July 19, 2024
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Do Not Say ‘If I Have Time I Will Study…’ (Avot 2:5)

The Jewish people have been blessed with a great many brilliant minds. For most of history, these scholars’ contributions were mainly in the area of Talmud, Bible and Halacha. By the Middle Ages, great rabbis were also contributing to the fields of philosophy, medicine, astronomy, cartography, poetry, grammar and finance. In the modern period, Jewish representation among Nobel Prize winners far exceeds our proportion to the population. I often think about why this is so. I don’t think we are smarter than anyone else, but we are the only group that has a mandate and obligation to study. Eventually, this ethic was channeled away from rabbinics into general learning.

It was only when Jews were allowed into certain professions that they excelled in all areas of knowledge. Initially it was the rabbinic scholars who made these inroads into secular fields. Many were polymaths. Others were either geniuses or they worked very diligently. Most people acknowledge, even today, that a background in Talmudic analysis is an advantage in almost any field.

The Talmud is opposed to “Greek” (i.e., secular) studies. This opposition is based on idolatrous and heretical teachings in some writings, not necessarily because of any inherent deficiencies in these disciplines. I believe there is another reason. Jewish tradition places great value on how we spend our time. In order to be a fully observant Jew one must know the law. This requires a lifetime of study. The rabbis understood that in order to become a scholar of Torah, one cannot allow oneself to be seduced by other subjects that require time commitments.

We know of many great scholars in the past few centuries who knew all the intricacies of Torah. In the 20th and 21st centuries there were and are many great scholars whose breadth of knowledge is truly astounding. Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Moshe Bick, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Pinchas Hirschsprung, to name a few. There were also some brilliant sages who had a serious background in Western culture. Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Menachem Schneerson come to mind. Who knows if their secular knowledge made them as great as they were or if they would have been even greater had they spent all their time in “the tents of Torah.”

With the exception of the charedi and chasidic world, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews have accepted the notion of a dual education. I agree with that position. The question I have is what occupies us during our free time. For most of history, people worked from sunrise to sunset. What did they do at night? They caroused, frequented taverns and found all sorts of entertainment. Jews were usually not part of these activities, so they studied Torah. It is then not surprising that many average working men knew Talmud and Codes well. Perhaps it was easier to become a great scholar in times past because there were fewer distractions.

Today there are many businessman, professionals and academics who are great scholars of Torah because their avocation is study. Whether it is Daf Yomi, evenings at the beit midrash or with a chavruta, these individuals (including many women) devote their spare time to Torah study.

The Vilna Gaon was sui generis the greatest rabbinic mind of the past several hundred years. When asked how he mastered so many disciplines, he is reputed to have said (in a play on words), “Vill nor, zay a gaon—If you want it (and have the requisite will and discipline), you too can become a gaon.” He also kept a little notebook in which he wrote down each minute he wasted not in pursuit of Torah knowledge. On Yom Kippur he repented for almost an hour wasted over the course of a year!

How do we and our children spend our free time? Is our leisure productive or merely relaxation? Can we realistically expect to create Torah scholars, given the hours spent in the pursuit of our desires? Look around at today’s roshei yeshiva in every yeshiva. Look at American kids like Rav Gifter of Telz and Rav Finkel of Mir. Most of today’s Torah scholars are American, British or Israeli born. How did they get to where they are today? Unlike other religions, we don’t elect our rabbis. They emerge because of their scholarship, charisma and piety. (The Israel system notwithstanding.) Did they spend hours in front of the television, or going to ball games or playing golf? Not likely.

I have one friend who always carries a Mishna with him, and whenever there is a lull in davening or at a simcha, he is always learning. I even saw him at the gym with a sefer on the treadmill. Another friend, now deceased, made several siyumim on tractates he learned while waiting for his wife to attend smachot. I am not judging, just observing.

Our children’s time has been snatched from them by the ubiquitous cell phone. We have already written about the addiction of the computer. The cell phone is more sinister. Children’s social life consists of texting and messaging and talking on Snapchat (the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear). By the way, all the time they spend together on their phones is unchaperoned.

Kids used to want to go places and do things. The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens. In a recent study published in The Atlantic, we read:

“The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of ‘screen time.’ But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”

Aside from the profound impact of the cell phone on the health and psyche of our children, look at how much time is spent with these devices. They are never far away. It’s the last thing they use before going to sleep, it’s kept nearby, often under the pillow, and it is the first thing they use in the morning when they are awakened by the cell phone alarm, and then check their emails and messages.

Talmidei chachamim are not created in the classroom. It is the drive and discipline to study on their own to master Torah texts that makes them who they are. It’s not easy in today’s culture. There are too many distractions. How to resolve this in our current milieu is the challenge.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had an impressive career as a Jewish educator, administrator and day-school consultant.

 

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