Growing up: taking responsibility for your Torah decisions
It’s your life. You’re in charge and you’re the one who, one way or the other, will be judged for your choices. Your parents and teachers are always going to be important influences for you, but you’re the one making the decisions. Not for nothing does a father thank God for his bar mitzva bochor’s new independence with the words: ברוך שפטרני מעונשו של זה.
Just realizing that you’re responsible for your choices will change the way you think. It means that you’re the one who will decide what and how you will learn Torah, what career you’ll choose, how you’ll spend your money, and even the halachic positions you’ll adopt.
But are you qualified? That’s complicated.
On the one hand, consider the incredible success of the modern yeshiva movement. Countless thousands of its talmidim graduate with the ability to independently learn gemara and halacha. I’m not sure there’s ever been a generation for whom comfort with serious Torah learning has been so widespread. If there’s ever been a time to excel as a responsible and independent individual, it’s now.
Consider also that the true goal of a Torah teacher is to put himself out of work. Or, in the words of our first and greatest Torah teacher: “If only the whole people of God were prophets that God would place His spirit upon them.” (במדבר יא:כט) In a perfect world, we would need no leaders.
So independence is neither impossible nor wrong. Perhaps that’s part of what lay behind a well known passage in Maharal’s Nesivos Olum (Nesivos Olum Torah, at the end of chapter 15). There, Maharal harshly criticized the way people use Shulchan Aruch as their only halachic resource, diminishing their connection to the Talmud itself. “It would be better to pasken from the Talmud itself, even if there’s a chance you’ll diverge from the true path…”
How practical that might be for us is obviously debatable. But Maharal certainly expected an individual Jew to draw his own guidance for his life’s decisions from core Torah sources. And Maharal was not the only authority who thinks this way. More than once I’ve heard gedolai poskim bitterly complain about talmidim asking simple sha’alos of איסור והיתר וכדומה.
On the other hand you, more than anyone else, know how much Torah you don’t know and how much more work you need before you reach even a minimal level of bekiyus. Neither Moshe nor Maharal would want simple Jews just guessing at what they feel the halacha should be. Independence needs at least a basic set of skills, and it’s hard to know exactly what those skills are.
The Torah wants us to take charge of every part of our own lives. But it also expects us to do it responsibly. It’ll take enormous effort, but it’s possible. Here are four things you’ll have to do.
Start today. Learn through the whole Shas. Do you really think God gave us His Torah just so we should ignore 90% of it? Do you really think that learning just a couple dozen daf a year, year after year, will get you there?
“Oh no!” You cry. “Right now I’m learning how to learn so I’ll be able to learn it properly later.” Right. As though your “later” will ever arrive. There’s only one way to “learn how to learn” and that’s by learning.
Looking for a plan to keep you on track? Daf Yomi will do beautifully. Adding Tosafos will be even better. Having trouble getting through a hard daf? Learn the Rambam that relates to the sugya: you’ll be surprised how much that can clear up. Still stuck? Cheat. Look through one of the many helpful seforim that now exist. If absolutely necessary, even use the English or find a recorded shiur.
Even if you only get 80% of the sugya the first time through, that’ll still get you 80% closer than you would have been without it. And that 80% will make it easier to get 90% and then 100% of future dafim.
In seven and a half years you could be at least familiar with every sugya in Shas. This will allow you to figure out the context of just about any sha’ala you face. It may not be enough to reliably decide the halacha, but having the background can help you orient yourself so you can intelligently dig deeper.
Naturally, the project will provide its greatest value through regular review and, whenever possible, iyun.
Learn Shulchan Aruch
I don’t mean learn Mishna Brura - although that’s surely a wonderful thing to do. I mean learn all four sections of Shulchan Aruch the way the Mechaber and Rema intended it to be learned: on its own, over the course of a month (or perhaps more realistically, a year).
Many will laugh at the suggestion, wondering how you could possibly get anything of value from such superficial knowledge. I have to admit that I’m sometimes tempted to agree. Halacha is not a simple thing and mastering it takes many years of hard work. There really aren’t any shortcuts.
