6.12.2008

Whatcha' gonna' do with all that learnin'?

As of June 1, I have started my break from the rat-race in order to study Talmud and halacha (and maybe midrash and parshanut and whatever else catches my attention) for about a year. This is why I have not posted since May 27, which is a very long break for me.

When I share these plans with people, and include the information that these studies are not towards a degree or even a certificate, they usually ask me what I plan to "do" with my studies (much as some, but far fewer, asked me what I planned to "do" with a B.A. in History and Women's Studies). Some (the non-Orthodox) assume that I am going to become a rabbi; others (the Orthodox), a teacher.1 Nobody, I note, asked me what I going to "do" with my hard-earned high school diploma. In any case, I think I may refer people who ask such questions to the following corpus of text, which caught my attention as I was busily planning my future as a grateful kollel student.

I was already familiar with this text from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers], chapter 4:

ז רבי צדוק אומר, לא תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ולא קורדום לחפור בהם: כך היה הלל אומר, ודישתמש בתגא חלף; הא, כל הנהנה מדברי תורה, נטל חייו מן העולם.

7. R. Zadok said, "...make not of the Torah a crown with which to aggrandize thyself, nor a spade with which to dig." So also used Hillel to say, "He who makes a worldly use of the crown [of the Torah] shall waste away." Hence one may infer that whoever derives a profit from the words of the Torah is helping in his own destruction.
It's not clear what "derives a profit from the words of Torah" means here. Presumably, due to its place in the mishna, it means to aggrandize yourself with it, dig with it, or make worldly use of it, but that, too, is rather unclear. Still, the basic take-away message seems to be, "Do not use the Torah as a utilitarian tool."2

ח [ו] רבי יוסי אומר, כל המכבד את התורה, גופו מכובד על הברייות; וכל המחלל את התורה, גופו מחולל על הברייות

8. R. Yosi said, "Whoever honors the Torah will, himself, be honored by mankind, but whoever dishonors the Torah will, himself, be dishonored by mankind."

[Translation based on this nifty source and then modified slightly by me. I used to use Project Guttenberg a lot in college, but I somehow forgot about it after that.]

This mishna is clearer: "If you honor the Torah, you will be honored in the end." The converse, as well, is true.

In February or March, when I began (!) writing this post, I heard someone refer to a tiny piece of this text from Nedarim 62a. When I looked it up to read the whole sugya, I immediately knew that I had the only good answer for all of those who question the practicality or lack of directionality of my plans to learn in yeshiva.3

תניא: "לאהבה את ה' אלהיך לשמוע בקולו ולדבקה בו" (דברים ל), שלא יאמר אדם אקרא שיקראוני חכם, אשנה שיקראוני רבי, אשנן שאהיה זקן ואשב בישיבה--אלא למד מאהבה וסוף הכבוד לבא, שנאמר "קשרם על אצבעותיך כתבם על לוח לבך" (משלי ז), ואומר "דרכיה דרכי נועם" (משלי ג), ואומר "עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה ותומכיה מאושר" (משלי ג

It was taught: "That you may love the Lord your God and that you may obey his voice, and that you may cleave unto him" [Deut. 30:20]: [This means] that one should not say, "I will read Scripture that I may be called a Sage. I will study, that I may be called Rabbi, I will study, to be an Elder, and sit in the assembly [of elders];" but learn out of love, and honour will come in the end, as it is written, "Bind them upon your fingers, write them upon the table of your heart," [Prov. 7:3] and it is also said, "Her ways are ways of pleasantness [Prov. 3:17]"; also, "She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is everyone that retaineth her [Prov. 3:18]."4

This is why I am spending this year learning: Because I love it. And, to borrow another oft-cited phrase from Ethics of the Fathers [1:14], "If not now, when?" I don't even care about the end of that sentence--"honour will come," unless one translates "honour" into "a means to support oneself," or "a viable career," in which case, yes, please! But I do not seek honor at the moment. The love is more than sufficient.

