For the trip to Israel I’m on now, to complete my iFellows experience, I chose to engage in Jewish learning. Why travel all the way across the world to go to school?
I’ve never before done extended Jewish learning for it’s own sake, like in a yeshiva (at type of traditional Jewish school). Pardes isn’t exactly a traditional yeshiva, and two weeks isn’t exactly extended, but it’s still a pretty good experience. There are some things that are different about traditional Jewish learning than about regular academic learning, even in an ordination-oriented Jewish graduate program like I’m in back at home.
Traditional Jewish learning is essentially a spiritual practice. The idea isn’t that you study something so that you know it; or at least, that’s not the reason to continue in study. I’ve been studying Tractate Nedarim, a section of the Talmud about making vows which is mostly irrelevant to modern life, even modern observant Jewish life.
I think there are two reasons to do Jewish learning. First, there’s the learning method of chevruta: learning in pairs, in the study hall (beit midrash, literally “house of seeking”—love that!). Learning forces you to engage with another person. While the word “chevruta” is related to the word for “friend,” it’s not all about being chums. Looking at Jewish text forces you to actually engage in discussing a challenging issue with another person. It forces you to pay closer attention to what is actually in the text. Essentially, it’s learning how to listen.
Secondly, Jewish learning forces you to engage in disagreement. Most traditional Jewish learning is the study of gemara, the core of the Talmud that is the record of ancient rabbinic disagreements. Rabbis (like Maimonides) since have codified Jewish law, taking out the disagreements, but it’s the machloket (disagreement) we’re studying. This teaches you how to disagree. You can learn about disagreements over nedarim (vows) that don’t really matter but then take those skills in engaging with challenging people and ideas to other areas of life.
In fact, at Pardes, being a not-entirely-traditional-Yeshiva, I’m also taking a class in constructive conflict that mixes traditional learning with psychology and modern media. (They actually have a whole curriculum on it you can buy.)
So, why do this in Israel? It seems like an obvious place to do Jewish study in Jerusalem. I could have done it elsewhere. But I think that Jersusalem is a place where every type of person who takes Judaism seriously congregates, and studying Judaism doesn’t have to be a counter-cultural act. It just seems to be in the atmosphere. I get to see the rhythms of the Jewish calendar on the street, see different types of religious Jewish people praying in different ways. I even got to stop in a much more traditional Yeshiva. Ultimately, the atmosphere of learning in a traditional Beit Midrash is just amplified by doing it here.