Shavuot is the unsung holiday of the Jewish calendar. In Israel, where we follow the Jewish calendar, most Israelis are at least aware of its existence. In the Diaspora, not even that much can be assumed. Even those Jews who faithfully attend synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, rarely take off from work or school on Shavuot, if they are even aware of its existence.
For religious Jews, this obliviousness to Shavuot is hard to grasp. From a halachic point of view, the holiday has the same status as the other two pilgrimage festivals – Pessah and Succot. And it commemorates the most important day in human history: the birth of the Jewish people as a nation by virtue of our receipt of the Torah. According to the sages of the Talmud, had the Jewish people not accepted the Torah at Sinai, the entirety of creation would have returned to its original formlessness.
For the vast majority of the world’s Jews, of course, the idea that Sinai marked the seminal event in human history is laughable. It does not occur to them, if they have given the matter any thought at all, that such an event literally took place. They do not consider the Torah’s commandments to be binding upon them. Indeed they have only the vaguest idea of what those commandments are. That is increasingly true even here, where Bible was once an important component of the school curriculum.
The nonobservance of Shavuot, then, is a measure of the minimal significance that Torah plays in the lives of most of the world’s Jews and of the deep chasm between religious and nonreligious Jews.
THAT CHASM partly – only partly – explains the deep animosity felt by many secular Jews for the haredi public. The animating ideal of the haredi community is a commitment to intense, ongoing Torah study. Because that ideal is so incomprehensible to most secular Jews, many doubt its sincerity and suspect it is nothing but an excuse for laziness.
At best, they concede that the haredi community needs a certain number of highly trained experts in Jewish law – rabbis, dayanim – and teachers of Talmud. Those who do not hold a well-defined position, however, are viewed as nonproductive “benchwarmers.”
Accordingly, they wonder why the haredi community does not just select the very brightest young men and groom them for the necessary positions, the way the East Germans once selected children for intensified athletic training.
That, however, is not how great Torah scholars are produced. Many qualities contribute to greatness in Torah. A super-high IQ is neither a sufficient condition nor even a necessary one in all cases for becoming a talmid chacham. The Talmud says that for every thousand who enter the beit midrash, one goes out to guide the community. The greatest scholars, in Maimonides’s formulation, stand atop a pyramid. Only out of the intellectual ferment of hundreds of fine minds engaged in the same problems do they emerge.
But there is a more fundamental error – at least from the haredi point of view. And that is the view that there is something worthless about Torah study that does not result in a paying position. (I’m not here addressing the practical issue of how many full-time Torah students are economically sustainable, which is a pressing internal issue for the haredi community as well as the broader society.)
IN DESCRIBING the theory upon which rests the preeminent place of Torah learning in the yeshiva world, my intention is not to convince readers of the truth of these propositions. That is impossible. But it is important for those Jews who have never studied a page of Talmud to know how the haredi community, or what is sometimes known as the yeshiva world, approaches that study.
The classic statement of the value of the study of Torah l’shma (for its own sake) is that of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the premier disciple of the Vilna Gaon, in Nefesh Hachaim. “Through the study of Torah one cleaves to the divine will,” he writes. The blessing recited upon seeing a great Torah scholar is “...blessed is He Who shares of His wisdom with flesh and blood.”
God’s wisdom is shared through Torah learning and an ongoing bond forged between Him and the Torah scholar. (By contrast, the blessing upon seeing a great scientist is “...Who gives of His wisdom to flesh and blood,” which indicates no ongoing relationship between God and the recipient of that wisdom.) Through that cleaving to the divine will, the Torah reveals the goals for which God has placed us in the world. All other forms of knowledge are of value only as means to attain the ends that the Torah reveals.
But such knowledge, by definition, cannot form a continuum with knowledge of the Torah. The performance of all mitzvot, according to Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, has the power to open up the conduits of divine blessing to the world. But no mitzva has such a great power as that of Torah study. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, in his classic The Way of God, explains that the study of Torah is unique among all forms of study in its ability to transform the student and in its effect upon creation: Other works, even when they contain “accurate and valuable” information, have no potential to “incorporate any significance and excellence in the soul of the [reader and]... absolutely no power to rectify creation.”
From this perspective, there can never be too much Torah learning. Any time a Jew labors to gain clarity in any complicated topic in Talmud – and no matter how brilliant one is, such clarity requires extraordinary intellectual effort – that effort brings joy to his creator and blessing to the world. It makes not the slightest bit of difference that another scholar may attain deeper insights; the effort of each one is of infinite value.
THESE ARE not ideals to which the yeshiva world merely pays lip service. During Pessah vacation, throughout my Har Nof neighborhood, the shuls were filled in the morning with hundreds of yeshiva students of all ages blasting away with their study partners.
I wonder whether Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who put his own ignorance on public display last week when he labeled yeshiva education as training for ignorance, could find comparable examples of Tel Aviv teenagers using their vacations to review the previous semester’s learning. And if Huldai thinks that the study of Talmud is education for ignorance, I would be happy to arrange a study partner for him to study the first chapter of Talmud that most fifth graders learn.
Let him see how much effort is required just to grasp the basic mechanics of the Talmud, as it tests propositions logically by changing the variables of the case. In talmudic learning, every statement must be tested and proved; ideas cannot just be asserted.
When a famous scholar visits Har Nof on Shabbat, well over 500 men of
all ages – often three generations of the same family – are likely to
turn up to hear him lecture. The highlight of Hol Hamoed for many in my
neighborhood is the class of a young scholar, who is by any measure that
one in a thousand. Speaking for over five hours without notes, while
quoting hundreds of sources verbatim, he delves into a halachic topic in
the first half of the evening, and after Ma’ariv, devotes another three
hours to the non-halachic sections of the Talmud.
At the end of this year’s lecture, at 12:30 a.m., a young rosh yeshiva
approached me, and said, “We should be dancing,” and looked like he was
about to start.
If the religious world could somehow convey just a taste of that love of
Torah outward, perhaps we would not find ourselves celebrating Shavuot
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a
regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the
author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.