1. Availability of Jewish Texts
1. Religious texts are increasingly available to
the public in both Hebrew and English.
With Bible, Talmud, and innumerable other writings being widely printed in both their traditional languages and English, there are fewer obstacles than ever to learning directly from any chosen source. Translations of Tanakh are becoming ever more precise while deep translations of the Talmud featuring diagrams and explanations are being produced too. Bible commentaries by Rashi are available widely online, and Nachmanides’ commentaries are available in Hebrew and English. A colossal assortment of Jewish texts like Orchot Tzadikim and the Kuzari are also available in English. With all this readily available from so many sources and from so many perspectives, all that need be done to further one’s understanding is to prioritize doing so.
In a time when an unprecedented amount of text is available, there is an equally unprecedented level of justifications and excuses for why the person does not learn. All Jewish text is valuable, whether it is to understand one’s own position or to understand the position of others.
Religious texts are becoming increasingly accessible, and it would be truly difficult to find someone incapable of accessing any text. To take the most available example, Hebrew texts are being translated online by volunteers who simply want to share them with those who are unable to understand Hebrew. Likewise, groups like Chabad have enterprisingly provided an enormous amount of Jewish text online for free, in both English and the original language. Groups are industriously producing translations constantly, both on paper and online, so anyone is capable of learning whether they have to use the computers at a public library or can afford a personal collection.
The Bible receives a vast amount of attention in the world of translation as it has for millennia. With the frontier being online learning, Chabad and Mechon Mamre are providing a service to anyone with an internet connection. Anyone with internet access can view a traditional Jewish translation of all the books of the Bible through Chabad’s website, or they can view an innovative and often more literal translation through Mechon Mamre. This online availability combined with the monumental amount of work continually put into bettering paper versions’ translations makes the Bible uniquely open in how it can be read. This is a time when a Jew who is simply waiting for a few minutes can take out their phone and instantly read Bible instead of twiddling their thumbs, and this is an amazing turn of events.
Commentaries are also becoming progressively more accessible from a wide range of sources. Rashi’s commentaries are matchlessly available, again through Chabad, but plenty of other commentaries have been translated and made available throughout the English-speaking world. A person can go online and order entire sets or individual volumes of Bible commentaries by Rashi, Maimonides, and Nachmanides. Likewise great commentaries like Me’am Loez are available too, with strange creations like a compilation of Rabbi Nachman’s writings relevant to different passages arranged to function as a commentary on the Torah. Failure to take advantage of so much work being done is pure folly.
Even the Talmud, which was largely inaccessible in English outside of excerpts, is being translated by Artscroll and quite innovatively by Koren. These translations are doing great things, with Koren even including diagrams and pictures alongside the extra explanations that both translations offer. While remarkable, these are upstarts compared to some online resources which have made translations available for even longer. The Talmud was once a deeply difficult thing to even approach without already possessing knowledge of its format and patterns, but it is becoming feasible and even convenient to begin studying with no prior experience.
Judaism has a plethora of other religious texts that are also genuinely important and honestly worthwhile, and these too are being published in both their original languages and English. Of course, there are translations of influential texts like the Zohar and the Shulchan Aruch, both of which were definitional to much of what came after them. However, interested individuals do not need to limit themselves to these widely recognized books, and smaller niches can be equally well explored regardless of language knowledge. The works of countless great Rabbis have been published in their original languages and in English, so a reader can explore vast stretches of Maimonides’ work alongside that of Yehudah Halevi’s poetry and Rabbi Nachman’s tales. Today’s Jews are sitting in a sea of traditional texts, and there is no reason why so few are taking advantage of this opportunity.
Texts from other Jewish groups are necessary to understand the pressures that brought a new movement to the forefront. Every kind of Judaism that exists today, and this is especially true of the Ashkenazi world, is only a few centuries old. While there are certainly links to the past, none of these represent an original Judaism no matter how observant. This makes understanding what caused the creation of all of these movements to be quite important, because each of them was catering to a need that the Jewish community felt. Haskalah and Reform were responses to the enlightenment and coming modernity which wanted to retain Judaism in a way that allowed Jews to be modern citizens. Orthodoxy was a response to the enlightenment that chose to put Judaism above modernity. Haredi Judaism was an attempt to respond to Jewish emancipation and the enlightenment in a way that reaffirmed traditional European Jewish lifestyles and. Hasidism and Litvish Judaism were both reactions to the simultaneous boom and terror Jews were facing in the Pale of Settlement and Eastern Europe generally. Conservatism was a response to coming to America and embracing the lifestyle of a country that offered such a wonderful opportunity to Jews. None of these movements were historically arbitrary. Reading key texts for whichever movements with which the individual Jew is unfamiliar serves to show them past answers to major problems the Jewish community faced, and arriving at solutions to such problems is an underappreciated skill for a people so plagued by them.
Religious Jews too often focus on the purely religious and leave historical texts about Jews aside as though they were not equally important to Jewish identity. After the Roman expulsion from Israel, religious Jews know upsettingly little about the movement of Jews into Europe and the Middle East. This unfamiliarity is even more true for far-off Jewish communities in Ethiopia, India, and China, who have their roots much earlier than the general expulsion after the destruction of the Second Temple. Jews have too often focused on their individual lineage and history as though it taught them about the Jewish people. The pursuit of one’s own history is valuable, but it is too easy to be divided by such pursuits. As broadly as the Ashkenazi and Sephardi divide and as specifically as divisions between Hasidic sects, Jews have allowed themselves to fracture. The best and only way to become a truly unified people is to prioritize a breadth of understanding that spans all mindsets and all locations.
Jews also need to have some understanding of other religious groups in both the past and present. Too many Jews reveal themselves to be ignorant in their depictions of foreign religions, and this only works to make the Jewish people look ignorant. This is not even a problem in regards to how insular the Jewish community in question is. In the same self-assured way that Haredim might hastily label Buddhism as idolatrous for having statues despite the fact that many Buddhist groups do not have such statues, liberal Jews will decisively declare Buddhism to be peaceful and enlightened despite the Kamikaze pilots who had no issue with suicide bombing and Burmese Buddhists who are exacting a brutal genocide of Myanmar’s Muslim minority. Neither side has looked into Buddhism in any meaningful way, and this only makes the Jewish people look foolish in the eyes of the world. Religious Jews must not leave knowledge of the world to the secular, and this includes knowledge of religions other than Judaism.
Moreover, knowing foreign theology can make a person hugely appreciative of their own religion. Judaism is a spectacularly well thought out religion, and the individual Jew must not be worried about being driven astray by learning about other religions. If a person goes into such learning with the right intent and a genuine knowledge of one’s own faith, there will be no issue. Those Jews who have become Buddhist, for instance, simply had no knowledge of Judaism to make them realize that Judaism already had what they were likely seeking in foreign religion. When hearing a Jew say that they are sincerely thinking about embracing Buddhism because they love meditation and the idea of reincarnation, only the person deeply learned in Judaism and Buddhism can respond that they are familiar with the Buddhist doctrines and that both are contained in Kabbalah. Judaism even had its own version of monks historically by way of the Nazirites and the later Essenes. The only way to know the value of one’s own position is to know what is elsewhere, and this can be done in ways which will safely keep a person from going astray.
With so much learning so easily available no matter the topic, there is no excuse not to be always be in the middle of one new text or another. Even the slightest investment of time and money in the face of so much text has unparalleled reward.