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Over-Emphasizing The Truly Important
Can the importance of something that is really important be over-emphasized?
Yes, of course it can. As long as something is not the only matter of importance, it is possible to over-emphasize its importance. The engine is by far the most important component of a car; but it is possible to over-emphasize the importance of the engine.
Still, when something is really important, and is not taken at all seriously enough by many people, and especially if it is something that defines one's social group, then some people will naturally be hostile to the proposal that it is being over-emphasized. And so I expect that this post, and the series of posts that it launches, will receive a great deal of opposition.
Twenty years ago, the head of a well-known school in Jerusalem told me why he decided to reject Religious Zionism and join the Charedi world. He said that while yishuv ha'aretz is important, it seemed a perversion of Judaism to take one mitzvah and define one's entire religious life around it.
Without commenting on that directly, it seems to me that the Charedi world, which often refers to itself (in exclusion to the Religious-Zionist and Modern/Centrist Orthodox) as the community of "Torah Jews," does the exact same thing with regard to a different mitzvah. I am talking, of course, about the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.
Beginning about two centuries ago, and accelerating in the last few decades, the mitzvah of Torah study has been dramatically transformed in both the importance attached to it, and in the very nature and function of the act itself. With regard to the latter aspect, I introduced this topic a few months ago, in a post entitled Learning Torah: Rationalism Vs. Mysticism, when I discussed the difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist/ mystical approaches to Judaism with regard to avodas Hashem, the service of God. Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and religious life in general, as furthering intellectual and moral goals for the individual and society. Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces. Examples of this difference are the mitzvos of mezuzah, netilas yadayim, and shiluach hakein.
Another example is the mitzvah of learning Torah. For the rationalist Rishonim (as well as for Chazal), learning Torah serves to increase one's knowledge, and to refine one's character, via moral lessons and learning the commandments. (See my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) With the rise of mysticism, on the other hand, came a new and primary function of Torah study. As expressed by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, the primary function of Torah study was now seen as being to metaphysically sustain the universe, via the creation of spiritual "worlds." Another aspect of this transformation is that learning Torah became an end unto itself. (See my post on The Goal of Torah Study.)
A few months ago, I met a successful Torah educator who said to me, "The charedi world has made learning Torah into an avodah zarah." I wouldn't have phrased it that way myself. But the ramifications of the difference between the rationalist and mystical views of Torah study, which relate to the increase in importance that has recently been given to Torah study, are vast and often catastrophic. In future posts (not necessarily consecutive), I will be discussing examples of this phenomenon.