I came to this realization, or series of realizations, about eighteen months ago: One should do what one loves, providing that what one loves is safe and legal. One should not stay at a job where one is not growing and learning new things (i.e., bored) just for the sake of having a job and appearing respectable. After twenty-seven years of thinking only about what I was the most good at, what I was best at, or what I was most successful at, I finally realized that I had been asking the wrong question. The right question is: What do I love? What makes me feel most alive and most connected to myself and the world around me? The answer is studying Torah and writing.5 I spent the next fifteen months or so figuring out how I was going to make that work, financially.

I started writing this post in the winter, in the midst of trying to reorganize my life so that it would resemble that of a woman who has the leisure to learn Torah and to write. I started writing it in joyful anticipation of the beginning of an intense, loving relationship with Torah study.

I was afraid, throughout, that it--the joyful existence that I anticipated--might exist only in my brain. I prepared myself, or tried to prepare myself, for the possibility that I might come to yeshiva and be...disappointed. Even worse, I might find myself...bored. One can idealize something so much in one's mind, especially if one plans for about eighteen months to quit one's job to pursue it, and when one actually begins the activity for which one quit one's job, it can let one down.

And, indeed, I felt that way last week. I won't lie to you--last week, the first week, was rough. The yeshiva I am at runs from 7:30 am to 9 pm three days a week, from 8:15 to 5 pm one day a week, from 7:30 am to 12:30 pm one day a week, and from 5-7:30 pm one day a week. That's--you got it--six days a week. It takes me 45 minutes to get to and from the yeshiva, so to shower and be ready for my day, I need to get up at 6 am most days. Thus far, I have not succeeded over much, but I am working on that. I am a night owl and prefer to nod off around 1 am, and I was pretty successful at that end of things, so that first week was exhausting.

In some ways, this was the intensity that I craved and did not have during my year in Israel before college, ten years ago. In other ways, struggling to learn Gemara and halacha on four or five hours of sleep, I wanted to shoot myself, or at least go back to my job. My first week was also complicated by the fact that on Wednesday night, after we got out at 5 pm, I took a 30 minutes subway ride to return to my old job to begin to train my replacement, and on Thursday night, I left yeshiva early (at 6 pm, after a 7:30 am start) to go back to the job-that-I-had-quit to preside over commencement exercises for a program that I had administrated. I felt like I was being pulled in all directions and towards no particular goal. Also, they are generously providing breakfast and lunch each day, but there was a lot of dairy tempting to me, so I was either feeling grouchy from having to avoid delicious dairy foods or very sick for capitulating to it. (I love dairy but am supposed to, according to the gastroenterologist, restrict myself to 100% lactose-free foods, like Lactaid milk.) I had an excruciating time trying to get up in the morning and staying awake in classes once I got there, and it was hard for introverted me to suddenly be thrown together with some thirty-odd strangers most of whom I had never met previously, and to spend so many, many hours with them. Last week, I actually sort of wanted to quit.

But I did not, because I remembered that I had quit my job to do what I loved, and if I trusted myself enough to go ahead with my plans, I owed myself more than five days to try to adjust to my new life as a kollel woman. I caught up on sleep over Shabbat and Shavuot, which was--yes, you guessed it--also spent with the yeshiva, and this week, so far, has been much, much better. Patience is not my strong suit, but I am learning to be patient with myself.

I had an experience while preparing for a gemara shiur yesterday that brought this text from Nedarim--and the love of Torah study--back to the forefront of my mind. The gemara brought up an apparent contradiction between two Amoraic sources, but something about the apparent contradiction bothered me like an itch you can't quite scratch. They seemed to be talking about slightly different cases, but I was at a loss to articulate that and thus resolve the contradiction. (To complicate matters somewhat, the gemara itself appeared to leave the matter unresolved.) Then my chavruta and I looked at a Rif and I had one of those "aha!" moments in which everything suddenly becomes crystal clear and disparate facts and opinions fly into a neat little chart in my mind, or at least they look poised to. Like this big mess could turn into a beautiful chart. (I happen to find charts beautiful much of the time.)

It was instantaneous and euphoric and not unlike falling in love, but far less enduring. It was like I could feel my brain flooding with serotonin or some other feel-good hormone or two. It's hard for me to describe these moments, but they happen sometimes when I read something that shifts my thinking in a permanent and useful way (as life-altering books do), or find a way to put a squirmy, slippery, complicated thought into words on paper or screen, or sometimes when I learn Torah. It's akin to the feeling I had when I first learned how to ride a bike. I wish I had better words for it. It's shivery and astounding and floaty and it's gone in a minute or two, but while it's there, I...I don't know what. I feel like I am doing what I am meant to be doing.

