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48 Ways to Acquire the Torah: Way #8

Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” states in chapter 6:6: “The Torah is acquired in 48 ways.” This week: Way #8, “Humility”

You ask for my opinion? Actually, my opinion does not count.

Not when I am bending my mind to try to fathom the true meaning of a text of Torah.

It’s like this: While I must bring my own intellectual capacity to the study of Torah — while I must probe, and ask, and devise my own best reading — at a certain point I have to admit: I might be trying to read my own ideas into the Torah. I, not the Torah, am talking. We call this eisegesis, reading into the text, rather than exegesis, reading out of the text.

I face this problem when I focus on the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797). A polymath if ever there was one, the Gaon was a famously and uniquely independent interpreter of the Code of Jewish Law. He rejected interpretive standards in Jewish law if he thought they did not yield a correct reading.

In our world that values autonomy, the Gaon’s approach may seem ho-hum. Of course he relied on his own opinion. But in the world of a 3,000-year-old legal system, precedent and procedure reign supreme, so much so that students of Jewish law look at it with expectations: decision-making in Jewish law works this way, not that. So when a comment of the Vilna Gaon deviates from this, I struggle based on my training, my understanding of what the Jewish juridical process is supposed to be.

I struggle because I needed to put my own perspective aside.

I need to stop looking at the Torah through my own lenses and start looking at it through the Vilna Gaon’s lenses.

I need humility.

Ultimately, I need humility no matter who the eminent commentator on the Torah is. His mind surpasses my own, even as the Torah itself, infinite in its wisdom, surpasses the minds of even its greatest students.

Every student of Torah needs humility to apprehend the Torah.

The eighth way to acquire the Torah: Humility.

Way #1, Study; Way #2, Listen; Way #3, Articulate Speech; Way #4, Understanding of the Heart; Way #5, An Intelligent Heart; Way #6, Awe; Way #7, Fear

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Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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