By Hubert Luns
The most important rule in Judaism, and this includes Hasidism, is that of ‘lernen’ (learning by experience), in Hebrew da’at, a term also applied to the tree of life. In Judaism, learning in its proper sense is contained in the Hebrew word ‘hagah’. Hagah means repeating something over and over again, periodically and cyclically.
It is the direction of the mind that comes through such constant repetition, which leads to remembering and understanding by conviction. In this way the object of study becomes part of yourself. This activity of learning serves for the people of Israel to ‘live’ and to ‘survive’, to ‘remember’ and to ‘pass on’. This is something that Christianity could well take to heart! The Christian manner of learning is exactly like that in the Jewish culture: a question of survival, although its urgency is often less well understood. In our case it is important for our Christian identity and in the case of the Jews for their identity to lead a life pleasing to God.
This kind of permanent education is perhaps the most essential cultural trait of Judaism, the main binding element in their dispersal and diversity throughout the ages, that makes a Jew Jewish and makes him feel Jewish. Of the 613 precepts, none is considered as important as Deuteronomy 6:7 requiring the continuous teaching of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and of course its corollary in the commandment of Joshua 1:8 that requires its continuous study (Joshua is the sixth Bible book). Coincidently, the word thora means teaching or instruction. From this precept it follows that passing on and training is more important than studying (the sacred Torah is more important than the other books), but how to pass on without first having studied and how to study without first having been taught? Since in this matter one can never become proficient, and this applies even to the greatest sage, teaching is also an exercise in study.
2 – It is better to glow than to know
Jesus’ answer to the proposition that Torah training is the most important duty for a believer – an issue that was hotly debated in His time – refers to verse 5 of the same chapter of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Without denying this, the Talmud states that an ignoramus cannot be a pious person (Pirkei Avot 2:5), based on the concept that a person acts from his inner beliefs, and Bible study has a formative effect here. And thus study, such as study of the Ten Commandments, leads to practice (Kiddushin 40b). The “Guide for the Perplexed” of the great scholar Maimonides (1135-1204) was attacked for its analytical approach because the rabbis had good reason to suspect that this would lead to a formalistic attitude towards life that would turn away from the rightful practice, one that is worthy of mankind, focused on God and according to the heart’s intention.
Hasidism has studied the form of Jewish teaching in great depth. This mystical movement originated in the 18th century by way of reaction to the then current rationalism. The Hasidic principle holds that the value of being Jewish is not based on a person’s literacy but on the intention of his heart (Sanhedrin 106B). This fits the scheme of mind-intuition. Nothing spectacular, but Hasidism managed to give it a new impetus. The intuitive and spontaneous expression was the guiding principle, according to the words of the psalmist: “Serve the Lord with gladness, shout with joy before His countenance.” This would also agree with the dictum of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153): “It is better to glow than to know.” In the expression of that joyous kind of glow, which persists even in the most miserable circumstances, the Hasidic person becomes mediator between God and men. Whoever ‘lerns’ is also a mediator inasmuch as lernen is not an intellectual activity but an experience of the whole being. So, the suffering of the Messiah on the tree of life (da’at) was in His sacrificial reconciliation also a process of lernen. (1)
3 – The centre of gravity shifts away from Jerusalem
How did the transition take place from the Temple service to lernen in its modern variant? In Jawne (or Jamnia), a place to the West of Jerusalem, the centre of gravity of the Temple service shifted to the house of lernen and became dissociated from the tabernacle service. When the Temple of Jerusalem was bound to be put out of action during the catastrophic events that took place under the Roman Empire – that was during the first war of 66 to 70 AD – Rabbi Jochanan Ben Zakkai pleaded with the future emperor Vespasian to turn the little town of Jawne into a centre of study, of the Torah amongst other things. Ben Zakkai, who took part in the Sanhedrin that convicted Jesus, revolutionized Jewish thinking with his pronouncement that acts of loving -kindness supersede sacrifices as a way of attaining God’s forgiveness.
This concept took on its definitive form after the second Jewish war. The revolt against the Romans, that lasted from 132 to 135 AD, was fought under the famous rebel leader Bar Kochba. The Talmud names him consistently ‘Bar Kosiba’ (son of a fool). The war was a terrible ordeal, ending with large-scale devastation over the whole country. More than 600,000 Jews perished and many were sold as slaves. The Temple Mount was sown with salt and all that remained was the Western Wall. An ambitious reconstruction programme was started, dedicated to Roman grandeur. Jupiter Capitolinus got his temple in Jerusalem on top of the Holy Sepulchre, which had been levelled off with rubble, where stood an equestrian statue of Emperor Hadrian who hated both Jews and Christians. Venus got her temple on top of a pile of rubble on Mount Calvary.
read the study The essential nature of judaism