I don't think that one "aha!" moment is the end of this story--I am sure that things will get difficult again and that I will be frustrated again--but it wasn't just that one moment that made me haul out Nedarim 62a for further investigation. I felt precursors to that "aha!" moment and aftershocks from it, and I know that I was right to choose this path for myself. And that is why I decided to return to this drafted post from February, engage with it anew, and post it for you all tonight.

Happy learning!


P.S. The next part of the gemara from Nedarim 62a, cited above, reads:
רבי אליעזר בר ר' צדוק אומר: עשה דברים לשם פעלם ודבר בהם לשמם, אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם ואל תעשם קורדום להיות עודר בו. וקל וחומר ומה בלשצר שלא נשתמש אלא בכלי קדש שנעשו כלי חול נעקר מן העולם, המשתמש בכתרה של תורה על אחת כמה וכמה

R. Eliezer son of R. Zadok said: Do [good] deeds for the sake of their Maker, and speak of them for their own sake. Make not of them a crown wherewith to magnify thyself, nor a spade to dig with. And this follows a fortiori. If Belshazzar, who merely used the holy vessels which had been profaned, was driven from the world; how much more so one who makes use of the crown of the Torah!
Now you can see why I immediately connected it to the text from Avot. It is a quote from R. Eliezer, the son of R. Zadok mentioned in the Avot 4:7. There is more of great interest before and after these bits. Now, go and learn for real!

________________________________________________
1. I have never, in my life, had so many people suggest to me that I may want to become a rabbi! (Is this what happens, I wonder, when a woman jumps the fence between the Orthodox and the liberal Jewish worlds? Fascinating!)
2. One can possibly infer from this that one should not get paid for Torah study, but let's not take this in that direction, shall we?
3. This text is far more interesting and exciting to me than the Avot text. Perhaps just because it's new? I'm not sure. I just really like it. Part of me would like to slap it on t-shirt or some bumper stickers.
4. Translation based on the Soncino, which I found online for the first time, and quite usefully, here. The host site seems a bit bizarre, but I may only think that because of the Java applet they have playing on their home page, and the reference to George W. Bush. But maybe those are reason enough. Does this mean that they are fundamentalist Christians?
5. A third thing is observing nature, and I sometimes think that if I had been born to the right family and probably in the other gender in the 19th century, I might have become a naturalist.

6 comments:

alg's dad said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the yeshiva more now. I've always thought that life is too short not to devote a good piece of it to doing what you love. And this is especially true if what you love is limudei torah, as opposed to say, hobbies or a profession that halacha views as neutral, at best. We are very proud of you!

There seems to be a link missing in footnote 4.

alg's mother said...

Wonderful! I was wondering how you were managing with the intense yeshiva schedule. I do think that a regular schedule is a healthy way to live, but then I've never been a night owl.

mbarr said...

No.. I instead ask:

"What do you do, with a BA in English..."


Or... maybe more, appropriately, from Ave Jew:

"What do you do with a BA in Yiddish"

:-)

tarfon said...

Kol hakavod.

Beware that "Come-and-hear" site -- yes, it's useful for giving full Soncino translation to certain tractates (AFAIK -- I haven't checked side by side), but it's driven by some very anti-Judaism (not the same as anti-Semitic) ideas. Go ahead and use it, but be careful about recommending it to others.

alg's mother said...

FYI, I went to a very interesting talk by Dr. Marc Shapiro, who highly recommended using Hebrewbooks.org for free access to a wide variety of sources. I don't know anything more about the site, though.

BBJ said...

That sounds wonderful, and I'm so glad that you're doing it.

Re: "What will you do with?" questions, years ago I was studying Irish language and history during a year abroad. I spent a morning with the French mother of a classmate, who when I explained what I was doing asked me 'Is it for a career, or for the culture?' After months of 'and what are you going to do with that?' it was a pleasure to say 'for the culture'.