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.”

torah study and moralFor 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.

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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