I Learn Torah For All The Wrong Reasons

This point was especially central to [the] Rav [Menahem Froman]. He lived always with an internal demand that his Torah learning should lead him outside himself, and that it not just be a tool for revealing his own heart. Sometimes he would finish a lesson and ask: What have I done here today? Did the learning take me out of myself, and open me to G0d? And perhaps it only inflated my ego? Maybe the Torah I learned and taught is just another acquisition, another accomplishment to add to my basket of successes?

Therefore, he was also deliberate about teaching without preparing beforehand. Usually, he would enter the class, flip open the book to wherever it opened, and begin to read and teach. He did not want the lecture to be a platform for revealing his own heart, teaching what he knows well and understands in Torah; rather, [he wanted the lesson to be] a renewed channel for the word of G0d, a practice of listening to G0d’s voice manifesting in the letters of the Torah.

In regards to his students and children, too, he was very sensitive to this, and anytime he suspected someone was satisfied with himself for what he had learned, he would take care to stick a pin in the inflated balloon of Torah and spirituality. And he would review often the words of our Sages regarding Torah [learning], as they said: If one merited [in one’s learning] – it is for him a salve of life. If one did not merit [in one’s learning] – it is for him a salve of death. There is no guarantee that learning Torah will advance someone from a spiritual dimension. Acquisitional learning, learning in service of the ego – not only is it not constructive, but it is truly harmful…from a spiritual dimension.

In the course of our prayers, [Rav Menahem] would sometimes pass alongside us, and in the traditions of Gur and Kotzk Hasidim, give a teasing pinch, or jab, or laugh at us lightly. We believed that he was ensuring that our prayers should truly be a turn toward the Master of the World, and not just a source of personal fulfillment in our lofty spiritual experience…

-teaching #130, from Hasidim Tzochakim MiZeh, (’חסידים צוחקים מזה’) Privately Published as Hai Shalom Publishing, 2015.

I have finally gotten around to reading Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, and the travails of the lonely, talented young boy have been pulling at me for days. For those unfamiliar, the novel illustrates the tense, confused, bleak, and vivid life of the child of a great Hasidic lineage; Asher, unlike his studious and pious forebears, is primarily focused on painting and drawing his world, short of engaging with it directly. He berates himself internally for his artistic inclinations, which his parents and teachers call “foolishness” from the “Other Side” (Sitra Achara), but is involuntarily compelled to keep producing his works,  I have not yet finished the book, although a Rabbi inadvertently ruined the ending for me in a class on semiotics a few weeks ago. It’s fine – the ending was never the point. I’ve just been meaning to read it for years, since I read The Chosen at age 11, my first exposure to the thought of Freud (naively pronounced “Frood” in my pre-adolescent mind), mediated through Potok’s precocious characters. I have not re-explored that novel either, definitely not since my teacher in middle school told me not to take Potok too seriously, at least not in terms of theology, since, after all, he had “an axe to grind” (one of many new phrases I learned from this teacher) with the religious community. It’s ripe time to re-examine.

But anyway, as Asher grapples with the desires of his young heart and the movements of his creative hands, I too have been fidgeting. Yeah, I guess that’s what it could be called.

A few weeks ago I completed learning Tractate Taanit independently, complementing two months of organized Talmud learning; now I have a Talmud hangover. I feel like I can’t possibly crack open another cold one – a new Tractate, I mean – because I am just too full, too fried, too fulfilled. I need a break. And yet, what am I supposed to do during the repetition of the Amidah now, “just” respond Amen and He-Is-Blessed-and-His-Name-Is-Blessed, and that’s it? My hands feel empty with only my small, tattered, golden yellow Siddur, no longer balanced inside a larger, hardcover Vilna edition of rabbinic exchanges.

Where is my mind?

Part of me likes that I love Torah, that I find comfort in the Talmud’s murmurings and logical rebuttals and whimsical stories about the prices of baskets of figs. I have written before about the faint whispers of Aramaic and Hebrew that sound like what I imagine as echoes of my father; I have considered the flaws in these assertions and super-imposition of my own comforts onto the identity of another. All the more so with my Father Above.

Still, I have determined that it is a futile exercise to pause all action until every shadow of intent is pure, observed, tamed. It’s not a wholly pointless exercise, but it can just get paralyzing. And the point is, I want to keep learning.

