It was towards the end of June and my one year foundation course in physics and mathematics was drawing to a close. I had worked really hard on my course and I felt proud of my achievement.
As I was thinking of how to celebrate its completion, I was reminded of a special ritualistic celebration that I would have been doing on similar occasions just a couple of years earlier and I immediately knew how I was going to celebrate this one.
In the Charedi community I grew up in, finishing a significant portion of learning was a big deal and was celebrated with a special siyyum ritual, in which the one making the siyyum would recite a prescribed prayer, expressing their love of learning and their commitment to Torah. I no longer belong to that community and I completely disagree with its worldview, but I do still share their love for learning, albeit in a very different way and in very different subject areas.
As a secularist, I was not going to have God mentioned at my completion celebration and this meant that I had to update the traditional siyyum liturgy, which is — as you would expect — full of theistic language. However, after a little bit of tweaking, what was left of the traditional text was surprisingly reflective of the way I relate to knowledge and its study.
The attitude towards learning that was infused in me during my frum childhood and which continues to accompany me now in my secular life is unlike anything I have seen in the secular world or in the wider Jewish community. I think if the Charedi community has anything to teach us, it is its love for learning and of discovering the truth hidden in the texts.
In the yeshivot I attended, Torah — which translates as “teachings” —was referred to as an independent being, a metaphysical entity. One could get to know this being and build a relationship with her and we were encouraged to do so. I may relate to this now more on a metaphorical level, whereas in the past I would take it literally; I may translate “Torah” more broadly now to include all areas of knowledge and not just traditional Jewish studies, but this model of thinking of knowledge and learning is still how I choose to refer to my studies, as it expresses the power and importance of knowledge.
I recall with nostalgia how after every lecture in yeshivah, we boys would rush over to the lectern where the lecturer, the dean of the yeshivah, would stand with an otherworldly grace, ready to take on any challenges or criticisms that were sure to come his way. Respect, civility, manners — all became irrelevant in the face of the pursuit for truth.
The lecturer would be mercilessly harassed with refutations, contradictions and inconsistencies, with boys often pestering him all the way to his house. I once forgot myself and acted in line with this model of learning at a secular philosophy lecture. It did not go down well.
In traditional Judaism there is a well-known concept of Torah lishmah, learning for the sake of learning. Knowledge is seen as so beautiful that no further reason is necessary to encourage one to satiate oneself with its sweet elixir. This is in direct contrast to the common instrumentalist approach to learning, in which studying is justified on the basis of future practical or financial gain. For me such a view is a result of a lack of appreciation and respect for the truth and its astounding beauty.
It is for this reason that it always annoys me when people ask me what practical or financial gain I hope to get out of my physics studies. I did not choose to study physics and mathematics because I thought the money was there. I want to learn about the universe because the universe is awesome and the fact that I know more about it today than I knew yesterday makes today’s studies more than worth it.
In an age of “post-truth” and postmodernist “everything goes”, it is all the more important we have the right appreciation and due respect to learning, knowledge and truth. There is truth out there and we can try and discover it, or at least get closer to it, through study and investigation. It may not be popular to say this nowadays, but not all opinions are equal and there are wrong answers.
I did not think that the truth I was after was in Charedi Judaism and I therefore abandoned that worldview, but I do feel that worldview imbibed me with a love and appreciation for learning for which I am grateful. I have definitely not discovered the truth yet and I do not know if I ever will, but I have definitely become less ignorant. I will continue searching and learning for the sake of learning, Torah lishmah.
Izzy Posen starts a degree in physics and philosophy at Bristol University this month