11.24.2008

Torah and life

Things are, quite frankly, not going so well in the beit midrash, and thus in life. I am not enjoying learning nearly as much as I have in the past. I'm not really sure why, except for one idea that I am finding extremely difficult to articulate. I look around the beit midrash, see others happily and excitedly engaged in learning, and it makes me sad.

So I have made a list. Because lists are easier.
  1. I used to learn to escape from deep truths and the emotionally difficult parts of my life. I loved learning and did it a lot. It was a great escape on many levels, especially studying Mishna.
  2. Then I decided to stop escaping from deep truths or I stopped being able to escape.
  3. Then I disliked learning Torah, since I only knew how to learn in this bifurcated, sanitized-from-emotions, way. Learning Torah reminded me of that former life of escape from emotions that I had rejected. Also, whenever I learned (and I think this is related), it felt boring and irrelevant. Cut off from the meaty part of life, somehow.
  4. So I didn't learn for a long time (1998-2004).
  5. But I missed learning.
  6. When I started learning again, I found that I didn't feel like I was leaving my emotional life at the door, so to speak. I felt like I was somehow bringing my whole being to my Torah study. And I found that I loved learning as much as I had before (say, back at #1).
  7. But now I am not enjoying learning, to a large extent. It's like I'm back at #3. And I don't know why.
At the end of this past summer, which was spent studying Torah, I wrote that "I have a renewed conviction that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah." I somehow suspect that the institution where I am currently studying, or the program within the institution where I am studying, does not support this "bringing the whole being" model of Torah study. Somehow, it feels like I am being asked, or forced, or encouraged, to check who I am at the door, and enter the beit midrash sanitized from emotion and personal history. I think if I stood up in the beit midrash and said "I think that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah," I would either be laughed at, ignored, or just simply not understood.

Do any of you understand what I mean by that? I tried to explain it to someone in person recently and he really didn't understand what I meant. Or, rather, he said that he felt that that's how all limmud Torah is, by its very nature. He didn't understand what the alternative was, that I was rejecting, which made me feel he didn't understand what I was saying.

The kind of learning I am interested in doing is the kind of learning that informs and is informed by the actual lives we live. By my life, and my struggles, and my values. I want Torah study that illuminates rather than represses, that connects and unifies rather than divides. I want Torah that engages me at my core. I want to be able to learn Torah the way that I talk to my closest friends or read the newspaper: with my whole being, informed by everything I've done and that has been done to me, by my feminism, my attention to detail, my liberal proclivities, my concern for humanity, my interest in how legal systems can create positive change in the world, by my need for creative expression. This is my Torah, and more that has yet to be written.

I feel guilty articulating this. I was raised with a certain rigorous intellectual standard for Torah, and the accompanying feeling that anything that actually touched or affected people was fluffy nonsense. Gemara should be about pure Gemara (or, sometimes more accurately, about rishonim). Halakhah should be about serving God, not articulating deep emotional truths. I still cringe when people try to make Torah about politics or current events. How is that different from what I want? I don't want some watered-down version of Torah just for the sake of making it personally meaningful--do I? Am I just a casualty of the "me generation," where if it isn't about me, it isn't worthwhile or important? Just how self-absorbed am I, anyway?

I have two other goals besides learning Torah in a way that engages my whole being and that involves bringing my whole self--warts and all--into the beit midrash. (No, I don't have actual warts. Just metaphoric ones.) Another list:
  1. I also want to know everything. Really. I want bekiut that I don't have at the moment. And I want to acquire it in some way other than, say, reading through the Shulkhan Arukh, which I find to be boring. Maybe I just haven't found the right way to do it or the right person to do it with. I don't know.
  2. I want better skills. I want a larger Aramaic word bank in my head. I want to be able to read through a page of Gemara with less difficulty, and even to attack Tosfot with some expectation of success.
I have loved learning Gemara, halacha, and Tanakh in the past, and I want to love learning it again. I don't know how to fix whatever is wrong. Heck, I can't even really articulate it that well! (I'm not even 100% sure that the problem is this (see above), and not something else more pragmatic, like not being in the right shiur or not being interested in the particular material I am studying.)

