Learning Torah with Our Own Eyes (Ideas #86)


 In Honor of the Publication of
Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus
The essay below was written soon after the publication of the previous
volume over 
three years ago and much of what appears here applies
equally well to the new book. 


The excitement around my new book is still in the air. Having hoped to initiate a dialog with my readers, the enthusiastic response of many has been most gratifying.


Of particular interest has been one reaction to some of the patterns that I discovered in the Biblical text. Some readers said that “now that you have pointed it out, I don't know how I could have missed it all this time.” Of course, that is a common reaction to many inventions around us. How many of us have thought this about stick-on notes, wondering how much money we could have made by discovering the obvious?


I would suggest another reason, however, why many of my readers will not have noticed the patterns that I observed in my study of the holy text. This has to do with how the biblical text is taught in most of our institutions. While, thanks to the efforts of Nechama Leibowitz, her students and others like them, more and more classrooms are asking the question, “What's bothering Rashi?”, once we figure that out, we are content to get Rashi's (or Ramban's  or Seforno's) answer to what was bothering him and to move on to the next problem. In other words, that which was once an exercise in literary analysis has become more akin to work on math problems: Once we appreciate and understand the equation, our task is to find its one and only preexisting answer. The same answer is accessible to all and is the common pursuit of all who embark on the equation.


The fact that our commentators noticed different things and, even when they noticed the same questions, often gave different answers, should make us realize that we are not looking for set answers to math problems. Rather, we are looking for the text's objective message to us.


(I use the word objective advisedly. I believe that each reader must work within the constraints provided by the text, which will only allow for a limited number of possibilities for any specific reader. There is no greater betrayal of G-d's gift of the Torah than making it say that which it does not. Thus, one of the most important things that we should learn from our commentators is to approach the text with discipline and with respect for every last detail. This is because we want the text to interact with us and not just to be a mirror reflection of our own consciousness.)


Not to be misunderstood, sensitizing ourselves to the types of questions and answers given by the greatest textual analysts of the past is most valuable. This study will allow us to understand the rules of the game, to appreciate how the Torah speaks to us, to know what patterns are significant and what patterns are not. Indeed without this knowledge, our insights will remain childish and even boorish. Still, when Rashi studied the text, the questions he asked bothered him and the answers that he gave satisfied him. It was a personal involvement with the text and so, not only an intellectual exercise, but a meaningful religious one as well. So too with all of the great commentaries. More important than their specific insights, our great commentators present us with a model of how to approach the text. Among other things, they show us to ask the questions that are important to us and to be willing to give the answers that resonate for us.


When we study the Torah only to see what others have said about it, we remove the direct interaction between man and G-d that should be the hallmark of what we call Talmud Torah. Allowing a reader to study the text independently is not only a motivational tool to get him to enjoy and better remember that which he learns. More importantly, it is a key to the religious significance of Torah study. It has been said that when we pray, we speak to G-d, but when we study Torah He speaks to us. By its very nature, speech is directed to an audience. When G-d speaks to us, he is not speaking to Rashi or Ramban. Oftentimes, He will say the same thing to all three of us. But, just as He often said something different to Ramban than to Rashi, we should expect that there will be times that He will say something different to us than he said to either. This is the living experience of Talmud Torah and presumably the type of activity for which we bless G-d every morning.


As I stated in the introduction to my book, one of my primary goals is to guide by example. In writing Redeeming Relevance, I meant to show that independent Torah study is not supposed to be a thing of the past.  I believe that if we want the Torah to be a true book of life, it is time for us to learn Torah with our own eyes.