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Faith & Values

“So you’re a rabbi … ” many people say when they meet me. “I’m into religion, too. Actually, I like to study all religions. They all have truths to teach, and limiting myself to one of them would be far too restrictive.”

The sentiment, usually meant to show open-minded pluralism, is, I’m afraid, simply wrong. Yes, of course, all religions have truths to teach. But studying only one of them doesn’t restrict you, it expands you.

As proof, I point to Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776). Emden lived in Altona, Germany, and was counted among the giants of 18th-century Jewish scholarship. A severe and dour man, he wasn’t great in the people-skills department, but what Emden lacked in charm he more than made up for in intellect. Still today, scholars study his rabbinic rulings, praise his critical skills, and respect his fierce devotion to traditional Judaism.

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In the early 1750s, Emden and his family spent a few years in Amsterdam — a cosmopolitan, vibrant city where he was inevitably exposed not only to Jewish books, but also to secular literature. It captivated him. Soon, Emden found himself yearning to learn about topics he’d hardly heard of when he was younger — geology, biology, history, medicine, European languages and many more.

The problem, however, was that for an Orthodox Jew, reading such non-Rabbinic works was forbidden — a frivolous distraction, many felt, from the far-more-sacred work of Torah study. Emden wasn’t about to break that prohibition, but still he wanted to learn.

Finally, he figured out a way to do it. In an autobiography he wrote many years later, Emden confessed that, yes, he did study secular literature during this time, but he only did so “in a place where it was forbidden to think about words of Torah.”

His Orthodox Jewish readers knew exactly what he meant: Jacob Emden studied secular literature in one place and one place only — the restroom.

Imagine what life must have been like in the Emden home.

“Daaaaaad, hurry up in there!”

“I’ll be right out,” he says, glancing at his geology book and muttering something about slow tectonic movement.

“Jacob, did you fall in?”

He stops reading about astronomy and says, “No, dear, I’m fine. Just trying to understand these asteroids. … ”

OK, so maybe I’m being anachronistic. The point is that Jacob Emden was both deeply Jewish and profoundly well-read — an intellectual renaissance man if there was one.

Let’s also remember that Emden didn’t start by studying everything. He started by studying one thing — Judaism. In doing so, Emden found the wisdom and insight he needed to craft his perspectives and world views. Only after many years of such study did he enter his “library” and delve into other fields.

Jacob Emden’s longtime focus on Jewish learning didn’t narrow his mind, but broadened it. Studying a single tradition provided him with the mental structure and intellectual acuity that later inspired and enabled his secular learning. Without his Jewish grounding, Emden would have been unlikely to turn to other fields, and, even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have understood them nearly as well. The story of Jacob Emden is one of a narrow intellectual stem blossoming into a wide flower of learning.

So, if you want to study all religions, I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you: You can’t. You don’t have time. Or maybe you do have time, but you don’t have time to do it well. Good religions, you see, get really complicated, and understanding their truths takes great focus.

To really be “into religion” you need to be into a religion. Pick one. Stick with it. Study deeply. And see where it takes you. If what happens to you is anything like what happened to Jacob Emden, your study-place, however humble, will launch you to towering heights, affording magnificent views of the vast, shimmering world that is home to all humanity.

Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on

Bainbridge Island and Congregation

Kol Ami in Woodinville.

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