The Mussar Dispute

Rav Yisrael Salanter wrote to Volozhin, the flagship yeshiva of the yeshiva movement. He offered the Netziv his services as a mashgiach ruchani. The Netziv said that he was welcome to come, but if Rav Yisrael came, the Netziv would have to leave. Rav Yisrael Salanter was a brilliant talmudist and overqualified for the job, but the Netziv felt he couldn’t operate in the same institution as Mussar.

Rav Yisrael’s student, Rav Itzele Petersburger, similarly offered in 1881. R’ Nasan Kamentzky weaves together three versions of the story to create a single plausible narrative about how his offer was received (starts at about 87 min in on this recording).

Rav Nechamiah Goldberg tells that while Rav Izele was turned down, he did get permission to give a mussar shmuess. The thrust of that talk was based on the thought from our sages that Hashem created the yeitzer hara and He created an antidote — Torah. Rav Itzele explained that the Torah cures us of evil desires the way a segulah cures a sick person. The person must perform the act or recite the text exactly, and if the segulah is to say it 7 times, there will be absolutely no effect if he only says it six. Similarly, in order for Torah to fight the yeitzer hara, it most be studied perfectly lishmah, with pure motive and no distractions. Mussar, however, is like medicine.  Even if you do not follow instructions perfectly, it will still work. Not as well, but there is still improvement. Thus, unless you are already capable of perfect Torah study, Mussar is the appropriate solution to the problem of yeitzer hara. R’ Chaim Brisker, who also taught at Volozhin at the time, was sitting near the exit. As Rav Izele left the room after his talk, Rav Chaim told him, “So mussar is for someone who is sick, but we in Volozhin aren’t ill!”

R JB Solovetchik, in Ish haHalakhah, quotes Rav Itzele Petersburger using a different idea from our sages. There is no reason to believe he didn’t actually used both, or that they are quoting the same talk.  The gemara advises: If the yeitzer hara comes upon you, sent the yeitzer hatov after it. If that succeeds, good; if not, learn Torah. If that works, good; if not say, say qeri’as shema. If that works, good; if not, remember the day of death. So you see that the final, most effective way to win out over the yeitzer hara is qeri’as shema and remembering the day of death — Mussar, not Torah study! Rav Chaim Brisker (R’ Soloveitchik’s grandfather) replied that the study of Mussar is listed is a last choice because Mussar is like castor oil — for sick people it cures, but if you don’t need it — it’s sickening! A healthy person would not need to get bayond learning Torah to vanquish his inclination.

The third version: When the Netziv found out the purpose of Rav Itzele’s visit, he expelled him from Volozhin. One detail found in Dov Katz’s Pulmus haMussar (The Mussar Dispute) that R’ Kamentzky did not retell is that students from the yeshiva bodily carried R’ Itzele Petersburger out of the building. Either this too could have been a different visit, or perhaps continues the story after the above conversation.

Where did this split come from? After all, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, was married to Rav Chaim Volzhiner’s granddaughter, Rav Yitzchaq Volzhiner’s daughter. He inherited the yeshiva from them. Clearly he represented a tradition from Rav Chaim Volozhiner. On the other hand, Rav Yisrael Salanter was publicizing the version of Judaism he learned from Rav Zundel Salanter, who in turn was a student of the very same Rav Chaim Volozhiner! How did their two traditions diverge, and what exactly was the original point of conflict?

One can say that what happened was that Rav Chaim’s successors in Volozhin took to heart the fourth section, and therefore they pulled Volozhin to ever more exclusively focus on total immersion intellectually in Torah. (Along the way, his rebbe‘s title changed from haGaon haChassid Rav Eliyahu miVilna to just the Vilna Gaon — mentioning his brilliance in Torah, but omitting his chassidus.)  The Yeshiva Movement reads Nefesh haChaim as having 3 sections discussing the value and power of the soul, and how to develop yir’ah so that one can understand the sanctifying aspect of immersion in Torah.

