The Halakhic Community

I would like to discuss the question of whether R’ YB Soloveitchik’s model of what his students call “Torah uMada” and his ideal of the Halakhic Man are actually usable as a goal for a community. That’s not the same as asking the question of whether it is correct, or consistent with his Brisker origins. Or whether an individual could be inspired and lead to avodas Hashem with it — obviously someone can, as Rav Soloveitchik (hereafter “RYBS”) himself was.

In order to do so, I need to first present thumbnail sketches of the relevant parts of RYBS’s philosophy.


RYBS analyzed the human condition by presenting a typology. The notion is that the human condition could be understood by looking at archetypes, realizing that a real human being at some point in time may be embodying one or more of these archetypes.

For example, the Lonely Man of Faith introduces us to two such archetypes: Adam I, the pinacle of the narrative of Bereishis ch. 1, the peak of creation, who seeks to understand and world “and conquer it”. The next chapter describes Adam II, who seeks redemption through relationships; starting in partnership with the Almighty by naming His animals, and then in his need for “a helper in opposition to him”.

Halakhic Man introduces three archetypes:

  • Cognitive Man, like Adam I (although not cut along exactly the same lines), seeks to comprehend and categorize the world, to control his surroundings.
  • Religious Man, like Adam II, seeks an intimate relationship with G-d. He is the religious man who aspires to transcend the world, the one living in monastic orders, the ascetic and the mystic. The Chassid living for an ecstatic experience of deveiqus, attachment to the Almighty.
  • Halakhic Man rises in creative partnership with G-d to learn how to live a G-dly and holy life within this world. He knows when something can be sanctified, and when it is more appropriate to retreat.

Dialectic Tension and Creativity

Halakhic Man is not a synthesis of cognitive and religious man. RYBS, following both Brisker and neo-Kantian traditions, does not believe that true synthesis is possible. There are always “tzvei dinim” (the Brisker mechanism of understanding a problematic discussion by showing how there are really “two laws” in play, not a single complex and confusing one), a dialectic.

It is because man lives in a tension between these goals, we have to choose our actions. That tension is what drives free will and creativity. Halakhah‘s goal is not to resolve the tension, but to show us how to navigate it. How to get them to harmoniously coexist in a single life.

The Halakhic Man’s creative partnership is thus central to RYBS’s understanding of man’s relationship to halakhah. Halakhah, by being man’s search for sanctity within G-d’s system and categories, is both cognitive and religious. But not by being a mix of these callings, but by teaching how to use the conflict between them.

Ramatayim Tzofim

One of RYBS’s few talks on Torah uMadda (a term he himself wasn’t known to use) is commonly referred to as “Ramatayim Tzofim” — two peaks from which to look out over the landscape, using a phrase from Shemu’el I 1:1. Man is torn between two peaks, which stand distinct. And again, it is the free will that emerges from choosing between these alternatives that is man’s “image of G-d”, the essence of our calling.

What are those peaks? The essay includes a description of his vision for Yeshiva University. Many complain about some of the material taught at YU; classes that include Greek mythology, or teachers that espouse heresy. However, Rabbi Soloveitchik (according to a lengthy quote in vol. II of R’ Rakeffet’s book) lauded YU’s independence, running a full yeshiva and a full university totally unconnected from each other but under the same roof. In contrast, in Lander College the rashei yeshiva have veto power over what is taught in the university. The YU experience allows a student to deal with the confrontation of the two unadulterated worlds in a safe context, rather than provide a fused experience that will provide less preparation for living according to the Torah in the “real” world. Synthesis, RYBS argues, would produce a yeshiva that couldn’t simply run in the footsteps of Volozhin and a university that couldn’t aspire to be a Harvard. Once blended, neither is left alone.

The Erev Shabbos Jew

Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man also responds to the world around him in a manner defined by halakhah. For example:

I remember how once, on Yom Kippur, I went outside into the synagogue courtyard with my father just before the Neilah service. It had been a fresh, clear, day, one of the fine almost delicate days of summer end, filled with sunshine and light. Evening was fast approaching and an exquisite autumn sun was sinking in the west, beyond the trees of the cemetery unto a sea of purple and gold. Rav Moshe [RYBS's father], a Halakhic Man par excellence, turned to me and said: “This sunset differs from ordinary sunsets, for with it forgiveness is bestowed upon us for our sins” (the end of the day atones). The Day of Atonement and the forgiveness of sin merged and blended here with the splendoir and beauty of the world and with the hidden lawfulness of the order of creation, and the whole was transformed into one living, holy, cosmic phenomenon.

- Halakhic Man, pg. 38

Another instance, which RYBS recognized was one of the cultural lapses between the European Jews of his youth and contemporary Judaism:

Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of Shabbat.” True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat… But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten “erev Shabbat” (eve of the Sabbath). There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no “erev Shabbat” Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!

