Study as Worship

According to the rabbis (i) one of God’s first creations was the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), (ii) God studies Torah for three hours every day (hmmm, in “God Years” (I’m not dyslexic) that’s … about … 125 years every day) and (iii) out of respect, whenever God reads Torah, he stands. On this brief detour from the Historical Jesus, I want to suggest study as a form of divine imitation, a form of worship.

I first stumbled onto this concept while reading Jacob Neusner’s book, The Glory of God is Intelligence, a collection of lectures he once gave while visiting BYU. The idea thrilled me–I had an instant testimony of its truthfulness. I was especially struck by the following statements.

[Judaism and Mormonism share] the conviction that religion thrives through the use of the mind and the intellect. Skepticism and critical thinking are friends, not enemies, of religion…. [The] study of … Torah outweighs all else … [because] human being[s were] made to study Torah… (p. 1)

From the late 50s through the early 80s, Neusner may have been nearly correct here about Mormons. I’m not so sure nowadays. I was reared during this wonderful time, the “Camelot” of the Arrington-led New Mormon history, the time when Lowell Bennion authored church manuals that bore his name, the time when Hugh Nibley personified a theology of study.

The rabbis of the Talmud believe that they study Torah as God does in heaven; their schools–they maintain–are conducted like the academy on high…. [S]tudying Torah is not merely imitating God, who does the same, but is a way to the apprehension of God and the attainment of the sacred. (p. 7).

For the last 27 years religious study has been my worship, my liturgy, my ritual. I can do it anywhere. Sometimes I do it right in the middle of church. When I read the most challenging texts I feel the Divine presence. While in this mode of being, I’m not afraid to ask questions about my beliefs. Like Abraham, I feel confident I can engage God in a probing discussion and even push my luck sometimes, knowing, as James says, God will not “upbraid” me when I do so, just as I welcome questions from my own children (unless it’s the “why” thrown in after every explanation just to drive me crazy). And the best answers I receive are … more questions. I exercise faith that the rabbis are right. I hope heaven is an academy, a really good Gospel Doctrine class, a Sunstone symposium where God is the speaker at the first plenary session (with a long Q&A period afterwards). I believe He will even enjoy the presentations of His children.

Comments

  1. Ever since reading The Chosen (Chaim Potok) I’ve always had this romanticized notion of rigorous scripture study. I’ve been repeatedly disappointed not finding this ideal met in institue or BYU religion classes, but that’s probably a good thing in that it’s kept me continually striving for such an ideal (my latest efforts have been at the FeastUponTheWord wiki). I believe we’re living at an exciting time when the first inklings of Mormonism’s own Talmudic-like exegetical beginnings are just beginning to show promise….

  2. The problem with this premise is Jesus’ own attacks on the religious scholarly elite of the time:

    John 7:17
    14 Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. 15 And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned? 16 Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. 17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or [whether] I speak of myself.

    The Pharisees studied Torah an awful lot, and completely missed the entire point of the Torah, because they failed to do the will of God. It is only through doing the will of the Father that one can truly come to an undertanding of the meaning of Torah and come to know the nature of the Father, as Jesus did, who completely submitted himself to the will of the Father.

    Studying the Scriptures is important, I would never say that it wasnt, but more important is living and doing what they teach.

  3. Extreme Dorito makes an excellent point and yet Ronan’s original premise should certainly not be dismissed. I, on the other hand, am guilty of trying to be open minded and intellectual about my religion without doing the hard work of studying the vast collection of writing by so many who have taken the time and put forth the effort to critically and carefully consider the scriptures and the prophetic teachings of the past. As “ED” states, the ulimate expression of our faith and worship is putting those principals to work in our lives. But it behooves all of us to consider the words and thoughts found in the scriptures and the thoughtful examination of those words by the critical thinkers of our time. As Ronan illustrates, that course represents true worship.

  4. ED wrote:

    “Studying the Scriptures is important, I would never say that it wasnt, but more important is living and doing what they teach.”

    How can you know what they teach unless you study them?

    Also, I’m not advocating not living by the principles in scripture.

