No, not another post about drinking. I’m talking about the fascinating roundtable discussion in Biblical Archeology Review about biblical scholarship and faith that has some of my fellow bloggers buzzing.

While the debate over whether Dr. Schiffman’s self-identification as an Orthodox Jew is appropriate, accurate, or even welcome rages on in the comments section of the above blogs, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about what I though was Dr. Schiffman’s most interesting comment:

Judaism is different because much of the act of being a traditional Jew is intellectualizing. Study becomes a form of worship.

Study is worship. So a person who claims not to be a believer may be doing worship in some form. You could study the whole Talmud and say, I don’t believe anything.

But I think modern Judaism goes too far with the notion that you don’t have to believe anything to be Jewish. You don’t in the sense that you’re part of the community even if you don’t believe. But the question is, doesn’t Judaism really have in mind that a person will have certain types of faith commitments that are then acted out in certain ways?

Study is recognized in the Talmud as an important form of worship, but it does so in an odd sort of way. We learn that studying the Torah is considered greater than doing mitzvot because even though practice is superior to study, study of Torah leads to practice of mitzvot, and is thus (paradoxically?) greater than practice.

I think this captures Schiffman’s point perfectly. Judaism certainly has in mind that a person will have certain faith commitments, and will act on them in certain ways. In my opinion, Schiffman’s claim that a person who does not characterize himself as a believer may be engaging in a form or worship by studying misses the mark just a little bit.

It’s difficult for me to imagine a Jew choosing to study Torah, in whatever form, in a manner entirely divorced from his or her heritage. Even were a Jew to make the attempt, is it even possible? Torah is described as “Morasha kehilat Yakov” – the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. I would argue that a Jew who studies is opening him or herself to the possibility of acting on beliefs.

Why? Because the Torah is built on the principle of Mitzvah – commandment. Though Jews can, have, and will continue to argue over theological litmus tests, Orthopraxy vs. Orthodoxy, and Halachic vs. cultural Judasim, it is undeniable to any reader of the Torah that God’s most fundamental relationship with the Jewish people is built on the idea of Mitzvah.

Different denominations have different ways to understand this relationship, or eve to alter or recast it in ways that emasculate the concept entirely, but none can argue that the Torah is not about Mitzvah. I think that a Jew who chooses to study Torah will fundamentally grapple with this very notion. Either you believe that God expects something from you, or you don’t. If I had to stand by some litmus test for what a right-thinking Jew should believe, it would be only that: that God demands something from you, that you have some way of figuring out what that something might be, and that studying Torah will get you closer to figuring that out and to acting on it.

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