Linking Torah to the Outside World

By Rabbi Rachel Gartner | Issue Date: September 2001

If there’s one thing that twenty-first century New Yorkers know how to do well it is to keep busy. Between cutting business deals on our cell phones as we walk to our yoga classes and writing e-mail as we discuss politics with our friends, our conception of the “good life” has become quite complex and contradictory. This quandary is by no means unique to the Jewish community, yet it has deep roots in our history. As early as the Talmudic period we hear of the rabbis’ efforts to negotiate the multiple endeavors of their lives in a way that brought them a sense of balance and unity of purpose. Perhaps their greatest struggle was balancing their passionate commitment to Torah study with the imperative to engage in a diversity of ways with the outside world.

The Talmud records many criticisms of scholars who spent all their time studying, to the exclusion of their other responsibilities. For example, in Ketubot we read of R. Rachumei who regularly left home to study Torah for stints of 2 – 3 years at a time. One year R. Rachumei was so absorbed in his studies that he neglected his annual erev Yom Kippur visit to his wife. At the moment a tear fell from the woman’s sad eyes, the roof upon which R. Rachumei was studying collapsed under him and he died.

Rabbinic literature is particularly rife with admonitions against Torah study at the expense acts of tzedakah (justice) and gemilut hesed (kindnesses). For example, in Pirkei Avot we read:

“One whose wisdom exceeds one’s deeds is like a tree whose branches are many but its roots few; the wind comes and uproots it and overturns it….”

Elsewhere we read:

“Your learning is not a crown to wear, nor a spade to dig with. And in the end, is it your learning that matters, or is it not rather your doing?”

If Torah study presented so thorough a challenge to engagement in the outside world, why did the rabbis invest so much of their time in its pursuit? The simple adage “if there is no sustenance (lit. “flour”) there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah, there is no sustenance” (Pirkei Avot) perhaps best illustrates the paradoxical nature of the rabbinic understanding of the relationship between Torah and action. On the one hand scholars – many of whom had “day jobs” as artisans or farmers – understood that feeding themselves and their families was a necessary prerequisite to Torah study. At the same time they deeply believed that people cannot live by flour alone i.e. that physical nourishment is not ample sustenance and does not suffice to fulfill us. Our spirits must be nourished with Torah as well. On a deeper level, this text suggests an intimate causal relationship between Torah study and practicing ethical means to obtaining sustenance.

The link between Torah study and ethical engagement with the outside world derives from the simple fact that Torah calls upon us to act as moral beings. More profoundly, Torah study has the potential to enhance our actions because it can shape the way we see the world and our role in it. At the heart of Torah lies the profound teaching of the Shema: that there is a unity that underlies and pervades existence. When pursued with integrity, discernment and commitment, Torah study can enlarge our spiritual perspective so that we come to see this unity underlying the diverse aspects of our lives and of our world. We are all well aware of how the profusion of daily life can blind us from this perspective. It is precisely this blindness that holds us back from doing tzedakah and gemilut hasadim with all our heart, soul and strength. Indeed, Rav Kook taught: “A person sins because s/he has entered the world of fragmentation when every particular being stands by itself…”

Teshuvah, (return to righteousness) emerges from the depth of our souls when, through intensive introspection and Torah study we come to understand that we do not exist in isolation of one another but that we are each “a continuation of the vastness of universal existence.”

Torah study has the potential to awaken our souls to a deep sense of our interconnectedness with all of existence in a way that compels activism as an organic, even necessary way of life. Because we are so readily and so regularly numbed to this notion, we should strive to find fixed times to study and a community, like BJ, with which to do so. As difficult as setting aside time for study may be, if we add the sustaining ingredient of Torah to our daily lives it will undoubtedly infuse the rest of our activities with deeper clarity, unity of purpose and holiness as it nourishes our souls and inspires us to nourish the world.