  5. Lamonte,
    I think you mean “Ed,” although I am more than happy to claim credit for his excellent writing.

  6. Lamonte & Ed Snow,

    What Jesus was clearly arguing against was the type of religious intellectual elitism the Pharisees of the time represented. Herod had the local Sanhedrin slaughtered and replaced with imports who owed their position of religious and political power to him, so they were a very self-interested lot. The hostility between themselves and Jesus was frequently couched in terms of literacy in the Torah. Jesus clearly stomped their trash on numerous occasions, but he did so not in the arena of Torah literacy/exegesis, but in the arena of Torah truth and practice. Those Pharisees were very literate in the Torah, but they were gross hypocrites when it came to practice. Studying the Law without practicing the Law will get you nothing.

    Of course you have to study Torah, I study it plenty, but more important is whether I practice what the Torah teaches. If I do not, then all my learning will land me in the same boat as the Pharisees.

    Also, the amount you need to study the Torah in order to have a godly walk is minimal, but the conviction is great. It is not necessary to get a degree in theology to have a godly walk.

  7. Ronan and Ed – sorry for the mix-up. Please attribute it to the early Monday morning syndrome.

    Extreme Dorito – you state “…more important is whether I practice what the Torah teaches.” I certainly agree with what you say but I also think that “what the Torah teaches”, of course speaking metaphorically for all scripture, is sometimes left to our intepretation. Reading the opinions of other scholars of the work might help us better understand those things and ultimately might help us live those teachings better.

  8. Sure, Lamonte, and it might also lead us astray. History is littered with examples of terrible exegesis and self-promoting parochial interpretations. Jesus indicates the sure way to know the truth of any doctrine is to do the Father’s will. Easier said than done.

    Im not coming from a anti-study POV here guys. Im definitely pro-study. But, Im even more pro praxis.

  9. A fascinating post, Ed. I too have found that scripture study can be profoundly devotional. I can definitely see the danger Extreme Dorito points to–scripture study can become a merely intellectual exercise–but I think that ideally the scriptures ask us as many hard questions about our lives as we ask them about their meanings. Scripture study often prompts me to repent. In that sense, it’s part of, even essential to, my daily walk and praxis.

    (Extreme Dorito, I love your name. It’s making me want to rename myself “Extreme Cheeto.”)

  10. I like the give and take here. Let me clarify something.

    This is a personal statement about study as worship. While I believe it is very important to me and I suggest it to others (even the D&C says you must study things out in your mind first as a prerequisite to revelation) I’m not saying you have to have a PhD in theology to be religious. God’s spirit is clearly available to all, learned and ignorant.

    Later when I post more about the Historical Jesus, I’ll note several things that strike me about him and his message that relate to this–here’s a preview.

    The NT reports that Jesus read Torah in the synagogue and interpreted it. He also used the Hebrew scriptures in very creative ways in his teaching. He also seems to have known the teachings of other contemporary rabbis (such as Hillel). He was very informed and a student of the scriptures, even if he wasn’t a part of any school or movement.

    Also, he was apparently not interested in writing anything, which is puzzling at first. But when you look at this phenomenon, you realize early Christians weren’t that interested in writings either until after the original disciples died. There was an attempt to save their oral proclamations–the gospels appear to have been written from early oral/preaching materials. The early letters were written merely as ways of communicating/preaching over distance.

    Paul was not a systematic theologian–he approached congregational issues on an ad hoc basis by occasional letters. But he was a student of Torah–no doubt there.

    These oral proclamations were the earliest gospel. Literacy was apparently low among early converts. Those who had ears to hear (quite literally) were converted.

  11. I think Joseph Smith is a great example of this. Here is someone who “translated” the Old Testament, but then goies on to study Hebrew and make it an obligation for others in leadership. School of the Prophets indeed! I don’t know that you can overestimate the ramifications of that.

  12. I think the debate here is just an example of making things compete with one another that don’t have to. Study and action aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, study is action if you feel that it’s bringing you closer to God.

    I agree, Dorito, with your argument that excessive intellectualizing can lead to some negative implications. However, I don’t see that ignorance has some special spiritual status either.

    In a nutshell: why choose between being educated and conscientious? I don’t consider myself a gospel scholar by any means, but I don’t think becoming one would stop me from doing good things.

