Have you ever asked someone for a piece of information, and their answer is, “What’s it worth to you?” It’s a flippant, provocative response. Sometimes – perhaps, most of the time, it’s meant to be funny and sarcastic. But sometimes it’s a real question. Sometimes the information being sought is, in fact, a tradable commodity. Perhaps it is delicate, potentially damaging evidence that gives an entry point into someone else’s secret life.
What is knowledge worth? And: what’s worth knowing? These questions are rhetorical. There is no way to assign value to knowledge. In a world where analytics is considered a crucial tool to measure worth and success, knowledge is itself, unquantifiable.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, wrote, “Judaism is a culture of knowledge, in which learning and teaching, cogitation and reflection, intellectual effort and theoretical pursuit, are esteemed and elevated to the highest ranks of its precepts.”
The most elevated form of learning in Jewish tradition is called “Torah lishmah.” The best standard translation is “Torah study for its own sake.” To open one’s heart and mind to the process of inquiry, to develop a sense of curiosity and exploration – these are considered genuinely praiseworthy.
Why is pursuing knowledge for its own sake, upheld with such reverence? Why does Judaism embrace the pursuit of the mind so unabashedly, so lovingly? Perhaps because it offers us an escape from the world of things. It asserts that there is more to life than rules and obligations. It tells us that there will always be a place where one can be free to learn and pursue beauty and truth. This doesn’t negate our obligations to the world; Torah lishmah is not about escaping to an ashram or retreating to a cave or a monastery. Our tradition declares that we have both endless obligations (mitzvot) and aspirational goals related to achieve. How often are we reminded that we must perform acts of social justice because we know what it was like to be enslaved?
But everything is not – cannot – be transactional. The life of the mind, the pursuit of learning for its own sake, is a sacred mission. The world of intellectual curiosity is infinite, an ever-expanding territory of knowledge.
Why study the origins of the Universe? Why does it matter when the Big Bang occurred? Why travel in space? Why explore the deepest depths of the ocean? Why study a page of the Talmud every day for seven years? Why read fiction? What’s it worth to you?
It’s all Torah lishmah. Don’t try to explain going to the moon by creating a narrative that we did it because we wanted to learn many things that would be useful on earth. Tang tastes good, but it wasn’t the motivation for a moon shot. Of course, there were military and technological innovations and applications that were by-products of the moon missions.
But truly, we did it because we could. Because we’ve wondered what that object in the sky was all about since our earliest ancestors stood on two feet and pointed at the sky. It’s Torah lishmah.
In 1943, Rabbi Leo Baeck was deported from Berlin to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. There he was put to hard physical labor on a garbage cart. Witnesses remembered watching him and another prisoner pushing the refuse on a wagon, all the while engaging in a discussion of Jewish tradition and philosophy. It’s Torah lishmah.
In pursuing the life of the mind, we extend ourselves beyond three dimensions. We engage in an infinite Universe of possibilities, of reflection and joy, of laughter and tears. It’s all there to taste, to engage. It’s Torah lishmah.