The Path to Knowledge

"The Torah and its commandments are not meant to be inaccessible or inscrutable... They are meant to be understandable, practical and relevant to our lives."

celebs kab311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
celebs kab311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
“THE HIDDEN THINGS BELONG TO THE LORD, OUR God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) The weekly portion places a special emphasis on the Torah’s accessibility and transparency. The Torah and its commandments are not meant to be inaccessible or inscrutable, as if they were deep in the ocean or high in the sky. They are meant to be understandable, practical and relevant to our lives.
In this portion, Moses offers his farewell speech to the people, speaking of the writings of the Torah and the commandment of “Hak’hel,” in which the King reads from the Torah to the entire people. Here we are once again reminded that in Judaism, in contrast to other religions, the religious wise men and sages have no substantively defined status, neither with regard to their obligations and to their rights, nor does Judaism invest individuals with the authority to unilaterally interpret Jewish law.
Our Druze neighbors, for example, distinguish between the learned and the ignorant, while the Catholic Church permits knowledge to be imparted only through sermons rather than through selfstudy.
But Judaism creates no such intermediaries.
Indeed, Moses speaks to the entire community. His words provide the foundations for the establishment of the Jewish people’s popular education system, which was broader and more comprehensive than any other system known during antiquity and is remarkable even by today’s standards. In tractate Baba Batra, the Talmud describes the establishment of this system by the great priest, Yehoshua Ben-Gamla: In every city, free education was mandatory for all pupils from the age of six or seven.
We read this portion at a time when a new school year is about to begin. And so it is fitting and proper that we examine the whether we maintain these values of accessibility and clarity today.
Unfortunately, we find that we are confronted with a disturbing admiration of concealment and inscrutability, especially as practiced by celebrities who dabble in Kabbala and offer us very little in terms of spiritual nourishment, such as Ashton Kutcher and Madonna. This is the Torah of concealment – of hidden knowledge – that is in stark contrast to the Torah of accessibility and openness.
There is a religious injunction against the study of Kabbala by those who have not yet “filled their bellies” with normative studies.
Moreover, the trendy study of this hidden knowledge can cause great damage even from a purely intellectual point of view. There are no shortcuts to the pursuit of knowledge; nothing can be “instantly” acquired. But when they see vacuous, vapid entertainers studying topics of learning and wisdom that are far beyond their grasp, the younger generation may very well come to think that merely participating in some shallow seminar is enough to become learned; they will form a totally misguided picture of what constitutes real study.
The message of this week’s portion takes us back to the days when knowledge was disseminated to the people, either in written or verbal lessons and through widely-attended popular conferences.
This was the opposite of the modern phenomenon of “Kabbalalite,” which has taken on the external trappings of study but does not bring its participants closer to any truth. In fact, not only does this trend pull the public away from the true study of the open Torah, but it is destructive because it leads them to a distorted understanding of the Torah of Israel, which is viewed as nothing more than a haphazard collection of superstitions and mystical behaviors.
Yet there is one ray of hope in this “study” of Kabbala: It may be possible to reconstruct its popular method, which has so attracted the masses. This “study” has proven to many that ancient texts can be relevant to our times. And so it may be possible to encourage others to truly learn Torah, without resorting to the dangerous undercurrents of concealed “truths.”
And there is another possibly positive aspect to this trend: It proves that the younger generation feels a great spiritual thirst and need to speak to God, even if they now believe, unfortunately, that it is possible to do so in false, superficial and dangerous ways.
In Hebrew, the letters of the word Israel can be read as the initials of the saying, “There are 600,000 letters in the Torah.” This is the constituting number for our people: 600,000 Jews left Egypt and the population of the State of Israel at the time of its founding, in 1948, numbered 600,000. From this we learn that each and every Jew can find a way to a letter in the Torah and begin his or her study there.
As the New Year approaches, we pray that all of the People of Israel will be wise enough to join together as we all – man and woman, the elderly and children – study the true Torah of Israel.
Rabbi Rafi Malachi, an attorney, is chairman of the Welfare Committee of the Histadrut Workers’ Union and of the Shas party’s municipal department.