By Rabbi Jerry Seidler
The autumn holidays call out to Jews for teshuvah, not so much repentance in my view, but for radical self-transformation. For the changing, improvement and repair of oneself, one’s family, one’s community, and then for branching out from there. The COVID-19 pandemic looms over us all this year as we enter the fall and winter seasons. What might such self-transformation depend on?
Study. A quest for knowledge. An odyssey into insight, inspiration, intellectual growth and spiritual wonderment. We all should commit to reading better and more, to learning for its own sake, for the sake of our and the world’s betterment, and for the pure joy of it.
There is no more auspicious time than now to do so. We Jews dedicate a day to celebrate Jewish learning as Sukkot ends: Simchat Torah, the Joy of Torah, and it is a chag, a holy day.
Come, see. Our ancient sages argued about all kinds of topics. They liked to debate which mitzvah — commandment (or spiritual obligation as I call it) — is most important. Some said it was love for others; some said it was tzedakah (charity); while there were those who claimed it was gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). But, for centuries in our prayer books, we meditated over the Mishnah and Talmud excerpts that highlight that Talmud Torah, study of Torah, Jewish texts, was equal to all the other mitzvot.
Torah begins with the Five Books, of course, but includes all of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and rabbinic literature from the Mishnah and Talmud through the various works of midrash, halakhah, philosophy, kabbalah, mussar, commentaries and beyond. Divine love, which we understand to be experienced especially in Torah and its study, is also to be relished in the vast corpus of non-rabbinic Jewish literature as well. From Philo to Spinoza to Levinas, from the Glukel of Hameln to Grace Aguilar to Leah Goldberg, from Judith Plaskow to Rachel Adler to Esther Jungreis.
The great Jewish works of the sciences, literature and the arts all are within the penumbra of Torah and its study.
My own study, as we leave the autumn holidays, includes the writings of Jerome Gellman (theology), Naomi Levy (spirituality) and Lawrence Krauss (scientific cosmology). As for traditional Torah study, this year I will be using the chasidic commentary of the Kedushat Levi.
Zil g’mar, go study. Enjoy!
Rabbi Jerry Seidler is a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Association of Professional Chaplains.