Who is the Torah intended for? For Torah scholars? For men? For women? For Jews? Perhaps even for non-Jews? As conservative and stringent as the Torah is, it surprises us with ground-breaking innovations and revolutions
One of Maimonides’ principles of faith states, “This Torah will not be replaced and there will be no other Torah from the Creator, blessed be His Name.” Torah study is the most all-inclusive commandment; therefore, we would expect that this precept—that the Torah not change in any way—be especially upheld in regard to the laws governing Torah study. Surprisingly though, we find that throughout history, these laws, more than any others, have undergone some of the greatest changes. Each change has brought with it a revolution that has dramatically broadened the range of Torah scholars.
In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro, God presents the Jewish people with His Torah. In celebration of that fact, let’s look at three major revolutions that have occurred throughout the generations in the realm of Torah study. Towards the end of this article, we will present our own belief that we are on the verge of a fourth revolution, and it is the responsibility of our generation to usher it in properly.
The First Revolution: Transcribing the Oral Torah
Initially, there was a clear distinction between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The sages ruled that, “Things that are passed down verbally, you are not permitted to put in writing.” The Oral Torah was destined to remain the living, effervescent Torah of the study halls. Only the books of the Bible (the Pentateuch, Prophets and the Writings) could be transcribed. The laws and interpretations of the Torah, the sermons and the regulations instituted by the sages were all intended to be passed down by word of mouth alone.
But, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the exile from the land of Israel threatened to last a long time. Rabbi Yehudah Hannasi (also known as Rabeinnu Hakadosh, or simply “Rebbi”) foresaw that the trials and tribulations of the exile were liable to erase the Oral Torah from the Jewish mind, God forbid. The Oral Torah was in dire jeopardy. To preserve it, Rebbi took the bold and crucial preemptive step of transcribing the final version of the Mishnah, “So that the Torah should not be forgotten from the Jewish people.” Rebbi explained that he had taken his license from the verse, “A time to act for God [by their] transgressing Your Torah” (Psalms 119:126). The sages explained this radical step, stating that the prohibition of writing the Torah must be breached, because it is a time to act for the sake of the Torah. In other words, sometimes, in order to strengthen Torah’s foundation, a certain aspect must be annulled (Menachot 99b).
It seems clear that had Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi found an alternative, one that would preserve the Oral Torah without the need to transgress the prohibition of transcribing it, he would have favored it. Clearly, this was his last resort. Yet, considering the outcome from a deeper perspective, it becomes clear that his revolutionary act brought about only positive developments. As such, we see retroactively how the process was directed by Divine Providence. For centuries, the Oral Torah had remained inside the study halls and it was strictly forbidden to limit it by confining it to the written word. But, in the time of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, it reached a stage of maturity that allowed it to continue thriving even in its written form.
The revolution that Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi began resulted in the growth of the Torah library, consisting of tens of thousands of volumes, which today have mostly been transferred to huge computer databases. The Torah library that began with the Mishnah continues to expand today. The figure of the Jewish scholar, proficient in hundreds and thousands of books covering all areas of Torah, was forgeHHd by this revolution.
The Second Revolution: “His Torah is his Trade”
“Rabbi Tzadok says…, Anyone who benefits from words of Torah, removes his life from the world” (Avot 4:5). This is the source of the prohibition against being paid for learning Torah. To this prohibition, Maimonides devoted one of the most acrimonious statements in his Mishneh Torah. He wrote, “Anyone who sets his heart on learning Torah and does not work at a trade, but survives on charity, he has surely desecrated God’s Name, humiliated the Torah, extinguished the light of the religion, caused evil to himself and removed his life from the World to Come” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10). Maimonides continues by proving that the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud worked for their living and refused to benefit from the Torah.
Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, ruled against Maimonides’ strict ruling. He ruled that it is permissible to study Torah and live from donations, as many young Torah scholars do today. He acquits all those who reject Maimonides’ ruling with the same principle that the sages condoned the transcription of the Oral Torah into writing, “It is a time to act for God [by their] transgressing Your Torah.” Rabbi Yosef Caro explains, “Had the livelihoods of the scholars and the teachers not been available, they could not have labored in the Torah as they should and the Torah would have been forgotten, God forbid.” Once again, breaching the original law that prohibited Torah study as a means to making a living was an essential step that allowed the Torah to be conserved.
In this case too, the original superficial necessity paved the way to realizing a deeper, more positive objective. If Torah study is the ultimate goal, it should be permissible to receive financial support in pursuing it. This ensures that the Torah continues to flourish among the Jewish people. Like the first revolution, the second one also forged a new role in Jewish life: the role and figure of a teacher whose official, full-time job is the learning and dissemination of Torah. This figure is usually identified as the rabbi of a congregation, or a Torah scholar who puts his life and soul into Torah learning. It was this transition that institutionalized the tradition of modern semichah (rabbinical ordination) that began during the era of the Rishonim, spanning the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries CE.
The Third Revolution: Torah Study for Women
Maimonides begins his Laws of Torah study with the phrase, “Women are exempt from Torah study, as it says, ‘You shall teach them to your sons [and not to your daughters].'” In its original sense, the mitzvah of Torah study is exclusively for men. Maimonides summarizes the law, “A woman who studies Torah receives a reward for doing so… yet, even though she receives a reward, the sages commanded that one should not teach his daughter Torah, because most women are not oriented towards study. Rather, they reduce the Torah teachings to meaningless issues, in keeping with their meager intellect” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13).
Throughout history, most Jewish women received no formal Jewish education. The cheiders, schools and yeshivas were only for men, while girls were educated at home. The many wise women who were Torah scholars throughout history stand as an exception to this rule.
