Who can learn Torah?

Can we all really learn Torah? Is Torah study so quantitatively different from other intellectual pursuits?

Rabbi Zvi Elimelech (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Zvi Elimelech
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The hassidic master Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynów (1783-1841), in his posthumously published Bnei Yissachar (Zółkiew, 1850), has a brief passage where he discusses capacity to tackle various intellectual pursuits. According to Rabbi Zvi Elimelech, if a person does not have the appropriate predisposition, that person has no chance to grasp wisdom. The preconditions appear to be a blend of nature and nurture, but they are sine qua non for intellectual achievement. Thus, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech’s prognosis is rather dour: you either have the ability or you do not.
However, in Rabbi Zvi Elimelech’s assessment, there is one intellectual undertaking that defies the rule and is open to each and every person: the study of Torah. Even a person whose appears to be limited in some way can learn Torah. This uplifting assertion also entails responsibility: a person cannot offer excuses for not studying Torah since this avenue is open to all.
Is this true? Can we all really learn Torah? Is Torah study so quantitatively different from other intellectual pursuits? Rabbi Zvi Elimelech certainly thought so, and elsewhere in Bnei Yissachar, he explained that this ability was due to the spiritual valence of Torah study – a quality endowed only to Torah and not to other intellectual realms. In this vein, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech declared, “Every soul is able to bring forth a new Torah from the old, at every time and era.”
At first blush, this is a surprising assertion. Surely, it is the rabbinic leaders of each generation who are entrusted with the task of bringing forth “new Torah.” Indeed, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech – in the very same passage – acknowledged that “the sages of the generation, each and every one, in his own time, according to his soul root” are charged with realizing the potential of Torah. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech reiterated this point, emphasizing the role of the sages in each generation. Yet in addition to the task of the sages, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech suggested that this power was latent in “every soul.” This radical possibility – according to Rabbi Zvi Elimelech – comes about thanks to Shabbat and the extra soul that each person is granted on the holy day. The additional spiritual dimension created by the extra soul opens up new possibilities for growth and development.
Rabbi Zvi Elimelech’s assertion is bold for a further reason: not only was the hassidic master suggesting that every person has the capability to find new meaning in Torah, he also suggested that this is possible “at every time and era.” This means that the enterprise of exploring new Torah horizons is not something to be realized only at particular historic junctures, or in response to particular challenges.
Often we acknowledge the need for “new Torah” when we are faced with new realities. Technological developments, for instance, raise new questions that were not considered by our venerable sages, since those developments were not part of their world. These new scenarios precipitate the need for “new Torah,” as we assimilate the changes while drawing inspiration from our hallowed tradition. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech’s statement goes further: “new Torah” is not contingent on new realities; “at every time and era” there is room for “new Torah.”
There is one caveat to Rabbi Zvi Elimelech’s expansive vision that provides for Torah innovation by every person and at every time: the “new Torah” must come “from the old.” Rabbi Zvi Elimelech did not elucidate the meaning of this formula.
Recalling the dicta of the rabbis, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech emphasized that the entire Torah was given at Sinai – albeit in potential, not in a usable and readily accessible form. Thus, the task of each generation is to realize this potential Torah. It seems, therefore, that Rabbi Zvi Elimelech envisaged “new Torah” that is tethered to tradition, moored to our illustrious heritage, anchored at Sinai. The quest for innovation – according to this reading – should not involve disengagement from our past or detachment from our texts. On the contrary, the “new Torah” should be a natural growth “from the old,” an extension of the existing Torah given at Sinai.
In collective memory and in academic scholarship, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech is generally cast as a conservative leader. There is no denying that he was a staunch traditionalist who opposed modernity and valiantly attempted to bolster time-honored Jewish practice. It is therefore refreshing to find such an encouraging perspective in his writings; an attitude that opens the doors to innovation and invites participation in the venture of Torah study. This is truly an exciting vista: “Every soul is able to bring forth a new Torah from the old, at every time and era.”
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow with the Inter-University Academic Partnership in Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of the recently released Relics for the Present: Contemporary Reflections on the Talmud, Vol. 2.