Thursday, May 24, 2007

Study and practice

What is more important, study of Torah or performance of Torah? See here for a selection of answers to this question. The debate seems to be over whether there is independent value to study, in addition to the value of performance.

I want to suggest a different, perhaps radical, perhaps bizarre answer. Let's take the Rambam's approach to an extreme, and assume that there is NO independent value to mitzvot. That the purpose of life is simply to attain a fuller comprehension of God and Torah. That what matters is not the state of the world, but simply your internal state, the extent of your comprehension and awareness.

We all know, empirically, that the best way to learn about something is to get your hands dirty experimenting with it. Perhaps this is true on a deep level about Torah as well. The experience of doing a mitzvah grants you a fuller understanding of the mitzvah than you could get simply by studying it. Thus, even if mitzvot have no independent value, you could still say that mitzvah performance is a necessary and inescapable part of life.

In his discussion of Akedat Yitzchak, R' Hasdai Crescas asks what the purpose of testing Avraham was. If God (being omniscient) knew ahead of time that Avraham would pass, then what is gained by carrying out the test? R' Crescas' answer is that the act of doing a positive action instills positive character traits in you. God wanted to improve Avraham's character, and the only way to accomplish this was "the hard way", through physical fulfillment of the test.

According to R' Crescas, performance of mitzvot apparently has no intrinsic significance. The only thing that matters is the resulting improvement of your character. A similar approach would justify what we have said about Torah study. Performing the Torah is just a means toward understanding the Torah, which is what really matters in life. Despite the philosophical radicalness of this approach, since the utility of mitzvah performance is quite high, the practical implications (nafka minot) of the approach would be minor.

Such an approach would probably solve several deep theological difficulties, while creating several new difficulties of its own. But that discussion will have to wait for another time...

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