Still, this would be an important first step. As with learning Daf Yomi, this alone won’t make you into a posek. But it will get you closer: the Machaber and Rema were not foolish men.
Shimush talmidei chochomim
You’ve probably seen the gemara (סוטה כב) “One who has learned Tanach and Mishna but hasn’t served Torah scholars…is an am ha’aretz.” What is this shimush? Rashi wrote that without the logic and reasoning that lie behind the mishna, you’re bound to get it wrong.
From the gemara’s wording it seems that the best, or perhaps only, way to acquire those insights is through direct and personal daily contact with Torah scholars. It’s not just knowledge the student seeks from such a relationship. It’s a feel for the way a wise man approaches problems and thinks about the world around him.
Normally, only especially promising avraichai kollel will manage to build this kind of relationship - and even those are almost as likely to fail as succeed. But with a little foresight and a lot of determination, you might be able to build something that’s almost as good.
Here’s how it would work: the next time you encounter a halachic problem that you can’t answer, before speaking to your rav, sit down and try to answer the sha’ala yourself. Can you find the right siman in Shulchan Aruch? Do you know where the relevant gemara is (from where the Eyn Mishpat can direct you to the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch)? Have you tried an internet search - in Hebrew or English - to see whether there’s anything of value there?
People who tell you that you should carefully assess the quality of the halachic discussions you find on the internet before accepting them are wise. People who tell you that nothing you’ll find there has any value, are both arrogant and ignorant. Ignore them.
Once you’ve researched the problem to the best of your ability, it’s time to approach the rav. But don’t just accept a yes or no answer. If he came to a different conclusion from yours, ask him (politely) why he didn’t understand the Shulchan Aruch the way you did. Often, you’ll discover that your source wasn’t even the best match to the question and that it was the way you framed the question that led you down the wrong path.
As long as you make it clear that you’re not arguing with the rav but just trying to better understand his ruling, he’ll enjoy sharing his thoughts. If your rav never seems to have the time to address your questions, then perhaps it’s time to look for a rav who’s not quite so busy.
If you do this consistently over a long enough period you’ll begin to taste some of the pleasures of shimush talmidei chochomim and enhance your ability to independently answer your own questions.
We’ve talked about gaining the confidence and skills to pick up at least some independence in limud Torah and halacha. But what about the way you approach all of your life’s decisions (something often called “hashkafa”)? Is there a way to build up the “muscles” you’ll need to consistently make smart choices that fit comfortably with your yiras shomayim-related goals?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. For one thing, to some degree, everyone convinces himself that his choices are smart (at least until brought face to face with the consequences). And to complicate it further, even people of genuinely great wisdom will often disagree with each other over philosophical matters both large and small. Don’t believe me? Just look at how forcefully the Ramban or ibn Ezra, in their commentaries to Chumash, contest the conclusions of fellow rishonim.
Still, an excellent way to learn to think the way God wants you to is through the study of mussar seforim. Or, even better, learn from the primary source on which mussar seforim were based: Tanach. I challenge you to spend serious time with the navi Yeshaya and not come away both wiser and more thoughtful. His is a intensely subtle and forceful vision of the world.
The problem is that learning Yeshaya (along with all the other neviim) properly takes a lot of time and effort. It should definitely be a long-term goal, but you should also have a plan for right now.
My advice? Learn just one or two pesukim in Mishle each day. Think through the way a posuk is structured: often so that the contrast between the two parts highlights Shlomo HaMelech’s point. See how the meforshim explain the passage and savor the beauty of the language - even take a minute to memorize your pasuk. Then spend some of your commute time thinking through the meaning and how it can be applied to your life and your community.
Do that for a year or two and the seeds of wisdom will have been planted.
Incorporate the regular study of Shas, Shulchan Aruch, and Tanach and you’ll be on your way to moral and intellectual independence. Doesn’t that sound exciting?