by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh
The modern world witnesses many different kinds of Jewish engagement across the religious spectrum and plenty that do not have a religious impetus at all.
The spread of the Limmud phenomenon across the world testifies to the desire of countless Jews to engage with their cultural and spiritual heritage. Modernity appears to hold little interest in anything that takes time: we need what we need immediately, delivered by the most effective means possible.
Yet Jewish learning, although available online, is not something to rush over or engage with in a piecemeal manner; and the Jewish love of texts – biblical, rabbinic, liturgical, poetic – is best experienced by using books.
The modern world also contains a great deal of “bad” religion, destructive and nihilistic, discriminatory and primitive, and one of the best ways of countering it is by learning the great truths, the abiding wisdom, the ethical principles and more besides to be found in Jewish study, which represents the best that religion can offer.
As a people who have long prized education, it is unsurprising that those whose Jewish learning ceased at bar/batmitzvah are searching increasingly for the wealth of their heritage; this is not so as to contend with others in a ”who knows more?” competition but to enrich the self, to deepen the connections we make in a range of situations to our faith’s teachings.
The rabbis avowed Torah Meve Ledei Ma’asei – instruction leads to action – and our sages clearly believed that Jewish learning would inevitably lead to Jewish living, and observance.
The rabbis’ wisdom is eloquently proven by the countless Jews who have found a meaningful spiritual path behind the gate of study, debate and sustained consideration.
There is, however, another essential truth that cannot be ignored in this context. The importance of Jewish learning being for personal, spiritual and educational enrichment must not be allowed to hide the fact that having Jewish learning and keeping it to yourself is the wrong response to modernity.
If Jewish knowledge accrued through Jewish learning is kept locked in a box for which we alone have the key, then it undermines that command to be a “light to the nations”.
The brightest line that shines from Judaism beams out from our literary and spiritual tradition, and if it illumines our own lives, then surely we cannot justify in any way keeping it from others, denying societies whose moral foundation seems ever more corrupt and self-serving the opportunities for following in some new directions taught by our ancient faith.
This is, for me, an easy question with an easy answer: Jewish learning is not just important in the modern world, we need it now more than ever.
• Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is dean of Leo Baeck College