Monday, May 4, 2009

Drug Enhanced Torah-Study

I know a person who has a job sitting in an office at a desk, attending to customers. His office doesn't have a steady stream of customers - just a few a day. He's free to do whatever he wants the rest of the time. So he spends his days learning Torah.
As nice as that seems, it's not that easy to spend hours at a time learning. He sits there alone in his tiny office, all week long. If you haven't spent much time trying to focus and concentrate, you'd never undertstand how challenging it can be. How does he avoid this problem? He uses a little help: Ritalin. Not every day - and not that much. But the way he described it to me, on Ritalin he can concentrate better and for a longer period of time than when he doesn't take the pill. And if they give it to kids who can't sit still (which they do all the time), why shouldn't he use it to learn better?

For men, the obligation to learn Torah is all-encompassing. There's never a time when one is not required to study Torah. Even a cursory reading of Rambam's Laws of Torah Study gives us a sense of the scope of the obligation. I'll quote just a couple of choice sections.
כל איש מישראל, חייב בתלמוד תורה: בין עני בין עשיר, בין שלם בגופו בין בעל ייסורין, בין בחור בין שהיה זקן גדול שתשש כוחו, אפילו עני המחזר על הפתחים, ואפילו בעל אישה ובנים--חייב לקבוע לו זמן לתלמוד תורה ביום ובלילה, שנאמר "והגית בו יומם ולילה"
Every Jewish man is obligated in the study of Torah: be he poor or rich, healthy or suffering, young or old and weak, even a beggar making his daily rounds, even a husband and father - he is obligated to appoint time for Torah study in the day and night, as it is written, "And you shall engage [Torah] day and night." (1:8)
That sounds reasonable - set aside some time during the day and some time at night to learn.
עד אימתיי חייב אדם ללמוד תורה--עד יום מותו, שנאמר "ופן יסורו מלבבך, כל ימי חייך"
Until when is a person obligated to study Torah? Until the day of his death, as it is written, "Lest they stray from your hearts all the days of your lives." (1:10)
Again you're probably thinking: it still seems reasonable that God requires that I study Torah during the day and night every day of my life, from a young age until senility. What else would he want me to do - surf the internet? But now Rambam turns to specifics:
כיצד: היה בעל אומנות--יהיה עוסק במלאכה שלוש שעות ביום, ובתורה תשע:
How [should he divide his study into thirds]? If he is a craftsman, he should work for three hours a day, and study Torah for nine. (1:12)

אין דברי תורה מתקיימין במי שמרפה עצמו עליהן, ולא באלו שלומדין מתוך עידון ומתוך אכילה ושתייה--אלא במי שממית עצמו עליהן, ומצער גופו תמיד, ולא ייתן שנת לעיניו, לעפעפיו תנומה. אמרו חכמים דרך רמז, "זאת, התורה, אדם, כי ימות באוהל" (במדבר יט,יד)--אין התורה מתקיימת, אלא במי שממית עצמו באוהלי החכמה.
The words of Torah do not endure in one who weakens himself upon them, and not for thoes who study in comfort, eating and drinking - rather [they endure] in one who pains himself over them, and constantly stresses his body, and gives no sleep to his eyes nor slumber to his eyelids. Our sages said by way of a hint [from the verse] "This is the Torah of a man who shall die in a tent," - the Torah only endures in one who kills himself in the tents of Torah. (3:12)

אף על פי שמצוה ללמוד ביום ובלילה, אין אדם למד רוב חכמתו אלא בלילה; לפיכך מי שרצה לזכות בכתר התורה, ייזהר בכל לילותיו, ולא יאבד אפילו אחת מהן בשינה ואכילה ושתייה ושיחה וכיוצא בהן, אלא בתלמוד תורה ודברי חכמה
Although it is a mitzvah to study Torah in the day and the night, a man truly learns the majority of his study at night. Therefore, one who wishes to merit the "crown" of Torah will be careful with all his nights, and will not waste even one of them with sleep, eating, drinking, conversation and similiar pursuits - but instead with study of Torah and words of wisdom. (3:13)
What emerges from these short sections - and becomes painfully clear with a more careful, nuanced reading, is the all-encompassing, overarching obligation to study Torah. Always, at all times. Your entire life. Pretty much everything else is a waste of time. If you've studied seriously in yeshiva and absorbed this ethic, it induces an incredible amount of guilt because you come to realize that everything that you do outside of Torah study is exactly that: bittul Torah - a waste of an opportunity to study Torah.
I often wonder about the practicality of this obligation - at least for most of us. When are we supposed to sleep? According to Rambam, pretty much never - at least if you want to learn seriously. Work is fine - even important - but only for a few hours; just enough to cover expenses. The rest of your time should be spent learning. Finally, the best Torah learning is during the night, when most of us are the most tired.
We've all read the gedolim stories, and know how great, true scholars really did fulfill Rambam's vision of the obligation to learn Torah to a large degree. But what about the rest of us? Was Rambam only writing for the elite? How realistic does this obligation seem?

This morning, I read this article in the New Yorker Magazine about the increasingly common use of "neuroenhancing" drugs to enhance performance. If a drug can make someone suffering from ADHD focus, it certainly can also make a "normal" person concentrate better as well, especially if he wants to focus for extended periods of time. While the piece focuses on college students and tech workers who seem to be popping these pills at an alarming rate, I wonder about them in the realm of Torah study. What does halachah say about taking pills in order to increase one's focus and concentration?
To me the question boils down to three issues:
1. Can one take a prescription medication in order to enhance one's cognitive ability? This would seem to be a question of costs vs. benefits. Halachah has no problem with a person taking vitamins to enhance one's physical health. Why then, if modern science has developed the means, shouldn't one also take a pill to enhance the mind?
2. If one can take such medicines, should he? Does the Torah want me to artificially enhance my learning performance if that will enable me to learn yet another mishnah or page of gemara? Or, am I supposed to learn the way God made me - and that's enough.
I study with a chavruta twice a week at the local yeshiva. As much as I'd like brag about my superior level of concentration and claim that my mind never wanders, that is not the case. Early on in life my I remember my grandfather telling my mother, after a short learning sessions that, "he's got a good mind, but no zitz-fleish." (I still can't sit still.) So I medicate - with caffeine. I show up to each session with a small bottle of Coke-Zero, which I administer slowly as we learn. It helps, just enough to keep me focused. My chavruta's drug of choice is coffee, black - hot or cold. I should be able to learn for two hours at a time, twice a week, without stimulants. Or should I? And if I can't, I really don't think that I should give up my chavrusa for a half-liter of Coke which I would probably drink anyway.
3. Finally, if I should use stimulants when necessary to enhance my learning, then must I as well? If the Torah obligates me to study Torah "day and night" - always without fail, if I can't do it without help, must I use that help to fulfill this obligation? Do we really think that Rav Schach, or the Chafetz Chayim didn't drink coffee or smoke to stay awake during their late-night learning sessions? Would we think any less of them if they had?
Put another way, is taking Adderall part of the commandment to study Torah?