Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Was the Land Lost? A Moral Quandary

The Rov זצ"ל used to remark that his students should cultivate Torah 'in the widest sense of the term.' It's a turn of phrase that has always given me pause. What does it include? More intriguingly, what did he mean to exclude? In my case, since the Rov knew that I was pursuing a degree in Jewish Studies (and considering his feelings about historicism), I"m sorry I didn't ask him. Over time, however, I have arrived at a partial answer to the question.

The Talmud in several places (Nedarim 81a and Baba Metzia 85b) preserves the following discussion:

For Rav Judah said in Rav's name: What is meant by, 'Who is the wise man, that he may understand this? And who is he to whom the mouth of God has spoken, that he may declare it? Wherefore has the land perished and been laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?'(Jer. 9, 11) ?

Now, this question was put to the Sages, Prophets, and Ministering Angels, but they could not answer it, until the Almighty Himself did so, as it is written (ibid.12), 'And the Lord said: Because they have forsaken my Law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein.' ...Rav Judah said in Rav's name: [It means] that they did not first recite a benediction over the Torah.

The commentators (led by RaN, Nedarim ad loc.) are puzzled by the non-sequitur. Obviously, the Jews were studying Torah. If so, as important as the blessing preceding study might be, why was the penalty for its lack of recital deemed to be so severe. The RaN suggests that the lack of blessing indicates a less than serious attitude to the Torah. That, however, is hardly abandoning God!

Or, maybe it is.

On many occasions, the Rov noted that the Torah itself demands the recitation of a blessing before study (ברכת התורה מדאורייתא) to serve as a declaration of surrender and submission to God prior to study. It means not judging the Torah, God forbid, but living with questions and giving the Torah (and He who gave it, the benefit of the doubt).Its point actually is to distinguish Torah study from all other intellectual pursuits, exalted and important as these must be. Reciting ברכת התורה means renewing a commitment to a religious, moral and upstanding life as a result of Torah Study. Without that context and commitment, Torah study itself can easily be seen as an abandonment of God.

I firmly believe that, in terms of Jewish Studies, the ability to recite a ברכת התורה over the subject matter is a litmus test of that which is included in 'Torah in the widest sense' and that which is not. Certainly, the mere fact that a person is a scholar of Jewish History or Jewish Studies does not per se make him or her a credible or legitimate representative of Judaism or a moral example (and I include here rabbis whose Torah doesn't penetrate their moral character).

"Wherefore is the land perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?" Because the moral values of the Torah are dust under the feet of those who do not recite the blessing first.


Gil Student said...

I can't comment on the situation you mention but here are my thoughts from five years ago about reciting virile haTorah on various disciplines: http://torahmusings.com/2006/11/blessings-on-types-of-torah/

Zaide said...

I guess it depends on whether his "academic" pursuits carry with them some moral authority - a Rebbe, for example, as opposed to a historian.
In any event, he is a scoundrel.

Steven Pruzansky

rav Ken Leitner said...

The voices from the academic 'Ivory Tower' may, indeed be silent. But let us note too that moral outrages occur in the observant community - often under the noses of the self-proclaimed 'pious' that bring an equally reprehensible silence. You have noted some of them in your own blog.

Rabbi Ken Leitner /Savannah, GA

Anonymous said...

",,,the ability to recite a ברכת התורה over the subject matter is a litmus test of that which is included in 'Torah in the widest sense' and that which is not."

You mean that the appropriateness of reciting a birkat haTorah is such a litmus test; the ability to recite one might be a test of the reciter, but not the subject matter. Cheftzah/gavra...