Learning Torah as a training ground for developing habits of mind essential to thriving in the 21st century is a seed that needs nurturing. I will illustrate what I mean through two examples: First creative thinking and then paradoxical thinking. PaRDeS is the acronym for Torah interpretation: P’shat/plain meaninig is the straightforward, almost literal meaning of a verse or section of Torah; Remez/hint is the meaning hinted at through wordplay and acronyms; Drash/interpretation is the ethical, historical or philosophical meaning drawn out by the interpreter; and Sod/secret is the mystical, esoteric meaning revealed from one generation to the next. In Jewish education today students apply the plain and interpretive meanings to understand the sources they learn in class. I suggest taking the use of these methods a step further. There is a traditional idea that Torah is the blueprint for the universe. After learning how to apply these methods to actual Torah text, let’s use these methods to understand the world created from this blueprint. In an urban planning context one could ask, what is the Pshat/plain meaning of a particular building? What meaning is hinted at by its dimensions? What ethical, historical or philosophical meaning does this building have for this neighborhood and its residents? What secret, or hidden role might this building play in the life of the neighborhood? These multidimensional questions open up all kinds of creative ways of thinking about urban planning decisions. Applied in this way, Torah learning becomes a way of cultivating creative thinking about the world around us.
Torah learning can also train us to become paradoxical thinkers, meaning the ability to hold multiple perspectives and truths in our minds at once. This skill is becoming increasingly important in our polarized political environment. Moral psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, demonstrates in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, that liberals and conservatives differ in the moral intuitions they favor. Liberals favor caring and fairness/justice while conservatives favor fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity. Haidt proves that no matter how many facts or arguments one side spews at the other, it won’t persuade anyone because people base their views on these intuitions and not on facts. To effectively bridge differences we need to be able to speak to the moral intuitions of people different than us. This takes being able to hold perspectives different than my own as legitimate, along with my own perspective. This is difficult work. Rabbinic thinking, primarily found in Talmudic argumentation, trains the mind and heart to do just this. The rabbis argue their own position including their underlying assumptions and then present their views through the prism of their opponent’s assumptions. In most cases the opposing assumptions are seen as legitimate even if the end position is argued against. Learning Talmud trains the mind to hold different, opposing assumptions at once to understand the fullness of an argument. These types of Torah learning bridge the gap between what can seem an esoteric and irrelevant world of arcane texts and the most pressing habits of heart and mind needed today.
Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. He blogs at rabbidavidjaffe.com