Part of me knows it’s so wrong. This is not a “humble-brag” (or the offshoot I’ve proposed, a frumble-brag, for those who understand), a feigned complaint about how “I’m just thaaaat holy and spiritual.” Nor is it a request for reassurance that I really am fulfilling the Will of G0d, and that “from [acting for] improper reasons, [actions will come to be performed] for the proper reasons [in time].” It’s just my own self-scanning, perhaps an equally tempting form of self-indulgence on par with selfish learning itself. There’s something sort of sweet in the question of inadequacy; there’s something covetous in the scab-picking involved in the self-centered process of self-negation.

Do I learn because it feels good? I say no. I say it often doesn’t. It’s true. But doesn’t the ego just love that – how lovely it feels to emphasize the struggle, to make it feel dutiful, to tell anyone who will listen how many pages (or “folios,” if we’re being acadeimishe) ahead of schedule you are, and then how behind. Playing catch-up to finish a Tractate on time is the hallmark of a Siyum (completion ceremony); I am perhaps equally a glutton for punishment and for celebratory bagels.

[Rav Menahem Froman’s] son told: I would travel with my father every day from home to Jerusalem and back. In the course of the ride, we would sit and learn, without stopping. One time, I saw that my father had abruptly stopped learning. When I asked him why, he pointed out to me that before us sat a woman in revealing clothing [which one is prohibited from learning Torah within eyesight of]. I noticed that stopping his learning was hard for him, and I tried to convince him to learn in spite of it. He said: Here our Torah learning is being tested. If we are learning because it is interesting or compelling to us – then we would continue learning; but if we are learning in order to heed the voice of G0d, in order to become closer to Him – well, G0d Himself said not to learn in such a context.

– teaching #117, ibid.

My campus rabbi, a dear mentor, asked me last week if I take comfort in engaging with Jewish text when I am experiencing distress; he says he usually cannot, but his wife (an incredible educator and personal role model in her own right) defaults in times of trouble to grabbing the nearest Midrash Rabbah. I think I fall somewhere in between.

Sometimes, learning Talmud (or Torah in general) is comforting to me, at the very least because it is Not My Life. Another educator I respect deeply says this is why he loves studying ancient rabbinic literature, because it is a world distinctly removed from his (and let’s face it, there’s only so much tolerance one can have for the Upper East Side); of course, there are common core themes of conversation, and existential/religious/spiritual/etc. elements that remain more or less unchanged (and frankly, I am far from original in remarking on the beauty of this phenomenon), but the terms are different enough to provide some distance from the mental noise of social media notifications and political theater.

Sometimes the reverberations of my emotional experiences in the text, however particular the Babylonian-Jewish iteration may be in context, are precisely what does it for me. Whether I am extrapolating one terse line of text to consider a socio-economic dynamic of oppression in rabbinic Babylon, or taking an unflattering look at my deeply flawed character traits, there are plenty of times the text itself pokes at my guts, like it gets me somehow. Like it cares about the things that irk me, that move me.

Sometimes the comfort is in the details – the measurements of water, the exegetical maneuvers by way of calculating the sums of letters in a verse, etc. Sometimes it’s this kind of noise I need – the distracting kind, but not the energy-sucking kind, an endless feedback loop of other people’s weddings and brunches. That kind of noise is too close to home. With the rabbis, it’s not personal.

But then sometimes, the details themselves feel like they’re missing the point. Sometimes the rabbis’ pilpulistic tendencies – their very greatness – feels tone-deaf in the face of my own trials. I sit on my fire escape, nail polish chipping into the cleavage of the book, and sigh like at an older parent who just doesn’t get it. It’s times like these I need to dive back into Party of Five (I could not recommend a 90’s family melodrama more highly) and commiserate with angst a few degrees closer to my own. Granted, Neve Campbell’s [typically glamorous] outbursts are just another brand of all the other drama – Talmudic and real-life; but it’s both close enough to the emotions I need to release, and removed enough for me to indulge from a voyeuristic-but-not-throughly-invested standpoint. It’s times like these I need to keep plowing through my Potok novel, struggling along with Asher to create and consume consciously. Between meaning and martyrdom, fulfillment and fidelity, am I here for the right reasons?

