbat 1:4; Shevi’is, 1:5.


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  1. My latest post, in fact, is an example of your thesis:

  2. Ironically, the profound conglomeration of scientific thought called the “theory of everything” (TOE) sounds very much like the “future age of redemption” (AOR) foretold in the Torah, during which all physical phenomena will be revealed and understood under the leadership of the Meshiach. Moreover, if any of the scientists want to find out “how the primary creative force and the ongoing creative process relate to the universe and its contents”, they need only to open The Tanya, the previously mentioned work of Kabbalah compiled by Rabbi Schneur Zalman (of blessed memory) and published more than two hundred years ago in 1799. There they will find “The Theory of Everything” explained in clear, concise and lucid detail.


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