Bet Hamidrash

TargumBet hamidrash is a Jewish concept meaning “house of study.” It denotes more than a physical location, however: it denotes a way of interacting with the study of Torah. I believe there is much in this idea that could helpfully inform how other traditions, particularly that of Christianity, approach the study of Scripture.

From The Rabbi from Burbank, Zwirn, Owen (Fort Worth, Texas, 1986):

My father wanted me to become a rabbi, just as his father had wanted him to be. For the past 2000 years or so, any Orthodox Jew who wanted his son to become a rabbi would send him to a Hebrew School called a yeshiva, also called a bet hamidrash, a “house of research.” The name comes from the words bet, meaning “house” and doresh which means “to seek, ask, question or research.”

From the very first day in the yeshiva, our textbook was the Torah.  And, of course, the Torah was in Hebrew. As each student was called upon in turn, he had to read the next sentence and give his interpretation of what the verse meant to him. The teaching rabbi would then give his and other rabbi’s interpretation of that verse and encourage all the students to participate in the ensuing dialogue. Often this dialogue would centre around the meaning of a single letter or a single word. The discussions that grew out of such intense studies gave rise to the standing joke that whenever two Jews meet for a conversation, you can expect at least three or four opinions. Basically, that is how we studied, both in the yeshiva and in our homes. This method taught us love and respect for the honest opinions of others, even though they might differ or conflict with our own…

The same method of study, with the same openness in expression of personal opinions, and the same respect for the opinions of others, was adopted whenever we studied, even at home during the times when my father and I would review the weekly portion of the Torah (which is read by Jews all around the world). We were taught, and I firmly believe it to be true, that there is no way of ever arriving at eternal truths unless all concepts and all opinions are allowed to be discussed openly. We were taught that this was the way that free men and children of the free were to study life. It could be said that this bet hamidrash method of study is based upon the commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”…

In the Talmud it is written, “As a hammer splits the rock into many splinters so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings.” An honest Bible scholar will inevitably realise the truth of this saying. The bet hamidrash method of studying Torah may sound strange to those who are accustomed to accepting their teacher’s viewpoint without personally investigating his statements. A yeshiva student would not necessarily agree with the divergent points of view, but he was expected to accept them as being the honest views of the ones who expressed them. Each person had to decide for himself which of the expressed viewpoints was true for him.

This bet hamidrash method of study would continue throughout the Sabbath in the small Bronx synagogue where my father and I attended, until just before the evening havdalah, the services which marked the end of the Sabbath. Then, even though no rabbi was present, the dialogue on the weekly portions would be loudly discussed around a table heavily laden with delicious Jewish food. These discussions were hot and heavy and to an outsider they might have appeared disorganised. Within Jewish Orthodoxy, scenes like this, portrayed in the motion picture, Yentl still continue.

During the early years of study, the bet hamidrash principles of Torah study became so deeply ingrained in me that I could never forget them. The word Torah usually refers to the first five books of the Bible and is often translated “the Law.” It is best translated, however, as “instruction” or “teaching,” God’s revealed will for our lives. To this day, I can hear the voices of my rabbis and teachers as they expounded. “Remember,” they said over and over again, “Torah is our textbook. Only Torah. When we study Torah it is both our text and our commentary.” To this day, when I study the Bible, I depend upon the Bible to be its own comprehensive and reliable commentary.

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