Learning without doing: a step in the right direction

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I am confused. My question is, I am a woman whom has grown up Reform my entire life and have begun Jewish learning over the past couple of years. Now that I am learning, I am feeling bad about some things I’m not observing. For example, I now know that the Torah forbids eating shrimp, although I’m not ready to give it up. This worries me, since now I know about it and am still doing it I’m worried God is going to strike me down or something. If I would have just stayed at my synagogue and not gotten involved in Jewish learning, I would have no worries because I wouldn’t know anything and therefore not feel bad about anything I’m doing wrong. If I’m not intending, at the moment, to become more observant, is it better that I don’t study so I won’t be more liable in heaven for what I know and don’t do? Or is it better to study anyway?

Nicole S.

Dear Nicole,

As we shall see, your question was addressed by the Almighty Himself!

Jeremiah the prophet says in the name of God: “…And it shall be that when you tell all these things to this people, they will say to you, ‘Why has God spoken all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity, what is our transgression that we have transgressed before Ha-shem our God? Say to them: ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me – the word of God — and they followed the gods of others; they worshiped them…but Me, they have foresaken; and My Torah they did not observe.’’ (Jeremiah 16:10-11).

The sages note the seeming redundancy at the end of this verse; obviously if we forsook God we did not observe His Torah?!

The Talmud answers, the Almighty meant to say, “Halevay (I only wish) that Myself they have foresaken (by not observing the mitzvot), but they continued to study My Torah, because the illumination within it (the Torah) would eventually bring them back to Me.” The Talmud states further, based upon another verse, that the Almighty told the Jews “I’m willing to pardon you for the transgression of the three cardinal sins; murder, idol worship and forbidden relations, but your forsaking the study of Torah I cannot forgive,” as the study of Torah is God’s final hope for the Jews’ connection to Him, (Jeruslam Talmud, Chagigah 1:7).

As we see, the Almighty Himself has proclaimed that no matter how far a Jew is from observance, His desire is that each and every Jew should be involved in the study of Torah. Torah study, more than the observance of any mitzvah, is the key to Jewish continuity.

The Communists understood this well when they banned the study of Torah. A rabbi once visited communist Russia, as a “tourist.” Stopped by the authorities to be checked at the airport, they unloaded his suitcases, taking out numerous pairs of tefillin, mezuzos, tallis and the like, in addition to many volumes of various aspects of Torah. The officials smirked at him, saying “tourist, huh?!” They then returned to him all the religious paraphernalia, but held back the volumes of Jewish studies. They said, “…we keep these, these are the enemies of the people”!

The Communists recognized and comprehended that without Torah study, the mitzvah observances this rabbi was bringing them would be short-lived and would not win the people over from their communist ideology. Torah study, however, would give the Jews knowledge and pride, and thus give the people the inner strength to stand up to their ideologies, creating “enemies of the people.”

The Russians learned this lesson from the Greeks and Romans of old who first enacted decrees to forbid the Jews from study, punishable by death. The miracle of Hanukkah was the celebration of the Jews steadfast commitment to learning, the “light within the Torah” represented by the menorah and overcoming the darkness of those decrees.

Judaism, furthermore, does not believe that “what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.” When we have the opportunity to learn and know, we are responsible for what we could and should have known even though we chose not to know. To choose to not study lest one finds out something she is not willing, at this point, to observe is not a reason to refrain from study. On the contrary, then besides not knowing that item, one becomes liable for not studying!

Moreover, you should not think you are worse off for knowing about shrimp and not refraining, (although I’m not condoning shrimp!) By virtue of the Torah study, you are no longer the same person you were before; you have taken a tremendous step ahead in your Jewish identity and connection with God. In the new space you inhabit, at least shrimp is an issue, which is a remarkably elevated station to occupy than where it was not even a topic of concern!

You should be proud of what you have achieved; and always look out for the next small, meaningful step that you can handle. This is because all Jews, regardless of age, background or affiliation, need to always be climbing and growing throughout our lives to become better, greater Jews and people.

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