Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been studying Torah with a rabbi who claims to only be imparting knowledge and not to be influencing us to become more religious. At the same time, however, he’s always suggesting we put the knowledge into practice and do whatever mitzvah we learn about. This seems to border on subterfuge and makes me feel second-class if I’m not ready to take on that particular mitzvah or make a commitment to it. Part of me wants to leave the class, another side of me wants to stay because I enjoy his teaching. What do you suggest?
I firstly suggest you discuss your feelings with the rabbi. I trust he is a sensitive person and will, perhaps, adjust the assertiveness of his suggestions.
I will add, however, that pedagogically the best way to learn and absorb material is to put the lessons and concepts into practice. To quote Stephen Covey, “To know and not to do, is really not to know. To learn and not to do is not to learn. In other words, to understand something but not to apply it is really not to understand it. It is only in the doing, the applying, that knowledge and understanding are internalized. For instance, you could study tennis as a sport by reading books and hearing lectures, but until you’ve actually played it, you wouldn’t really know the sport. To know and not to do is not to know.” (“The 8th Habit,” p. 33)
Covey’s brilliant insight is implicit in the words of the Mishnah: “Not the knowledge is the main thing, rather the action” (Pirkei Avot). The Mishnah further compares one with more knowledge than deeds to a tree with great branches but inadequate, thin roots — the first strong wind will uproot it, the knowledge won’t endure. The Talmud says it thus: “One who says ‘I have only knowledge,’ even knowledge he has not.”
There is also a deeper reason for this. Torah knowledge and understanding is not something we connect to only with our minds like other branches of knowledge. It is, rather, a pursuit which connects to the deepest levels of our souls.
When G-d chose to connect our souls to physical bodies, He limited the capacity for the soul to directly assimilate perceptions and knowledge. Only through the vehicle of the physical body can the soul be connected to on the deepest levels. This is the amazing partnership between body and soul, both in personal growth and in repairing the world. For this reason there is much merit to your rabbi’s suggestion to experience the teaching with body and soul; through the practice of a mitzvah its message is concretized in a profound way.
I recommend you continue studying even if you choose not to observe what you learn. There’s no greater mitzvah than the study of Torah. Whatever teaching you feel comfortable trying out, I urge you to do so; the combined understanding and practice promises to be a most rewarding and fulfilling experience.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,