Torah Study & Moral Behavior

Is Torah study intended to lead directly to moral and ethical behavior?

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Ethics of the Fathers

Hirsch's conviction that the process of study in and of itself will engender moral virtues reflects an ancient rabbinic belief, for the Rabbis spell out in great detail how study involves moral virtues and sharpens them:

"Rabbi Meir taught: Whoever engages in the study of Torah for its own sake achieves a host of merits; moreover, it was worth creating the world for his sake alone. He is called: beloved friend, lover of God, lover of humanity, a joy to God, and a joy to humanity. Torah clothes him with humility and reverence; it equips him to be righteous, saintly, upright, and faithful. It keeps him far from sin and draws him near to virtue. People benefit from his counsel and skill, his understanding and strength, as it is written: 'Counsel and skill are Mine; I am understanding, strength is Mine' (Proverbs 8:14). It endows him with sover­eignty, with authority, with power of keen judgment. The secrets of Torah are revealed to him; he becomes an effluent fountain, a never-failing stream; he becomes modest and patient, forgiving of insults; it magnifies and exalts him over all creations" (Pirkey Avot / Ethics of the Fathers 6:1).

"Learning [Torah] is acquired through 48 virtues: By study; by attentiveness; by orderly speech; by an understanding heart; by a perceptive heart; by awe; by reverence; by humility; by joy; by ministering to the sages; by engaging in give and take with col­leagues; by acute discussion with students; by calmness in study; by study of Scripture and Mishnah; by a minimum of business; by a minimum of sleep; by a minimum of small talk; by a mini­mum of worldly pleasure; by a minimum of frivolity; by a mini­mum of worldly pursuits; by patience; by a generous heart; by trust in the sages; by acceptance of suffering; by knowing one's place; by contentment with one's lot; by guarding one's speech; by taking no personal credit; by being beloved; by loving God; by loving all creatures; by loving charitable deeds; by loving recti­tude; by loving reproof; by shunning honor; by not boasting of one's learning; by not delighting in rendering legal decisions; by sharing the burden [of rendering legal decisions] with someone else; by influencing one's fellow to act virtuously; by setting him on the path of truth; by setting him on the path of peace; by con­centrating on one's studies; by asking and answering questions; by absorbing knowledge and contributing to it; by studying in order to teach and to perform God's commandments; by sharpen­ing the wisdom of one's teacher; by being precise in transmitting what one has learned; by quoting one's source of knowledge. From this verse we learn that one who cites his source of knowledge brings redemption to the world, for it is written, 'And Esther spoke to the king, in the name of Mordecai' (Esther 2:22)" (Pirkey Avot / Ethics of the Fathers 6:6).


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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.