Which is Most Important: Theology or Action?

In Judaism, both study and action are held in high esteem. Shabbat 127a of the Talmud states that learning Torah is more important than all other commandments. Nevertheless, Rabbinic tradition still emphasizes the importance of small details of ritual and ethical conduct. As Pirke Avot teaches, It is not the study that is essential, but rather the action” (1:17). This source implies that the rabbis understood that while both study and action are fundamental elements of religious life, they can also be in tension with each other. 

The tension between study and action is prominently displayed in the Talmud, which includes two seemingly contradictory doctrines on how to draw closer to God. The first is the importance of studying Torah for its own sake: One who studies Torah for its own sake draws nearer to God than one who studies it with a particular intention” (Yoma 23b).

The second claim affirms that one should act with kindness and compassion, so as not to be concerned with reward in this world or punishment in the next. Rabbi Akiva is said to respond to this dilemma by clearly stating that study brings on action.

So, which is more important: studying or taking action? Should we, as believers, spend all of our money to learn theology at the seminaries or should we spend every dime taking the gospel to the ends of the earth? I think Jesus answers this pretty clearly and implies that we don’t need to differentiate between study/faith and action, because they are one and the same. Just as it indicates in James 2:18 Some will say, You have faith and I have works.Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” One may attempt to separate these two things, but one cannot separate faith from action.

Instead, we are to follow two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” [Matthew 22:37-40]. When we follow these two commandments, we will be able to balance them out, because they are one in the same. Therefore, if we love the Lord, we will love our neighbor.

This also stands as a call for action; to pray for our neighbors, the BTJ missionaries, and the 3.3 billion people living primarily in the 10-40 window who have never heard the true gospel presented. This is the most and least a follower of Jesus can do. We are not mandated to invite our neighbor to church; rather, we are commanded to love them. This love requires us to pray for them, so that they may join us in the World to Come (Olam Ha-ba).

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