Does this sound like anything any of you have ever felt? I am hoping that if people ask me questions or challenge me to be more articulate, I could better explain what I mean.

Someone help me, please!

7 comments:

Tfb said...

Abacaxi Mamao! Don't you know all that rational/pure learning leave emotions at the door stuff is patriarchal bullshit that is patently lacking in intellectual integrity (as well as basic emotional soundness)? They tell themselves they're leaving their lives at the door but it just means they're bringing in different baggage, and worse, it's the kind they don't want to see. I'm sorry learning isn't great now :( But don't let them psyche you out!!

dpg said...

I may be wrong, but I have the impression that midrash and aggadah deal with more of the emotional aspects of Torah and Talmud. Is that what you are looking for?

Anonymous said...

Agreed! You need to do to Torah learning as (le-havdil:)) as Foucault did to history.
Do not despair.

Anonymous said...

This post is brave and wise. I've been struggling with some of these questions for years. (Did you ever see the piece The Atlantic commissioned and then killed on teaching Talmud at Ma'ayan?). I called it "the divorce of sense and sensibility." But you definitely added a level of depth to the analysis of the problem that my more narrative, descriptive piece did not achieve!
-MUL

Becky said...

Is it possible that you just don't have the right chevruta? I know, that's probably too shallow a response, but it was my first thought.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts from an am haaretz way out in galut, who none the less is a fan of your blog:

1. I assume from this post that you are a full-time student. In my personal experience, that in itself drains much of the joy from learning. I think there is a perek in the Avot about the virtue of having day job in addition to study. This is a wise one: The brain needs a variety of engagement to work at its best, and that would likely increase the level of intellect/emotion integration you seek

I do realize that you worked hard to put yourself in a position where you have the opportunity to study full-time in Jerusalem, and I am thrilled and envious that you have the ability to see it through--but do not underestimate the burden of full time studenthood.

2. Possibly, are you what physical trainers call "overtraining"--pushing all the time for 100% effort? It's not the most effective way to condition the body and get stronger; likewise, I believe the intellect doesn't much benefit from it either.

Perhaps instead of pushing yourself to know everything, remind yourself of Rabbi Tarfon's wisdon: it's not required that you complete the task...

3. Speaking of physical activity, are you able to get some? No analogy here, just pure health science--we learn better when we are also engaging in regular exercise, preferably of moderate to vigorous intensity.

Also consider omega-3 fatty acid supplements, like fish or flaxseed oil. It's been shown to improve mood and memory.

4. Find a creative outlet: play an instrument, write poetry. I can't remember what's on your blogroll, but you may benefit from reading the "Velveteen Rabbi"--usually, I find Renewal types to touchy-feelly woo-woo, but her blog is quite good. A small infusion of that flavor maybe exactly what you need. Also, "D'yo Ilu yamei" waxes poetic about Daf yomi learning, among other things.

My apologies for these rather pedestrian suggestions, especially if you are already doing all of the above...but it's always good to review the simple solutions first. ---Ruth

Sigal said...

Abacaxi Mamao,
this is a super-interesting and insightful post. I think I understand your frustrations about being (tacitly) asked to leave your whole emotional self outside of limmud Torah... I really believe that true limmud Torah just *is* bringing your whole self to bear on the text and vice-versa. Ideally, we should have places and teachers that supply creative forums in which to do that...if you don't have such a forum built into your program, maybe you can generate one yourself? An idea I've been experimenting with: writing creative midrash that connects text(s) and some issue in your personal (Jewish) life... Maybe you'd like to try something like that? Either flying solo, or in a writing workshop of your own creation?
Most importantly, don't feel like you're alone in feeling this way - you're not! Thanks for keeping us all in the loop, and do keep updating...
love,
Sigal