Rav Bar Oz* (From Strength to Strength)
When you don’t know what you don’t know
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
One of the key pillars of Reform Judaism is our ability to look critically at the Bible and discern for ourselves how to interpret its theology. We consider the milieu of the writers, the agendas to which they may have subscribed, and the message they wanted to convey to their readers. Reform Judaism provides its adherents with the option to look deeply into the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and judge for themselves what lessons can be derived and adapted into modern day life.
To make such strides, though, requires one to study seriously the words of the Torah and the prophets on a somewhat scholarly level. To glance through without real guidance, or to ignore it altogether, makes it virtually impossible to develop serious conclusions. So often I hear from people that they have serious issues with some of the Jewish tenets and practices, but they have not made any real attempt to learn the basis from which those tenets are derived. As such, they are left to make decisions without the knowledge required to do so. The result becomes that this individual goes through life thinking a certain way about Judaism that is simply not correct.
In the Babylonian Talmud, there is a discussion that arises in the Tractate of Berachot where a rabbi attempts to explain why people suffer. While his opinion is one of many in the Talmud on this question, we can still learn something interesting from his answer. First, the rabbi explains, if a man is suffering he should look at himself and ask if he is deserving of punishment because of his sinful ways. If he examines himself and finds that he is not deserving of punishment, he should ask himself whether or not he has made time for Torah study. In this answer a great truth is revealed that could certainly relate to our lives. What the rabbi is teaching is that the man has performed well based on what he knows of the Torah, but since he is not studying the Torah, it is likely that there is much else he should be doing that he is simply not aware of; and had he been studying Torah and learning about the mitzvot, there is so much more good in the world he could and should have been doing. Simply, he thought he was doing well, but he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
There is no doubt that we all have the ability to judge ourselves, and that we strive to be good people. However, we can only judge ourselves on what we know. The Torah is a comprehensive system that is meant to guide us in every aspect of our lives. Without studying it, there is simply no way to know what it says — and hence no way to judge ourselves. As Reform Jews we do not have to take the word of the Torah literally. But as committed liberal Jews we are supposed to study the Torah and make serious decisions about the lessons it imparts. It is only once you find out what you don’t know that you truly have the tools to judge your own behavior.
P.S. My Torah Study class on Shabbat morning begins at 9:00 am. The bagels are free.
* The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.