A group of yeshiva students are traveling through the countryside on a hot summer day. They spot a cool, fresh pond just on the other side of a fence and all decide to go in. They jump over the fence, run to the pond and jump in the water. After a little while of splashing and laughing, the owner of the property comes over with a shotgun. “Hey kids! What are you doing in my pond? Didn’t you see the sign?”
“Yes, we saw the sign,” they reply. “Thank you.”
“What? Are you crazy? What are you thanking me for? Read the sign! It says, ‘Private Property. No swimming allowed.‘
The best Talmud student in the group speaks up and says, “Don’t be silly. That not what it says. This is what it says, ‘Private Property? No! Swimming allowed!‘
There is an artful, astute, and sometimes compulsive way of interpreting everything we encounter that is indicative of a Jewish approach to learning. It is a way of interacting with the world that doesn’t take anything at face value, that doesn’t lock meaning in a singular or fixed frame. It is a modality of reading significance into simple gestures and seasonal foods as well extracting purpose from life’s chaos and pain. The present is never just the present, but echoes with the historical and mythical past, so that our ancestors and sages are always reading over our shoulders and whispering in our ears. And the present is never just the present, but is hyperlinked to the lives of our future great-grandchildren, and the flickering light of ultimate future liberation is always dancing at the edges of our sightline.
This year, we are exploring the theme and the practice of becoming a community of life-long learners. Many of you are highly educated and well-read people. You stay abreast of world affairs and local politics. You listen to podcasts and even stomach watching the US presidential debates. Many of you grew up in Jewish cultural environments. There may not have been a lot of formal Jewish education, or perhaps not very joyous or positive Jewish learning, but many of you grew up with a sense of learning as a core Jewish value. Tomorrow, my words will focus on exciting possibilities for our engagement with learning Judaism as a progressive, inclusive community, but tonight I want to explore some of the dimensions of a Jewish orientation to learning, looking at its importance for who we are and who we aim to become. I want to look at three things – questions and answers, relationships and action.
First of all, though, I would like to have a word with the person who started referring to the Jews as “The People of the Book.” The term has created a misleading and overly nerdy image of pale, near-sighted Jews in poorly lit libraries. The People of the Book. A book is an object. A noun. It is something you open or put on the shelf. You read it or burn it or doodle in its margins.
More than being The People of the Book, we have been a people in love with learning. Learning – an activity, an engagement. It is a generation-transcending love-affair with a continuous conversation, an extended argument, and an ever-unfolding curiosity.
A Jewish approach to learning, first of all, adores questions – asking simple questions to make the familiar strange; asking questions of nuance and subtlety so that values and broad principles get played out in very specific details; asking big hairy questions, ultimate questions about the nature of being human and our purpose in the universe. And asking questions that have no answers so that the questions can point to the limits of our knowing and open us into mystery.
The thing that questions do best is shake up what we think we know. With questions essential to learning, no question is foolish or dangerous or out of bounds. Questions ask us to keep looking from different perspectives, and to keep our curiosity alive.
At the same time, a Jewish approach to learning thrives on the search for answers. We don’t just stay in the questions, open-ended, without clear values or positions. We search and discover truths and insights. We see what the world looks like when we wear particular glasses. We inhabit a specific truth ardently and with conviction, and follow the implications that roll out from it. We can stand in a perspective with clarity and still be ready and willing to shift our vantage point, seeing the same thing illuminated from a different angle, and discovering a whole new truth. This is our cultural legacy.
Interestingly, learning as a Jewish value and practice is never a solo mission. It is always in relationship – the second quality. As Rabbi Yosi bar Rabbi Hanina put it bluntly, “Scholars who sit alone to study … become stupid.” (Talmud, Brachot 63b) Those rabbis had a way with words! This is an orientation that sees knowledge as dialogical. Left to our solitary, unchecked thinking, we are in danger of a whole mess of errors and distortions.
The classical form of Jewish learning is in chevrutah, learning partners, which comes from the word chever, meaning friend. Two people in chevrutah bring two minds and two lives to one text or topic. They teach each other. They discover together – one finding a pearl here, the other finding a thread that strings together a whole necklace of pearls. They debate and challenge each other, refine one another’s thinking, and offer questions and observations one alone would never think of. Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said, “Just as a knife can be sharpened only on the side of another, so the disciple of a sage improves only through her chaver.” (Genesis Rabbah 69:2) Learning is shared. Intelligence is collective. And we can only sharpen our own wisdom against the differences of another person’s thinking and experience.
