What is Jewish Learning?

Every religion specifies the practical side of its observance, what is to be done.

Every religion specifies the elements of faith of that religion, what adherents are to believe.

But only Judaism mandates that universal study and learning of its religious texts is an integral element of the religion. It’s why we are known as the People of the Book.

Jews study Torah as an independent activity that is not directly connected with belief or action. In fact, the most studied books in Jewish life, such as the Talmud, are books that have very little practical use.

So why are people studying the laws of things that happened in remote times – and were rare even then – or things that the Talmud says never happened and never will happen?

We devote time to it because what we are doing is going after knowledge for itself, not as something that is to be used. Not everyone has the same level of active curiosity, but study is encouraged and done as an obligation. The number of classes and lectures available in an observant Jewish community cannot be compared to anything that happens in any other place.

Why would God want us to study? Theologically, it is a way to commune with Him. Perhaps, the study of Torah is best defined as a meeting of minds. When a Jew studies Torah, his mind meets and communicates with the mind of God. This compares well to a mother and her child looking at a family album together. The mother is God, the child is the Jew. Their perspectives of the album are certainly different, but a deep bond is nonetheless created.

The ability to study for the sake of study is what I call one of the very true human traits in which we are, in a certain way, higher than angels. The angels don’t seem to have any curiosity; they know everything. And animals learn only what they need to live. So the only beings who are curious about anything are people.

This notion has always been powerful within Jewish life, and it has pushed some people to very high intellectual levels. When Isidor Rabi – who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1944 – was asked to what he attributed his prize and his great achievements, he said, to his parents. When he came home from school, they never asked him what he learned. Rather, they wanted to know, “Did you ask a good question today?”

The Jewish approach to learning seems to have been ingrained very early and very deeply. Hectaeus, a Greek geographer active during the reign of Alexander the Great, wrote about remote countries that were beginning to be known at the time. He remarked that he had heard of an interesting people who lived to the south of Syria: All of them were philosophers, that is, people who ask idle questions and are interested in wisdom for wisdom’s sake. That is a very nice statement about our people.