Learning & Doing
The relationship and reconciliation of two Jewish values
Judaism values both study and action. The Talmud teaches that the study of Torah is greater than all other commandments (Shabbat 127a), and yet the rabbinic tradition is obsessed with the minute details of ritual and ethical behavior. As a passage in Pirke Avot teaches, "It is not the study that is essential, but rather the action (1:17)." This latter source suggests that the rabbis understood that while study and action are both fundamental components of the religious life, they are also in tension with one another. So which is more important, study or action? How do we balance these two priorities?
A Talmudic Debate
In a frequently cited passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 40b), Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon debate this very question:
"Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza's house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action."
Rabbi Akiva's opinion is sensible. Both study and action are essential, and thus we should prioritize the one that facilitates the other. Action may occur in the absence of study, but, according to Akiva, study itself will prompt and inspire action. Yet this solution is curious, as well. If action is the ultimate goal, why not bypass study altogether?
The answer is that study not only leads us to action, it leads us through action. Study offers us guidelines for what kind of action to take. In the realm of social justice, our learning outlines the nature of our obligations. For example, the Torah defines our duty to pay workers fairly and promptly. The principle of pikuah nefesh--the prioritization of saving human life--is articulated in the Talmud. And Maimonides codifies for us how much charity we should give and to whom we should give it.
Indeed, though Rabbi Akiva's principle seems to imply that study could lead to action, there are many rabbinic sources that seem to accept Akiva's principle yet suggest that study must lead to action. According to the rabbinic sage Rava, "The purpose of learning is repentance and good deeds (Berakhot 17a)." In another source, another sage, Rav Huna, articulates this sentiment even stronger: "He who occupies himself only with studying Torah acts as if he has no God (Avoda Zarah 17b)."
The Source of Responsibility
Of course, learning Torah only facilitates action if we've learned where our acts are needed. Interestingly, the relatively obscure laws of met mitzvah ("a person one is obligated to bury") give us insight into this type of learning.
A met mitzvah is a murder victim found in the wilderness. The Torah stipulates that the elders of the town closest to the corpse must take responsibility for it. They must bury it, sacrifice a heifer, and then make this unusual declaration: "'Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.' (Deuteronomy 21:8)"