Torah Study & Moral Behavior
Is Torah study intended to lead directly to moral and ethical behavior?
In the following article, the author compares the thoughts of three modern theologians: Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder of neo-Orthodoxy, also known as modern Orthodoxy; Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism; and Martin Buber (1878-1965), an existentialist thinker. Reprinted with permission from Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (The Jewish Publication Society).
Study can teach students the content of moral norms and the skills of moral judgment, and it can motivate people to act morally. In addition, the very act of studying itself might inculcate moral values. Kaplan and Buber were not nearly as much convinced of this as Hirsch was.
Kaplan & Buber
Thus Kaplan did not even list study in his 95-page chapter titled "Basic Values in Jewish Religion," and he continually declared that world betterment is the aim of education, to be achieved through making the Jewish heritage relevant to the present moral and spiritual needs of Jews. In line with that, however, he advocated more study and less praying, since "worship and prayer are directed toward the attainment of peace of mind, [while] the study of Torah can set in motion all of the moral influences that go into the molding of character and the shaping of society."
For Buber, also, the aim of education was functional: It is a means to train good character by exposing the student to God as a model to the extent that the instructor can.For Buber, then, the text was only a vehicle for the instructor to reveal his or her own understanding of what it means to be in dialogue with God.
Hirsch, though, saw immense moral value in the act of studying itself. That is not surprising, for Hirsch's Orthodoxy directed him much more intensely to study the traditional texts. Hirsch believed that the process of intensive textual study was the way to inculcate a number of moral values. Specifically, morality is largely a matter of the proper exercise of one's will. The development of mental skills, though, is also a matter of free will, since students will engage in concentration, analysis, memorization, and creative thinking only if they choose to do so. Thus "the entire intellectual schooling of our youth" is, in effect, a "continuous exercise in moral education," since it trains the student to choose to act constructively.
Moreover, study engenders specific moral virtues, including "obedience, the readiness to comply with a superior will, the consequent exercise of self-control, the punctual and most perfect possible performance of duties imposed, the pleasure of work and pure joy in work done, self-disciplined serenity, modesty, sociability, friendliness, [and] team-spirit" in addition to "care, caution, exactitude, and circumspection."Hirsch was especially concerned with inculcating obedience and submission to authority, perhaps a function of his Orthodox orientation.