Knowledge and Torah

For Torah to be Torah, it has to make an impression on the person who learns it,
because Torah is, by definition, knowledge that leads to ahavas Hashem and
yiras Hashem. Chazal tell us (Aycha Rabbah 2) that if somebody says
to you that the nations of the world possess knowledge, believe them. This doesn’t
mean that the gentiles don’t learn Torah. There are plenty of Catholic seminaries
where the priests learn Gemara. There’s even a commentary on the mishnah written
by Danby, a Catholic priest. To say that a gentile cannot learn Torah, that his
mind turns off when he tries to apply it to Torah, is far from reality. When Chazal
tell us that the gentiles do not possess Torah, they mean something else.

Bertrand Russell was a professor of ethics at City College, New York, in the
1940’s. At that time he was an avowed communist, he didn’t believe in marriage,
and, too put it mildly, he himself was not exactly the paragon of virtue. The ethics
committee of the college called him in. “Professor Russell, we have a real problem
with you. You teach ethics in this institution, but you aren’t ethical.” He answered,
“Twenty years ago I taught mathematics in a college in England. Not once did the
ethics committee call me in and say, ‘Professor Russell, we have a real problem
with you. You teach geometry in this institution, but you’re not a square or a circle
or a parallelogram.’ I don’t have to be what I teach. I just have to teach it.”
That’s knowledge: something a person possesses that G‑d gave him to use as he wants.
It doesn’t necessarily have an effect on his life, and his knowledge is not necessarily
effected by his life. There have been greatly talented people—Jews and gentiles—who
have had great knowledge, but whose personal lives left a lot to be desired, to
put it mildly. Ernest Hemingway, for example, was an extremely talented writer,
but when he was in a drunken stupor there was no telling the difference between
him and a Bowery bum. His personal life didn’t detract from his literary talent
and his literary talent didn’t add one thing to his personal life. That doesn’t
mean, of course, that every Jew or gentile who has secular knowledge leads an unworthy
personal life. That’s certainly not so. There have been men whose knowledge and
intellectual gifts have elevated their personal lives. But knowledge doesn’t have
to do that. They would not have been less knowledgeable or less gifted if it didn’t.
Knowledge exists in a vacuum—apart from the moral and spiritual life of the person
who possesses it. When we see a gentile of great knowledge we say a blessing: Blessed
art Thou…who gave of His knowledge to flesh and blood. The person remains “flesh
and blood.” G‑d gave him knowledge. He can use it as he likes. There are no strings
attached to knowledge. It doesn’t necessarily make an impression on a person’s life.

Torah is not like that. If Torah doesn’t make an impression, it isn’t Torah.
The midrash compares Torah to fire: just as fire makes an impression (it burns),
Torah makes an impression (it influences). In the theater or in the movies, producers
use artificial fire—stage fire: it looks like fire, smells like fire, and sounds
like fire. It could fool anybody. You see it on the screen and it likes like the
place is ablaze. But it’s not real fire. It doesn’t burn anything. If a person’s
Torah doesn’t make an impression on him, it’s not Torah!

At the turn of the century, when the Haskalah was very strong, there was a yeshiva
in Lithuania where they had four levels of classes. This person was in the fifth
level together with the Rosh Yeshiva’s son. He was the pride of the yeshiva. One
day he was found writing his chidushei Torah and smoking a cigar on Shabbos.
Obviously, the Torah had made no impression on him. They asked him to leave the
yeshiva. Subsequently he became one of the leaders of the Conservative Movement.
He was a genius in Torah, but for him, the Torah wasn’t Torah, it was just knowledge.
It looked like Torah and it sounded like Torah, but it was only stage Torah. It
didn’t make any impression. It didn’t “burn”. Many people can learn what appears
to be Torah, but it doesn’t become Torah until it makes an impression on them. The
gentiles have no concept of knowledge that isn’t valid until it makes an impression
on the person who has it. It’s in this sense that they do not have Torah. They have
the knowledge which a person can use freely, which does not necessarily effect his
life and which is not diminished by the way he leads his life. They do not have
Torah. We have talmidei chochomim, not chochomim: people who learn
from the knowledge of Torah they possess; people whose lives are guided by their
knowledge of Torah.

In Pirkei Avos (4:19) we are told that Shmuel Hakatan used to say a verse
from Mishlei. But many people have said many verses from Mishlei and other books
of the Tanach. Why would Shmuel Hakatan be mentioned in Pirkei Avos just for that?
The answer is that he lived that verse. His whole personality was a demonstration
of what that verse means. That’s Torah!

The Gemara says that people who stand up for a Sefer Torah but not for a talmid
are foolish. What’s foolish about it? A Sefer Torah is dead ink on dead
parchment rolled on dead sticks of wood. It’s locked up in the aron hakodesh
and has no way of communicating with human beings. The purpose of that Sefer Torah
is that a living human being should learn it, integrate it, and become a living
Sefer Torah, a talmid chochom. People who don’t stand up for talmidei
don’t seem to realize that a talmid chochom is not just a person
who has knowledge of the Torah. He’s a person whose knowledge of Torah has made
such an impression on him, has influenced his life so deeply, that he has become
a living Sefer Torah.

That’s one of the reasons that G-d did not give us the entire
Torah in writing. He left the majority of Torah as an oral tradition. If the entire
Torah was written down, people might think that Torah is simply another field of
knowledge, and that it can be acquired, like many fields of knowledge, by mastering
a few books. But it’s not true. Torah is not just knowledge. The oral tradition
assures that only way to learn Torah is to come in contact with a living Sefer Torah,
a talmid chochom. That way the student comes to realize that the Torah is
not just a collection of facts and ideas. The Torah is life.

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