Learning vs. Knowing

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I. Introduction

I remember a number of years ago that R. Norman Lamm spoke at the RIETS hag ha-semikhah (ordination celebration) and urged the newly ordained rabbis to pursue careers in the pulpit. There was, he explained, a desperate need for qualified pulpit rabbis yet, despite this, he sees most new rabbis pursuing careers in education or communal organizations, leaving pulpits empty and congregants in need. Therefore, he encouraged his students to consider noble careers in the pulpit.

This speech was reported in a particular newspaper as R. Lamm discouraging rabbis from becoming educators, implicitly denigrating the importance of Jewish education. This was nothing short of a gross distortion of R. Lamm’s sensible and praiseworthy speech.

I do not wish to make the same mistake. So let me start out by saying that, in the book Wisdom From All My Teachers: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education (ATID, Urim: 2003), R. Lamm has an essay titled “Knowing vs. Learning: Which Takes Precedence?” in which he emphasizes the importance of the learning process rather than the accumulation of knowledge. I will briefly take the opposite side, pointing out the importance of accumulating knowledge, without implying that R. Lamm does not consider it important. He was writing for educators and, therefore, stressed that learning in itself is important. I only want to correct a possible misimpression some might acquire from reading that essay. Learning is important in itself. But acquiring a breadth of knowledge is also important.

II. Knowing the Oral Torah

Probably the most famous and important section of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s classic Shulhan Arukh Ha-Rav is the section on studying Torah. In chapter two of that section, he discusses the student who cannot remember everything that he learns, i.e. most people. They should focus on learning practical halakhah so they can function as observant Jews. Once they have mastered the halakhah that they need on a daily basis, they should set aside time to study other subjects as well. Which subjects? Based on kabbalah, R. Shneur Zalman writes (2:10) that in a person’s lifetime he should learn at least once the entire Oral Torah – Mishnah, Tosefta, Gemara and Midrash Tanna’im & Amora’im. That is a big job and requires tremendous dedication.

III. Knowing All Of Halakhah

R. Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael, no. 27) divides the mitzvah of learning Torah into two parts: the learning process and the knowledge of Torah. For the former, one can spend all one’s life on one page of Gemara. However, for the latter, one must master – actually remember – all of halakhah. About the former, it is written “ve-hagisa bo yomam va-lailah – you shall meditate on it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8) and about the latter, it is written “ve-shinantam le-vanecha” about which the Gemara in Kiddushin (30a) comments “veshinantem – that the words of Torah should be sharp in your mouth and if someone asks you a question you do not hesitate but answer immediately.” There is an actual obligation to master all of halakhah and have it at one’s fingertips. (This is not done, according to R. Yisrael Salanter, by merely learning Shulhan Arukh. In order to know halakhah, one must learn it from the most basic sources and up.)

Of course, not everyone can accomplish this. About such people – certainly the majority – it is said: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” (Avos 2:21).

IV. Mastering Torah First

In a different explanation than R. Yisrael Salanter’s, but still relevant, is Radak’s explanation to Yehoshua 1:8. After bringing the explanations of Hazal, Radak suggests a different one. One is obligated to spend day and night studying Torah until one fully masters it. After that, however, one is no longer obligated to spend day and night studying Torah and may dedicate some time to learning “Greek wisdom.” Clearly, according to Radak’s explanation one is obligated to master all of Torah.

My point: One must cover ground, learn practical halakhah and review, review, review. Of course, easier said than done.

(Note: Yeshivas have other considerations, such as teaching students the necessary learning skills and imbuing in them a love for Torah and a respect for its scholars.)

UPDATE: R. Lamm’s speech that served as the basis for this article can be found here.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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