On Toráh Study, Practice and Critical Thought

By David Ramírez

Jacques Emile Edouard Brandon (1831-1897), «Un ragazzo legge la Torah durante la cerimonia del Bar Mitzvah»

Jacques Emile Edouard Brandon (1831-1897), «Un ragazzo legge la Torah durante la cerimonia del Bar Mitzvah»

When one is approached with questions regarding material for study, or to clarify certain assertions about our Law and traditions made by acquaintances not familiar with teaching of the Sages, one must be happy to hear every individual goes on his own to seek more study, more opinions, though one should always recommend doing so with caution.

One would wish to say that all of Israel at present is uniform, working in unison with one mind according to the dictates of our Sages and our time-honored traditions. But due to several accidents of our history, and in part the carelessness of our leadership to strongly guard for the education of our Nation, the Jewish people have become diversified in their minds, thus making the forbidden, permitted; and the permitted, forbidden (“When hedonists multiplied, justice became perverted, conduct deteriorated and there is no satisfaction [to God] in the world . . . Their heart goeth after their gain, there multiplied they who call evil ‘good’ and good ‘evil’” TB Sotáh 47b); and sometimes one second they make it permitted and the next second they make it forbidden. Thus the understanding and transmission of our Law has become opaque, forcing the seekers of truth to work through an ever thicker jungle, and finally get to a clearing, away from Amazonian uncertainties.

As it regards to questions, sometimes it is difficult to ascertain an answer, because one would either be unfamiliar with the material someone proposes, or because one might answer something that, due to a deep disagreement with the opinion at hand, may give the inquirer the wrong impression.

Even though some had wished since infancy to have had a father or teachers to guide him through the foundations of the Alef-Bet, Scripture and our Ley Mental, this only came in the adult years and with much tribulation, at a time when the brain was no longer young to absorb afresh, and the worries as to the fate of Israel at present had overpowered one’s emotions and disturbed the mental peace. This only makes students less fit to receive and exercise the enormous task at hand.

Having said this, we must remember the saying of our Sages that says to find wisdom wherever it may be, as long as it is pristine and pure. The RaMbáM himself repeatedly reminds us to learn all practical and contemplative sciences, instrumental in the discipline of our reason, which in turn aids us to eventually grasp the design of El Santo Bendicho, left for us in the Holy Toráh.

However, this saying is not meant to give us a free-pass to follow every opinion that may appeal to us from everything we read and learn. Anything that may violate the principles of our Law must be avoided, and we should refrain from ever thinking we can violate those principles. Then the question becomes, what are those principles? Basically, Love God with all your might, and Love thy neighbor as yourself; be a good person, thereby removing violence from the World, etc.; but what does all that mean?

Writing is not a sufficient medium to convey the answer to such questions, as such are scattered through the written and oral Law, and several commentaries from our Sages and few treatises written by their successors to be put in a short missive such as this: And what we gather from all the writings are only conveyed as signs to guide us, some said in allegories, others in simple understandable words. But the root of it all lies within the attributes of God, which we read everyday through our prayers, namely:

The Lord, the Lord, God compassionate and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in mercy and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and absolving.

And the RaMbáM reminds us of this in his codification,

We are ordered to walk through these middle paths – which are the roads of goodness, the paths of righteousness, according to what is written: “You shall walk through His paths” – Dt. 28:9. The Sages [of the Talmud] taught the following in respect to the performance of this precept: “What is He (God) like? – Pious?! You too, be pious! What is He like? Merciful?! You too, be merciful! What is He like? Holy?! You too be holy!!” Because of this, the Prophets called God through these qualifications: “Pious, Patient and Good, Righteous and True, Plentiful, Powerful and Strong” and likewise – to let know that these are good and righteous paths, and man is obligated to conduct himself and become like [the forms God is called by], according to his own capabilities. [Hilkhot De‘ot 1:11]

This is the beginning of all wisdom.

