In the Torah reading of Vayeilech, there is a Biblical commandment that has disappeared in traditional Judaism of assembling (הקהל) all of the Israelites and even strangers among them once in every seven years at the time of the festival of Sukkot in order to hear a public reading of Torah (selected passages from the Book of Deuteronomy according to the Jewish tradition) – ”And Moses commanded them, saying: At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles…you shall read this Torah…Assemble (הקהל) the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31, 10-12). The term Torah (תורה) here in this passage is from a Hebrew root (הוראה) that means instruction or guidance, and is the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah has a number of different usages ranging from law, the 5 books of Moses, the Bible as a whole, the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible (Judaism), to wisdom of a universal nature. In this passage of the Torah reading of Vayeilech relating to the commandment of assembling once in seven years for a public reading of Torah, it is not clear at all what the term Torah means – but, according to the Jewish tradition, selected passages from the Book of Deuteronomy were read. I think that it is clear that in the plain meaning of Scripture this ritual is meant to be a public and national event emphasizing the importance of the study of Torah.
In traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature, we do not live by the plain meaning of Scripture. That is, we live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish rabbinic tradition – the foundation of which is the Talmudic literature. The implications here are enormous – in principle, traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash (commentary) was one of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, and the method of midrash allowed Judaism to evolve and develop. An important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.
One of the most important commandments of the Jewish tradition, which is not found in the plain meaning of Scripture, is Talmud Torah – the study (Talmud) of Torah. In the Jewish tradition, the commandment of Talmud Torah is fulfilled through rigorous intellectual study of texts in the Yeshiva (academy of study) and the Beit Midrash (study hall of the Yeshiva). In the plain meaning of Scripture there is no term Talmud Torah – and, although study of Torah is important in the plain meaning of Scripture (as reflected in the commandment of the Torah reading of Vayeilech of assembling once in seven years for a public reading of Torah), such study in the plain meaning of Scripture is not rigorous intellectual study of texts as according to the commandment of Talmud Torah of the Jewish tradition. In the plain meaning of Scripture, study of Torah is referring to words of guidance and instruction (the literal meaning of the term Torah) of a legal, moral and spiritual nature.
In the passage of the Torah reading of Vayeilech relating to the commandment of assembling once in seven years for a public reading of Torah, the purpose of the assembling is study for the sake of fulfilling the moral will and commandments of God – “that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31, 12)”. The term fear of God is a central religious concept of the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical concept is not a theological concept requiring belief in a propositional sense (such as belief that God exists or is provident) but a moral concept – “fear of God is the hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8, 13). Notice that according to this moral and anti-theological conception of fear of God of the Bible one who believes that God exists and is provident, may not hate evil and may live an immoral life lacking fear of God – and, conversely, one may be a devout atheist, and yet hate evil and live a truly righteous life displaying fear of God in the Biblical conception. Fear of God is displayed not in philosophic declarations and not in the holding of correct theological propositions but in the living of a moral life. So, the purpose of the study in the commandment of assembling once in seven years for a public reading of Torah is for the sake of fear of God (the living of a moral life) and the observance of commandments of God (expressing the moral will of God).
In the Biblical conception, morality is the essence of religion as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”. The previous verse (Deuteronomy 6, 17) speaks of observance of commandments in a legal sense, and the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” is a demand to live a moral life of righteousness and goodness above and beyond law – and, the observance of commandments is an expression of the morality that God demands. Besides the passage of the Torah reading of Vayeilech relating to the commandment of assembling once in seven years for a public reading of Torah, there are various Biblical verses that reflect the importance of study – and speak of teaching children words of Torah, and that words of Torah should be studied day and night. Such study is without question subordinate to the far greater goal of morality that is the essence of Biblical religion. Moreover, such study that is spoken of in various Biblical verses is clearly not referring to rigorous intellectual study of texts, which is the essence of the command of Talmud Torah of the Jewish tradition – the study in the Bible that is being referred to is of words of Torah that are primarily moral and spiritual in nature constituting moral and spiritual guidance.
Moreover, in the Talmudic tradition, in which the commandment of Talmud Torah (study of Torah) is fulfilled through rigorous intellectual study of texts, nevertheless intellectual study is subordinated to morality in the sense of being a means to the greater end of living a moral life as the essence of religion. There is remarkable source in the Talmud that reflects the subordination of intellectual study to morality, recording a debate as to which is greater – study or good deeds (Kiddushin 40b):
Is study greater or good deeds greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered…good deeds are greater. Rabbi Akiva answered…study is greater. They (other rabbis) all answered…Study is greater, since study leads to good deeds.
When Rabbi Tarfon argues here that good deeds are greater than study he is being faithful to the Biblical spirit and heritage. When Rabbi Akiva, argues that study is greater than good deeds he apparently conceives of intellectual study as a goal in and of itself. The other rabbis agree with Rabbi Akiva that study is greater than good deeds; however, they argue that study is greater in the paradoxical sense that it leads to the greater goal of good deeds. The other rabbis refuse to accept such a conception implied in Rabbi Akiva’s view that study is an ultimate goal in and of itself to be pursued for its own sake. The other rabbis transform intellectual study from being seemingly a goal in and of itself to an instrumental value for the sake of the larger goal of morality (faithful to the Biblical spirit and heritage).
