Michael Jinkins: The sacrament of study

Christians can learn from Jews the "sacrament of study."

A couple of weeks ago a rare event occurred in Judaism, a holiday that comes round only once in twenty eight years, Birchat HaChammah, the blessing of the sun. Samuel Freedman, in his weekly New York Times column on religion, explained that the holiday observes the day when, according to rabbinical tradition, “the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it.” What grabbed my attention was not the holiday itself, however. It was something Rabbi J. David Bleich, an expert on the holiday, said about his research into its origins and history. “You’ve got to understand that the closest thing the Jews have to a sacrament is study.”

Rabbi Bleich’s statement leapt out for me because it coincides with something professors on our faculty have been saying for years. The way they put it, the classroom is “sacred space,” where we are drawn deeper into the life of God through the exercise of our minds.

Of course, it’s not just the classroom that’s sacred space for the student. At the end of my son’s first year at Princeton Theological Seminary, he took me to the spot on seminary campus that had become for him the most sacred space, a particular nook in the library where he goes to study, to read and reflect, conscious that as he does this he is connecting to the cloud of witnesses of our faith, from Augustine to Serene Jones.

Some of the most extraordinary events I remember from my years as a pastor were related to life-transforming moments when church members came to a new understanding of God that re-oriented their whole lives. Whether or not the study of the Bible and the study of our faith are a sacrament for Christians is, of course, debatable. But study is a means of grace – not unlike prayer – expressing the reality that the love of God, which must involve our hearts, souls, and bodies, is never complete until it engages our minds.

Perhaps it should not surprise us as Christians, that study is so crucial to discipleship, not if we remember that the pioneer and finisher of our faith was, himself, a rabbi, and not if we recall that the core meaning of “disciple” is “willing learner.”

Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary