Today I decided, on a whim, to open up the Talmud and see what’s on tap for daf yomi (“the daily Talmud reading”). I came upon an interesting passage (Hagigah 10a). It reads:
אמר רב כיון שיוצא אדם מדבר הלכה לדבר מקרא שוב אין לו שלום
Which translates into something like:
“Rav said: When a person moves from the study of halachah to the study of Torah he finds no shalom (peace).”
Which got me thinking:
Halachah represents certainty. It represents the moment when debate gives way to law. It represents the fullness of rabbinic understanding on a given topic and is the distillation of this fullness of understanding into a legal code.
Shalom means peace, but it also means fullness, completion, and perfection. A person who studies halachah and lives his life in perfect accord with it can truly be said to live a life of “shalom.” Such a person, if he or she actually existed, would be living perfectly and completely within the Jewish tradition. Rather than striving for shalom his task would be to ensure that the shalom that he had achieved remain perfectly intact for all time.
Halachah offers the promise of shalom and with it the possibility of wholeness, certainty, and fulfillment.
But what about Torah study? Shouldn’t the study of Torah also offer the promise of (or potential for) shalom? After all, Jewish tradition says of the Torah, “All its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” At first Rav’s statement, that Torah study and shalom don’t go hand in hand, seems absurd. But I think he’s right.
Torah study represents the never ending quest for insight and understanding. Struggle, incomplete understanding, doubt, and unrest– this is the stuff of Torah study. It’s what makes Torah study fun!
The Torah doesn’t spell out exactly how a person should act, or even what the 613 mitzvot actually are. Instead, the Torah and Tanach present us with a world riddled with flaws, imperfections, ruptures, lack of closure, and more messiness than most of us know what to do with. Those who study Torah are perpetually confronted with the complexity of human beings living alongside one another and in relation to God.
Halachah is Judaism’s most comprehensive attempt to answer the question of what to do with our Torah and with our lived experience. When we prioritize Torah study over the study and observance of halachah we are prioritizing struggle over tranquility, brokenness over wholeness, and embracing a world where there is no absolute and unbreakable shalom.
I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that there’s nothing “more Jewish” than our pursuit of shalom. I’ve often called attention to the fact that our siddur has multiple prayers for shalom and that no prayer service is complete unless we’ve offered at least two different prayers for shalom.
However Rav’s teaching is making me question whether there isn’t something more Jewish than shalom?
I think the answer is yes. To be a Jew is to take seriously both halachah and Torah in the way that I’m describing them here. To be a Jew is to entertain the idea that there is a perfect, holistic, whole, wholesome, way to live in the world– a shalom of halachah. To be a Jew is also to know that our most sacred text, our Torah, perpetually reminds us that alongside shalom, and perhaps on the path to shalom, is a life of grappling, questioning, probing, yearning, and struggling.