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I believe in the distinction between “books” and “Sefarim,” the holy and profane. But must I profane holiness and sanctify the mundane? What am I trying to subvert? I could fill a gallery with Snapchat photos I have sent of me learning Talmud in unconventional places – I get a kick out of my deliberately manufactured, “happenstance” juxtapositions. I do actually learn there – on the beach, on a rooftop, on the train en route to my second Phish show. But what drives me there? Is it selfish? Is it for G0d or for me? The Talmud (BT Avodah Zarah 19a) discusses the principle that one should learn from a place of seeking; interpreting the particular phrasing of a verse in Psalms, the rabbis consider multiple approaches to this seek-and-you-shall-find formula. Some possibilities include the stance that one must choose a form or area of Torah learning that moves her, inspiring a commitment to ongoing contemplation, review, and connection to G0d. Another understanding is that one who cedes her own personal “seeking” to the commands of G0d to learn Torah will be granted all of what she “seeks.” Still another angle is presented in the course of the exegetical back-and-forth, concluding that in proper Torah study, the commitment to learn begins as a pursuit of G0d’s will, and eventually transforms to allow the learner the agency to make it hers. To me, this discussion – a classically refreshing excerpt of Talmudic hubbub – encapsulates a tension involved in recognizing a relationship between Torah and the heart. (Of course, that the rabbis usually used “heart” to denote something like “mind” is key to remember, but is material for another discussion.) One side says the heart must be one’s starting point, the resonance and fulfillment leading to even further “seeking” – perhaps the kind that leads to ever more pursuits. And yet, the quest must also begin, some opinions express, with striving to align one’s own seeking with G0d’s, so that the former becomes subsumed, or united with, the latter.

א”ר אין אדם לומד תורה אלא ממקום שלבו חפץ

Rav said, a person can only learn Torah from a place that his heart seeks,

שנאמר (תהלים א, ב) כי אם בתורת ה’ חפצו

As it is said (Psalms 1:2), “For only the Torah of G0d is his seeking.”

לוי ור”ש ברבי יתבי קמיה דרבי וקא פסקי סידרא סליק ספרא לוי אמר לייתו [לן] משלי ר”ש ברבי אמר לייתו [לן] תילים

Levi and R’ Shimon studied before Rabi and finished a portion of learning, and then finished a chapter. Levi said “let’s learn Proverbs”; R’ Shimon said “Let’s learn Psalms.”

כפייה ללוי ואייתו תילים

They coerced Levi and began to learn Psalms;

כי מטו הכא “כי אם בתורת ה’ חפצו” פריש רבי ואמר אין אדם לומד תורה אלא ממקום שלבו חפץ

When they reached [the verse] “for only the Torah of G0d he seeks,” Rabi interpreted and said ‘A person can only learn Torah from a place his heart seeks.’

אמר לוי: רבי, נתת לנו רשות לעמוד? אמר ר’ אבדימי בר חמא כל העוסק בתורה הקב”ה עושה לו חפציו שנאמר כי אם בתורת ה’ חפצו

Levi said: ‘Rabi, [have] you given us permission to stand [alternatively: you have given us permission to stand]?’ R’ Abdimi, son of Hama said: ‘Anyone engaged in Torah, G0d grants for him his wants, as it says “for only in the Torah of G0d he seeks.”

“.אמר רבא לעולם ילמוד אדם תורה במקום שלבו חפץ, שנאמר “כי אם בתורת ה’ חפצו

Rava said: A person should always learn in a place his heart desires, as it says “For only [in] the Torah of G0d he seeks.”

ואמר רבא בתחילה נקראת על שמו של הקב”ה ולבסוף נקראת על שמו, שנאמר בתורת ה’ חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה

And Rava [also] said, at first [one’s learning] is called by G0d’s name, and eventually it is called according to his/her name –  as it says, “In G0d’s Torah he seeks…on his Torah he will meditate day and night.”

I learned some lovely teaching by R’ Nahman of Breslev on my way to Madison Square Garden. I wore my tie-dye dress and got a Slurpee afterward. I inhaled his emphatic words about the power of music, and about submitting oneself to G0d. I absorbed his statements about serving G0d in truth, in song, in the wholeness of a broken heart. There must be something in this pursuit besides mere intellectual stimulation; although of course, on that count, I am guilty as charged.

Fitting in some [selfish?] learning before jamming to Phish; R’ Nahman of Breslev’s “The Empty Chair”