All Daf, All Parsha, All Mishnah, Torat Imecha Nach Yomi, Semichas Chaver. Each of these OU programs, created in pursuit of our core mission of strengthening Jewish commitment, engages thousands of people in daily Torah study. We invest significant human and financial resources into this effort as part of an informal collaborative initiative across the Jewish world to elevate Jewish engagement through the most effective tool of such engagement, talmud Torah (Torah study).
The focus of these efforts has been the creation of greater access to Torah study, a strategy clearly favored by the Talmud in one of its most well-known narratives.1
On that day (that they removed Rabban Gamliel from his position and appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in his place), they dismissed the guard at the door to the beit midrash and permission was granted to all students to enter. Previously, Rabban Gamliel had dictated that any student whose feelings and actions were inconsistent could not enter the study hall, but on that day hundreds of benches were added to the study hall to accommodate the numerous new students . . . and there was no halachah whose ruling was pending that they did not resolve.
Creating greater access to Torah study was a critical step in making the Torah greater and more glorious.2 While some wanted to keep such study as the preserve of the most righteous and scholarly, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya prevailed, and all saw soon enough that the popularization of talmud Torah served to raise the level of scholarship as well.3
We are currently experiencing an historic expansion in the accessibility of Torah study, alongside huge strides being made in Torah scholarship. In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter worked on many fronts to reverse the tide of assimilation. His lasting legacy was the Musar movement, but he also attempted unsuccessfully to create both Hebrew and German translations of the Talmud. Rav Yisrael recognized that while the Talmud was originally written in the Aramaic vernacular to facilitate its widespread study, that language now constituted a barrier that could be overcome by usable and accessible translations. Contemporary efforts to translate the Talmud, including the Schottenstein and Steinsaltz editions, have produced stunning results, exponentially growing the ranks of those studying Gemara regularly. Far beyond the Talmud student, the publication of accessible works in other realms of Torah study are engaging a wide variety of people with a range of interests. Together with this remarkable popularization of Torah study has come an outstanding growth in serious Torah scholarship.
Today, Torah study is not just a mitzvah, it is a growing movement, and the OU is privileged to be a partner of all those propelling that movement. The work, however, is just beginning, and we must be thoughtful as we consider the road ahead. Our definition of success is to reach the point where Torah study is a critical component of the life of every Jewish person, home and institution. Talmud Torah k’negged kulam.4 The people of the book have always placed paramount value on Torah study, both because talmud me’vi li’yedei maaseh,5 study leads to action in the practical sense,6 and because Torah study and the ideals and conviction it generates are critical to holistic Jewish engagement.7
That success must also be defined qualitatively, to the extent that the Torah we study refines the Divine image within us and our connection to G-d. The Torah study opportunities we offer must therefore be oriented to elevate the Torah student and scholar from a storehouse of knowledge and good deeds to a refined Torah personality with a real awareness of G-d. We must share Torah with the explicit and clear goals of building tangible emunah (faith) and making ourselves both better and greater so that we become those who G-d and ourselves can be proud of, Yisrael asher b’cha etpa’eir.
Critical to this effort is the deployment of cutting-edge technology to expand access to Torah study. This has been and will continue to be a gamechanger as it has extended our reach to the Holocaust survivor who can no longer attend his regular shiur in person, the physician whose schedule has prevented him from consistent Torah study for decades, the commuter who now comes into Shabbat having studied the parashah, and the Daf Yomi shiur-goer who uses technology to facilitate multiple reviews and deep dives into the daf. Given the nature of technology, we must work constantly to stay ahead of the curve on this front.
A second valuable strategy has been the creation of communities of Torah study. Study of the weekly parashah was the original national plan for engagement and accomplishment in Torah study, and it has proven enduring and effective. From classrooms to Shabbat tables, from pulpits to parashah sheets, the weekly parashah is the common object of study of Jews everywhere. We stick to it and it holds us together. Rabbi Meir Shapiro built on this concept with the Daf Yomi, with similar results. We must not underestimate the strength and endurance we derive from being part of a group. The Women’s Initiative’s Torat Imecha Nach Yomi project in particular has been a huge success on this front, creating an international learning community for women. All Mishnah Jr. created a prototype for exciting extracurricular learning clubs for young teens. These kinds of frameworks and energy must be generated around other Yomi and weekly programs and projects that will attract and include other populations.
Today, Torah study is not just a mitzvah, it is a growing movement, and the OU is privileged to be a partner of all those propelling that movement.
Finally, we must work to expand and strengthen the opportunities for in-person Torah study. A virtual community is valuable, and it is wonderful to be able to access Torah classes on your smartphone, but Judaism and Torah thrive in person, in community, with rabbis, rebbetzins and friends. That is where the action is and that is how Jewish connection grows. The Semichas Chaver program is a model for this kind of success as it has provided more than a hundred communal rabbanim with a curriculum and framework to attract, retain and engage participants in a wonderful Torah learning experience. You will not find Semichas Chaver on the internet; you have to show up and be a part of it. Klal Yisrael will benefit greatly from the identification and creation of more such programs.
