‘Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were sitting together when they were asked the question: “Which is greater – study or action?” Rabbi Tarfon answered: "Action is greater." Rabbi Akiva answered: "Study is greater." Everyone present agreed and said: "Study is greater because it leads to action."’ --Kiddushin 40
Since the time of the Mishnah, we have been observing the conflict between study and action, learning versus doing. Torah study ‘for the sake of study’ has been a basic Jewish value for generations. The Scholar, or ‘talmid chacham’, was compared to one who engaged in building the world: Rabbi Jochanan said: "Builders – these are the scholars who, for their entire lives, engage in building the world" (Shabbat 114). The scholars were also viewed as the ones to usher peace: Rabbi Eliezer said, based on Rabbi Hanina, "The Torah scholars will bring peace to the world" (Brachot , 64).
Today, study for the sake of study - not for the purpose of accreditation or professional degree - does not exist in Israel among the non-orthodox population. Although the recent Jewish Renaissance in Israel has created new frameworks for studying Jewish sources, this phenomenon is still marginal in Israeli society. Students in these frameworks are typically middle class adults who study Jewish text in much the same way as they would take a class in art history or take part in any other cultural enrichment. Learning does not become an integral part of the students’ daily lives and it does not lead to any action. Study of Jewish text has not managed to attract the Israeli general young adult population.
The tension between the orthodox and non-orthodox in Israel has produced a perception that ‘Study for the Sake of Study’ is exclusive to Orthodox Yeshiva learning. The concept of ‘Study for the Sake of Study’ has essentially been expropriated from the non-orthodox Israeli public. Secular Israelis have denounced the traditional model of yeshiva learning as parasitic, belonging to the world of the diaspora (conjuring up images of the charedim/ultra-orthodox extorting funds from the Israeli government and evading the compulsory military service). The political divide between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ (terms used loosely to define the orthodox and non-orthodox respectively) serves to strengthen the separation between those who learn in the yeshivot and those who study at the universities. A young secular student who chooses to study Jewish texts, outside of the framework of a standard course requirement, will be viewed disparagingly as one who may be becoming "ba'al tshevuah."
A situation so infused with tension demands that it be seriously examined to see if the dichotomy can be dispelled, to see if there is any way to reclaim ‘study for the sake of study’ from the world of the orthodox yeshivot and revitalize it for the wider Israeli society. For this purpose we need to discern between the two types of institutions for higher learning in Israel, one being the traditional yeshivot and the other, the academic universities. Each type of institute has a different purpose, each uses its own methods of teaching and learning, and of course, each will produce a different type of graduate.
In the traditional yeshiva the text is the ultimate authority. The method of study is based on the concept of the ‘wholeness’ of the text - its associations and its rich cultural context. Studying the written sources is accompanied by an attempt at understanding the halachic ruling and reinforcing the religious belief system derived from the text. The Yeshiva student takes on a commitment to the authority of the text, even before he begins to study. For him, the text and his way of life are bound together through his observance of traditional halacha.
In the academic world, a university student will "deconstruct" the traditional text, reducing it to its components: Hebrew language, history, archeology, anthropology, and so forth. The student does not experience the ‘wholeness’ of the text, it is stripped of its multi-disciplinary context. The learning is neutral, in no way connected to the way of life, or the world of the student. Academic methods inherently demand that the academic remain distant and personally uninvolved. Emphasis is placed on facts, evidence and analysis while personal beliefs, perspectives and way of life cannot have an influence on academic research.
The traditional study of the yeshiva is dogmatic and monolithic. Many of our forefathers rejected halachic Judaism for its obsolescence, its failure to remain connected to the modern world, and its isolation within the walls of tradition, which claims that the Torah prohibits innovation.
The university system, too, is flawed. Academic research relying on scientific methods can feel cold and sterile. This type of study of Jewish texts tends to be disconnected from the community and its cultural values, and lacks the inter-generational dialogue that should lead to a natural development of ideas.
We are seeking to create a third option. We will adopt the positive aspects of the traditional method of study – approaching the ‘wholeness’ of the text, seeking its connection to the human spirit, values and ways of life. However, we will not regard the text as a source of authority, but rather as a source of inspiration.
We will also adopt the positive aspects of the university method of study – the critical approach. We will suggest a broad and deep learning experience, which will include analyzing text using the most modern, contemporary tools for cultural studies. We will learn the context within which the text was written, the social perspective, the behavioral, literary, philosophical aspects and so forth. But we will do this with the objective of a creative reconstruction of the text. We will analyze its meaning and its significance; understand its symbols and its moral lessons. As we delve into the text, we will simultaneously try to understand its relevance to here and now, as well as its relevance to ourselves as individuals and as a community.
It is time to establish an institute of learning that acknowledges the reality of a Jewish people living a Jewish life in the State of Israel. One that will secure the place of study as an anchor in the continuous development of the Hebrew cultural language in the 21st century. One where young people can study ‘Torah Lishma’ as an integral part of their lives, which views study and action as essential components of daily life. One which creates social commitment, social action and social solidarity. One where learning will not be cold and sterile but interactive and engaging. One where students are part of an active community where each member partakes in Tikun Olam. We will blend modern day life with the world of the Jewish sources of long ago.
We will study Torah for the sake of study – study that leads us to action.
Written By Eran Baruch and Tal Shaked
Translated from the Hebrew by Neeva Kleiman and Noga Brenner Samia