People of the Book
People of the Book
Jews used to be known as the people of the book. One of the distinctions between Jews and goyim used to be that Jews were literate, and studied, and knew their sacred texts. The goyim relied on priests to do their reading for them, but Jews were a "nation of priests." Stories abound from the shtetl about how even the Jewish peasants prized learning and tried to learn a little themselves. One British visitor to Poland, writing about Warsaw in the nineteenth century, told of leaving an opera early and seeing two groups of carriage drivers waiting for the show to let out. The Polish drivers were gathered around in a circle shooting dice and drinking. The Jewish drivers were gathered around in a circle studying a book. Over the centuries, the heroes of the Jewish people have always been scholars.
Maimonides, addressing the question of what to learn, says that a person should study Gemora, Mishnah, and the Torah. He goes on to suggest that artisans who have to support themselves should spend three hours a day on earning a living, three hours on Gemora, three hours on Mishnah, and three hours on Torah. Several hundred years later, another commentator bemoaned the lack of scholarship by lamenting, "Now that the average person is studying only two or three hours a night...."
So each of us must answer the question: If I consider myself a committed Jew, a Jew devoted to maintaining a Jewish lifestyle, a Jew who cares, do I meet the two-or-three-hours-a-night standard or the nine-hours-a-day standard? Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated, or whatever label we choose for ourselves, we all recognize the centrality of Jewish learning to authentic Judaism. If I believe that my Judaism is or should be "authentic," am I personally committed to Jewish learning?
If you believe that Judaism is a culture that stands without regard to a Supreme Being, that culture has no more central tradition than the study of our sacred texts. If you don't study, anything else you do to uphold the tradition is, to say the least, on very shaky ground.
If you are concerned that your children might marry someone who is not Jewish, try studying the Torah with your child. It is a surprisingly effective inoculation against intermarriage.
If you choose not to be motivated by guilt, you may simply want to partake of the profound wisdom that is our heritage.
If you are worried about the inroads made by the Messianics, remember that solid knowledge of Jewish texts and traditions is often effective against their efforts.
If you believe that G-d gave the Torah to the Jews, the obligation to study is obvious. By these beliefs, G-d's promises and threats in Deuteronomy make it clear that we all risk disaster if we don't know and follow the halachah. Thus the requirement to study is of grave importance; our future depends on it.
For each of us, the personal commitment to learning must be our own. But if we then need help with carrying out the commitment--advice, study materials, classes--this town is full of rabbis ready to help, Jewish libraries gathering dust, under-patronized Judaica shops, and classes with empty seats.
Every year the Allied Jewish Federation asks us to put millions of dollars on the line to pay for everything that the Jewish community is doing, and we come through. Now let's also ask ourselves: isn't it time to put myself on the line and study my Judaism? I am a Jew, and the Jews are the people of the book, so shouldn't I be a person of the book?