Meanwhile, R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s pupil, R’ Zundel Salanter, placed more emphasis on the lessons captured in the first three sections. And so, when he spotted young Yisrael Lipkin — the future Rav Yisrael Salanter, father of the Mussar Movement — spying on his private spiritual exercises in the woods, Rav Zundel yelled out to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) A call to work directly on one’s middos in order to live a life of yir’ah; not a reliance on metaphysical effects of immersion in talmudic dialectic. According to Mussar’s understanding, the book is about internalizing the Torah’s values. To achieve this, one must develop the soul and yir’ah and only then one’s Torah can be retained within one’s being.

(Please do not take either of the previous two paragraphs as caricatures, all-or-nothing contrasts.)

In the next post I hope to explore the text. But in the meantime, I want to note that this phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

Toward a Torah Definition of “Ethics”

A short thought, maybe a conversation starter…

There is a paradoxic obligation: it is prohibited to conform in all ways only to the letter of the law. One must stay well within it (lifnim mishuras hadin; or using the contrasting English metaphor: “beyond the letter of the law”) both in ways that prevent violation through error, habit or negligence and in ways that implement the law’s ideals.

So, to give an example from Bava Metzi’ah 83a:

רבה בר בר חנן תברו ליה הנהו שקולאי חביתא דחמרא. שקל לגלימייהו. אתו, אמרו לרב. אמר ליה, “הב להו גלימייהו.” אמר ליה, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — “למען תלך בדרך טובים.’ (משלי ב)” יהיב להו גלימייהו, אמרו ליה, “עניי אנן, וטרחינן כולה יומא, וכפינן, ולית לן מידי!” אמר ליה, “זיל הב אגרייהו.” א”ל, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — ‘וארחות צדיקים תשמור’ (משלי ב)”:

Rabbah bar bar Chanan had some porters who broke his barrel of wine. He grabbed their cloaks. They went and told Rav. Rav said to [Rabbah] “Give them their cloaks.” He said to [Rav], “Is this the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘so that you will walk in the ways of the good’ (Mishlei 2:20)”. He gave them their cloaks. They said to him, “We are poor, and we labored all day, and now we are exhausted, and we don’t have anything!” [Rav] said to Raba, “Go give them their wages.” He said to [Rav], “Is that the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘and the way of the righteous you shall observe’ (ibid)”.

(In the parallel Yerushalmi [6:6 27a-b], the employer is R’ Nechemiah, who hires a single person to carry a pot [qadar]. R’ Nechemiah seizes his shirt, and the question comes before R Yosi bar Chanina.)

We also have the prohibition that is paradoxically phrased by the Ramban as banning being a “naval birshus haTorah — disgusting with the permission of the Torah.” Such as someone whose life revolves around the quest the next glatt kosher mehadrin min hamehadrin gourmet meal. Since it’s a prohibition implied by “Qedoshim tihyu — be holy”, you don’t really have the Torah’s permission. But there is no express specific halakhah. Usually I put a bracketed “[otherwise]” when translating this Ramban.

But that prohibition can be seen specifically in terms of a person’s relationship to their own souls, or to the Creator. Later in parashas Qedoshim the Torah lists interpersonal mitzvos and caps the specific duties with “ve’asisa hayashar vehatov – and you will do the upright and the good.” The Ramban explains that this is because the full scale of human interaction cannot be spelled out in a specific list of laws, so the generality is given.

The Rambam would refer to these mitzvos — the obligation to become holy, upright and good (as opposed to acting those ways) as hilkhos Dei’os.

\Start with the natural ethic, as described by Hillel — “that which you loathe do not do to your peers, that is the whole Torah”. But many of the things we think we or others would loathe, we would reassess if we had more complete insight into the human condition and foresight to know what would be best in the longest run. Realizing that, we continue Hillel’s words, “Now go learn!” further the ethic as implied by halakhah and described in aggadita.