- On Repentence, pp. 97-98

This lack of connection to fundamental Torah worldview was something Rav Soloveitchik felt (at least in 1960, when the following was written; although I would argue that it’s still true today) was not specific to the uneducated or the boorish, nor to any one Orthodox subcommunity. Even those who know the Torah intellectually do not know what it is to have a “living tangible sensation, which causes the heart to tremble and to rejoice” (Al Ahavas haTorah uGe’ulas Nefesh haDor, pg. 419)

Much of this is due to the current religious atmosphere, suffused with shallow pragmatism; much is caused by the tendency towards the ceremonialization – and, at times, the vulgarization – of religion; and much is brought about by the lack of a serious ability to introspect and to assess the world and the spirit.

- Ibid (Al Ahavas haTorah…), pg. 419

Torah uMadda

If we borrow the term Torah uMadda to describe RYBS’s position, I could say that I wish to raise questions about each of the three clauses of the idiom:

Torah: Can a community relate to RYBS’s vision for Torah?

I would argue not. Halakhic Man relates to the creativity of halakhah. Now this is true for the people of his ancestry that RYBS uses to illustrate his various points in the book. Certainly R’ Chaim Brisker played creatively in the field of din, as did RYBS himself.

But can the masses? That would be a fiasco! Few neighborhood rabbanim are capable of regularly engaging in creativity in pesaq without creating something far from proper observance. How can the masses experience creativity to the extent that it typifies their relationship to halakhah?

The other element is also missing — the lack of “erev Shabbos Jew” feeling. Halakhah and the values it embodies does not underpin the contemporary Jew’s values.

Instead, the masses receive halakhah in the form of decisions to comply to. Their relationship to halakhah is a structure that they must trust the sages represents the covenant, and G-d’s Will for how we are to redeem ourselves and the world around us.

Madda:Would the masses relate to the academic orientation of RYBS’s ideal?

Again, I think the answer is “no”. Maybe the typical person who wades though this blog has an interest in heavy thought where words like dialectic or antinomy are thrown around, where I speak of the Maharal’s model of halakhah sounding fundamentally Platonic, or I use examples from Quantum Mechanics or Information science to illustrate a point. But this isn’t the Orthodox world’s most popular blog.

Most people see academia as “ivory tower”. Rather than giving someone a more precise and informed perspective of reality, they perceive the academic as disconnected from the real world and their experience.

Thus, while to RYBS, the encounter was between Rashi and Rachmaninoff, between the Rambam and Reimann geometry (where the Red Sox and Westerns are side-matters to the core conflict), to the community who aspires to follow his vision, the reality tends to be an English halachic handbook and the Yankees.

u-: The conjunctive linking Torah and Mada — can we teach the masses to aspire for navigating the tension of conflicting values?

The twin peaks calling RYBS are creative lomdus and secular knowledge. The confrontation between Torah and the world in which we live creates a tension which fuels creativity. Man is called to cognitively resolve the sanctification of this world, which can only be acheived through halakhah. This vision of unity of Torah and Madda demands that the individual himself pair in that creative with G-d, that finding their own resolution of the diealectiv tension. Cognitive man harnesed to applying the goals of homo religiosus to master this world in sanctity — vekivshuha.

The majority of his followers are trying to juggle a rule set and the western world — not just high culture and academic knowledge, but primarily the day-to-day mileau they are exposed to and the values assumed by the world around them.

And in any case, they can’t employ creativity to map halakhah to the world they face. The majority of any large community will not be people capable of it — they aren’t posqim and rabbanim. When people are called upon to live in two worlds, and yet are unequipped to deal with the resulting conflicts, they are left in cognitive dissonance, which leaves them with two recourses. Both of which we find in practice, among those who aspire to live by RYBS’s teachings (as well as among many others).

The first approach is to keep them separate. Since he doesn’t have the tools to navigate the gap between the worlds, the person compartmentalizes them. Dr. David Singer gives an example in Tradition 21(4), in his article “Is Club Med Kosher? Reflections on Synthesis and Compartmentalization” (available by subscription only).

It all started when I told my friend Larry Grossman that I was planning to take my wife Judy to Club Med for a winter vacation. On December 22, 1983, you see, Judy and I passed the twenty-year mark in our marriage, and it seemed to me that a marathon achievement of that order merited some kind of special celebration. What then could be nicer than to escape the cold of winter for a few days by going to a Caribbean island — the Dominican Republic, for example where we could soak up the sun, loll on the beach, and maybe down a pina colada or two under the swaying palms? Please don’t misunderstand; Judy and I are hardly swingers. Indeed, it is fair to say that my own social outlook is quite conservative…. I was interested in the paradise and not in the swinging. … All I wanted was a crack at some sunshine, a quiet stretch of beach, and those swaying palms — all this at a guaranteed first-class resort. Innocent enough, no? Larry, however, would have none of it. He expressed amazement that an Orthodox Jew could even contemplate going to Club Med, citing it as a classic example of Orthodox “compartmentalization,” i.e., the process whereby modern Orthodox Jews — those deeply enmeshed in modern secular culture separate out the Jewish from the non-Jewish aspects of their lives.

Compartmentalization has both its defenders and detractors, and I have always been counted among the latter. Indeed, in a Spring 1982 symposium in Tradition,’ I went so far as to label compartmentalization the “Frankenstein” of modern Orthodoxy, arguing instead for “synthesis,” the creative blending of the best elements of Jewish tradition and modern culture. To me, an Orthodox Jew vacationing at Club Med — taking care not to violate the kashrut laws, saying the afternoon prayers on a wind-swept beach, etc., etc. — represented the epitome of synthesis. Yet here was Larry accusing me — me of all people — of being a compartmentalized modern Orthodox type….

Compartmentalization also arises in avoiding seeing that one is arriving at conflicting answers when standing in each of the different “worlds”. The current youth of the Modern Orthodox world face this dilemma when asked about the social acceptability of homosexuality. Their Torah says one thing, their culture says another, and for the majority, their answers are inconsistent depending on time and context.

The other possible response is failed synthesis — compromise. How can I get done what I want to get done without violating any of the law? I might fish for leniencies, I might be doing something that is opposite in thrust and goal to all of tradition, but I will find some way to work my goal into what I can of the rule set.

Take for example the woman who belongs to JOFA, attends a Woman’s Prayer Group, and doesn’t cover her hair. What’s the justification for the WPG? Well, if you look at the sources, you can navigate a services that is similar in feel to a minyan, but does not actually cross any of the lines spelled out in the text. The cultural tradition that this isn’t where women’s attention belongs is ignored, in favor of the desideratum — being able to serve G-d in as nearly an egalitarian experience as possible. However, when it comes to covering her hair, she whittled halakhah in another direction. There, the texts are quite clear. It’s the cultural tradition that historically has been lax. And yet it’s the presumption that these Eastern European women of the 19th and early 20th century must have had a source that drives her leniency.

(RYBS himself was opposed to such prayer groups, allowing them only in kiruv settings. And yet here is an entire subcommunity of people who consider themselves his students or students of his students who figured out a way to come to peace with the idea.)

Whether right or wrong, RYBS himself was against such prayer groups. Their approach is not a product of his worldview. And yet, the majority of those in the US who support them believe themselves to be disciples of his path in Torah.

Unworking or Unworkable?

Because the masses see Torah as primarily a set of rules handed down, and because they aren’t spending their lives immersed in that which is particular positive of Yefet’s contribution to the world, they can not creatively construct positive responses to the conflict of worlds.

In short I identified a number of gaps between Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophy and his followers:

  • The masses are incapable of creating halakhah, and shouldn’t try.
  • The feeling of the “erev Shabbos Jew” eludes modern man.
  • Most people are not intellectually or academically inclined, and so encounter the contemporary world at a lower plane than Rav Soloveitchik envisions.
  • Because of the above, rather than navigating the tensions of two noble callings, thereby being religious beings who sanctify, rather than retreat from the world, the more common responses are:
    • compartmentalizing, and simply living in different worlds depending on the setting,
    • using that compartmentalization to find rulings that fit desired goals, and/or
    • compromising both their observance and their ideals in an attempt to be “normal”.

To look at all of these points and criticizing the ideal is unfair. No large group manage to live fully up to their ideals. And other ideals simply have other dangers. For example, while we identified an Orthodox-lite subgrouping within Modern Orthodoxy. But isn’t the Chareidi who hides behind chitzoniyus (externalities) his suit and black hat in order to think of himself as “frum” rather than leveraging it to reinforce a self-image and the calling it demands, equally “lite”?

However, I asserted that not only isn’t RYBS’s philosophy working as well as it might, trying to apply it to the masses exposes that make it less workable even in principle.

One could divide approaches to Torah into three categories.

1- Some describe an ideal that may not be reachable, but has a clear path from where most people stand to that ideal. People can strive to get as close to that ideal as they are capable of. Not every chassid may be capable of living every moment in conscious awareness of Hashem’s presence and acting solely from that knowledge, but anyone can try to maximize the intensity and frequency of that awareness in their lives.

2- Some do not describe only the ideal, they describe the path as well. In particular, Mussar defines the ideal person, his fear/awe of G-d, his love of G-d, his modesty, his focus on giving to others, etc… But it also provides tools for developing oneself into that kind of person. As Rav Yisrael Salanter put it, “One doesn’t learn Mussar to be a tzaddiq, but to become a tzaddiq.”

3- Then there are ideals that can’t be implemented partway. Rather than there being a steady incline, such that the more one tries to implement it, the better they are, there is a trough — where trying and not reaching this point is actually worse than not trying.

Rav Soloveitchik calls upon someone to be both cognitive and religious by being halachically creative. This creativity is fueled by the tension between Torah and this world, so we’re speaking of creativity on the pragmatic plane; relieving the conflict by finding one’s own harmonious coexistence. Notice this means we are not discussing simply studying someone else’s creative results, or limiting oneself to novella on a theoretical level. In RYBS’s worldview, halakhah maximizes autonomy by giving you a means of answering conflicting callings. It is based in the experience of living out his cognitive man in how he relates to the modern world. Halakhic Man is cognitive. RYBS’s dialectic tension demands decision making and fueling creativity. It’s all about creating and decision-making. When he says creativity, it can only be one’s own creativity, not learning creative ideas of others — that isn’t the product of one’s own personal conflict. And it means creativity on a pragmatic level, deciding how to balance one’s life, not theoretical lomdus.

However, if someone who doesn’t know how to assess those callings, or even just started learning about their content, is told to make their own decisions, he will make a travesty of observance. Rather than getting closer to doing so better in the future, he is leading himself astray. Fitting halakhah to Western values, or fitting his activities to the letter of the law with no concern with the mindset of the Erev Shabbos Jew. Rav Soloveitchik’s approach not the kind of linear more-is-better in that way, the way we described Chassidus. The path to this ideal has a trough — someone who tries to do so without having already developed the tools to do so will lead himself astray. Most people are not capable of becoming Rav Chaim Brisker, such that they creatively construct halakhah in response to their reality to the extent that their primary experience of halakhah is a partnership with the A-lmighty. If you are too far from that point, in the trough, you can’t bring yourself closer to the ideal by being a low-level halakhah creator, a less skilled version of Rav Chaim — that simply creates bad halakhah.

If they stood alone, the other issues could have been solved incrementally. A person can study aggadita at their level and increase their feel for Torah values and seeing the world from the perspective implied by halakhah. Similarly, they can work on their interests and develop interests toward those parts of the general culture that help us better understand and work with the world around us and the people in it.

RYBS unifies modernity and Orthodoxy by making them a tension that drives a level of creativity that few are capable of. RYBS’s path may work for someone who sufficiently shares the abilities of himself or the role models he uses in the examples that pepper Halakhic Man. But unless one is speaking of an artificial, self-selected population of the elite, a more typical community simply can’t be built upon it. The compartmentalization and compromise found in contemporary Modern Orthodoxy are caused by problems more fundamental than the usual effects of the limitations of the people who aspire for that common ideal. It is exacerbated by being an inevitable product of the nature of the path between where the middle of the bell curve lives, and this particular ideal that they are striving for.

The Tools of Mussar

There is a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s on a line in Mishlei (Proverbs) 4:26 that is included in an introduction to Cheshbon haNefesh. Here’s a translation, any errors are mine:

פַּלֵּס, מַעְגַּל רַגְלֶךָ;    וְכָל-דְּרָכֶיךָ יִכֹּנוּ.

Straighten the path of your feet, and all your paths will be established.

I already wrote that there are two kinds of middos, which are those that are the middos which are born with him by nature, and those that he acclimated himself to. Those that were born with him are called “derakhav” (his paths), for they are his derekh (path) from the beginning of his creation. Those that he habituated himself to are called regel, because he made a habit (hirgil) of them.

To those he made a habit of, he must guard and straighten them a lot. When he guards them, then they which were in his nature, they will of course be guarded. This is “paleis ma’gal raglekha” [straighten the circuits of your feet; the first half of the verse in discussion]. Those which he became used to he needs to straighten and to pass little by little from the bad middos, like a peles, and not to grab right away the other extreme.

Until he habituates himself and it will be to him like nature. (And it says “ma’gal” (circuit) because to those [middos] that he habituated himself to he has to go around and revolve…)

Vekhol dirachecha yikonu” [and all your paths will be established; the 2nd part of the verse] of course those middos that are his derekh since birth are established (yikonu), from the term of “kan ubasis” (branch and basis, perhaps: branch and trunk). If you don’t guard those [middos that are] from habit, even “derakhav” won’t be established. For middos are like a string of pearls — if you make a knot at the end, then all are guarded, and if not, all are lost. So too are the middos. Therefore [the pasuq] says that if one straightens the circuit of his feet (raglav), then his ways (derakhav) will be set.

The Vilna Gaon refers to “derekh“, a path, and “raglav” which can translate to “his feet” or “his habits”. This being the book of Mishlei, which is literally “Metaphors”, obviously one is meant to stand in (sorry for the pun) the other. Middos are classified as being either an innate propensity or the product of habit — or a combination of the two.

With his metaphor of pearls, the Gaon writes of two sorts of middos, those with which we are born and those that we acquire by habit. If we are trying to modify a middah from what one was born with, the primary tool for doing so is hergeil, habituation.

In Ohr Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter spells out a three-stage process to improving a midah.

1- Hargashah: feeling. Obviously one can not work on a broken middah until one is aware that it exists. As the cliche goes, “Realizing you have a problem is halfway to the cure.” I’m not sure if by “hargashah” (feeling) R’ Yisrael is referring to the awareness of the middah‘s state, or the feeling of a moral imperative to fix it. I could not be aware that I am too timid. Or, I could be aware of my timidity, but think that that it’s proper.

If I may be so bold as to suggest breaking this down into multiple steps:
a- awareness of an ideal,
b- internalization of that ideal until one is motivated to act on it, and
c- developing consciousness of when you are exhibiting the issue.

2- Kibbush hayeitzer: conquering the desire. Don’t start by trying to fix the attitude, rather, start with trying not to act on it. To give a personal example (that I have yet to succeed at): Kibbush of anger doesn’t mean not losing my top when my kid tells me he broke his toy “Because.” It means not acting on that anger.

The route to kibbush hayeitzer can be understood from the mitzvah of the eishes yefas to’ar. A Jewish soldier finds a woman in the enemy camp attractive and wants to take her. He is told that he must shave her head, dress her like a person (rather than booty), and allow her to mourn her family for a month. In short, the Torah allows the relationship but sets limits by requiring that the man take steps to insure treating her like a person. Rashi (Devarim 21:11) quotes Chazal, saying, “The Torah only spoke against the yeitzer hara.” This is usually taken to mean that while the act itself is against Torah values, Hashem realized that banning it altogether would be beyond the soldier’s ability to obey. However, that overlooks Chazal’s use of the word “keneged – against”. We are being given a key tool in fighting against the yeitzer hara.

To conquer a middah one does not try to eliminate it in a single step. Rather, one takes a single step, followed by another and another. It is a process of shteiging, of ever ascending upward. Kibbush HaYeitzer requires deciding to take that small step, to acquire a habit that whittles down the improper middah. Because these practices are accepted upon oneself, they are called qabbalos. Ideally, a qabbalah should meet the following criteria: the content should be (1) small enough that the person has a reasonable chance of following through on it, and yet (2) large enough to be measurable. Third, the length of a qabbalah should be a fixed period of weeks or months, and not an open-ended commitment. At the end of the period, one can assess whether one is ready to progress, or perhaps if the qabbalah was overly ambitious and needs to be rethought.

For example, if someone is working on savlanus (patience), a reasonable qabbalah might be to accept upon oneself not to lose one’s patience for the first five minutes upon returning home, or perhaps not to ever yell at the dinner table. It is not going to conquer the yeitzer all at once, but it is a measurable change that is small enough to actually follow through upon and yet also significant enough to build upon.

The first kind of qabbalah is most direct — picking part of the challenge, and choosing to act appropriately when it arises.

Moshe and the elders of Israel command the Jews, “Observe all the commandments that I will command you today. It will be when you cross the Jordan to the land which Hashem you G-d is giving you, you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and cover them in lime. Write on them all the words of this Torah…” (Devarim 27:1-3)

Crossing the Jordan need not have been a reminder to observe the mitzvos. Moshe commands them, though, to perform a commemorative act, to use the moment. This corresponds to a second kind of kabbalah, an acceptance to use a moment and artificially connect it to the desired goal. This could be because the triggering event is frequent and therefore would serve as a regular reminder to establish a habit. For example, one friend accepted a kabbalah to remember the six basic mitzvos of the mind every time he enters the car, using its ceiling, floor and four sides as a mnemonic for the six beliefs.

A third kind of kabbalah aims to change what used to be a preconscious decision into a conscious one. Dr. Alan Morinis tells of one such, recommended to him by Rabbi Yitzchok Perr, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Derech Aisan in Far Rockaway. Rabbi Perr recommended that whenever one feels impatient or angry, one should slip a rubber band, one loose enough to be comfortable but yet small enough to be felt, on one’s hand. (Alan Morinis, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, pp. 47-48) This is also hergel; it is practicing making the process of getting impatient or angry a conscious one, rather than an immediate reaction that short-circuits our free will.

3- Tiqun hamiddah: fixing the desire. This happens as a consequence of prolonged qibbush. The habit changes the middah. As we saw above, from the Vilna Gaon.

This is one reason why giving causes love. It was one of the better-known techniques of the ba’alei mussar; when someone irritates you, or you simply dislike him, give to him more. (See this post on the subject.) Kibbush isn’t just a half-way step to true tikkun, it’s a necessary precondition. It’s through acting as though a feeling exists (or doesn’t) that the change in character occurs. (I found it interesting to compare
this to the approaches of behavior therapy.

A sibling to this notion is a basic part of Jewish observance. Many of the Chinuch’s explanations for each of the various mitzvos begin with the phrase (or a variation of it) “man is affected according to his actions”. It sounds nicer in Hebrew, where the words I translated as “affected” and “actions” have the same root and shares the same letters as “according to”: ha’adam nif’al lefi pe’ulosav.

Four of the above are procedural steps, and the tools developed by the ba’alei mussar can be divided by which of these steps they address.

1a- Learning the ideal:

Mussar Study: This doesn’t only mean opening a Mesilas Yesharim. It’s also how one is listening to what one learns in other subjects. Reviewing parashas Pinechas twice and once in translation isn’t just a means to get through the parashah, it provides lessons in violence by giving an exceptional case where it’s appropriate, it teaches something about leaving a legacy when Moshe ordains Yehushua and appoints him his successor, and when Tzelafchad’s daughters worry about the loss of their father’s legacy, it speaks to us even in the census and the sacrifices of the holidays, although there the language is more obscure.

Of course, it does also mean Mesilas Yesharim, Orchos Tzadiqim, Shaarei Teshuvah, Mishlei…

1b- Internalizing the ideal

Hisbonenus: visualization. People are far more moved by experiences than by ideas. This is why Hashem “speaks” to a prophet in visions, and through the symbols of halakhah. Through the koach hadimyon, one can invent pseudo-experiences. See my earlier entry “I have a Dream“.

Hispa’alus: find some quote (sentence or paragraph length) about the middah in question or about something you feel is one of the causes of it in your own case. Spend time (10 min to start with, working your way up as you get used to it) each morning chanting it in a singsong, until you’ve gleaned some new insight into the problem. For more on hispa’alus, see Mesukim miDevash on parashas Ki-Seitzei (pp 2-4).

For example, if dealing with jealousy (ayin ra), a quote might be “Al tira ki yashir ish, ki yirbeh kevod beiso, ki lo bemoso yiqach hakol, lo yeireid acharav kevodo — Do not be overawed when someone gets wealth; when the honor of his home accumulates; for when he dies he won’t take it all, his honor will not descend after him.” A good line for many in the Orthodox community because it’s pretty well known from songs — but don’t sing it unless the tune helps the line penetrate! Now think about that line. First about the plain meaning, but as you say it REALLY think. For example, why the repetition? How do wealth and honor differ from eachother, and how do they differ from what one really does take with them when one dies, after 120

Tefillah is also far more effective behispa’alus. See this treatment of “Yismach Mosheh” (questions, thoughts) for an example.

Batei Mussar (the Mussar Kloiz): without the proper social setting, doing this work will remain “weird”, and fall into neglect. Peer pressure is a powerful force, too powerful to neglect in our toolset. Also, with continued use of a given space just for Mussar, simply entering a beis mussar places someone in the right mindset.

1c- Consciousness of the real

Cheshbon hanefesh: Keep a diary of all the times you’ve experienced the middah in question and what triggered it. Also keep track of what worked in getting rid of it. Just getting one’s conscious mind involved in the process is a major help.

For more on the centrality of hispa’alus and of keeping a cheshbon see Mesukim miDevash for parashas Shofetim pp2-4.

2- Kibbush haYeitzer

Qabbalos: Slow incremental change is the most sure. So, accept upon yourself one small step away from jealousy. (See Mesukim miDevash for parashas Eikev pp 2-3 for an exploration of how habit can be used to fulfill the mitzvah of loving Hashem.) For jealousy this is difficult, since you don’t want to encourage a habit of “sour grapes” (“what they have ain’t so great anyway…”) Perhaps something that encourages sharing in someone else’s joy in what they have.

A possible qabbalah (perhaps more relevent for a woman) might be that every time you go to shul you’ll find three things to compliment other women about their attire. No back-handed compliments!

Pe’ulos: this is more of a Novhordok thing, so I’m speaking more as an outsider. Basically, this involves role playing. It might even include intentionally going out in a manner that belittles the very thing you’re jealous of. To return to the problem of clothing competition: Not letting yourself go to shul in anything from this year’s (frum) fashion for a period of n months.

Va’ad: a “committee” (literal translation) of friends that can learn the subject and work together on qabalos. Peer pressure and support can be powerful things! See Mesukim miDevash on parashas Nitzavim (pp 2-3) for more on the value of ve’adim and the mussar community.

I’ve often felt that the shemiras halashon (watch your speech) campaign would go further if we organized ve’adim rather than classes. We all know it’s wrong; the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge in the head. It’s getting the heart caught up that takes work.

The Chosen People

The Rav Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rebbe, held firm during his imprisonment in Dachau. He somehow managed to smuggle tefillin into the camp, and continued wearing them regularly. One day, he saw a Jew crying: What’s it all for? What future do we as a people have? What will come from all this suffering? The rebbe consoled him, at some point using the words “chosen people”. It was just then that a Nazi guard overheard him. He beat the rebbe with the butt of his rifle, and once the rebbe had fallen to the ground, pressed his boot into his cheek, pushing the rebbe’s face down into the mud. The guard sneared, and mockingly asked, “Now, do you still think you are the chosen people?”

The Rebbe replied, “as long as you are up there, and I am down here, I know we are the chosen people.”

Yesterday, two boys came home, in boxes. All of Israel and the Jewish people morn.

Meanwhile, there are celebrations in Lebanon. Not only for the return of a man who murdered babies with his bare hands, but for the remains of “martyrs” who were also given a hero’s welcome.

The Klausenberger Rebbe’s response to the Holocaust was to build Kiryat Sanz, girls’ and boys’ schools, a community in Union City, NJ, and to answer Hitler’s murder of Jews with Laniado Hospital to save lives.

Our response to this misnamed “Prisoner Exchange” can’t begin and end in rage. While we celebrate life and our enemies celebrate death, we need to build.

The Klausenberger Rebbe also said, “When you come to a place of darkness, you don’t chase out the darkness with a broom. You light a candle.”

And as long as we continue doing so, I know we are the chosen people.

Types of Thought: Dictionary

A while back, last time I had a chance to complete a blog entry, I promised a dictionary of terms for thought. When writing it up, I noticed I had MUCH more to say on da’as / dei’ah / yedi’ah than the other topics. In any case, here is the result.


According to the Rambam, yedi’ah is at the center of man’s mission. We exist in order to gain da’as of Hashem. In the Aristotelian understanding of knowledge, to know something is to have its form in one’s mind. Form, in the sense of form and substance — tzurah vechomer. It is man’s ability to have elements of Tzuras E-lokim in one’s soul that gives it the ability to survive eternally. This unity of knower and known is why yedi’ah is also the term used for marital intimacy.

Also, to the Rambam, da’as is tied to one’s personality. The laws of how one is to behave, what we call today “middos“, are to him Hilkhos Dei’os. This too he probably would have framed using Aristotelian terminology. Aristotle saw emotions as primarily a product of thought. Thus, da’as, the knowledge which shapes one’s thoughts are indeed dei’os.

Today we see it more as a cycle, thought shaping our emotions, but our emotions also shaping what we choose to think. To quote someone I enjoy quoting (me), “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying conclusions the heart already reached.” This is why we find that the experience of a Shabbos has done more to preserve Judaism, and to bring people back to observing halakhah, than all of the philosophical arguments ever could. It is the heart of the Kuzari’s objection to reliance on philosophy; what any one philosopher proves, another proves something contradictory, each convinced their proof is solid — and in accordance with their personal predilections.

But this does not distance da’as from dei’os. Quite the reverse. Because they feed each other in a cycle, they are even less separable; it is harder to define where one ends and the other begins.

It would seem from the introduction to Orchos Tzadiqim that in her opinion (most scholars believe that the anonymous author of this originally Yiddish work was a woman), dei’os are the capacities themselves. Ka’as (anger) for example. She switches to the word middah when discussing the frequency or intensity of various dei’os. One person may become angry frequently. Another, perhaps less often, but when he goes into a rage he loses all self control. “Middah” is being used here in it very literal sense, the “dimensions” of the dei’ah.

Da’as reemerges in a central role in Telzhe, where the Mussar Shmuess (impassioned Mussar talk) is reinvented as R’ Eliyahu Meir Bloch’s Shiurei Da’as. Rather than using fervor and passionate experience to influence emotion, in Telzhe they focused on the intellect as their route to perfecting middos. Telzhe aspired to acquire tzurah, not the Tzurah of Hashem (as the Rambam had it), but of His Thought, the Torah. To acquire a tzurah of Torah in one’s mind, da’as Torah as a personal goal of anyone engaged in Torah study. (As opposed to something solely possessed by a distinct class of “the gedolim“.) By delving into the Why of a halachic dilemma, the Telzher reaches depths below the division of halakhah and aggadita. Connecting halakhah to its values so that one becomes unified with those values.


Tanya: Initial insight. The moment when you get an idea, but haven’t articulated it to yourself yet to work it through and develop it. The Baal haTanya notes that the word is an anagram for “koach mah — the potential of ‘what is?’” It is from this that he builds his understanding of the Chaba”d progression. (See last month’s contrast of Chaba”d, looking at the emanation of wisdom from G-d to man, and Deva”sh, focusing on man’s use and control of the resulting knowledge.)

Rav S.R. Hirsch: Accumulated knowledge. Arguably the opposite of the Tanya’s understanding.

The Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary (usually called “the BDB”), based in Gesenius’s earlier (German) work, is a primary academic work on Biblical Hebrew. By far, not a “frum” work. There isn’t that much I can understand in their explanations of how they derive a definition, as they tend to involve cognates in other semitic languages, such as Amharic, Syriac, etc… printed in their native alphabets.

Here, the BDB gives “wisdom” or “technical skill”. An example of this usage is the Chumash’s description of the skilled and talented artisans who did the work on the mishkan — those who were “chakhmei leiv“.

Perhaps this is a facet of the general Chaba”d vs. Deva”sh dispute. Art requires two things: (1) Divine inspiration, a gift; (2) practice, practice and more practice. In nusach Sefard, where the focus in on G-d’s gift of intelligence, the chakhmei leiv are associated with initial ineffable insight granted by the Almighty. In nusach Ashkenaz, chakhmah is accumulated laboriously over years of practice, trial and error.


Rav Hirsch: The ability to make distinctions into categories (bein) through inductive reasoning, and the ability to inductively reason from a combination of ideas to their conclusions (livnos).


The BDB entry on binah has a sub-entry on tevunah, for which I was unable to find a precise definition in by a mesoretic source, and yet arises in Tana”kh and tefillah often enough to require our attention. They translate “tevunah” as the object of knowledge — the known, or that which could be known. It would seem to refer to the product of binah.


According to Rav Hirsch, haskeil is applying understanding. As we suggested in the comparison of Deva”sh vs Chaba”d, haskeil is bringing that da’as and binah to practical use. (For what it’s worth, the BDB has “consider or understand”.)


Rav Hirsch identifies a group of related roots:

  • hayah: to exist
  • chayah: to live, an intense form of existence, just as ches makes a sound that is similar but more intense than that of the hei
  • hineih: a place in which something exists, thus one worth noting
  • hagah: imagination. To picture something in one’s mind, a shadow existence.

It would seem that R’ SR Hirsch’s understanding of higayon is similar to what the Rambam calls koach hadimyon. (See “I Had a Dream“, “Ruach Memalela” and “Yeitzer haRa” for explorations of koach hadimyon.) When we say on Shabbos that we should praise Hashem “alei higayon bechinor — upon the higayon with the harp”, we could well be speaking with the sensory experience and the feelings it induces.

Rashi comments on Rabbi Eliezer’s final advice to his students (Berakhos 28b):

Be mindful of the honor of your peers, and keep your children from higayon, and place them between the knees of Torah scholars, and when you pray know before whom you stand – and on account of this you will merit the life of the world to come.

Rashi explains that higayon here means study of Tanakh “which draws the heart”, and R’ Eliezer fears may be to the exclusion of other Torah studies. This assumes a similar definition

Ramchal, on the other hand, wrote “Seifer haHigayon” on the subject of logic. Assuming a quite different definition than dimyon. The Ramchal may be drawing from the same tradition as Rav Hai Gaon, who understands Rabbi Eliezer as warning his students against sophistry, learning rules of argument to the point where you can argue any position, with no regard to truth.


Rav SR Hirsch associates the 7 lamps of the menorah with the verse in Yeshayah (11:2) “ונחה עליו רוח ה’ רוח חכמה ובינה רוח עצה וגבורה רוח דעת ויראת ה – and it rested upon him the spirit of G-dliness, the spirit of chokhmah and binah, the spirit of eitzah and gevurah, the spirit of da’as and awe of G-d.” Rav Hirsch illustrates this menorah with da’as (applied knowledge), eitzah and chokhmah (accumulated knowledge) branching to the right, yir’as Hashem, gevurah (strength to stay steadfast) and binah (reasoning) to the left. With ru’ach Hashem as the middle. This introduces eitzah as similar in kind to da’as and chokhmah, and therefore within the bounds of our discussion.

Rav Hirsch connects eitzah with other words meaning to aim. To give an eitzah is to give someone else direction. Whereas da’as is the product of my own thought, eitzah is applied knowledge acquired from without.

(Interestingly, a word in Biblical Hebrew for an advisor is aveh, from which Rav Hirsch says we get av, father. An interesting contrast to binah and ben – son.)


We touched on zikaron earlier, when discussing the relative strengths of da’as and binah between men and women. Man, zakhar, has the greater propensity for da’as, learned modes of thought, as opposed to the more free-ended reason of binah. The commonality of root implies that zikaron includes the capacity for da’as. The obligation to destroy “zeikher Amaleiq – memorials to Amaleiq” uses zeikher in the same sense as modern usage, memory. I would therefore suggest that zikaron is a general term, including da’as, tevunah, eitzah, and R’ Hirsch’s version of chokhmah — applied knowledge, logical conclusions, taught advice and collected wisdom.

I hope this little mini-dictionary will help someone say their tefillos with greater kavanah, as all these similar terms can be uttered with knowledge of more of their connotations. Please feel free to add your own experiences davening these words to the comments section below.