I remember the loudspeaker in summer camp blaring, “Learning never ends, learning never ends,” and I am a strong believer in this idea.
As a chassid it’s not enough to remember an idea or two that I heard from the Rebbe or read it in his hundreds of volumes of Toras Menachem; it’s important to dig deeper, to try harder to understand a new discourse, to meditate on the words I heard, watched, or read, find a new twist in a footnote that he edited, never sufficing with offering a “Rebbe idea” superficially without the real meat of the matter, constantly seeking to do better in integrating his wisdom into my life.
I believe that Jews should stick to Torah for our worldview, and not, G-d forbid, get caught up in chachmos chitzoniyos, external philosophies and theological perspectives. Recently, I was astonished to see a bachur reading a book about spirituality written by a non-Jew. Spirituality from someone who isn’t a ben Torah? Do we want our souls guided by gentiles, as righteous as they may be?
I am often asked in Bozeman, “Rabbi, have you read the New Testament?” “What do you think about the Quran?” and I am happy to inform the questioner that I’ve never read either of them. I am a Yid and I don’t read ideas that are antithetical to Torah, period. It doesn’t make me “oifgeklert,” a “brilliant” or “open-minded” scholar, to read these ideas; it does make me a semi-idolator.
Yet, despite my principled distance from secular or un-Jewish theologies, I’ve always been an avid reader. My Zaidy knew that the best gift he could give me as a child was a sefer. My mother was a reader, my dad in his younger years was a big reader, and I learned so much from reading, including modern Hebrew, which I never learned in cheder. I love history, geography, biographies, and politics (on occasion), and my curiosity is as alive today as it was when I was 14. I am currently reading four books: Bibi, My Story, Radio’s Greatest of All Time, Why God Why? How to believe in heaven when it hurts like hell, and Deceit of an Ally: a memoir of military antisemitism, NSA’s secret Jew room and Yom Kippur War treachery. I am learning so much from each of them.
I am fascinated by Bibi as an individual. Like him or not, his life story has always impressed me, and I’d like to know more about his youth and his years before I was around (what I refer to as BCE, “Before Chaim’s Era”). Human suffering is a constant topic of conversation in my circles, and I am asked to address it very often, so I’m really enjoying Rabbi Gershon Schusterman’s classy way of dealing with such a delicate topic. I like success stories, especially when they come about as a result of hard work, and so Rush Limbaugh’s success and unique brilliance is something I’ve admired since childhood and I want to learn more about how he attained success and what guided his political outlook. Bruce Brill is someone from Israel who has visited Montana and told me about his new book, so I purchased it on Amazon, and I’m enjoying his story.
I don’t read books in order to learn how to live or how to think—for that I have a beautiful Torah and Chassidus. I read because I believe knowledge is power and learning more helps me to be better at what I do for Klal Yisrael while understanding more about the uniqueness of Hashem’s world. It’s probably the same reason I read Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father in early 2000s before he was a “thing,” and I couldn’t stop reading Karl Rove’s Courage and Consequences: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, which was fascinating, especially the parts about how George W. Bush became governor of Texas before he was president.
For a couple of years, I was reading less, because I’ve been too busy on my phone and laptop at all hours of the day and night, but lately, I’ve been putting my phone on “Do Not Disturb” during off-peak hours and have been trying to do more reading. It’s so much better for the brain; it keeps me away from the mental abuse of the never-ending news cycle and allows for inner quiet to ensue. My reading always comes second and as a complement to my daily Torah learning. I almost never miss a day of learning from the Rebbe’s teachings (currently in the midst of a farbrengen from Shavuos 1957), my daily study of Talmud (about to make a siyum on Kesubos), my daily study of three chapters of Rambam as per the Rebbe’s instructions in 1985, and the daily study of Chitas. This year I added a course in hilchos Shabbos, where I study from Rabbi Sholom Zirkind each week, and by the end of the year I will be re-ordained in hilchos Shabbos. It’s the “learning never ends” philosophy, keeping me young, keeping my brain stimulated, keeping my soul on fire.
In our parashah, Vayeitzei, we read about how our patriarch Yaakov escapes Israel to Padan Aram so that Eisav doesn’t kill him and in order to find a bride for himself from within the family. The Midrash teaches that Yaakov spent 14 years en route to Lavan studying in the yeshiva of Shem and Eiver in Israel. The Torah and all its intricacies were given to the super-righteous even before the formal giving of the Torah at Sinai, and Yaakov spent 14 years studying just that. It’s a fascinating concept, as Eiver was the great-grandfather of Avraham (Avraham was the son of Terach, son of Nachor, son of Serug, son of Re’u, son of Peleg, son of Eiver), and Yaakov learned with Eiver from age 63 until 77 when Eiver passed away at a ripe old age, over 400 years old.
The fact that Yaakov chose to stop and learn Torah in Israel for 14 years before heading to Padan Aram is itself fascinating in teaching us the value of Torah study even under duress, but I can’t imagine that Yaakov learned there without meeting people from previous generations, the elder statesmen of the monotheists of the time, and learned from their experience dealing with a pagan world. After all, it was Eiver for whom Avraham was called Ivri, because Eiver also was a contrarian who stood strong against all odds in teaching his generation the importance of believing in G-d; Yaakov undoubtedly tapped into his experiences.
This brings me full circle to learning. We can’t get stuck in one path of learning. I am unapologetically devoted to my Rebbe’s incredible teachings. I believe he was a unique Rebbe who gave the world unique Torah insight and Torah world outlook. But it’s not to the exclusion of all other teachings. Some days I read Mussar, while on others I learn fascinating responsa, both modern and earlier Acharonim, and on others it may be a dose of philosophy in Kuzari or even history in Josephus. We can’t ever rest from enhancing our wisdom and knowledge; it’s what has kept our people thriving and will always be our strongest asset.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.