There is perhaps no decision more representative of the difficulties of being a practicing Jewish college student than the quintessential question of whether or not to attend class during Chag. To me, this is not a question of grades or even the inconvenience of having to spend long, sleepless nights catching up on missed work. No, this represents a far more fundamental dichotomy as it regards the delicate balance that we tread between our dual identities – as college students, striving for an education and pursuing a career on the one hand, and celebrating our valuable tradition on the other. As I do with many ambiguous and difficult life choices, I immediately look to our sages and tradition for help.
What would Judaism tell me to do when confronted with this fundamental decision? By Judaism, I do not mean an absolutist version of halachic binaries. This question is much greater than any one line in the Torah, Talmud or any of the other important halachic work produced over the ages. By looking to Jewish tradition for help, a tradition so demanding that it requires man to consistently contemplate each and every action throughout his life, I can begin my search for an answer.
I do not think that it would be an overstatement to say that a major part of Judaism is a lifelong search for truth. The biblical authors implore the Israelites to recognize what they consider to be the theological fallacy of idol worship, while the Prophets repeatedly harangue the people for focusing too heavily on meaningless rituals, which causes them to lose sight of the bigger picture in the world. The Psalmists, in their poetic wisdom, implore us to look to nature to better understand G-d and His universe, while books of wisdom-literature attempt to teach us philosophical truths about man’s place in the cosmos. While some may blast religion for stunting intellectual growth and freedom, our holy scripture, in its heterogeneous glory, encourages us to ask the bigger questions and offers a plethora of different, sometimes contradictory, answers.
The intellectual demands of Judaism can be summed up in the famous Talmudic dictum: “If one tells you there is wisdom amongst the other nations, believe them.” However, it is only upon deep reflection that we understand the true paradox embodied by this statement. How does an assertion attesting to the wisdom of other disciplines match up to the unequivocal statement in Psalms that “the Torah of G-d is perfect/complete”? If everything we need to learn is contained within the Jewish tradition itself, why are our sages commanding us to believe or seek out the wisdom of other nations?
Maimonides, the great 12th-century philosopher and a man who embodied the intellectual paradox that is our beloved religion, develops a thesis in which he compartmentalizes truth into different categories. Scripture, Maimonides argues, “demands belief in certain truths, the belief in which is indispensable in regulating our social relations…that truth is only the means of securing the removal of injustice, or the acquisition of good morals” (MN 3:28). Our religious laws and traditions are not there to confine us to an intellectual bubble; rather, they are there to teach us that which science cannot. The idea that empiricism and reason alone cannot teach us about moral truth and values is an extremely important point, one which even leading political philosophers in the secularist camp, such as Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls, would agree to. When we probe the depths of Judaism, looking past the seemingly archaic and otiose outer shell, we will see that the ultimate value of Judaism is the moral perfection of mankind. It is in this light that Hillel’s famous line, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, the rest is commentary,” can be properly understood. The real truths of Judaism and Torah (or any religious tradition, for that matter) is not its historical accuracy, scientific precision or even its theological claims. Rather, the truth that Judaism demands is our constant striving to reach moral perfection.
Of course, to attain this elusive level of moral perfection, we must increase our knowledge of the world. The Rabbis of the Talmud understood that, just as moral truths cannot be learned from “secular” disciplines, subjects such as history, science and mathematics (wisdom) cannot be learned from the Torah. They are, however, indispensable to one another. I cannot truly grasp the importance of morally sound laws without studying history and politics. I am not able to break down questions of medical ethics if my knowledge of the life sciences is lacking. To understand life, we need science – but to understand the value of life, we need religion. For me, the importance and value of attending class is much greater than receiving good grades or being able to obtain a decent job: It is an inseparable part of the Jewish search for truth in the world.
During Sukkot, I eat, drink and sleep in a Sukkah. I do not dwell in my Sukkah for the ahistorical reason of the Israelites dwelling in the desert or for the theologically immature reason of fear of divine retribution. When I spend a week eating and sleeping in my Sukkah, it teaches me moral truths untouchable by the realms of empiricism and rationalization. The tradition allows me to realize how fortunate I am to live in a house throughout the year and it better allows me to empathize with those who do not have that luxury. I learn to be less dependent on materialistic gains and comforts, which make up most of our daily worries. However, after a brisk night or a nice lunch in the Sukkah, I run off to class to gain a better understanding of the world and my role as one of its citizens. I do not view my attending class to be going against my celebration of the holiday; it is just the opposite. I believe with my strongest convictions that my celebration of Sukkot is completely dependent on it.