On Leaving Academia and Embracing Torah

On Leaving Academia and Embracing Torah

I no longer consider myself an academic. I have a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature and I use the tools I got from academia every day in my teaching and writing about Torah texts, but I am no longer an academic.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home and community. My father loved Torah, and I grew to love it, too. I was inspired by a middle school Ḥumash teacher who stood on the desk and shouted out Rashis in Sefer Bamidbar and by high school Ḥumash and Gemara teachers for whom teaching Torah was a matter of the heart and soul as well as of the mind. I remember the feeling of connection more than the content itself. The learning was infused with a sense of higher calling; it was an avodah, a form of divine worship and service. My year at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem intensified this sense of soulful connection to Torah.
My parents were both academics (in psychology) and each of their three children chose an academic route, too. Because my passion was Torah, I majored in religion in college and then continued with the doctorate.
I spent eleven years getting my doctorate and another two turning the dissertation into a book. In the meantime, I got married and had three children. We lived in a small, warm community in Albany, New York, where I often taught Torah.

Return to my Heart

What I figured out during those years of early child-rearing and living in Albany while finishing my dissertation was that I needed to return to my heart. Academia had taught me many things: literary tools such as form and structural analysis, a sense of the historical context of any text, the richness of very deep analysis of a single passage, and, above all, rigor and honesty without any intellectual boundaries in pursuit of truth.
But there was something missing. I wrote my dissertation about the move in amoraic midrash from the purely exegetical commentary of the tannaim (early rabbinic sages) to the more popular and soulful aggadic homiletical midrash—and the move I was describing was unconsciously my own. It was not just the amoraim (rabbinic sages who followed the tannaim) who wanted out of the closed intellectual elite mindset; it was I, as well.
I wanted more heart; I wanted more soul. I wanted to be allowed to say not just what the text meant at the time it was written in a distant, objective way, but what the text means to me today—how it inspires me and speaks to me, what it has to tell all of us about how to live and think and be a religious person. I wanted to be able to think and talk about God, to view this study as a religious endeavor, part of an unfolding relationship with and service of God.
And I wanted to be part of an ongoing dialogue with the generations of Jews who had studied before me. What I wanted, what I still want, is not just to study Torah, but to make Torah, or more—to become Torah, to become part of the process, to be embedded not in my own historical moment or the historical moment of the text, but in some out-of-time eternal moment of intergenerational study, a mystical place that disappears when you approach the text with academic distance.
I want to be able to lose myself in Torah, to lose my ego, to become part of something larger than myself, a member of a community, a piece of a puzzle. I know there is collaboration in academia, but I found that there was also a sense of competition and self-promotion, the need to constantly be original, to say something novel that no one has thought of before, to be the smartest one in the room.
We all know that this competitiveness is not absent from the religious world. Here, too, there is ego and there is a prizing of the intellect and of the clever ḥiddush or insight. But there is also a reaching for purity and a humble sense of divine service and mission, of being a link in a larger chain of transmission.

The Why of Torah Study

It feels essential to learn and teach Torah in such a consciously religious framework. That is what we are doing when we recite birkhot haTorah each day. We are reminding ourselves of the why of Torah study. The why is everything here. The why is not to be smart or show off or achieve anything. The why is simply to be involved in Torah for its own sake; it is our sacred divine mission on earth; we serve God and Torah, not ourselves.
I find that this attitude has helped to shape and change my teaching style. For me, the project is always a communal project. I don’t own the Torah. It is a relief, in a way. Unlike in academia, where I have to prove my expertise and added cleverness, in Torah study, I can simply be a conduit for opening others up to the beauty of the Torah. My focus moves away from myself and out toward my students and the Torah text we are studying. The culture I want to create in a group is one that does not prize smartness so much as honest and authentic encounter and connection—both with the text and with each other.
I have been drawn to the hasidic idea that each person has a special piece of Torah inside her, one that only she can uncover. What this means for me as a teacher is that my role is not so much to show my own Torah—except as a model—but to help my students uncover theirs. And as each person discovers her own Torah voice, there is also a beautiful flowering of a joint project that takes place. We each have a contribution to make to the larger eternal Torah project; we build on each other and grow through each other and are woven together through the threads of our communal Torah study.
I do not regret my academic study. Above all, being an academic has opened me up and enlarged my sense of what Torah is. The whole world is Torah. Every tool can be brought back in to the service of God and Torah—more recently, I have found myself drawn to the study of mindfulness, psychotherapy, and mysticism, and all of it opens my eyes to see new facets, new angles, new truths already in the Torah, but previously hidden to me. Hafakh bah vehafakh bah dekula bah: Keep turning it and turning it, for everything is contained in the Torah. I discover again and again that ein od milvado—there is nothing in the world that is outside of God; it is all God.
May we merit to raise children and students and grandchildren and grandstudents who continue to be links in the chain, to learn Torah for its own sake, and to experience the full breadth of the Torah’s wisdom.

Rachel Anisfeld holds a B.A. in religion from Princeton and a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Her book, Sustain Me with Raisin Cakes: Pesikta deRav Kahana and the Popularization of Rabbinic Midrash, was published by Brill in 2009. She currently lives in Atlanta, where she teaches Gemara at Atlanta Jewish Academy High School as well as adult education classes at Congregation Ohr HaTorah. She also writes a blog titled “Parsha Thoughts and More.”


I want to be able to lose myself in Torah, to lose my ego, to become part of something larger than myself.

It feels essential to learn and teach Torah in such a consciously religious framework.

Unlike in academia, where I have to prove my expertise and added cleverness, in Torah study, I can simply be a conduit for opening others up to the beauty of the Torah.

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