The rest what we find in our Law are instruments, instruction booklets, and exercises that when put all together aims at striving for perfection, which is the imitation of the attributes of God Almighty; “imitation” because no one can ever be like He in His true essence, only that what He has allowed man to perceive with his senses.

But . . . what is that like? What is to follow is a useful simile, and in no way it is something seen elsewhere, but we do borrow elements from the simile of the Orchard (Pardes). So pardon us if you find this unworthy to mention, but this is the best way we can explain it in simple terms.

Studying Toráh is like entering a huge park, with walk-trails, fountains and flowers, pruned trees and forests, designed gardens and wild prairies, valleys and peaks, with lakes and rivers, bridges and canopies, marble-lined promenades that open up to cross-roads, with a wealth of life in the species of singing and sumptuous-feathered birds, grazing animals and insects, all whose beauty can only be appreciated while in there, and whose enormity and variety in no way no amount words can describe. Any man good of heart (that is who has the true intention to learn and improve himself) can marvel at, benefit and enjoy the park’s bounties; the brute man – who is impervious to order, design and beauty – does not have appreciation, and should he be allowed to wonder unattended, he would trample it and eventually destroy it without thought or sentiment.

We at first may not know the reason for the design of the park, nor why and how it was put together, and for what purpose. Only its Creator, blessed be He, knows this in all its completeness and at once in its totality. Only the person who dares to explore on his own or in company with others, with the intent to understand everything therein will, with time and patience, too become closer to His understanding.

There are three types of men who enter its realms, let them all be good of heart.

One is the Innocent, who begins exploring without guide or previous knowledge of all he could find in there. The Innocent man could in time, should he be patient and painstaking in his undertakings, learn on his own and gain wisdom every step of the way, but he would be limited as he would get only so far. Or, overtaken by excitement, the Innocent man could wonder off without really knowing its roads, loosing his way and thereby causing much damage to himself, or others who have placed their trust in him.

The other is the Intelligent man, who on being trained with an expert hiker – in the reading of its maps (the written and oral Law), its biology, hydrology, physics and all there to be known to access its understanding and purpose – he too becomes accomplished to discern the park’s paths on his own, its fauna found therein, their intent and place, therefore also becoming the park’s care taker and attendant, and provide proper guidance to anyone who requests it. These, in part, are the Sages and Prophets who have received the Qabbaláh (received tradition), explanations passed generation to generation from the mouth of El Santo Bendicho to Moshéh our Teacher and from him to our days.

But the Intelligent man runs the risk of being overpowered by his own knowledge, thereby becoming arrogant and haughty – even for a split of a second –, detaching himself from people, thereby causing cruelty and destruction to himself and others around him. Throw a small pebble into the pond, and see it ripple on end.

The third man is the Smart man, who either goes directly to the Master hiker to ask for assistance and direction (thereby becoming also Intelligent), or having no one available, he first supports himself on the erudite, the Hakhamím of our tradition, who provided the shortcuts and placed before us blueprints easy for everyone to read and study, and thereby access the comprehension of more complex things that the maps and all sciences provide. However, should the Smart man in his trust fall into bad counsel (be from an unaccomplished hiker or ill material), thinking is good, he could loose his way and cause himself much destruction.

I do not include the Brute man entering the park’s realms with the above three classes, because as such cannot be called a man (for he never uses or trains his intellectual faculties, nor ever thinks any benefit can come from doing so); nor he can be called a beast, because animals – as anything in the Universe – were created with order, and many exhibit excellent qualities of orderly behavior and harmony with its surroundings worthy of imitation (though lacking Free Will) that El Santo Bendicho provided in His design – I am not the one to offend God’s creation by comparing it with the Brute.

The Brute man is the one who only and fully follows after his heart desires, his imagination, without thinking of the damage he may cause himself or others in the process, thereby becoming cruel, arrogant, violent and other detestable qualities that should be removed from existence.

Yet, the Brute Man, having being created with all the innate and intrinsic Goodness and Faculties that God designed with His hands and breath from inception, he could very possibly awaken his lethargic state, and become either Innocent, Intelligent or Smart – and be on the road to a better life.

The estimate is that for anyone desiring to pursue perfection, he should follow the industriousness and humility of the Innocent, the discipline of the Intelligent, and the cleverness of the Smart. These are the ways of our Prophets and Sages, who on being men, were also fallible and made some mistakes as a result, but never desisted from pursuing perfection.

This brings us to questions regarding material unknown and other opinions, in a world that has become diversified and confused. Ultimately, everybody is responsible for his own learning, and each is left to his own devices to decide what is proper, and what is not.

Next are some basic rules, and we hope these can give anyone thus wishing some basic guidance and management to your own uncertainties, whenever there is no counsel available, or your counsel cannot answer fully your questions, or when there is a level of mistrust as to the quality of the counsel.

Never discard everything, nor accept everything as they come – even if they are signed-off by so-called authorities or academics today. As with the wisdom generated by Gentiles, there are morsels or even entire viands of truth in everything, but assess them with a critical eye and strong character.

What is the general rule to follow? Basically, anything that departs from our Holy Law and its intent, discard – and better yet, stay away from it, lest you fall prey. This do until you become strong in your reason and confident to navigate: Holy Law, meaning the written and oral Laws; its intent, meaning the Ethics of our Law.

Since the closing of the Talmud, there have risen Gentlemen of great wisdom and understanding who have provided us with works that facilitate our learning, for us who become farther and farther from the revelation at Sinai. These are the blueprints, and no schematic drawer has been more complete and accessible than the RaMbáM himself, who codified all of the Oral Law in his supreme master piece the Mishnéh Toráh, for the study of the big and small.

We posit a lot of trust in the RaMbáM, being that he received directly, in straight line, from the wisdom and understanding of the Ge‘onim – the successors to the Sages of the Talmud — via his father, Hakhám Yosef ben Maimón, his teacher being Hakhám Yosef ibn Migash, his teacher being Hakhám YissHhaq ‘alFasi, his teacher being Hakhám Ya‘aqob Ibn Shashín, his teacher being Hakhám Hananeel ben Hussiel, his teacher being Hakhám Hayyá ben Sherirá, who was one of the last Ge‘oním, successors of the Talmudic Academies in Babylonia. From him back to the Saboraím, and from them back to the Amoraím (the Rabbis who closed the Talmud), and from them back to the Tanaím (the Rabbis who formulated the Mishnáh), and from them back the Judges and Prophets of Israel, and from them to Moshéh Rabbenu, and from him to El Santo Bendicho, blessed be He, who gave us his Law and its explanations.

It was well-known by the majority of the his contemporaries, as well as what today the modern academicians and students have come to understand with much effort, that the RaMbáM’s codifications did not depart not even by a hairs’ breath from what had been established by the editors of the Talmud. Not even the Tanaím, diverted much from what the Amoraím had established, even though they had the judicial power to change things if they so wished. From the beginning of the formulation of the Mishnáh in the 2nd century CE to the RaMbáM (d. 1204), there are TEN centuries of uniformity. We have confirmation of this by a scholar of the Ge’onim, who says:

“It appears that the members of the Geonic academies were identified to such an extent with the living and uninterrupted oral tradition of the Talmudic text that they found it virtually inconceivable that errors had crept undetected into and contaminated this tradition as a whole” [Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia, p. 158]

Overall, this is the blueprint one would recommend when it comes to the essentials of the misswót, the precepts that regulate our obligations before God and mankind.

When it comes to the Ethics and Principles of our Nation, rely on the Psalms and Proverbs, the treatise of Abot in the Mishnáh, the commentaries and explanations that the RaMbáM gives for Abot and the scattered jewel mines on morals he gives through the Guide, and his whole treatise of Sefer haMaddáh; the Duties of the Heart by Hakhám Ibn Paqudá, and a practically unknown favorite, the Proverbios Morales by Hakhám Shem Tob de Carrión.

