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When Talmud Torah Becomes Avoda Zara

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

There are certain memorable moments from sessions past that stay with me in vivid detail. It was a couple’s intake session years ago, and the husband (who I quickly learned was abusive) turned to his wife, and calmly explained his perspective:

“Even the Gemara backs me up on this: You have to do what I say because you are my property. I bought and own you- like a slave or an animal. You don’t have a will of your own.”

Without getting into the (what I hope is) obvious psychopathology of talking to a spouse this way, I would like to highlight the thinking style that could, when unchecked, lead to such extreme corruption of Torah. Most individuals would not go that far, but even at more subtle levels, there is a worrying syndrome of using quotes from Torah sources to justify immoral behavior. I wish I could say these instances are few and far between. I wish I were zooming in on rare distortions dotting a broader landscape of integrity and idealism. But unfortunately, this has become something of a phenomenon. It’s not always this egregious, or perpetrated by cruel, heartless individuals. These behaviors exist along a continuum of varying severity and communal normativity. Some examples, by way of illustration:

The husband who yells at his pregnant, malnourished, vomiting wife to hurry up in the bathroom, and get the kids ready so he won’t be late for shacharis.

The Kollel student who refuses to discuss the idea of getting a job, even though the electricity is being shut off and they rely on tzedakah for groceries, because his pleading, overworked wife “signed up for this, and it’s her privilege to support his Torah.”

The maggid shiur who tells his married talmidim: “Don’t spoil your wives by skipping night seder during shana rishona; it only goes downhill from there.”

The chassan teacher who, without realizing it, condones, even encourages, what is essentially marital rape because “going too long without can disrupt your concentration in the beis medrash, and she wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.”

The Rebbeim who (still!) smack little boys hard, with rulers, for not having the right place in the sefer during class. (Cuz we all know how effectively that generates a love of learning.)

The shadchan who deliberately deceives trusting young people into a false-pretense union, in the name of shmiras halashon or the importance of pushing through a zivug.

The Menahel who uses the graduation speech platform as an opportunity to denigrate other Jews and institutions, and advertise his own grandeur rather than inspire and uplift.

The father who demands his family sits through a lengthy, bombastic dvar Torah at a seuda, while the children fidget irritably, and their mom tries to quietly manage the mealtime needs on her own.

The Gemara itself states that Torah can be a drug of life or a drug of death- that it is at risk of being abused and distorted. This is not a new phenomenon. The kohanim who literally dueled to the death for the privilege of conducting holy service in the temple. The students of Rabbi Akiva whose deficiency in social respect brought about the destruction of their Yeshiva.

An occupational hazard of focusing on religious growth intellectually and internally, or bein adam l’makom, is the sidelining of the bein adam l’chavero, the interpersonal imperatives. As in most areas of life, balance is key, and extremism is dangerous.

I understand and appreciate that there are many, many yeshiva guys, Rebbeim, and talmidei chachamim with sterling character, who conduct themselves with kindness and utmost integrity- publicly and privately, and that this is the official, general value system espoused by most Yeshivas. Thanks goodness for that, and I hope it is promoted as such. Still, I anticipate this post might elicit an outcry from both the defensive guilty and the indignant innocent. “How can you say things like this? Most guys who learn Torah have beautiful middos and treat others very well! Why air the dirty laundry of the minority?” To me, that sounds like if I were to write an article about women with depression, and some would object: “How could you say this? I know so many women who do not have depression!” Articles on depression are meant to help those who suffer from depression, and those who support them. They are not there to suggest that everyone is depressed. Articles on problematic societal issues are meant to help those who suffer from those issues and mobilize those who can promote healthy change. They do not suggest that everyone has these problems; just that they exist and need to be addressed. And acknowledged and condemned by those “good ones” who courageously object. In the powerful words of Brigitte Gabriel: The silent majority is irrelevant.

Chillul Hashem means generating a space (that feels) devoid of divinity, and the term is generally associated with observant Jews behaving in a way that is incongruous with authentic Torah values and G-d’s ultimate will. Chillul Hashem creates a disconnect between Jewish practice and spiritual Truth. Kiddush Hashem unifies them.

The mishneh says that Torah learning and avoda zara share the distinction that they are both actions that equal all the other deeds in their respective categories. Talmud Torah literally means the learning of instruction. Instruction implies a teaching of “what to do.” Avoda zara literally means “strange service.” Idolatry is only one imposter of serving G-d and the community with integrity. When the formal, institutionalized study of Torah is used as an excuse to neglect the humanity of others, the Torah imperative to love, honor, and care for others, to even turn against them in the name of hasmada, that is, in fact, “strange service,” avoda zara. Jews of old were chastised for “not blessing before the Torah.” Treating Torah as a shakla v’tarya, a set of siyumim to collect, an intellectual pursuit divorced from the personal development and social responsibility it demands. The blessing we say on Torah doesn’t even say to learn, it says: “la’asok” to engage in holy actions as prescribed by Torah.

There are many applications to this idea- big and small, throughout the year. One currently relevant example: Every Shavuos, I hear from couples who experience marital tension, frustration, or resentment around the “staying up all night” custom. Learning/ being in shul, through the night is a time-honored privilege that many Jews enjoy. If it works well for a given family then great. But I would recommend that couples who have children, sit down in advance, and discuss the logistics of if, why, and how this takes place, the implications for each spouse, the kids, and the next day. This way, instead of stumbling around the grumpy jetlag of that night for two days, a strategic, pleasant meaningful yom tov could be planned for everyone. This is a small example of a step in the direction of wisely integrating Talmud Torah into a life of wholesome avoda.

This holiday we celebrate the merit of our commitment to “naaseh v’nishma”- we will do and we will listen. Interestingly, it doesn’t say, “we will learn”- (although many interpret that into nishma). The greatness of learning is that is meant to precipitate moral behavior. Torah is meant to instruct and uplift, to unite and inspire. Her ways are to be sweet and pleasant; if they are unkind or heavy-handed, we are doing it wrong. Let’s get those crowns back and wear them properly and proudly, in the spirit of "v'haarev na" this yom tov.

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