I would therefore suggest that a definiton of Ethics compatible with the Torah’s worldview would be going lifnim mishuras hadin in a manner aimed at furthering the ethics of the Torah. The Torah’s ethics are in line with the ethics Hashem planted in our soul, but reflect His knowledge of situations and people, giving us more to rely on than our own understanding of the context.

Your thoughts?

Rav Wolbe’s World part II: Middos

This is the second part of a translation of Rav Shlomo Wolbezt”l‘s contribution to Bishvilei haRefu’ah [In the Paths of Medicine], volume 5, Sivan 5742, “Psychiatria veDat” [Psychiatry and Religion], section beis (pp 60-70). In this section, the Mashgiach prepares the background for the discussion by laying out his basic worldview, his view of the purpose of Torah and life, from a very Mussar-based perspective.
In part one we saw the Mashgiach’s idea that the world of Torah is a World of Yedidus [Affection / Dearness]. Halakhah is a tool to create an emotional bond between us and G-d, a bond between us and other people, and an internal bond and wholeness. Our generation is characterized by fear playing a central role in our lives, and this ill is a consequence of the lack of emotional connection which is manifest in a lack of trust and faith in G-d, and the distrustful way we interact with other people in general.
Now we continue at the three stars subdividing section beis, on page 65. Rav Wolbe now continues with a description of how we are to bring this world about.
Without harnessing Middos (inclinations, attitudes and character predispositions) to build yedidus, we tend to descend to the opposite extreme, cruelty. Free will does not go so far as to include the ability to create or destroy any of the soul’s powers, including one’s middos. Much of the battle within the soul and mind occurs without our awareness, among the physical desires and tendencies of our subconscious, and the spiritual longings of what Rav Wolbe calls our “super-conscious”. The Torah does not call on us to suppress or repress any of these powers, but to learn to use each in its appropriate time and constructively.
The following translation, section headings and footnotes are my own.

Alienation and Cruelty

The World of Yedidus is not an idealized world without any opposing forces. Forces of alienation stand in its way and constantly threaten to harm or even destroy it. The World of Yedidus is a unified world, built upon great closeness between a person and their Creator and between people and their peers. But there is a force within a person that does not want this closeness — estrangement that grows step by step until all connection to others is lost, and until it is the worst of all middos: akh-zariyus [pure alienation, an unpacking of the word akhzariyus, cruelty], that is to say, absolute alienation. The akh-zar person is happy to gloat over his peer, gets pleasure from his pain. The final step of alienation is that the person is a zar (a stranger) to himself and even akh-zari (cruel) to himself. (See at length in Wolbe, Bein Sheishes leAsor, Jerusalem 1976, the essay “Olam haYedidus” on p. 15 ff.)

We find in the Talmud (Shabbos 105b):

One who tears clothing in his fury, who breaks his vessels in his fury, or who scatters his money in his fury should be in your eyes like an idolator. Because such is the job of the evil inclination: today it says to him “do this” and tomorrow it says to him “do that”, until eventually it tells him “worship idols!” — and he goes and worships. Rav Avin said, “Where is the scripture (Where is this written in Tanakh)? ‘Do not have within you a zar (foreign) god’ — What is a foreign god who is within a person’s body? This says it is the evil inclination.”

This text outlines evil as a force of alienation. The Talmud here portrays the process of alienation which begins with a person’s alienation from himself through anger, and from there he reaches alienation from G-d — idolatry. It is not for naught that pagan gods are called by the term “avodah zarah” (foreign worship), to point to the source of the phenomenon in the power of zarus (alienation / foreignness).

Middos and Intellect

What is this process of alienation? There isn’t any power in the soul which is specifically evil (Naftali Wessley, Sefer haMidos part I, ch. 4). Every power has some place in the World of Yedidus. Even egotism and anger are necessary sometimes. When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary. However, in order to build the World of Yedidus, there has to be coordination of all the forces together, so that they work together in cooperation and a proper distribution of their duties.