But a chevrutah is even more than an intellectual sparring partner. This relational orientation to learning is also intimate and sacred. The first century text Avot d’Rabbi Natan beckons, saying, “Get yourself a chaver. This teaches that a person should get a companion to eat with, to drink with, to study Torah with, to study Mishnah with, to sleep next to, to confide in all one’s secrets, both secrets of Torah and secrets of worldly things.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, A 8) As much as a learning relationship needs opposition and difference, cultivating closeness and deep connection are essential for the kind of learning we aim for. I find that stunning. We might not organize DJC study slumber parties, or we might, but a Jewish approach to learning asks us to open our lives to one another in order to access the full potential of what we are learning together. In fact, it is such a potent connection that the Sages of the Mishnah state that when two people learn together, the Shekhinah, the Divine presence, abides in the space between them (Mishnah Avot 3:3). Holy encounter, face-to-face.
The Talmud extends this dialogical learning to the context of a whole community when it states, “Ein ha-Torah nikneit eleh b’havurah – Torah and its teachings can only be acquired in community.” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 63b) Only in community. This isn’t merely a pedagogic preference. It’s making a powerful assertion about what learning is and what community is. The way to learn Jewishly is in the context of communal life with others, and collective commitment to each other. Learning, relationship, and community are inseparable.
This has been an essential component in our year of wrestling together, encountering texts, and encountering each other. This is new for our community. I have been so moved by how brave and beautiful the process has already been, even when it’s been challenging. As we shift our intention to becoming a community of life-long learners, we have a model for growing the trust and the tools to regularly meet in that field of relational learning. What an exciting way to really know each other and to seek to understand each other. What an honest and enriching way to engage in study, bringing the whole of who we are to the material that we learn. There is a blessing one says when seeing a large group of Jews in the same place – “Blessed is the One who discerns secrets, for their minds are not similar to each other, and their faces are not similar to each other.” (Brachot 58a) With non-Jews as an integral part of our Jewish community, the blessing of learning through the diversity of our faces and our minds is all the more varied and rich.
The third dimension is action.
“Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action.” (Talmud, Kiddushin 40b)
A Jewish approach to learning is not theoretical. This framing asserts that what we learn is incomplete until it is translated into action, moving from the study halls to the streets. With a rolling list of 613 mitzvot, Judaism has been a civilization of doing, of putting values into action. Our great cultural inheritance of social justice rises strongly from this ground – from our historic involvement in civil rights, the labour movement, socialism and communism, to today’s Jewish presence in supporting refugees, building food security, fighting for justice and dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis, and the growing numbers of Jews becoming involved in reconciliation and reconciliaction in support of Canada’s Indigenous, Inuit, and Metis peoples.
Our rich engagement with ritual actions grows from the same ground. Ritual actions are not just symbols, but actions that are meant to change our inner character and our communal lives – so we put the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of a new year in our mouths, to literally internalize their teachings and awareness. We sit in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling under a branched roof with the smells of harvest all around us, to directly learn vulnerability, protection, and abundance, all interwoven, so that we carry these embodied teachings of openness and trust into the whole year. Our philosophical texts about mortality are astute, but nothing teaches us the fragility of our own dust-bodies and the preciousness of life like the physical ritual of putting earth in the grave of a loved one. With both social justice and ritual, the learning directs and frames the actions with intention and insight, and what we learn from doing, we then carry back to the sources to see them anew.
A Jewish approach to learning is, by definition, transformational. Look around the sanctuary. There are a lot of people here you know nothing about, or don’t know closely, or have never slept next to. There are a lot of people here to learn from, and a lot of people whose lives and actions will be so much richer for learning with you. Study is great because it teaches us how to ask good questions, to search for important answers, to gather wisdom into our limbs and sensitive attunement to all we see.
On this first night of a new year, I am excited for the possibilities of us growing our practice of learning together, for the ways it can make us wiser individuals and the ways it can transform our community. Is fresh, engaged, purposeful learning the private property of only certain types of people? No! Let’s dive into the lively waters of learning together.