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April 10, 2010 4:36 pm

Shemini: Ignorance

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance.
— Saul Bellow

Light travels faster than sound. That’s why most people seem bright until you hear them speak. — Author Unknown

“Inquire he inquired”

In many editions of the Hebrew Bible, an interesting comment is inserted into the book of Leviticus, in this week’s Torah portion (Shemini). In between the words “inquire he inquired” (“derash” and “derash” in the original Hebrew) it is written: “Half of the words of the Torah.”

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What this means is that these words – “inquire he inquired” — mark the halfway point of a word count in the Torah. The first “inquire” completes the first half of the five books of Moses; the second “inquire” begins the second half of the Torah.

Biblical commentators, sensitive to the fact that even minor, seemingly coincidental aspects of the Torah, contain layers of significance, address the symbolism behind the fact that the halfway point of Torah is between these words “inquire he inquired.” One of the beautiful explanations is given by one of the great Chassidic masters.

He suggests that the Bible is attempting to teach us that the entire Torah – both halves of it – revolves around inquiry, the search to learn, grasp and internalize the truths and perspectives of Torah. To be Jewish is to forever remain a student of Torah wisdom.

“Inquire did he [Moses] inquire” – this is the center point of Torah, because Moses himself, the extraordinary scholar and prophet, never ceased to inquire and search. Moses knew that the most essential component necessary to absorb Torah is our never ending yearning and readiness to continuously study, explore and seek knowledge. Moses realized that after all of his discoveries, he had only reached the middle of Torah, and there was much more ahead which he had not yet learned.

This message, I believe, is vital for Jews today.

Is Judaism inferior?

Some time ago I was invited to attend a symposium sponsored by the UJA Federation about Jewish continuity. One of the presenters suggested that we introduce a reformation in Jewish observance in order to make the religion more appealing to the youth.

When it came my turn to address the audience, I begged to differ with the above presenter. His argument, I suggested, was refuted by the undisputed fact that the only ones who managed to maintain their Jewish numbers and even increase them dramatically were those who opposed any reformation in Jewish observance. Perhaps our youth is searching not for reformation but for the Judaism taught and practiced by Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, Maimonidies and the Baal Shem Tov? Perhaps what was necessary was not a diluted form of Judaism, but rather a more intense presentation of a Judaism saturated with spiritual passion, authentic idealism, profound scholarship and personal relevance?

Later, in private conversation, I asked the presenter if he could name the 53 portions of the Five Books of Moses and the titles of the 63 tractates of the Talmud, the most basic body of Jewish law and literature. From memory he could only name 10 of the biblical portions and not one of the Talmudic tractates.

“Imagine,” I said to him, “we would be attending a symposium on Shakespeare, and one of the lectures on how Shakespeare ought to be taught today would be presented by an individual ignorant of the titles of Shakespeare’s 38 plays? Or imagine a symposium on the future of philosophy, where one of the speakers was not well versed in The Republic, the Critique of Pure Reason or Beyond Good and Evil? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing to the subject they are discussing?”

He said to me that in his opinion one did not need to be well versed in Torah in order to present an argument on the future of Judaism.

Why is Judaism seen as such an inferior discipline, that it does not demand rigorous mastery? Why is it that in the fields of biology, science or art nobody would dare present strong opinions about their futures without intensely studying these subjects for years? Why do so many Jews think that Judaism — a tradition taught and developed over three millennia, consisting of tens of thousands of volumes, many of them written by some of the greatest human minds — is a set of archaic laws and cute rituals?

Perhaps the saddest commentary about Jewish life in America is that so many leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations and institutions did not send their own children to Jewish schools, providing them with a Jewish education.

How sad. They see themselves as Jewish leaders and activists; yet they don’t even entertain the thought that Jewish tradition has anything truly voluble to teach them and their children about life, death and everything in between. The greatest obstacle to discovery, a wise man once said, is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.

The Torah, the profoundest blueprint for life ever articulated in the history of humanity, belongs to every single Jew. It is about time, that every member of our people gives himself the gift of discovering its unparalleled beauty and wisdom.

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