Channeling religious passion into positive directions

When people think about the meaning of our existence, they realize that the world is so much greater than we are as individuals.

yeshiva study  (photo credit: Courtesy)
yeshiva study
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For years I sat and learned Talmud in yeshiva. And then for many more I taught Talmud to others.
At times, I would ask myself, what is the religious significance of all this study? The Kotzker Rebbe once made the following acute statement: “Some learned scholars have so many books in their home that there’s no room left for God.”
So I began asking myself: How has all this Jewish learning made me a better person, a more believing person, more moral? Now that I know what the Talmud says about what level of compensation you need to pay if your ox gores your neighbor’s cow, am I a better person for it? Have I somehow become more spiritual? Consider for a moment the Daf Yomi project, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world all study the same page of Talmud every day. Is this a spiritual endeavor? Why don’t they study a chapter of the Zohar instead? Or a chapter from the Bible, like the new 929 project offers? Or a chapter from Maimonides’s Guide to the Perplexed? Why does the Daf Yomi involve only study of the Talmud? The person responsible for the change in the Jewish approach toward Talmudic study was the Ba’al Shem Tov, the leader of the Hassidic movement that arose in the middle of the 18th century. Hassidism focused on the emotional aspects of study and worship of God. It believed that this closeness could come as a result of prayer, engaging with righteous people, gatherings around hassidic leaders that included singing and dancing, spiritual seclusion and other psychological and emotional experiences.
I think young people today are also searching for a more spiritual, informal connection to Judaism.
But now the very scary threat of radical Islam is upon us, that not only threatens our physical existence but also presents us with difficult religious and deep philosophical questions, such as: What is the nature of the spiritual mutation found among radical Islamists? How did such a violent, cruel and degrading movement grow out of the belief in one God? I don’t pretend to be an expert on Islam, but to wave away people’s concerns about jihad is too simplistic. It’d be like saying that there is a concern that religious Jews might form an organization tomorrow to locate and kill all the descendants of Amalek. After all, there are millions of moderate Muslims who want to live their lives in peace and tranquility just like everyone else.
When the late Shulamit Aloni served as education minister, she requested that the Book of Joshua be removed from school Torah studies since it focused on war and killing. But I don’t think learning these passages has had a detrimental effect on our youth. I don’t see Israelis or Jews around the world rising up and calling for killing and bloodletting in the name of the Jewish faith.
So, what’s the difference? I like to compare religious faith to a nuclear reactor. When people are exposed to religious faith, when it touches their soul, with no partitions, they can get burned. When people think about the meaning of our existence, they realize that the world is so much greater than we are as individuals.
The Jewish people have focused on devotion throughout the generations.
Thousands of Jews were murdered in the summer of 1096 in the Rhineland massacres in Speyer, Worms and Mainz because they would not convert to Christianity. Where did these Jews get the courage to die for their beliefs? How is it that they chose death over giving up their religious beliefs? How can we explain why so many Jews left Spain just so they could continue practicing Judaism? I think the answer is that religious belief overrides everything else. It is the essence of our existence.
It is not the reason for living, but life itself.
The jihad movement is like a systemic failure in the nuclear reactor. It’s a Chernobyl in the religious world, if not the atom bomb itself. Radical Islam is growing out of control like a tumor and our immune system is crashing under its weight.
But unlike the Jews who sacrificed their own lives in the name of their faith, radical Muslims are instead harming others in an effort to spread fear. They kill women and children indiscriminately. Their hatred and taste for killing has become so intertwined with their faith that it’s become the main focus. Under the proper conditions, a nuclear reactor can produce pollution-free electricity, but if it’s not watched carefully, it can cause significant harm to huge amounts of people spread out in every direction.
Of course, the radicals themselves die with all those around them, but they know that there are many others who will take their place in the fight.
In contrast, Judaism knows how to channel religious passion into positive directions. Halacha is such a system. It is a very specific, organized structure that has precise instructions for what to do and when. Torah study is an important part of this organized daily schedule.
Learning Talmud forces us to use our intellectual and cognitive abilities and not be overwhelmed by our emotions.
It enables us to strengthen our capability to think critically and differentiate between right and wrong. When we learn about the ramifications of an ox goring a cow, we grapple with real questions that are also relevant to our lives today, such as who is responsible for damages to someone else’s property.
It is unlikely that a person who spends his day learning about the legal and practical responsibility for damages will wake up one morning and decide to behead anyone who doesn’t have the same beliefs as he does. Someone who spends his time learning the laws of returning lost possessions to their rightful owners, regardless of whether the owner shares the same religion, will probably not set out on a religious crusade. A Jew who has studied in depth the laws pertaining to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, knows that a person cannot be forgiven by God until he has first asked the person he harmed for forgiveness. We learn from this rule that we have a responsibility toward each other. Not only is a person who takes the time to learn this imposing his cerebral abilities over his emotions, but he is also developing a moral consciousness toward the whole world.
Intellectual study mixed with Judaism’s powerful spirituality is a brilliant combination. But if there is a disconnect between these two dimensions, then either the religion becomes dry and meaningless, or it becomes a world threat. The study of Torah and Jewish law are the basis for Jewish life and are what has kept the Jewish people from spiraling out of control spiritually. It is what has kept us from becoming a dangerous and corrupt religious monster.
The author is a rabbi and president of the Feuerstein Institute.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.