The ongoing debate about the government’s intention to enforce conscription on at least some of Israel’s haredim in order to share equally the burden of military service and to encourage them to enter the job market is often perceived as a debate between Jewish values, on the one hand, and modern- liberal ones on the other.
It seems that often even non-haredim accept the view that the highest ideal in Judaism is talmud torah (study of Torah), although in their view there is need to make compromises for the sake of equality (in military service) or to reduce economic pressures.
It is surprising to see how little attention has been given to an examination of the very assumption that the Jewish concept of an ideal society is one in which as many people as possible invest as much time and energy as possible in the study of Torah, which in practice means the study of Talmud.
Let us start with the Bible. No such ideal appears there. The study of Torah in the Bible is never an end in itself, definitely not the highest end, but simply a condition for the observance of the divine laws. God orders Joshua to meditate on the books of the Torah “day and night,” but immediately explains the purpose of this meditation – “that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein.” The chosen people are meant to live a “normal” life, to work the land and care for their families, while making sure that the society they establish is a just one which observes the various commandments divinely imposed upon them.
If the study of the Torah has only instrumental value, as a way of revealing the will of God and urging its acceptance and practice, there is no need for everybody to engage full-time in such study for an entire lifetime. It is enough if everybody gets basic training in halacha and that a small minority becomes expert in order to instruct the masses. In this sense, religious law should be no different from secular, state law. If citizens are to follow the law, they should all receive basic education about its requirements, while a small group – law professors, lawyers and judges – become experts.
The analogy to the legal domain helps to see how odd the ideal of talmud torah is as it is currently understood.
It is like saying that all citizens should invest most of their time and energy in a close study of their country’s legislation and of its court decisions. Such an investment would far exceed what is needed to guarantee reasonable compliance with the law and hence could have no instrumental justification. Could it have some other value? Defenders of the ideal under discussion would concede the absurdity of yeshiva-like institutes for the study of secular law from dawn to dusk, but would reject the analogy to the study of the Torah.
In their view, even when the subject matter of such study is Talmudic discussions in the area of tort or contract law, the study has value which is incomparable to that gained by the study of secular law.
But if the value of such study is not instrumental, wherein does it lie? The only possible explanation is that regardless of the specific subject matter, be it minor disagreement in the laws of kashrut, or a question in Jewish criminal procedure (which does not exist anymore), by the very study of Torah one is religiously elevated and contributes to the perfection of the world.
The roots of this view are in the Kabbalah, and their classical formulation is in The Spirit of Life by R. Chaim of Volozhin. But this is only one possible view on the value of talmud torah, one which requires metaphysical assumptions that have few adherents today. My main point is that there is an alternative view which is as old as the tradition, with strong roots both in the Bible and in the Talmud (recall the famous claim that study is preferable to practice because it leads to practice).
The classic representative of this view is Maimonides, who under the influence of Greek philosophy, ascribed supreme value to rational contemplation – but only of eternal metaphysical entities, not of the detailed rules of halacha. The study of such details is what Maimonides refers to as the “bread and meat,” namely, “the knowledge of what is permitted and what is forbidden, and similar matters concerning other mitzvot.” It is a necessary stage on the way to religious perfection, but one remains on a rather low level if one gets stuck there.
It is therefore unfortunate that the current debate revolves mainly around the compatibility of the haredi ideal of Jewish life with the idea of equality and with the needs of a modern economy, instead of around the ideal itself. What is at stake is an historical clash between two fundamentally different views of Judaism.
According to the one, Judaism aspires to a state of affairs in which as many Jews as possible spend as much time as possible in the study of Torah, typically in special institutes designed for this purpose. Assumingly, on this view, this is how to build a good Jewish society and how to advance tikkun olam.
According to the other, Torah study is mainly an instrument for the improvement of behavior in the real world, and it is this behavior that is at the heart of Judaism. Tikkun olam is not achieved by the study of disagreements between medieval commentators on some paragraph in tractate Baba Kama, but by engaging in the real world and attempting to make it a better and a more just place for Jews and non-Jews alike.
The author is a member of the iEngage Project at Shalom Hartman Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. Get more information about iEngage at iengage.org.il.