This article was originally posted at http://judaism.bellaonline.com.
Torah study is an integral part of Judaism and living a full and vibrant Jewish life. We are all commanded to dedicate some part of our day to Torah study, be it a few hours or even just a few moments. Torah study is a practice which can profoundly enrich your life and open up avenues of Jewish learning and exploration.
Learning Jewish texts is an incredibly intellectually stimulating and deeply spiritual activity. Torah study should be done for solely its own sake—Torah lishma. Generally, one learns a text with another person called a chavruta, which derives from the Hebrew for fellowship. Many people will choose to learn in a beit Midrash or house of study. If you have never been in a beit Midrash before, one of the first things you will notice upon entering is that, in sharp contrast to a library, for example, the beit Midrash is not a quiet place. Jewish learning is done entirely out loud, as chavrutot work through the text they are learning together and seek to understand, as well as grapple with difficult passages or concepts. One of the most gratifying moments is that a-ha moment, when you finally grasp something or understand a passage that you had previously found completely incomprehensible. Learning Jewish texts connects us to our ancestors who have been grappling with the same texts for centuries. Just as they added their perspective and experiences to the ongoing dialogue, so, too, do we.
Nearly any Jewish text can be learned in chavruta, be it the Talmud, the Torah portion that will be read that Shabbat in the synagogue, classical Midrash, or in other ways. It is common to set a fixed time to learn with a chavruta, be that weekly, biweekly, daily, or whatever the partners decide. The rabbis emphasize that it is important to set aside a fixed period of time for Torah study. If a chavruta is learning a classical Jewish text such as the Talmud or Tanakh—Hebrew Bible—they will most likely be learning the text alongside the commentaries of many of Judaism’s greatest rabbis and sages.
Two of the most famous commentators are Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) and the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, more popularly known as Maimonides). Both of these commentators lived during the medieval period, though the Jewish conversation and dialogue with our texts continues into the present day. Commentaries, be they ancient, medieval or modern play an essential, indispensable role in the study of texts. For example, the verse from the Book of Deuteronomy that the Torah is not in heaven is at the heart of what it means to learn and grapple with a text. As human beings, we have been gifted with the means to understand and interpret our texts, making them come alive for us in every generation. Our knowledge and understanding would not be so fruitful if it was not accompanied by a robust conversation that has continued for centuries and is just as robust today.
Each of the commentaries that is traditionally studied alongside the Talmud or Tanakh has its own methodology and approach to the text. There is no such thing as one Jewish answer or one Jewish way to interpret a text. Often, commentators sought to solve problems they encountered in the texts differently or noticed different incongruities altogether.
In our own time, the conversation around and about Jewish texts has been immensely enriched by the voices of those who were largely absent from the conversation in previous eras, including women. Commentaries on the Torah and other texts can be found from a wide variety of viewpoints. There are many places online where one can find commentaries on the Parsha of the week, each of which brings its own perspective to the text.
These newfound perspectives have enriched the tradition considerably. As we continue to include the experiences and perspectives of those who previously were marginalized or did not enjoy the same level of access, we continuously open up new avenues of understanding and exploration.
The thought of beginning to learn a text, especially if one has never done so before, can be rather daunting. There’s nothing that says that you must begin with a specific text, even starting with just a section of the week’s Parsha is a great way to begin. Regardless of what one chooses to learn, Jewish textual study can lead to deeper exploration and growth.
Lauren graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in May of 2011 with a Master of Arts in Judaic Studies and holds a BA in religion from Dickinson College. Lauren's interests include the intersection between religion and disability and religion and gender studies.