Learning and not Observing

August 29, 2012 | by Yerachmiel Fried

I am a woman who was a Reform Jew my entire life and have begun Jewish learning over the past few years. Now that I am learning, I am feeling bad about some things I’m not observing. For example, I now know that the Torah forbids eating shrimp, although I’m not ready to give it up. This worries me, since if I would have just stayed at Temple and not gotten involved in Jewish learning, I would have no worries because I wouldn’t know anything and therefore not feel bad about anything I’m doing wrong.

If I’m not intending, at the moment, to become more observant, is it better that I don’t study so I won’t be more liable for what I know and don’t do? Or is it better to study anyway?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

As we shall see, your question was addressed by the Almighty Himself!

Jeremiah the prophet says in the name of God: “And it shall be that when you tell all these things to this people, they will say to you, ‘Why has God spoken all this great evil against us?... [It is because] they have forsaken Me, and My Torah they did not observe.’’ (Jeremiah 16:10-11).

The Sages note a seeming redundancy at the end of this verse; obviously if we forsook God we did not observe His Torah!

The Talmud answers that the Almighty means to say, “I only wish that Myself they have forsaken (by not observing the mitzvot), but that they continued to study My Torah – because the illumination within [the Torah] would eventually bring them back to Me.” The Talmud states further, based upon another verse, that the Almighty told the Jews: “I am willing to pardon you for the transgression of major sins, but forsaking Torah study I cannot forgive,” as the study of Torah is God’s final hope for the Jews’ connection to Him. (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 1:7)

As we see, the Almighty Himself has proclaimed that no matter how far a Jew is from observance, His desire is that each and every Jew should be involved in the study of Torah. Torah study, more than the observance of any mitzvah, is the key to Jewish continuity. The communist Russians understood this well when they banned the study of Torah. A rabbi once visited communist Russia as a “tourist” and was stopped by the authorities to be checked at the airport. They unloaded his suitcases, taking out numerous pairs of tefillin, mezuzot, tallis and the like, in addition to many volumes of Torah texts. The officials smirked at him, saying “Tourist, huh?!” They then returned to him all the religious paraphernalia, but held back the volumes of Jewish studies. They said, “We keep these, these are the enemies of the people!”

These Russians recognized and comprehended that without Torah study, the mitzvah objects this rabbi was bringing would be short-lived and would not win the people over from their communist ideology. Torah study, however, has the power to give people the inner strength to stand up to false ideologies, creating “enemies of the people.”

The Russians learned this lesson from the Greeks and Romans of old who first enacted decrees forbidding the Jews from Torah study, punishable by death. The miracle of Chanukah was the celebration of the Jews steadfast commitment to Torah study, the “light within” as represented by the Menorah, which overcame the darkness of those decrees.

Judaism, furthermore, does not believe that “what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.” When we have the opportunity to learn and know, we are responsible for what we could and should have known, even though we choose not to know. To choose to not study lest one finds out something she is not currently willing to observe is not a reason to refrain from study. On the contrary, besides not knowing that item, one becomes liable for not studying!

Moreover, you should not think you are worse off for knowing about shrimp and not refraining (although I’m not condoning shrimp). By virtue of the Torah study, you are no longer the same person you were before; you have taken a tremendous step ahead in your Jewish identity and connection with God. In the new space you inhabit, at least shrimp is an issue, which is a remarkably elevated station to occupy than where it was not even a topic of concern.

You should be proud of what you have achieved; and always look out for the next small, meaningful step you can handle. This is because all Jews, regardless of age, background or affiliation, need to be climbing and growing throughout our lives to become better, greater Jews and people.

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