In recent generations, together with other signs of emancipation, the gates of higher secular education were opened to women. In light of this, many great rabbis, such as Rabbi Yisrael Meir of Radin (known as the Chofetz Chayim), came to the conclusion that Torah homeschooling for girls would no longer suffice. It was incumbent on the community to establish Torah educational institutions for girls (such as the Beit Yakov schools for girls that were founded by the renowned Sarah Schnirer). Here too, the ruling was based on the verse, “It is a time to act for God [by their] transgressing Your Torah.” If women do not learn Torah and their entire education is secular, they might leave the way of Torah observance and be lost to religious society, God forbid.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, went even further. He claimed that in our generation, Maimonides’ statement that “most women are not oriented towards study,” is no longer applicable. Women have developed and advanced, and are no longer likely to reduce the Torah teachings to something meaningless. Quite the opposite. In addition to his own insights into modern society, the Lubavitcher Rebbe referred us to the teachings of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. The latter, in his seminal works on Kabbalah, describes the imminent rise of the sefirah of kingdom, reflecting the positive developmental process that is currently occurring in the feminine dimensions of reality.
Here too, that which transpired as a result of a superficial requirement is now revealed as part of a most desirable development.
The Fourth Revolution: Torah Study for Gentiles
The first three revolutions in Torah study shifted the boundaries of Torah learning within the Jewish people alone. The Torah was given to us alone, as the verse states, “Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob.” Moreover, the sages stated, “It is forbidden to transmit the words of Torah to a non-Jew” (Chagigah 13a). The law even states, “A non-Jew who studies Torah is liable to die [by the hand of God]” (Maimonides, Hilchot Melachim 10:9).
Yet, regarding this restriction—limiting Torah study to Jews alone—a wonderful change can be expected. We are all familiar with the words of the prophet Isaiah: “And many nations will go and they will say, ‘Let us ascend the mountain of God to the Temple of the God of Jacob and He will teach us of His ways, and we will follow His path,’ for from Zion shall the Torah emerge [to non-Jews] and the word of God from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). Jeremiah also prophesied, “To you will come nations from the extremes of the earth and they will say, ‘Only falsity did our forefathers teach us.'” (Jeremiah 16:19). The prophet Zephaniah heralded an era when, “…I will convert the peoples to a pure language so that all of them call the name of God, to worship Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).
A non-Jew is commanded to study and observe the seven Noahide commandments, as the Talmud states explicitly, “Even a non-Jew who deals with the Torah [studying things that pertain to the seven mitzvot] is like a High Priest” (Baba Kama 38a). It is the task of the Jewish people to teach and disseminate the Torah of the Noahides to all of mankind, as Maimonides and others explain (see Hilchot Melachim 8:10; Tosfot Yom-Tov, Avot 3:14). The Lubavitcher Rebbe stressed that in our generation, the world is ready and it is time for us to put this into practice.
In practice, the Noahide laws are the most fundamental human obligations. But, keeping the seven Noahide mitzvot does not suffice. This level of Torah study alone cannot fully realize the idea of tikkun olam. It is difficult to imagine how to implement more than this without advance preparation. Maimonides states that the other monotheistic religions pave the way to the final redemption. But, the nations of the world can only recognize the Torah as the source of all the sparks of truth that their religions contain if they are exposed to the entire Torah in all its glory. They must study Torah in a way that reveals its depth and its profound relevance to their own lives.
In order to realize this vision, a fourth revolution must be added to the chain of revolutions in Torah study. We are being called upon to begin offering Torah to the non-Jews, without limiting them to studying only the seven Noahide laws alone. They need to be exposed to the entire expanse of Torah teachings. This should begin with the wealth of spiritual and psychological ideas that are available through the Torah’s inner dimension—Kabbalah and Chassidut— without skipping over the laws relevant to all of mankind that exist in the revealed dimensions of Torah (including the seven Noahide laws).
The intention in teaching non-Jews Torah is not to preach conversion. If a non-Jew wishes to convert to Judaism, he or she may do so, but this must be from their own free choice, without coercion. Teaching Torah means sharing with the nations of the world some of the infinite wisdom and beauty that it contains. At most, this might be an incentive for conversion, but it cannot be considered coercion. Nor will this impair the special mission of the Chosen People. On the contrary, the nation that has the Torah in its possession is the one who can share its light and goodness with all peoples, “to illuminate the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). Teaching the Torah to non-Jews augments the Jewish people’s status as “a nation of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
The Fourth Revolution – Good News for Jews too
We have seen how each of the first three revolutions prevented the Torah from being forgotten from the Jewish people. It would seem that the only ones who will benefit from the fourth revolution are not Jewish. What benefit can it be to the Jewish people?
Teaching Torah to non-Jews is a great challenge to any individual who takes it upon himself. But, encountering people who are far removed from Torah will bring him into contact with questions and new perspectives that will rejuvenate his relationship with the Torah and infuse it with new motivation. We can already see this happen with people involved in Jewish outreach, in Chabad houses and the like.
But, teaching the Torah to non-Jews offers far greater value to the Jewish people. It is no secret that modern Judaism is suffering from a deep crisis. Many individuals (and even groups) have distanced themselves from Torah study and even from their Jewish identity. One outstanding reason for this crisis is because they identify with universalism. In contrast, Judaism functions as a national religion that apparently has nothing to offer the rest of humanity. Perceiving Judaism through the prism of teaching the Torah to non-Jews will open the minds and hearts of many distant Jews to see the Torah in a new light.
The time has come “to act for God [by their] transgressing Your Torah.” With God’s help, the fourth revolution will heal the crisis of our people and all humanity, bringing true peace and light to the world.
From a farbrengen at David’s Tomb, 24th Tevet 5755