Friday, July 07, 2006

Torah,Torah, Torah!

I believe that the ethos of “Torah, Torah, Torah,” has gone to extremes. Some Yeshiva people believe this slogan quite literally. They try their utmost not to waste ANY time, and study Torah diligently as much as they possibly can. If one reads the letter the Vilna Gaon wrote to his family when he was traveling from town to town as an act of penance (“pravin’ galus”), one can see how totally severe and obsessive the Gaon was that his wife and daughters not waste ANY time in idle talk and chatter.

In practice, how does the Ultra-Orthodox wide conception of Torah study actually work? In our generation at least, I can’t speak of the Vilna Gaon, even great Talmudic scholars engage to a greater or lesser degree in small talk and in non-Torah activities with their families and friends. It’s impossible to raise children without playing with them, and it is impossible to maintain a marriage if all one does is talk Torah. It must be that the rule against wasting time from the study of Torah is what Kant would call an imperfect duty. It can’t exactly be specified in exact detail what one must do at any given time. It must somehow be in each individual’s discretion how to interpret this duty. However if no time is the right time, you are failing to perform the duty. I think most grown up mature people know this, even if they sometimes talk as if Torah study is a perfect strict requirement. In talking up Torah,Torah,Torah as much as they do, the Ultra Orthodox at least promote the geek ideal of serious study in Jewish life, even if they promote this ideal in an extremist fashion.

My life experience confirms that in practice the duty of Torah study is interpreted as an imperfect duty. When I was young, I spied with my little eyes, rabbinical leaders who today have Art Scroll hagiographic books written about their saintliness, walking down the street with the New York Post tucked under their arms. Any interested reader can find in Jerome Mintz’s book, Hasidic People: A Place in the New World, that the late Boyaner Rebbe, a scion of the famous Ryziner Dynasty, read the New York Times every morning. Recently I learnt that Rabbi Saul Lieberman z’’l, the legendary scholar at the Conservative J.T.S. refused to read any newspapers on the ground that it took away from Torah study. Though he didn’t read newspapers, he was fond of detective stories. Go figure.

In the Orthodox newspapers Yated and Hamodia, there is always a centerfold of famous and not so famous rabbinical figures attending various weddings, bar mitzvahs, fundraisers, and so on. I love these photos and study them very closely, much like I used to study the lineup in the Politburo during the heyday of Communism. It appears to me these rabbis are doing pretty much the same sort of thing one sees party animals doing in the pages of W and the Sunday Times Style section. They are hanging out with their friends, partying, socializing, networking, and having a pretty good time. I don’t think they are sitting and learning.

The question of the extent of Torah study is a very murky area in Halachic thinking. One gets the impression the strict interpretation of this duty is being used for ideological purposes as a way of rallying the troops, and giving the Torah community a way of thinking of themselves as fundamentally superior to the more ordinary working class stiffs. Everyone knows, and seems to be ok with the fact that the bulk of the Ultra Orthodox community are not even close to studying Torah ALL the time.

Since I don’t desire to be a living example of obsessive talking about the study of Torah, I will stop this thread for now, and blog a bit on a miscellany of life cycle issues centering on old age, after which I plan on returning to the trenches of rabbinical politics.


At 11:06 AM, Anonymous MF said...

You used to study the lineup of the Politburo? Really? That's an intense level of passion and dedication! And you make fun of me for merely enjoying reading books by and about Ludwig von Mises? :)


At 3:13 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...


The premise of your post, that every second must be utlized for Torah study is itself a point of contention in Halacha. See the Or Sameach who rejects this view.

The popular view, that we need to excuse ourselves for every second that we're not learning has been articulated as such by e.g. R. Boruch Ber. It may in fact be a modern notion of the obligation of Talmud Torah.


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