  13. Extreme Dorito, the portrayal of Pharisees in the New Testament is almost entirely incorrect. Either the writers of the gospels simply had no idea what the Pharisees taught and practiced, or they were purposefully trying to smear the Jews. I tend to think that there is good reason to think that early Christians were smearing the Jews for political reasons; specifically, to distance Christianity from Judaism in the interest of avoiding the persecution that Jews had become subject to at the hands of the Romans. (For all the lip-service that Paul pays to being persecuted in Christ’s name, Christians have generally remained reluctant martyrs.)

    Ed, I like your idea of study as worship. I think that the critics here misunderstand the purpose of scripture study. Many Mormons seem to think that we study the scriptures to find out what God wants us to do and to learn what his commandments are. We see this manifest in the dispute between whether the scriptures are a “Liahona” or an “Iron Rod.” This dispute strikes me as categorically mistaken about the nature and purpose of the scriptures.

    Among the best ways to learn about God is to study his relationship with mankind in general and with his people specifically. Everything in the Scriptures is predicated upon this relationship. For example, contrary to popular opinion, the recitation of the Ten Commandments does not begin “You shall have no other gods before me.” The recitation of the Ten Commandments begins with God saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This relationship between God and his people is always prior to and more important than his commandments to them.

  14. D-Train, I dont see any real debate occuring at all, as nobody is really disagreeing with anyone else. Nobody is heralding ignorance as desirable.

    David, give it a rest. There were two groups of pharisees, the locals and the ones imported by Herod. The imported group was the one most at conflict with Jesus and ultimately had him executed by the Romans, not the local pharisees. Trying to impute bais onto the Gospel authors by presenting them as ignorant of the customs local pharisees is unfair and dishonest, take Jairus for example. The gospel writers are mainly writing about the imported pharisees and those who aligned themselves with them, and not the local pharisees whom you seek to differentiate. You are grasping at straws.

  15. Extreme Dorito, grasping at straws, eh? My statement concerning the portrayal of Pharisees in the New Testament reflect a reasonably commen point of view.

    You seem to have your Jewish history mixed up. It was the Saducees that were the dupes of the Roman overseers, not the Pharisees. Moreover, Herod Antipas was a pragmatist, to be sure, but he was (at least outwardly) a reasonably faithful Jew. The New Testament authors give him short shrift, and he is often confused with his father, Herod the Great, who was not even outwardly a faithful Jew.

    It’s odd that you impute dishonesty and unfairness to me. I state that “the portrayal of Pharisees in the New Testament is almost entirely incorrect” (emphasis added). You offer an example of a sympathetically portrayed Pharisee, which would only be relevant to a claim that the portrayal is entirely incorrect. There is also Gamaliel in Acts, who does represent what seems to be a fairly accurate portrayal of the outlook and disposition of actual Pharisees. (Specifically, that they were generally messianic, but they took a wait-and-see attitude toward individual messianic claims.)

    In fact, it is portrayals like Jairus or Gamaliel that lead me to believe that the authors were not ignorant of the customs of the Pharisees, but grinding their political axe. There are, of course, other compelling reasons to believe that the authors of the gospel were generally ignorant of the 1st century Israel, this just isn’t one of them.

  16. Dave, “reasonably commen point of view” among whom? All of the authors you have read whom you agree with?

    I made reference to Herod, not his son Herod Antipas, who had the local Sanhedrin slaughtered and replaced by imports. I realize you have to obfustcate in order to make your point, but do try to keep on topic, David. These imported pharisees were not allied with the locals, the locals largely held them in contempt, recognizing them for what they were.

    The sadducees werent dupes, they were in the minority and allied with the Romans in order to curry political standing which they wouldnt otherwise have had, like the Herodians.

    And nice effort there on mincing your words so as to backpedal your claim. Good work, keep it up. I realize you have been out of practice since you havent been online much, but you still have that special touch.

    And these early Christians who were smearing the Jews, which early Christians were they? The non-Jewish ones or the Jewish ones? And how “early” are we talking here? Do tell. I’d rather pin you down to some specifics now, rather than have you wheedle and obfuscate your way out of what you are saying by saying you arent really saying it, which is pretty much what you have already started doing.

  17. Extreme Dorito: ROTFLMAO. Are you for real?

    No back pedaling here–just identifying that you’re using a straw man to give the appearance that you’re protecting your position.

