As we begin to emerge from these hard COVID times I know I am not alone in reflecting on the positive practices I have taken on this past year. I have been thinking about those things that I would like to integrate into my life as I move forward. I am typically a goal-oriented person but I have found myself enjoying things in a more playful way the past fourteen months. Perhaps I will have the chance to sing How Can I Tell You, the Cat Stevens song I took time to learn last month, but I did not learn it to share. I learned it just because. Simply for myself.
Our Jewish tradition encourages learning for the sake of learning. This value is called Torah lishma. It is not surprising that the brilliant modern Talmud scholar and philosopher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (1933-2020), had “what to say” about this value. He admits that his area of study and passion, the Babylonian Talmud, has little practical use today, and that many of the situations it described were even obscure in ancient times. Despite this it is a Jewish tradition to study the Talmud in its entirety and Talmud study has only grown in popularity. While Talmud study has been a centerpiece of Jewish learning since the early medieval period, participation in the daily page of Talmud study has become widespread across the Jewish spectrum with the modern innovation of podcasts. Taking on the entire Talmud is a commitment. If one studies a page a day it takes seven and a half years to get through all sixty-three tractates. People do this simply for the sake of learning.
Rabbi Steinsaltz taught that Torah lishma is essential to our unique theology as Jews. While most religions have expectations about belief and about doing the right things, they do not obligate one to study. We study our sacred texts as an independent activity that is not directly connected with belief or action.
Jewish tradition holds curiosity as a high value and that angels are not curious because they already have knowledge. Whether we choose to study Torah, Talmud, music, art, or animal husbandry, if we study them simply for the sake of learning, we are celebrating what makes us essentially human.