The Spiral of Jewish Learning
The Spiral of Jewish Learning by Natan Margalit
As we come to the end of the school year, it is traditional to reflect on one of the central values in Judaism: learning. I want to start with a quotation from Mary Catherine Bateson, a wonderful scholar and writer in her own right and also the daughter of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead and of one of my intellectual heroes, the anthropologist/philosopher Gregory Bateson. Ms. Bateson writes:
. . .Planning for the classroom, we sometimes present learning in linear sequences, which may be part of what makes classroom learning onerous: this concept must precede that, must be fully grasped before the next is presented.
Learning outside the classroom is not like that. Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications.
Peripheral Visions, p. 30
Her words remind me of the way that Jews have traditionally marked the ending of a unit of study, say the completion of a tractate of the Talmud, such as Tractate Shabbat. There is a ceremony called a siyyum in which the person completing the study will gather with friends and give a short teaching, summarizing some aspect of the book. There is, of course, food and singing and a special blessing is said. The essence of that blessing says, “hadran eilekha masechet shabbat.” “We will return to you, Tractate Shabbat.”
I love this firstly because it is personal: we are speaking to the book as we would speak to a person. We’ve formed a relationship with the learning. But even more so because we end our study by not ending it! We end our study saying, in essence, “I can never get enough of you, Tractate Shabbat, I need to move on now because I’ve completed studying you this time around, and there are other books to get to, other topics to study, but don’t worry, I’ll return to you, I can’t stay away!”
In Jewish learning we work in cycles, going over the same Torah readings year after year. They don’t get stale because we are constantly changing. And so each year we see them with new eyes. They are like old friends that we check in with every year. Their sameness is a backdrop for allowing us to measure how we’ve changed and grown.
As Bateson notes, in real life we don’t get everything in neat orderly lessons. When my kids were toddlers they would play in the mud in the springtime as my wife and I planted the garden. They would notice what we were doing out of the corner of their eyes and take it in. Now that they are a little bigger they still play in the mud, but they also have learned to help hoe the soil and plant the seeds. Next year maybe they will help plan the rows. As springtime comes around each year we circle back, gather all the memories from previous years and add on new knowledge, new understanding.
So it is with the torah. It is an eitz chayyim, Tree of Life, and as a tree grows creating new rings marking another year of growth, so our living knowledge of torah grows in natural cycles. It greets us with that delicate balance of constancy and change, tradition and innovation which makes it strong and also flexible.
The Torah, and Jewish life as a whole, follows a spiral pattern, circling around to the same seasons, holidays, stories, but always moving forward and upward, so that we come back to familiar landmarks but we don’t simply walk in circles, we climb upward toward our goal.
And what is the goal? In Jewish mythological language it is to come back to the Garden (of Eden); to come back to that world of harmony and plenty, joy and equality that we imagine as our beginning. But this time around we want to create our garden with our own hands, fully conscious of all that all that we have been though and all that we have learned along the way. We don’t know when we’ll ever get to that goal, but as long as we continue learning and growing the journey is a blessed one.