Overcoming Learning Paralysis

Learning. We all, like Tevye in that scene in Fiddler on the Roof, romanticize the possibility of becoming learned, of engaging in some regular, daily bliss of study.

Why do so few succeed?

The Paralysis of Too Many Choices
Being in this class with MJTI, a summer intensive in L.A., I am reminded that Jewish learning (the same can be said of Christian learning) is a matter of choosing specific priorities from among an astronomical field of subjects.

Think of the Bible, for starters. It has only a certain number of pages, but the depth and complexity is overwhelming. It is misleading to see the relatively few words of the Bible. Perhaps you could get a better image of the colossal amount of information in the Bible by going to a university library and seeing the shelves of reference and commentary on it.

Why not just start on one end of this massive collection of commentary and read twenty pages a day until you are done? You will finish somewhere in the lifetime of your great grandchildren!

And consider that many of us want to learn not only Bible, but history, theology, ethics, archaeology, and more. Draw from the Christian and Jewish traditions and you get even more: Talmud, midrash, halacha, sages, creeds, councils, church fathers, and on and on.

Just a note worth making: Orthodox Judaism has developed a priority of Talmud study. But it appears that Messianic Judaism, while not neglecting Talmud in the future, may go a different route, emphasizing midrash study. (I’ll blog more about this later).

The point is, with so much to learn, we hardly know where to begin.

The Paralysis of Too Little Time
Granted our lack of time, we wonder if learning is even worthwhile. I am one of the fortunate ones who can devote forty hours a week to study. Many people are fortunate of they can find a quarter hour a day.

When you consider the galaxy of material and your oh-so-slow spacecraft, exploration seems impossible.

The Paralysis of Controversy
As if all this weren’t hard enough, there is galactic warfare going on. If we read a Christian work, does it matter if they are Reformed, Wesleyan, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox? Can that liberal Jewish philosopher be worthwhile or only a medieval commentator?

What is the possibility of getting well-rounded material in the midst of the shooting, dog-fights, and differing battle strategies that surround us?

Pointers Along the Way

–Small revelations are worthwhile, so if you don’t have time to learn it all, just be engaged and you will see the stars from many angles even if you don’t chart the galaxy completely.

–Choose important subjects. For Messianic Jews (and I think Christians would do well here also), my opinion is that the Pentateuch and the four gospels are primary. They are foundational. Judaism has a reading cycle for the Pentateuch. The gospels and Acts can be read (these are five books, just like the Pentateuch) alongside the Torah.

–Don’t be paralyzed. A little work is better than no work.

–Get yourself teachers. Find good referrals for books, instructional materials, and helps. I have made recommendations here in the past under the category of education (you can search by categories on the right side of this blog page).

–Be part of a community that studies. If possible, don’t invest your time too heavily in a community that places no value on it.

–Find yourself partners, people to discuss with, and so on. Don’t overlook your own immediate family members.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Education, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Overcoming Learning Paralysis

  1. “But it appears that Messianic Judaism, while not neglecting Talmud in the future, may go a different route, emphasizing midrash study.”

    That’s an interesting observation. I hadn’t really thought in those terms, but it is true that Messianics in general (myself included) are far more interested in apologetics than law. Part of that stems from the example of our Galilean Emissaries. Part of it is simply that we are generally unplugged from nominal religious Jewish life, where legal issues become more important. And that’s unfortunate, since it keeps us from being a light within the community.

    I’d like to add to your list of recommendations:

    – Embrace modern technology. While one should not cease reading whole books in context, study software that enables one to very quickly look up resources to understand difficult passages of Scripture can be a lifesaver for those of us pressed for time.


  2. PraetorDrew says:

    Learning is something that Orthodox Judaism does a lot better than Evangelicalism.

    I am very thankful for that year I spent learning in an ultra-orthodox kollel. It teaches the study habits that have made our people a real intellectual powerhouse.

    I hope that one day that we could see the rise of Messianic kollelim.

  3. Derek,
    I totally agree with you that the first priority should be on studying the Torah and the four gospels. I was amazed to learn a while back, in one of our many conversations, that I had already come to the same conclusion when you first mentioned it. Too many believers, especially Christians, place way too much emphasis on Paul, many times interpreting his writings as if they were more authoritative than the words of Yeshua. My recommendation to new and young believers is that they not read any of Paul’s letters until after getting a firm grounding in Torah, the gospels, and the Book of Acts. Otherwise, they’ll fall in to the trap of gaing the wrong understanding of his writings, then reading the Torah through the prism of their interpretation of Paul. Instead, they should be reading Paul only after they have a clear understanding of the topic he frequently addresses, i.e., the Torah.

    Another suggestion for people is to turn off the TV. If we are to prove to be Yeshua’s disciples (John 15:8) then we must not be caught up with the cares of this world, the pleasures of life (Luke 8:14), and self-indulgence (Matt 23:25). Instead we must devote ourselves to a life of good deeds (John 5:29). In order to be full of good deeds, we must study at the Master’s feet in order to become like him (Matt 10:25).

    I also like your comment about the MJTI possibly placing an emphasis on Midrash over Talmud. This makes sense given that Yeshua’s method of teaching was far more akin to Midrash than Talmud.

    Davar tov!

    -David Cook

    • “Another suggestion for people is to turn off the TV.”

      Amen. Ditto internet distractions like Youtube, Facebook, etc. I know I’ve been guilty of starting with looking at a news clip or solid teaching on Youtube and then wasting an hour looking at amusing irrelevancies.


    • Gene Shlomovich says:

      “I also like your comment about the MJTI possibly placing an emphasis on Midrash over Talmud. This makes sense given that Yeshua’s method of teaching was far more akin to Midrash than Talmud.”

      Talmud and midrash serve very different purposes, so one shouldn’t be emphasized over the other within MJ (which I believe would do well sticking to the traditional Jewish pattern of study – and both Talmud and Midrash are traditional/rabbinic Jewish concepts). They are merely different tools in the arsenal. The former highlights discussions of our sages over Jewish ethics, laws, history, philosophy, interpretations of various verse and prophecies – in fact, the study of Talmud through the centuries played an integral role in preservation and cohesiveness of Jews as covenant people (which is why Talmud was so frequently targeted for confiscation and burnings). Midrash, on the other hand, fills in the gaps in the biblical record or teaches moral and philosophical concepts through parables (often quite fanciful).

  4. Gene:

    Not midrash to the exclusion of Talmud, but midrash in higher emphasis than in Orthodoxy.

    And midrash is to some degree hit or miss, it is playful eisegesis, but a lot of it is profound.


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