“Who is Allowed to Study Torah?”

At first glance, the above question might seem to be strange, and with a clear answer – Everybody can and should study Torah, and become intimately linked to it! “The crown of Torah rests and waits for all of Yisrael to pick it up.” This is the ruling of the Rambam, the “Great Eagle,” based on the famous verse: “Moshe commanded us to observe the Torah, it is a heritage for (all of) the community of Yisrael” [Devarim 33:4]. “Let whoever wants to come and pick it up” [Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:1].

However, during the last 15 years, quite a few people have come to accept this invitation, and they have established an impressive netword of diverse organizations for Torah study, all united by one principle – they are not religious. Without our noticing, behind our backs, an entire world has taken form of “secular batei Midrash.” (Examples are Alma, Elul, Yeshivat Binah, and others.) They are all unashamedly involved in Jewish sources – Tanach, Midrash, the Talmud, and even Kabbalah. They do not feel obligated to the halacha or to observance of the material that they study, and they feel free to interpret and analyze written sources in ways that contradict traditions and commentary of former generations.

Is it a Life Elixir or a Deadly Poison?

At first glance, this seems to be a truly wondrous phenomenon. We see a thirst for Torah among sections of the public who seemed to very far away from it. The Torah is being disseminated to the masses. More and more people, men and women, study and go in depth into the words of the Tanach and the sages. It is true that they do not want to “become religious,” but there would seem to be a great value to simply strengthening their Jewish identity and their affinity for Torah and tradition. And anyway, who knows – Perhaps this will go further, and “the light within will bring them back to the good side” [Midrash Eichah].

However, this story has another side, which stems from a critical question. It is true that the wisest of all men wrote that “It is a tree of life for all those who take hold of it” [Mishlei 3:18]. However, does this wonderful phrase apply to all types of Torah study?

The sages taught us that the answer to this question is: NO! There is a type of Torah study which can be “a deadly poison” [Yoma 72b].

Some very harsh statements were made about people who “study with no intention of observing – it would have been better for him if his fetus had turned over in the womb and he had not come out to the air” [Vayikra Rabba 35:7]. Is this related to this new phenomenon of nonreligious study of the Torah?

However, let us not stop at those who are called “nonreligious,” instead we will ask a question about the religious ones among us. Does every person have a mandate to propose novel explanations of the Tanach and of the words of the sages, as he or she sees fit? Everybody knows to quote the saying that “there are seventy faces to the Torah” [Bamidbar Rabba Nasso, 13:16]. Does this mean that the words of the Torah are not controlled in any way, and that every single idea and capricious commentary is legitimate and is defined as a Torah interpretation?

Sure, there are “seventy faces,” but can it be that there are also excluded ways of looking at it? Where is the boundary between the two alternatives?

Who should Learn from Whom?

I recently came across an interesting Hebrew book called “My Heroes.” It was written by a very special Jew, a talented communications expert who was even appointed as the Minister of the Treasury in a Middle Eastern country. The book is a summary of four lessons about the Tanach that the author taught in the synagogue in Beit Daniel. It should be noted that the title of the book is very precise – “My Heroes.” The author really feels that the people are his own to fashion as he sees fit. As such, he feels that he has a right to treat them in any way that meets his fancy, elegantly ignoring verses that do not fit his own agenda, and taking full advantage of the fact that the people involved passed away a long time ago and will never be able to sue him for libel. One of the critics wrote that it is lucky that the author chose to write about the Tanach and not about another subject, such as chemistry, because if he had he would have brought about such a huge spark that it might have caused great damage…

What we can say for certain is that this book reveals something that is very interesting. If until now you thought in all your innocence that the Tanach is an outstanding work that arouses our inspiration, from which we can learn from our ancestors how to behave, we can now see that the truth is just the opposite. This book shows us that our ancestors should learn proper behavior from us…

Some Open Questions

Making the Torah available to new communities and the new style of learning bring up profound questions that should interest us as the holiday of our receiving the Torah approaches. Just who has the authority to interpret the Tanach and the words of our sages? Are there established criteria for legitimate commentary? Is this anything like the question of who is allowed to make a medical or legal decision? It is perfectly clear to us that a person who took a basic first aid course should not perform complex operations, and one who read through the entry on “Hebrew Law” in Wikipedia does not yet know enough to be a dayan in a religious court. Or should we assume that the limits for Torah study are much broader than this, and that everybody is allowed to make up his or her own interpretations?

Here is a related question: What about novel interpretations which were never brought by the sages and our wise men, or that even contradict what they wrote? What is the status of Torah study not for the express purpose of knowing how to perform the mitzvot but out of a desire to be connected to the “Jewish bookshelf,” the ethics of the prophets, and the culture of our nation?

I will end with one last point. When Bible criticism appeared about 150 years ago, it was a threat to the world of Torah, and it led to the downfall of many people. However, when we look back now, in hindsight, it is clear that on a scale of several generations the challenge presented by this approach forced the world of the yeshivot to return to a study of the Tanach in depth, and to discover novel approaches. Will the challenge that the “nonreligious” batei Midrash presents to the traditional world of Torah also serve as a source of new directions that are true to Torah?