The ruling power, which sets each of the other powers in their proper place, is the intellect, which is therefore the central power of yedidus in a person. (Cf. Kuzari, Rav Yehudah HaLeivi, 3:2 onward.) Without the rule of the intellect, there is no World of Yedidus. When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its boundaries and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control — this power alienates itself from the other powers and rebels against the intellect. This is where zarus begins, and that power thereby changes to become “evil.” This process is depicted in the Talmud quoted above with the example of anger. Elsewhere the Talmud depicts the same process of alienation with regard to sexual lust (which the Gemara describes as “[Rav said:] someone who intentionally stimulates himself [should be excommunicated. And why is it prohibited? Because he incites the evil inclination against himself.]” — Niddah 13b)

Free Will

Here we reach the question of free will. We explained that there is no power in a person that is specifically evil. We are able to use our powers to build the World of Yedidus, through the coordination of those powers by the intellect. The excessive use of one power or a rebellion against the intellect cause the destruction of the World of Yedidus. This choice is in the person’s hands, whether to choose yedidus or alienation. Indeed, he can choose.1

In the Talmud we find an example of this (Shabbos 156a): “A person born under the sign of Mars will be a person who sheds blood — a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer [for meat] or a mohel.” A person cannot change the basic attribute, in this example — the inclination to shed blood. But this attribute can be used for good, and the spectrum of possibilities is broad: he could be a doctor, a slaughterer or a mohel. Only the thief who won’t flinch from murder uses his attribute in a manner of alienation. Here we have an example of an extreme inclination, and there is still nothing that compels a person to be evil because of it. He has the choice to use it for more beneficial ends.

For the sake of completeness, we will give a historical example from our Sages on this topic (Yalkut Shimoni, Samuel I, 16:124):

When Samuel saw that David was “red”, he grew fearful. “This one will shed blood like Esau!” The Holy One said to him, “With beautiful eyes” — Esau killed by his own decision, but this one kills by the decision of the Sanhedrin!

In any case, there is a limit to choice; the basic inclination cannot be changed! In the above example, someone born with the inclination to shed blood cannot uproot this inclination. The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or to destroy it.2

Torah and Middos

Here the Torah comes to the aid of the intellect, to strengthen the person to choose good. The Torah of Israel wages an all-out war against all the forces of alienation. Therefore, first of all, “The intent of the Torah is to extend the intellect to all the desires of the soul, and to assert its power over them” (Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar Perishus, ch. 2). The intent is not to to suppress desires, but to put each force in its proper place. For that is the way of Torah in all its mitzvos. Torah has three pillars: “On three things the world stands — on Torah, on worship and on supporting kindness” — taught Shim’on haTzaddik (Avos 1:2). Learning Torah completes the person himself. Worshipping God — whether in the Beis haMikdash or with his prayer — connects us with the Holy One. Supporting through acts of kindness is yedidus toward the other. These are the parts of Torah.3

The Torah is also meticulous about subtle instances of alienation: “When you see your enemy’s donkey collapsing under its load, you refrain from removing it? You should surely remove it with him!” (Shemos 23:4-5) Ignoring damages to one’s peers is also alienation — “you may not hide!” (Devarim 22:3-4)

Subconscious and Super-Conscious

There is one last question for us to discuss: Does the Torah recognize the [existence of a] subconscious? The answer is in the affirmative. In the Tanakh we find that “Hashem [Tzevakos is a righteous judge] who examines the kidneys and heart” (Yirmiyahu 11:20). And the Talmud establishes, “the kidneys advise, the heart understands” (Berakhos 61a). The heart is the seat of the conscious, the kidneys — an idiom for the subconscious.

