We’re approaching Shavuos, the Yom Tov on which we recommit to placing Torah at the very center of our lives. And by all accounts, the American frum community is currently experiencing a bull market in Torah learning, at all levels and in every sector. Measured by any index you choose — shiurim offered, kollelim opened, seforim published, yeshivos filled to capacity — it’s a very good time to be a Jew interested in studying G-d’s Word.

But Torah, in its essential meaning, is intended to be a source of guidance for us. Certainly, it’s here for us to learn it — but just as surely, to learn from it. The story is told of a chassid who approached Reb Mendel Kotzker and said proudly, “Rebbe, ich hob gelernt Shas — I’ve learned through Shas.”

The Rebbe responded, “Gantz fein, ober vos hot Shas dir oisgelernt — That’s good to hear, but what has Shas taught you?”

And in that sense of Torah as guide, we find ourselves in a very different sort of market. It’s a free, unregulated marketplace of ideas, a theological Wild West, open to all comers.

In an era of easy digital access and a plethora of media outlets, anyone with a platform can offer his view on the most fundamental issues in our lives as Jews. To trade in this market, all you need is a virtual megaphone. Deep and broad Torah knowledge and a clear mesorah on the ikarei hadas? Optional.

In the sense of Torah as a sourcebook for how to wear tefillin and what one Jew owes another for damaging his car, things are fine with us. In regard to limud haTorah as a wellspring of joy and fulfillment, we’re doing quite well. But when we speak of Torah as a moreh derech, our navigational guide through the tortuous and treacherous byways of how to think and feel about important topics — it’s much more challenging.

A line that appears repeatedly in secular Jewish writing about Judaism is that what’s important “is what one does, not what one believes.” But that’s not true. It’s of paramount importance to hold the right beliefs, to know what is and isn’t true about fundamental matters. And as Rav Chaim Soloveitchik observed, it’s of no avail to say one inadvertently believed the wrong things; all the good intentions in the world can’t take the place of the truth.

It’s a confused and confusing world out there, and everywhere one turns there’s another thought-vendor hawking his beliefs, fashioned from whole cloth, or more likely, from a whole array of taavos and bad middos. And then there’s the overall societal milieu that conveys yet a different message, one of, “Chill, man. It doesn’t really matter a whole lot what you believe. It’s all good, just have another beer.”

When it comes to society at large, at least we understand intellectually that it’s antithetical to Torah. But within our own world, the issue is more insidious. Whether we recognize it as such or not, hashkafos, in the form of commentary on current events and advice from the experts on a host of topics, are constantly on offer.

It’s in the radio shows and even in the parshah sheets in shul and the e-mailed divrei Torah making the rounds — and yes, in the newspaper and magazine columns too. And over time, columnists, including this one, find themselves being referred to as “Rabbi” by people who have no way of knowing whether, in fact, they have any credentials.

For a sense of how malleable attitudes can be even on fundamental issues, consider a study just released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showing that a major attitudinal shift has occurred virtually overnight on same-gender coupling. Almost all American religious groups now favor its legalization, many by large or overwhelming majorities, with double-digit percentage increases in support in the last four years alone. One datum: In 2013, 57% of black Protestants opposed it, but today just 43% do; 65% of Hispanic Protestants opposed it, but today just 45% do.

 

THE ONLY REMAINING HOLDOUTS are “a few of the most conservative Christian religious traditions,” such as white evangelical Protestants and Mormons. But, PRRI reports, “There is evidence that even these groups are trending toward majority support.” Since 2013, opposition has dropped 13 percentage points among the former group and 15 percentage points among the latter one, to nearly bare majorities, and “the trend lines are clear that younger evangelicals and Mormons are significantly more supportive than their elders.” This, in regard to something that not only these religions, but society generally, has always considered a deep anathema.

But that study is about them, you say; what has it to do with unz Yidden? More than you’d like to know.

The reality is that even regarding things that are unquestionably forbidden, there’s much truth in the axiom of vi s’chriselt zach, azoy Yidelt zach. This is particularly so when there is a pronounced vacuum of discussion of authentic Torah views on issues, to help Jews understand clearly what we believe and why. And particularly, too, in areas like this one, where the violins come out, the emotions kick in, and those who resist are portrayed as akin to those who kept blacks out of Deep South luncheonettes in the ’50s.

When an absence of hashkafic education combines with a strong societal pull toward innocuous-sounding concepts like equality and human dignity, and some emotion is added to the mix, the result can be an unexpected attrition of even the most fundamental Jewish beliefs.

I’m not making a case here against radio shows and expert panels and columns, all of which can be positive vehicles for disseminating an authentic Torah outlook — or the opposite. I’m making a case for turning to talmidei chachamim for how to interpret events and live our lives, for being discerning consumers of what’s on offer in a wide-open marketplace of Jewish ideas, one in which, for a variety of reasons, Torah scholars who are eloquent and relatable aren’t always the loudest and most compelling voices.

It’s a case that shouldn’t be hard to agree with for all who believe that Torah is our preeminent source of wisdom about life and the events large and small that fill it. And those who have the greatest access to and understanding of that wisdom should by all rights be its primary interpreters and disseminators.

There’s a Chazal at the beginning of Bechukosai that speaks to what’s at stake in all of this. On the very first pasuk, there’s the famous Chazal that states that “Im bechukosai teileichu” refers to ameilus b’Torah — the Torah is teaching us that such toil in learning brings great blessing in its wake. But there’s another Chazal complementing that one, much less well-known than the other, which I have always found to be deeply sobering and so very relevant for our times.

Commenting on the opposing later pasuk of “V’im lo sishme’u li” and those subsequent to it, Chazal explain that if Klal Yisrael does not toil in Torah, a chain of consequences will unfold ineluctably, each brought about by the preceding one, building to a terrifying climax. Absence of toil in Torah — not failure to learn at all, mind you — leads to failure to perform mitzvos, which leads to being repulsed by those who do perform them, which leads to hatred of Torah sages, which leads to preventing others from doing mitzvos, which leads to denying the Divine source of the mitzvos, which brings about the seventh, final stage — denial of G-d’s existence.

Poverty in Torah — even just the failure to exert oneself in its study — is never just about a little more or a little less Torah. It’s about whether we will hold fast to the most basic beliefs of Jews throughout the ages — the authority of the Sages, the Divinity of Torah, and Hashem’s very existence.

We can all bring ameilus b’Torah into our lives, each at his own level. But all of us can also forge a connection to those who are fortunate to be steeped in its study and practice, and through them, to discover nonnegotiable truth.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 710. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com