Sacred Text Study As Inner Workout

talmud page
talmud page

When I tell people that I began to study my faith seriously and on a regular basis many years ago, they are often surprised. That's not the run-of-the-mill hobby for most broadcast journalists. It's easier to describe my commitment to tennis. I wanted to explain this commitment to literacy and the way it has been at the center of my faith journey so I thought I would begin a dialogue with Erica Brown, a good friend and teacher:

EB: I had a strong religious education that began in my junior year in a Jewish day school and continued through many years of graduate school, ending with a PhD in Judaic Studies. For me, study is a divine and daily imperative, and I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning. David, why did you begin to study?

DG: I wanted to understand the Jewish story better. Where did we come from, what is the basis of our traditions? I wanted to know what it meant to be Jewish and how God expected us to live. I felt like I didn't' know where I fit within the Jewish story because I didn't understand the fundamentals.

To learn about the figures in our tradition would allow me to learn the lessons their lives teach us today. I also was challenged by Beth to lead our family in faith and I felt pressure to get it right. I wanted to have deeper knowledge to pass on to our children. To understand more about the history and the law allowed me to form a more intimate relationship with Judaism.

EB: How has study shaped your spiritual path?

DG: The spiritual longing I felt revolved around the most important questions any of us can ask: who am I? How do I live with meaning and purpose? How should I live? I felt I could only understand those questions by seeking a closer relationship with God. That relationship could only grow through studying the sacred texts in order to know God better, to listen to him through scripture and be inspired by His expectation and example. Erica, do you feel teaching helps you grow in spirit and deepen your own faith?

EB: Teaching is almost like an act of prayer for me. I feel that I am present at the intersection of people and ideas in a very holy way. There are not many places where successful adults can take a break from work or domestic issues and freely and safely explore their inner lives or global issues through an ethical lens.

What I love most about teaching adults is helping them frame or re-frame big life transitions in a way that brings added love, security or challenge. I have a principle I often invoke in class: comfortable people don't grow. Good teachers need to engage in the paradox of making students feel comfortable and uncomfortable in equal measure.

If people are not safe, they will not make themselves vulnerable. If they feel too comfortable, they can become complacent or lose their curiosity. They can become intellectually lazy about what matters most.

EB: Your learning is very God saturated. While I often have that experience through prayer, for me, study does not always deliver spiritual dividends. Often they are more intellectual or texts inspire me to be a better person. Is there any specific text that has stayed with you?

DG: Deuteronomy 6 and 30 helps me understand that love is at the heart of faith. God loves us and has saved us as a people and that we as people of faith are to love him with our hearts, with our hands by what good deeds we do in the world and with our heads by learning and teaching his ways. The Torah also speaks about circumcising our hearts. The opening allows us to experience God and faith more deeply and to treat others with compassion and dignity as we wish to be treated ourselves.

EB: I think in the middle of our first year of learning together, I spoke to you about getting some friends together to form a study group. You warmed to the idea and the group met episodically for years. Why is it important to have a learning community?

DG: I began by thinking this was an individual pursuit, something to master myself. The problem with that approach is that it fosters more focus on the self rather than the demands of community. When I began studying with a group there was more than learning going on as a group, there was a lot of caring between us. I found us delving into discussion that we wouldn't have without the faith lens.

I've also come to realize that community is important because it creates fellowship that is different than other kinds of friendship. It's a shared experience around caring and giving of yourself. In community, our shared concerns are out identity. That's more important than who we are as individuals. We have a shared mission.

EB: Why is the discipline of study critical to a faith journey, even if the nature of the study changes over time? When we started studying together eight years ago, we went carefully through major stories in the Five Books of Moses, then a lot of Prophets and Scriptures. We worked through a lot of different Maimonides' texts before you wanted to explore your own prayer practice and study texts related to character development. Can you explain that change over time?

DG: At first, I was more interested in the basics. I feel that the more I studied, the deeper my desire grew to grow in spirit and to improve myself through greater spiritual commitment. Faith is hard and maintaining a relationship with God takes commitment. I find that it's easy to turn away and let other distractions become more important.

If God appears in the whispers, then it's easy to ignore or discard. For me study helps me learn, but it also inspires me to go deeper. And it can quiet my mind allowing what's truly important to fill me.

I think there are also stages in the growth of spirit; as we learn more we seek more challenges and there should be more spiritual asks of us? I believe we are always in transition on the path of faith so we cannot allow ourselves to become stuck.