Behukotai – Devotional Talmud Torah

How do you build a synagogue? That’s easy, fundraising. Also, bricks, brass and glass. Of course, religious objects, people and shelihei tzibbur. The real question though, is how does one sustain a Jewish community? That is a question that I think a lot about.

The portion of Behukotai begins with a poetic double language.  ‘If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments…(Leviticus 26:3).’ At first glance to ‘walk in my statutes’ and to ‘keep my commandments’ seem to be saying the same thing, to follow the laws of the Torah. Our great sages, however, saw meaning in every word of the Torah and therefore explained that the Torah was in fact saying two different things. ‘Keep my commandments’ simply means to follow the laws.’ To ‘walk in my statues,’ however, means ‘to study the Torah.’ The idea is that we must do more than simply fulfil the laws of the Torah, we must also be engrossed in them. As Rashi says, we must be ‘amelim baTorah.’

Spanish and Portuguese Jews established communities throughout the western world. Significantly, in every instance when a community was established they not only built a synagogue, but they also built a Jewish school. How else could they expect their children to follow in our ancient ways? Unfortunately, over time many of the S&P communities suffered from assimilation and even apostasy (in truth, as did many Ashkenazi communities in the nineteenth century). There are many reasons for this including the onset of emancipation, reform ideas, their already conflicting identities from their time as conversos, and even economic decline. However, at its core I think this fraying also relates to the nature of their Jewish education.

Sephardim Livorno

Livorno 1850

The records of these communities make it clear that their educational objective was literacy, both in their children’s ability to read Hebrew, and in their ability to know the holiday rituals. Their primary objective was functionality, that every child should know what to do in or to participate in Jewish communal life. That is a really important part of a Jewish education. What was generally lacking though (save in Amsterdam and to a smaller degree in London), is what I like to call devotional Talmud Torah. That is Torah study which is done as a pursuit in of itself – as an intellectual and spiritual engagement with our Torah as a religious pursuit.  This kind of Torah study is more than simply studying to know what to do, it is studying as a religious devotion, akin to Joshua’s ‘to meditate on it day and night (Joshua 1:8).’ It is the kind of Torah study which one does beyond a childhood education, but as a lifelong activity. Rambam, the great Sephardic sage, wrote “Until when is a person obligated to study Torah? Until the day he dies, as [Deuteronomy 4:9] states: “Lest you remove it from your heart, all the days of your life (Mishne Torah, Talmud Torah 1:10).”

To produce lifelong Jews, a Jewish education needs to contain both components. A foundational education without devotional study can produce Jewish lives which are functional, but perhaps lack a deeper spiritual, intellectual and soulful immersion in Judaism.  We must always study in order to know what to do, but also study as something which we always do.  In that way we can foster Jewish commitment, and lasting and sustainable Jewish communities.


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