Beyond building additional access points, we must identify and scale the tools that will broaden engagement, bringing Torah to those not currently engaged in its study. The Talmud9 guides individuals to find and study the portion of Torah that interests them, makom she’libo chafetz, and we pray to G-d each day to find sweetness in His Torah.10 It was this desire to find a particular path to engagement that led the Rambam to state his special affinity for teaching about emunah11 and the Chatam Sofer to say the same of his teaching Jewish history.12 There is no universal formula for engagement, but people like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, and Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, shlit”a, have found very different formulae for teaching Torah in ways that have attracted thousands who were previously less engaged. We must find ways to expand the impact of outstanding teachers and identify other promising models for Torah study that will connect students off the beaten track.
A Closing Thought: Zeman Matan Torateinu
In February 1936, Poland followed the example of its Nazi neighbors and enacted a ban on shechitah (ritual slaughter). Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, spiritual leader of Poland’s Mirrer Yeshivah, portrayed the moment in stark terms.13 As Jews, we celebrate Shavuot as the festival that commemorates when Torah was given to the Jewish people. But there are also times when Torah is taken back from us. When the Temple was destroyed, entire sections of Torah addressing the sacrificial order and laws of purity fell into disuse. When we were exiled from Eretz Yisrael, other aspects of observance became irrelevant. These are all instances when G-d in a sense took parts of the Torah back. Thus, suggested Rav Yerucham, when we become subject to a decree limiting the Torah-mandated practice of shechitah, we are experiencing netilat Torah, the loss of Torah.
Our Sages used the same framing in a different context, viewing the death of any student of Torah as a reclamation of the Torah by G-d. While family and friends mourn the loss of a person who was a part of their life, a cherished relationship, the community must grieve over G-d’s repossession of a soul enlightened by Torah. In the view of the Talmud,14 up to 600,000 people ought to attend the funeral, for just as there were 600,000 people present when the Torah was given, the same should be true when it is returned. And when that person was a Torah teacher there is no limit to the crowd that should assemble to pay tribute.
For a significant period of recent history, the Jewish experience could readily have been characterized as an extended netilat Torah, as the Torah-observant community was hemorrhaging. We continue to suffer the ramifications of that bleed to this day, as masses of Jews raised without a meaningful Torah education continue to drift away from any form of positive Jewish identity.
But there is another story to be told, and it is one of a contemporary matan Torah. We have been blessed to witness a profound renaissance of Jewish learning, both popular and scholarly. Communities of knowledgeable and committed Jews are growing dramatically. The mitzvot hateluyot ba’Aretz, the many obligations particular to the Land of Israel, are once again being studied and observed. Thousands are studying every corner of the Talmud, Bavli and Yerushalmi, and literally dozens of new works of Torah thought and commentary are published weekly. Men, women and children are being swept up by a wave of Torah made available to them by every imaginable medium.
The Torah is being returned to us by G-d, and we must cherish and celebrate every stride being made by and for the Torah and every individual connected and strengthened in their study of Torah, as a measure of that return. Hashem evidently desires for our sake to make the Torah great and glorious, lehagdil Torah uleha’adirah. We must seize the moment.
1. Berachot 28a.
2. Teaching and elevating the value of any worthy pursuit is critical, but the tipping point is achieved by practical facilitation of that pursuit. This approach to achieving change was illustrated perfectly in a recent New York Times essay by Tish Harrison Warren using the example of recycling: “There was a time when making the choice to recycle was nigh unto impossible. In the early ‘80s . . . only those . . . who were very committed to the environmental movement went through the effort to separate trash, load it up and take it to a recycling plant. Over the past few decades, we as a culture decided protecting the planet is a social good and a moral obligation—perhaps even a sacred duty—so we spent money, effort and energy to put systems into place that make recycling an easier choice. Now, with curbside recycling, I simply leave my empty yogurt containers and aluminum cans on the curb on Wednesday. Far more Americans recycle now than did when I was born, but a personal commitment to recycling didn’t magically sweep the nation one day. In order for more people to choose to recycle, they needed both cultural encouragement that doing so is a valuable and moral act, and systems that helped ease the burden it imposed. The individual choice to recycle was made easier by what our society valued and committed itself to.”
3. See the brilliant essay of Meshech Chochmah, Devarim 31:9.
4. Peiah 1:1; see Rambam’s commentary there.
5. Kiddushin 40b.
6. See Avot 2:5, “the ignorant cannot be observant” (lo am ha’aretz chassid).
7. Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Mitzvah no. 3.
8. We cannot discuss making Torah more accessible without addressing the vexing problem of the affordability of day school education. Torah apps and classes for adults are important and immensely valuable, but day school education is critical. High entrance fees are almost as limiting as a closed door. Do we know how many Jewish children are not accessing the day school system and a Torah education because of its high cost?
9. Avodah Zarah 19a.
10. Birchot HaTorah—v’haarev na Hashem Elokeinu et divrei Toratcha b’finu. . . .
11. Rambam’s Commentary to the Mishnah, Berachot 9:6.
12. Quoted by his student Rabbi Yaakov Halevi Hirsch, Mar Dror, Introduction to vol. 2.
13. Da’at Chochmah U’Musar II, chaps. 69, 70.
14. Ketubot 17a.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.