As Passover draws to a close, our thoughts should turn to what grand theme ought to occupy our attention in the aftermath of the festival. One possibility is the answer to the question of what is the single most important component of Jewish life. That answer, to many, would be Jewish observance. The fulfillment of the mitzvot is what distinguishes Judaism from all other religions. In fact, the very idea that there are Divine commandments incumbent upon the ordinary Jew – if there is such a person – distinguishes Judaism from all other religions. For others, the answer would be learning. It is not only through textual study that Jews access the essentials of Judaism but learning is also the means by which Jews know how to apply the mitzvot.
In fact, the Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) relates a second century debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon on which of the two – observance or study – is the most important. Rabbi Tarfon took the side of observance. Rabbi Akiva took the side of study. The elders in attendance sided with Rabbi Akiva on the grounds that study will lead to action. Curiously, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch accepts neither view.
Recalling the question of the inquiring (wise) son at the Passover seder who asks (Deuteronomy 6:20) “what is the meaning of all the laws and statutes” related to the celebration of the festival, the father is instructed to explain that “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” But Rabbi Hirsch correctly notes that though the son asks for legal details, he is merely provided with “a simple catechism.” The son craves factual information and the father provides simple narration. The best explanation for the lack of correlation between the question and the response is that the grand narrative of the Exodus is a pre-requisite for the study of Torah.
Says Hirsch: “Leave the great volumes unopened if you do not from the outset bring with you the basic sense in which the content should be studied and comprehended.” In other words, Jews need a compelling reason to think that studying Judaism is worthwhile. If a Jew – beginning with but not limited to children – cannot appreciate why Judaism is relevant there is no motivation to study. The single most important preoccupation of all Jewish educators ought to be constructing the rationale of Jewish existence. It is only with such a rationale that both the study and observance of Judaism will inexorably follow.