Learning and Knowledge in Judaism

Learning and Knowledge in Judaism

Eugen Schoenfeld explains why his Judaism cannot be classified.

Eugen Schoenfeld

Eugen Schoenfeld was born November 8, 1925. He is the oldest son of a book store owner in a small town in Czechoslovakia and a holocaust survivor.

Photo by Yaacov Saar/GPO // Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (right) in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Photo by Yaacov Saar/GPO // Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (right) in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Some time ago I confessed to my rabbi during a discourse, “I am a Chabadnik.” His astonishment brought on by this disclosure lasted no longer than a minute, after which he smiled because he understood my humorous statement.

Most of the people who know me are aware that I am not classifiable: I am not Orthodox, nor Conservative nor a Reform Jew. I do not claim membership in any of these Judaic factions and, at the same time, however, I will accept and internalize what I consider the best in each. I have done this from my early youth. I loved many of the ideals held by my maternal grandfather, a devoted Berdichever Chassid. From him I learned the importance of both individual and collective effervescence. His commitment was to all living things and to treat them well – and that included his cow.

My paternal grandfather, who was a black-hat-and-coat Jew came closer to being an opponent of Chassidism – a mitnaged. He was a staunch believer in the importance of knowledge and imbued in me the love of learning. In a city filled with Chassidic Jews, he was a member of a small congregation, Chevrey Tenach, The Association for Bible study, that is, the study of the prophets and the other books that make up the Bible and the Five Books of Moses. The members of his synagogue indicated, by their name, that they are not Chassidic, whom the sine qua non of study was limited to the Talmud and kabbalah.

My father, an ardent believer in Jewish Haskalah – enlightenment – devoted to Buber and other modernists, was also a committed Zionist. From him I learned to love Jewish history and Jewish moral thought. It was he who, with the help of a rabbi whom he selected to be my personal teacher, directed my education, and with his help made me read Simon Dubnow’s 10-volume history of the Jewish people – in Hebrew – as well as the four volumes of the history of Chassidism.

It was my father who instilled in me his view of Judaism, not only as a religion with its theology and the study of the Talmud, but also the importance to know and be committed to my history and develop an identity rooted in history – that is, to be an ethnic Jew. In a sense he preceded Isaiah Berlin’s view that a historical identity will be more likely to endure than a religious one.

When I declared to the rabbi that I am a Chabadnik, I sought to indicate that I am committed to the three forms knowledge, the abbreviation of which makes up the word Chabad.

The first aspect of learning is da’at which is a referent to the accumulation and the acquisition of knowledge – to have knowledge of the text that all Jews are commanded by the Torah to study. This consists of rote memorization of text. I was about five when I learned to read Hebrew and from then on, I continued with the acquisition of the knowledge of text. There is an interesting scene in the movie, The Chosen. The Chassidic rabbi’s son, who seemed to have a great facility of hitting baseballs, has befriended the son of a Zionist, a professor of Talmud at one of New York’s universities. When the son brought his friend one Shabbat afternoon to visit his father, the latter asked a question and the friend gave the correct answer. The rabbi loudly proclaimed, “He knows!” I was told that we Jews are to acquire knowledge for its own sake, for intrinsic reasons, or as it is stated in Jewish theology, for the sake of heaven.

It was common for yeshiva students to compete and claim status that was based on the number of Talmud pages they committed to memory. Quite often, I, too, fall into this trap of status-seeking by making references to Torah, Talmud and to well-known commentators.

A second aspect of learning is to acquire chochmah, that I translate as the ability to apply knowledge. The word chacham denotes brightness, which in the traditional perspective is the ability to apply deductive reasoning.

It is chochmah that was central in the rabbinical discourses and dialectics that constitute the Talmud. Deductive reasoning is a logical process that draws conclusion from an accepted thesis. Rabbi Ishmael summarized the method of deductive reasoning used by the Talmudic rabbis into 13 principles of logical deduction, and a rabbi who mastered them was called a charif, namely the possessor of a sharp mind. Deductive logic is central to the process chidushim, namely to find explanations for the validity of traditionally accepted beliefs and of revelatory knowledge. At my bar mitzvah 80 years ago, I didn’t give a speech but a chidush, a new way to explain a Torah text. The possessor of this ability earns great social status.

The third type of learning is the acquisition of binoh, insight, wisdom, and understanding, a form of thinking that leads to creativity, unlike chochmah, which is related to productivity. Binoh, the acquisition of knowledge by seeking answers to the why, was traditionally considered dangerous.

As children, we were discouraged from asking too many questions — particularly questions about beliefs and associated practices for which my grandparents and my mother had no answers. For instance, should I have asked why we keep kosher, I would have received the above answer, sternly and angrily. The mode of questioning leads to understanding that is derived from challenges that normally are brought by cultural diffusion and higher education.

New knowledge, as I said, leads to further questions, and also leads to intellectual creativity, and that was not an accepted mode of learning in Judaism. Such questioning led, for instance to Elisha ben Abouya and Baruch Spinoza’s unauthorized way of thinking to be excommunicated from Israel. There was even a movement to excommunicate Maimonides because he dared to challenge existing perspectives about G-d based on his study of Greek culture. Judaism honors productivity in chidushim to increase paths to legitimate existing explanations, but vehemently rejects creativity. The controllers of religion in Israel, even today, reject all non-Orthodox beliefs as legitimate, and those who follow beliefs that have challenged two millennia-old beliefs are summarily denied their rights as Jews.

It is my fervent belief that Judaism is strong enough to accept new paradigms of religious thought and also strong enough to have a Judaism that encompass variations of beliefs and still maintain a unity with diversity. We just celebrated Sukkot in which the central symbol is “the four species,” the palm branch, the myrtle branches, the willow branches and the citron. These four different species that we hold together during services on Sukkot indicate – at least this is what I was taught – that we accept deviations in Judaism. And holding the four species together, symbolically, shows that we can be a united people, even with diversity. Let’s reject fear of change and regain our unity as an ethnic-religious people.

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