    Your history is just plain wrong on Herod I, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were a minority because they were chiefly wealthy, apostatized Jews who desired status quo with the occupying powers to protect their self interest. The Pharisees were more democratic and less conciliatory towards the occupying powers. What’s your source on these fake Pharisees that Herod supposedly brought in to serve on the Sanhedrin, and how did they manage to fool the real Pharisees into believing that they represented their position?

    And just to be clear, since you don’t seem to be able to infer this from my earlier comment:

    The early Christians that I’m accusing of smearing the Jews are (drum roll please): The authors of the gospels.

    As far as whether they were Jewish or not, I don’t know the answer. I don’t believe that the traditionally purported authors are the actual authors. But even if they are, whether they were born as Jews is a separate question of whether they felt the need to distinguish themselves from other, rabbinical Jews when the Romans came looking for them.

  18. David, are you delusional?

    The source is Josephus, here is a relevant quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

    In 47, however, the appointment of Hyrcanus II as Ethnarch of the Jews resulted in the restoring of the Sanhedrin’s authority all over the land. One of the first acts of the now all-powerful assembly was to pass judgment upon Herod, the son of Antipater, accused of cruelty in his government (“Antiq.”, XI, ix, 4). The revengeful prince was not likely to forget this insult. No sooner, indeed, had he established his power at Jerusalem (37 B. C.), than forty-five of his former judges, more or less connected with the party of Antigonus, were put to death (“Antiq.”, XV, i, 2). The Sanhedrin itself, however, Herod allowed to continue; but this new Sanhedrin, filled with his creatures, was henceforth utilized as a mere tool at his beck (as for instance in the case of the aged Hyrcanus).

    Available here:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13444a.htm

    I never said the local pharisees accepted them, in fact, I stated precisely the opposite above.

    Still rolling on the floor laughing, DKL?

  19. Still laughing.

    You’re referring to an actions taken before Jesus’s birth by a monarch who died more than 35 years before Jesus’s Ministry. The actions also led to revolts following Herod’s death that upset much of what he had done and resulted in the Romans dividing his kingdom 4 ways. Nor was the Sanhedrin viewed as the authoritative Jewish body during this period.

    Second, the remade Sanhedrin largely excluded the Pharisees. Herod brought in the family of Boethus to represent the Sadducees and do his bidding, making official the Sadducees’ previously unofficial status as dupes of the occupying powers. These represent the most part of the “creatures” to which your entry so vaguely refers. At any rate, Herod brough to an end the rise of Pharisiac power in the Sanhedrin. He didn’t replace them with “new” Pharisees.

    Third, if history is any indication, then one should be leery about anything that Catholics have to say about the Jews.

  20. #14

    “Extreme Dorito, grasping at straws.”

    That’s what I’m going to name my next band. Or perhaps our debut record. (My wife started reading at comment #14, reread the first sentence about three times, turned to me, and said “huh?”).

    #16

    “Extreme Dorito. . . Are you for real?”

    You’re five comments in to a discussion with a tortilla chip — and not just any tortilla chip, either, but a particularly radicalized one — and you think that now is the time for a veracity check? Horse, barn door, etc., etc.

    #17

    “David, are you delusional?”

    You ask this of a man whose idea of a good time is posing as a deceased conductor or an X-box-selling mother of two? Once again: Horse, barn door, etc., etc.

  21. The rabbis would be proud of us. The give and take here is all a part of my worship, although my preference is to keep things less personal.

    In a future post I guess I’ll have to venture into this tricky topic of the Pharisees and other Jewish groups at the time of Jesus and how the NT probably paints them in a way similar to how it strikes me that early Mormons painted Missourians after the Boggs’ order. There are significant issues here, including the extent to which classical Judaism was a direct descendant of Pharisaism, or just its cousin, or perhaps neither.

    One of the cruelest twists of history has to be that “Pharisee” is today synonymous with “hypocrite,” whereas many Pharisaic teachers held views similar to Jesus’ views. There’s quite a bit of evidence that Jesus was sympathetic to Hillel’s teachings, for instance. More on this later.

  22. David, you are laughing at a figment of your imagination, one that serves only your own ego. I will comment further on that below, with respect to your motives for attacking me.

