“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them ... ” (Deuteronomy 6:7)
While we don’t agree on much, over time and space we religiously minded Jews do seem to agree on one central thing: the supreme importance of the study of Torah. From the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai to the first public reading of the Torah in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah to the study of Talmud in Babylonia and then Europe — and today, especially in Israel and North America — ongoing spiritual and intellectual investigation of our ancient scriptures is at the core of Jewish life and culture.
But what is Torah study? And why should we still study such an ancient text? Since the birth of the modern era, what constitutes “Torah study” has widened substantially to include historical, linguistic, and ethical concerns. A newfound openness to secular sciences, the increasingly busy lifestyle, and the proliferation of diverse intellectual pursuits means the value of Torah study can no longer be taken for granted. As modern movements in Judaism emerged, the methodologies and types of questions asked of the texts shifted dramatically. The Torah, while understood to be sacred, was not necessarily seen as being of divine origin, and thus its commandments were not automatically acknowledged as absolutely obligatory. Given the historicist concerns (Is the Bible true?) regarding the religious question of its source, the question arose: Why learn Torah? The necessity, the meaning, and the nature of Torah study is indeed a real question for many Jews today.
Several answers can be given to this question from within our tradition. They can, I believe, be categorized under four primary models.
“O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long (Psalms 119:97).
Torah as an encounter/conversation with God is the first model. Here, Torah study needs no rationale; it is simply inspired by one’s natural desire for the word of God. Torah, for the psalmist, is an object of love, of constant engagement, absorbing the learner and filling her entire being. Unfortunately, this spontaneous outburst of love for Torah is a foreign notion to most modern Jews.
“You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them …” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
This second model, championed in this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, is followed by many Jews today. This mode views Torah study as part of a basic, rudimentary Jewish education. Torah (here I use the term in the wider sense of all classical Jewish texts) becomes the source of one’s foundational knowledge of Judaism, its central stories, holidays, and values. A great deal of resources are thus invested in teaching Torah to primary- and middle-school-age children, ensuring that every Jew starts out her or his life with the basic facts and figures of Judaism. For many in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Torah study ends here, and is about as relevant to adult life as eighth-grade geometry.
“… Let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching…” (Deuteronomy 17:19).
In the third model (reflected upon in a later Torah portion) the Torah serves as a source of religious authority; learning it is a way of perfecting one’s religious practice. Adherents of this model, mainly observant Jews, consult the Torah whenever they have a question relating to Jewish law and ritual: What is the ethical way of giving money? How should one get married? What are the laws of Shabbat? When should one pray? Torah, according to this model, remains relevant throughout one’s life, but as no more than a technical guide, rather like a useful phone book or road map.
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).
The fourth model also regards the Torah as a source text, though in a much wider sense. Far beyond a mere handbook of Jewish law, the Torah is seen as a wellspring of wisdom on virtually every aspect of one’s life. Whether it is a question of religious practice or ethical conduct, political ideology or economic policy, metaphysical conviction or aesthetic creed — followers of this model, a precious few, seek the Torah’s guidance at every turn.
While all four models provide tenable answers to the question — Why learn Torah? — it is this last model that I believe ought to be promoted in the modern Jewish world and in the Reform Movement in particular. We must strive to educate our children, our communities, our families, and ourselves to regard the Torah as a vital, dynamic text, as relevant to our lives today as it was 2000 years ago. We must come to be so engaged in the ideas and questions of Torah that it becomes a source of insight into our daily existence. Together, its ancient forms and modern commentaries can expand our understanding of the world around us, challenge our beliefs and preconceived notions, and inspire us to become more of who we want to be. It is only once we allow Torah to enter our lives, to permeate every aspect of our being, that we may someday come to exclaim with the psalmist, “O how I love Your teaching. It is my study all day long.”
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President's Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.
Using Deuteronomy 6:7 from this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, as her springboard, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi explored the ultimate question of Torah study above: “Why study Torah?” Regarding potential motivations, she described four essentials that a student of Torah may be seeking:
- A conversation-like encounter with God (Psalms 119:97)
- A transgenerational transmission of culture (Deuteronomy 6:7)
- A clear, technical guide to religious practice and proper behavior (Deuteronomy 17:19)
- A rich source of wisdom and insight for everything in life (Joshua 1:8)
Based on Talmudic and mystical Rabbinic interpretations of the phrase, V’shinantam l’vanecha in Deuteronomy 6:7, I would like to add to this list a fifth motivation for Torah study, namely the sharpening of one’s intellect.
Many of us are familiar with this Hebrew phrase from chanting the V’ahavta prayer at services. We may even be accustomed to singing a particular English translation of this phrase, such as the one Debbie Friedman z”l set to music: “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.” With musical settings, these timeless words take on a powerful layer of emotion. But what does this phrase actually mean?
As a linguist, it is evident to me that the Hebrew word v’shinantam stems from the same root as the word shinun, meaning “repetition.” Therefore, a literal translation of v’shinantam l’vanecha would be “repeat them to your children.” However, when the Rabbis of the Talmud saw the word v’shinantam (literally meaning, “repeat them”), their ingenious minds took this word in creative directions that generated new spiritual meaning.
In Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 30a, the Rabbis explain that v’shinantam means “the words of the Torah shall be sharp and clear-cut in your mouth, so that if anyone asks you something, you would not hesitate [with uncertainty]… but rather [be able to] answer him [clearly and] immediately.” The Talmud here uses the word m’chudad to mean “sharpened” or “clarified,” alluding conceptually to the word shanun, which also means “sharp” and shares the Hebrew root, shin-nun-nun, with v’shinantam. Using this creative linguistic connection, the Talmud teaches that v’shinantam is about cultivating a sort of “sharpness of the mouth”; a keen ability to respond eloquently to any question concerning the Torah.
But the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism, suggests that v’shinantam l’vanecha is not primarily concerned with the sharpness of one’s mouth, but rather with the sharpness of one’s mind.1 Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut elaborates upon this mystical teaching, adding that means “to teach incisively, to sharpen the intellect of one’s child on the words of v’shinantam l’vanecha Torah.”2
With today’s free public schools, private tutoring centers, and countless educational apps, we know of many resources to develop our children’s intellect. But of all these educational sources, Torah study is uniquely valuable as it can sharpen our intellect while providing spiritual nourishment at the same time. May this dual reward motivate and inspire us to make Torah study a regular part of our lives from childhood to old age.
1. Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, trans.,The Zohar, vol. 5, Va-et’chanan 269a (London: Soncino, 1984), p. 364
2. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005) p. 1,220
Rabbi Ahuva Zaches is the solo rabbi and director of education at Congregation Or Ami in Richmond, Virginia. She is the creator of Prayer-eoke on YouTube and will be releasing a new beginning-level Hebrew textbook called Decoding the Alef Bet on Amazon later this year.
Va-et’chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,333–1,378; Revised Edition, pp. 1,184–1,221
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 1,063–1,088
Shabbat Nachamu, First Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 40:1–26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,595–1,598; Revised Edition, pp. 1,222–1,225