The question that arises here is whether the other rabbis are disagreeing with Rabbi Akiva, or interpreting his intent. In my view, they are clearly interpreting his intent and clarifying his view – for, this is the very same Rabbi Akiva who argues that the fundamental principle of Judaism is the moral teaching “love your neighbor as yourself”. Rabbi Akiva, faithful to the Bible, holds that the essence and ultimate goal of Judaism is morality as reflected in the teaching “love your neighbor as yourself” – and, when he suggests then that study is greater than good deeds in the Talmudic source cited here, he is thus in all likelihood arguing, as the other rabbis have evidently interpreted him, that study is greater in the paradoxical sense that it leads to the even greater goal of good deeds.
In any case, study is a central commandment of the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmudic literature. Indeed, the commandment is so central that there is a Talmudic teaching that “the study of Torah (Talmud Torah) is equivalent to all of the other commandments”. We do not say such a thing about prayer. Moreover, according to Jewish law, the commandment of study (Talmud Torah) is regarded as Biblical law (even though not found in the plain meaning of Scripture), while our traditional prayers of the Siddur (prayer book of the Jewish tradition) are regarded as a rabbinic law, which is less severe than Biblical law – and, a Beit Midrash (study hall of the Yeshiva) is considered in the Jewish tradition to have greater sanctity than a Synagogue.
By the way, the American psychologist and philosopher William James, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wrote an important work “The Varieties of Religious Experience” in which he delineates various kinds of religious and mystical experiences. One thing is glaringly absent from his work – study. Study was not considered by William James, and is not considered on a widespread basis, as a form or religious experience. Yet, in the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and Talmudic literature, study is of central importance and an integral part of a religious life as reflected in the passage of the Torah reading of Vayeilech relating to the commandment of assembling once in seven years for a public reading of Torah.
There is an additional and important aspect of the commandment of the Torah reading of Vayeilech to assemble once in seven years for a public reading of Torah – children are required to be present even though clearly not being able to study. Regarding the verse “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones…that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31, 10-12), the Talmud asks the obvious question of why children should come and responds (Chagigah 3a):
If men come to learn, and women come to hear, why do the little ones come? They come in order to give a reward to those who bring them.
The answer of the Talmud is that children are to be brought to the assembly by their parents – and, it is their parents who receive reward for bringing them. But, the Talmud does not explain in what way the bringing of the children is beneficial such that the parents receive reward. I want to suggest that the bringing of children to the assembly is beneficial in the same way that bringing children to the Synagogue on Sabbaths and holy days is beneficial. Before explaining in what sense bringing children to the Synagogue on Sabbaths and holy days is beneficial I want to give some background about traditional Judaism and the Synagogue.
Traditional Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in a theological sense of a faith commitment – not only faith in God but faith in Jesus as the messiah. What defines one as a Christian, and unites Christians, is the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers – and, one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents and even if believing in God. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular Christian who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah.
By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the theological sense of a faith commitment but in a pragmatic sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people in a nationalistic sense (and not racial or ethnic sense as there have been Jews of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds from the beginning of Jewish history). What defines one as a Jew is a legal standard of being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and, not faith in God nor any other faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice). Among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular – and, what unites Jews is not a faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice) but being part of a people with a shared history, language (Hebrew), homeland (Israel) and culture or heritage.
In Christianity (in which there is no notion of nationhood or peoplehood as in traditional Judaism), a human being stands alone as an individual before God dependent entirely upon one’s faith – salvation of the human being is dependent on one’s faith in God and faith in Jesus. However, in traditional Judaism, which is a religion in a pragmatic sense of a way of life of the Jewish people, we as Jews stand before God not as an individual but as a nation – and, we reach God only moving upward on the basis of family, community, nation and humanity. Furthermore, the emphasis in traditional Judaism is not upon salvation of a next world but upon redeeming this world primarily morally through acts of goodness and kindness (and refraining from harming others).
In a typical Christian Church, there is a great deal of decorum – and, in general, there will be quiet during the Church service, and order during the Church service (in the sense that generally people will not be wandering around, and children will not be running around). By contrast, I think it is fair to describe a typical, traditional synagogue on Sabbaths and holy days as much like a zoo (chaotic characterized by a lack of order and decorum) – people talk, people wander around, and children run around often making noise. The very term “synagogue” is a Greek term, which means assembly implying the importance of community in traditional Judaism. Indeed, in traditional Judaism the Synagogue often functioned as a kind of community center in which people would eat and even sometimes would sleep in the Synagogue. In Hebrew as well, the term for “synagogue” is Beit Knesset (בית כנסת), which literally means “a house of assembly” and not “a house of prayer” – more important than a place of prayer, a Synagogue is a place for Jews to assemble and to be together.
I want to suggest then that children should be brought to the Synagogue on Sabbaths and holy days (even if they make noise and may be a distraction), and this reflects the spirit and very essence of traditional Judaism as a way of life of the Jewish people. Moreover, the children in coming to the Synagogue are being exposed to an emotional and spiritual experience that most importantly is not an individual experience of prayer but a communal experience of Jews praying as well as assembling and being together as a community centered upon the religious experience of prayer. Similarly, in the Biblical commandment of assembling once in seven years for a public reading of Torah it is important that children are present in exposing them to a communal experience centered upon the religious experience of study of Torah.
I want to conclude with a joke exemplifying the emphasis in traditional Judaism upon community, togetherness and the unity of the Jewish people – among those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. A father, Joseph, was walking with his son and the son asked his father, Joseph, why he goes to Synagogue every Sabbath and on holy days as well. The son points out to his father, Joseph – “after all, you are a devout atheist”. Joseph says to his son – “you know my good friend Isaac, who is a devout and believing Jew”. Joseph continues by explaining to his son that Isaac goes to Synagogue to converse with God – “I go to Synagogue to converse with Isaac”.