    I gave you the Catholic Encyclopedia quote only to provide the source references to Josephus which you yourself requested, then you have the nerve to insult the source as anti-semitic, when that has absolutely no bearing to the conversation at all, as though the Josephus citations were somehow made illegitimate by being used in a Catholic Encyclopedia. I realize that running off on tangents is one of your standard operating procedures, but do try to remain on topic.

    I am well aware Herod’s death coincided with the execution of the children under the age of 3 which was supposed to net the Messiah, and didn’t. Thanks for pointing that out though. And, the refresher on the history of the Sanhedrin was equally appreciated, although entirely biased in presentation, so as to favor your point of view. You make it sound like the sadduccees take over the Sanhedrin permanently, that is not the case, but, naturally, you make it appear that way so as to attack me, so you can prove you are right and I am wrong. Selective presentation of details aside, the Sanhedrin was originally co-opted by Herod when he had the originals slaughtered and replaced with imports who were subservient to him, and nothing substantive changed from that point on through the ministry of Christ and the apostles. People changed, but not the subservience of the sanhedrin to the romans.

    David, it is quite clear that the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ was composed of both sadducees (cf. Acts 5:17) and pharisees (cf. Acts 23:6-7), and that the Sadducees did NOT dominate or control it, despite having the high priest and his father in their party. It is also quite clear that the rest of the pharisees outside of the sanhedrin had little respect for or anything much to do with them, owing to the connections to the Romans, and they exercised considerable authority that the sadducees and sanhedrin had to respect (cf. John 7:32). So, your attempt to discredit my statement with your selective presentation of facts fails.

    Even if you wave your hand at all of the gospel references to the “pharisees” and demand they are all glosses by axe-grinding “early christians”, then you still cannot undo what Acts 23 says without insisting the entire chapter is a complete work of fiction, because there is no way you can pit two religious parties within the Sanhedrin against each other when they arent there, as you suggest. Are you so eager to fault the “early christians” that you will go so far as the insist Acts 23 is an entire work of fiction? I hope not. And, when it comes to the history, something tells me, call it a hunch, that the “early christian” authors you discount had a better and more accurate and less biased perception and presentation of the history than you do.

    So, David, lets cut through the bull, shall we? You say above “This relationship between God and his people is always prior to and more important than his commandments to them”. How is it “more important”? The only way to have a constructive relationship with God is to keep the commandments. Period. Take a look at Lev. 26. Jesus taught very plainly that keeping the commandments was absolutely essential to know him and his father. David, you are stuck on the knowing, thinking it is more important than the doing. Its not. You have it backwards, and no amount of sophistry will change that.

  23. Extreme Dorito: David, you are stuck on the knowing, thinking it is more important than the doing.

    I get it now. Your reading of the scriptures is a sloppy as your reading of my post at LDSLF.

  24. And the best answers I receive are … more questions.

    Kind of like watching “Lost”

  25. David, that, or you still don’t understand how repentance works.

  26. Kaimi, #19. Classic :)

  27. Ed Snow: One of the cruelest twists of history has to be that “Pharisee” is today synonymous with “hypocrite,” whereas many Pharisaic teachers held views similar to Jesus’ views.

    I agree.

  28. Dorito,
    I’m still perplexed by your insistance on delineating so clearly between “knowing” and “doing”….

    A substantial portion of what we are told to “do” is to “know”; a substantial portion of what we are to “know” is to “do.” There is a tremendous overlap here — a thoroughly reciprocal and interdependent relationship.

    This whole silly cockfight started because you wanted to insist on the priority of “doing” over “knowing” — and this is a silly thing to insist upon. Like insisting on the priority of circulation over respiration, in making the body “live.”

    If I do without knowing, I’m not really doing. (I can’t get righteousness points for acting righteously on accident, can I? What kind of accountability would that be?) And if I know without doing, I don’t really know. (The kind of knowledge we’re after entails praxis — the kind of intimate, experiential knowledge that testimony is made of.)

    Study is, then, necessary to both “knowing” and “doing” (still speaking as though the two can be fully separated) — and is an integral part of worship.

    Thanks, Ed, for the post. I have always seen study this way, and enjoy hearing about others who share this view.

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