Let your reason guide your heart and your reason be shaped by those blueprints we have mentioned here. Dwell on them daily, contemplate their meaning and applications as related to the misswót. This is a toil you should take everyday of your life, and much depth and understanding you will gain thereby.

We should now illustrate how to deal with certain questions raised from material or opinions that may drive our friends away from the principles of the Torah. This follows the general rule that we have to seek the remedy with our Sages, and fall back on their sayings and prescriptions to correct this or that.

Once, on hearing that someone had been having dreams that came true, persons began to speculate on issues of prophecy and whether only the people of Israel are exclusive to the gift of prophecy, thus allowing the creation of a haughty nature among our own. We can quickly seek the assistance of the RaMbáM, and give a general class on his explanation on Prophecy, where he dispels general myths and erroneous things that weaker minds hold, one by one. This class can taken months, and though it can be challenging, it can be most rewarding, especially when one has not had the time to study this very important information.

Another time, when someone was trying to disrespect a Hakhám, because of some human fault he found in him, one can stress lessons on Hilkhót Talmud Toráh which tells us that such thing cannot be done just because we feel like it; and should the fault be of serious halakhic nature, it has to be dealt discreetly and respectfully.

Yet other times, several these can be, when on seeing a wrong and dishonorable behavior with their next kin, one can instruct the individual to read the Laws of Behavior and the different sayings from Abot.

On other occasions when scriptural explanations based on Kabbalistic interpretation are brought, some of them perverting the intent of the Sages, one can introduce reason through a lengthy debate through language and context, and the importance of Peshat (the literal meaning) when reading and learning from the written Toráh.

Yet another, on wanting to learn Mishnayót from Jews of different persuasion away from our Sages, one can instruct the individual that such Jews adapt the Torah to “modernity”, and not “modernity” to the Toráh. Putting the horse behind the carriage!!

All kinds of gross errors and transgressions have been made by such deviant thinking in our age. When it comes to halakháh, we cannot learn from Jews who have departed from rabbinic tradition. And although some of them have become accomplished academics on the matter, the problem is not that they do not understand the halakhic material, but that they do not follow it. This is why it is assúr (forbidden), since we cannot learn halakháh from an unbeliever.

And the most difficult of all is to be wary of one’s own mistakes and faults, and correct oneself as needed, as sometimes we may run out of patience, quick to respond without understanding the intent of the question, fail to conceal one’s tribulations before others and let it delay our duties, and many others things which we may be embarrassed to admit.

The basic template of what not to do, and should keep us in check, is found in the Tehinnot (Supplications) we pray on the regular days. Namely:

Of us all judged together as one we avow that we have been guilty and have dealt falsely and dishonestly. We have spoken evil and perverted the right. We have been vicious, arrogant and violent. We have forged falsehood and lent evil counsel. We have been false, scoffing, rebellious. We have been impious and impatient of discipline. We have done wrong and broken faith, and have been harsh and hard. We have transgressed and yielded to corruption and that which is vile. We have erred from Thy paths and in mocking led others astray, turning aside from Thy loving commandments and teachings, and it has profited us naught.

For every fault, there is a remedy, and the medicine is found in the Torah in the words of our Sages; only self-study and practice will lead you the middle path and fuller knowledge of God and His Creation. Though no one cannot take credit for something that has been actually a collaborative effort, owing it to our teachers of old, it is great honor to serve, and cause of immense happiness you can help yourself and others to think on your/their own through the different things and subjects we have touched on all along, becoming independent and bringing great depth in your questions.

For one day, if it has not already come, we will be like the end verse of our closing Piyyut on the Sabbáth morning prayer, Adón ‘Olam:

I rest my spirit in His hand;

Asleep, awake, by Him I’m stayed.

My body and my soul with God

I face my future unafraid.

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