Posted on December 31, 2011 by Barer
[Cross-posted from my blog]
In Jewish culture, there is a high value placed not just on learning, but on learning lishma — learning for its own sake (a source for this would be much appreciated). This is not a familiar concept for secular academics, where knowledge gained has a practical purpose, even if that purpose is only more refined theoretical knowledge that makes it harder to engage with anyone outside of the ivory tower. When studying Jewish texts seriously, the goal often goes beyond any sort of practical knowledge and focuses instead on learning simply for its own sake coupled with learning how to learn. This last is especially important in programs like Pardes because, while spending a year immersed in Jewish text study is fabulous, the hope is that such study continues throughout one’s life, and that requires a specific set of skills. So what we learn often has less to do with content, and more with form, in order to help prepare us to feel confident in tackling these texts outside of a Pardes-like environment in the future.
However, with my recent decision to branch out from academia and enter the world of more direct action, with all the attendant stumbling blocks sure to come, a new wrinkle has been introduced for my learning lishma. That is, namely: how can I justify spending time learning simply for the sake of learning when I see my purpose in life quickly transitioning to one of alleviating suffering in the world? Learning lishma was once seen as a more lofty, laudable intellectual pursuit, as it was not concerned with career advancement, but simply with filling one’s desire to learn. In my current mindset, however, it seems like the opposite, as learning with no specific purpose or goal is even more blind to the suffering all around us than learning with some goal would be, especially if that goal were a small step towards the alleviation of suffering.
Luckily, learning lishma, while not associated with gaining me academic credit or job prospects in a direct way, is not as divorced from the life I want to lead as it may seem. One advantage of learning lishma, and not to write a test or a paper on a preconceived topic, is that I can approach the text with whatever lens I wish, often explicitly. I have found myself able to draw out connections in Judaism’s most sacred texts that are only apparent to me because of my decision to switch focuses, and because of the lack of curriculum baked into my learning. I have also noticed, in reading secondary literature, how much or little time is spent by academics in doing the same, which has helped me, at least so far, build confidence in my decision to leave that arena for now, and pursue social justice in a more direct way than most academics do.