A number of years ago, 1972 to be exact, I participated in my first parent-teacher conference. I vividly recall my encounter with one particular set of parents. After discussing the skills and performance of their child, they posed to me the following question, “Are you still teaching those fairytale stories?”
Perhaps they were just asking in a somewhat rhetorical fashion not really expecting to be engaged in the topic. But being young, somewhat brash, and a novice in the profession, I felt the need to justify what I was teaching. I took the bait. Without missing a beat and with a slight tone of boldness, I launched into an answer that may not be viewed as “politically correct” by today’s standards. “Which stories do you have in mind,” I asked. “Rabbi, you know. Stories like Adam and Eve, Noach and the flood, the splitting of the Red Sea.” “When,” I asked, “at what age did you stop learning Torah?” “After our bar and bat mitzvah,” they responded. “Well,” I said, “suppose you stopped learning science, math, history, or literature at that age. What understanding or respect for those subjects would you have?”
This week we begin again the annual cycle of reading and studying the Torah. This occasion affords us a good opportunity to call to mind the challenges we all face in fulfilling this daily assignment. On the one hand there is a sense of excitement and anticipation in starting a new project. On the other hand it is the same story I just finished. It is the same book I read last year, the year before that and so on. Another challenge we face that may not always be in the forefront of our mind but is nevertheless present is the very same issue plaguing those parents at my parent-teacher conference. The Torah is nothing more than a compendium of myths and fairytales from an ancient Hebrew society.
To be sure there are other obstacles to the study of Torah but the two mentioned above have a similar remedy. What keeps the learning fresh and vital is the same thing that shows me the Torah is not a compilation of “old wives tales.” The Torah was written in a fantastic way. It appeals to the young child while at the same time it satisfies the scholar’s search for meaning and understanding.
The study of Torah is premised on the condition that as we acquire knowledge from other disciplines we reexamine our understanding of the Torah. This process should lead a person to revise and at times discard notions formulated from earlier study. It may be hard to shed ideas that were once thought to be true but we all eventually learn the truth about the “tooth fairy.”
As in any area of academic investigation, solving one difficulty may open the door to others. But the scholar isn’t stopped or deterred by this fact nor does the investigator abandon what is shown to be true just because there is a question that cannot yet be answered. In fact just the opposite feeling often results from learning. Rather than frustration, enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment envelopes the person as he reflects on the new insight or discovery he has made not withstanding riddles yet to be solved.
When confronting the study of the Torah no less an attitude is required. We know that the Torah, as is the case with the existence of everything in the universe, is an expression of God’s infinite wisdom. We should not be undone or put off in our pursuit of understanding science by phenomena we don’t understand. So too when reading and studying the Torah, we should realize that if we think there is nothing more to this book than myths or “fairytales,” the fault lies within us. We need to investigate further and prod ourselves to look deeper. Just as there are oddities and strange occurrences in nature happening every day that defy our understanding, so too there are difficult sections of the Torah that remain mysterious as well. We should not simply brush them off as “make believe” or the simplistic accounts of an ancient civilization.
True, it is the same book I finished earlier just the day before but this time around I will see a new point or I will ask a new question. How? I will approach the Torah this time from different perspectives. I will bring to my study of Torah knowledge gained from insights into history or psychology or science or philosophy. I will look carefully at and note differences in the explanations of Torah passages offered by the great scholars: Rashi, Iben Ezra, Rambam and Ramban. Prepared in this way I will be primed to explore the words and events recounted in the Torah in a new, fresh, and exciting way.
Learning in this holistic way is how we approach Torah study at the Posnack Jewish Day School. We bring the full scope of human knowledge to plumb its depths. Are there areas that remain difficult? Yes. But here, our students learn that this process is, in fact, the only way to academic advancement and understanding. By so doing so called “fairytales” are turned into valuable insights of mankind and God’s relationship with His universe.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan