The recent holiday of Yom Kippur recalls the Jewish dedication to Torah study. For centuries Jewish men (almost exclusively men) have devoted their lives to studying the complexities of the Torah. The reasons for this scholarly dedication range from trying to understand the hidden meanings of God’s word to the lack of work for men living in Russian shetls. But underlying Torah study there is a more basic reason for this use of Jewish intellect. Some understanding of this ability is revealed by the story of the High Priest and the Holy of Holies.
It is written in the Torah that only the High Priest of the Israelites could enter the room in the Temple designated as the Holy of Holies. Further, he could enter that most sacred room only on one day: Yom Kippur. But then, the question was asked, what would happen if the High Priest dropped dead in the restricted Holy of Holies? After due deliberation, it was decided that a rope would be attached to the High Priest’s leg so he could be dragged out of the room where no one else could enter.
The point of this story is not how to handle the possibility of the Priest’s death, but in the Jewish thought process that could ponder such a remote possibility. This was an example of the Jewish drive for inquiring beneath the surface, for exploring the deeper meaning of sacred and mundane life. This intellectual search for meaning is the essence of Torah study and, while not unique to Jews, bible study is an acknowledged Jewish mindset.
The search into the depths of the Torah has occupied Jewish minds through centuries. A room of Jews studying Torah has many visitors from the past. The same Torah passages have been contemplated by generations of Jewish scholars who gave their interpretation tempered by their lives in lands and centuries far away. The exact same passage a Torah student studies today was pondered by Maimonides 900 years ago. The presence of these long ago Jewish scholars in the study hall is so real that you can almost hear the rustle of their garments.
Another aspect of this pursuit of God knowledge is the controversy of religion versus science. If your study is exclusively confined to Torah, how and when does the secular study of science and the arts enter your life? This alternate field of scholarship was largely the result of 17th century Enlightenment and its pursuit of reason; now there was a secular alternative to religious study.
Does one field of study necessarily preclude the other? The Creationists with their bizarre attempt to merge evolutionary science and religion provide a perverted reconciliation of the two. Today, serious students who attempt to study both the fields of science and religion require a high level of mental agility. The study of science unwraps the unknown, while Torah study offers a glimpse into the heavens.
Do we have to choose?
Herb Belkin is a historian of modern Jewish history who writes and lectures on Jewish life and themes.