However, the subconscious known to Torah scholars is not that of Freud, which is created by the suppression of desires or unpleasant experiences. It is also not the unconscious of Jung, who believes in archetypes which reside in a collective unconscious. We must turn to the words of the Gra, “the Vilna Gaon”: “All of a person’s ways follow the original desire; the original desire as it initially arises is correct in his eyes.” (Commentary on Mishlei 16:1-2) As if to say, the desire is formed in such depths that our conscious has no dominion over them. The “I”4 that is known to us is only a very small part of the essence of a person. Hidden desire directs our ways — they are the “advising kidneys” in the idiom of Tanakh and our Sages, which we don’t directly feel in our activities. For the sake of brevity, we will have to refrain here from bringing examples from the Torah about how this “original desire” acts. Suffice it here to say that the hidden desire has the ability to strive for things of the body or the spirit.

From the Torah’s perspective, we would have to speak of a subconscious and also of a super-conscious. There are lofty desires which originate in the godly soul within us. They push us to ethical elevation and closeness to God, and they bring us to more lofty emotions. This spiritual original desire is appropriately called “super-conscious”, and we must leave the term “subconscious” for original desires that draw one to satisfy physical indulgences. The desires of our super-conscious are certainly no less strong than the desires of the subconscious. This understanding of super — and subconscious does not invalidate the mechanisms of repression. We already saw above that it was already known to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter 60 years before Freud. But the Torah understanding does contradict Freud in a sharp way in that he only finds the Libido in the subconscious, and in dreams which are the window into the subconscious, only sexual matters. (Cf. [Victor] Frankl’s writings, Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde, Stuttgart 1959, and Der Unbewusste Gott — Psychotherapie und Religion.)


Excursus: Jewish Mysticism

This is the right point to dwell briefly on Jewish Mysticism. Judaism does not recognize that which we call unio mystica.5 A creature could never be entirely unified with his Creator. A person can greatly purify himself through the power of his Torah and worship; he can lower and abnegate himself before his Creator until he feels God’s closeness to him, but he remains constantly aware of the great distance that is between creature and His Creator. Non-Jewish sources which speak of a unio mystica apparently refer to specific ecstatic states from within which they feel as though they are in union with God. Jewish mystical enlightenment.6 entirely negates the possibility of actual unity. However, there is a section of the Torah called “the esoteric Torah” which Kabbalah deals with. It is part of the Oral Torah like the Talmud. However, whereas there is an obligation on every Jew to learn Talmud, only “people of stature” involve themselves in “Kabbalah.” Until our generation there were Kabbalists who developed deep insights in the area of Kabbalah. We will briefly follow their means of innovation.

The Torah’s system has two axes: The horizontal axis are the practical mitzvos which obligate every Jewish individual — they create the World of Yedidus of the entire nation. The vertical axis — these are the ways of ascent of each person according to their ability. These ways of ascent are primarily built upon the service of the heart, like love for, yirah (awe-fear) of, attachment to [God], etc… The more a person delves into the depths of Torah, the more he feels the subtle nuances of holiness. These sublime powers we discussed aid a person in this. The more deeply he delves into Torah, the more these powers are strengthened within him. With this he can reach the point where in the purity of his heart and clarity of his mind he could grasp very deep knowledge of Godliness, the world, and humanity.

This is the direct opposite of ecstasy, where through the nullification of consciousness one sees visions of secret worlds. On the contrary, the conscious is in operation at the time of comprehension, and the Kabbalist feels with total certainty that he is grasping the truth. A superlative example of this is the Gra from Vilna, about whom those close to him were known to say that they sent him [angels] from heaven to reveal to him lofty secrets. He refused to accept these revelations, because his mind was only at rest with ideas that he himself established with his study (introduction by Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner to the Gra’s commentary on Sifra deTzeneiu’sa, p. 4).

Therefore the person of Torah can reach purity of thought and sacred behavior until he merits sublime understanding and truths that reach the depths of creation. But this is the exclusive realm of the Torah of Israel. Psychiatry cannot bring one to these kinds of spiritual states, and also one cannot benefit from the ideas which are revealed in them.

  1. I believe this is why it was so important for Rabbi Wolbe to assert in the prior installment that everything has its role in creation, buttressing it with an entire digression about even insanity serving its purpose. As he quoted, “Despise no one and disdain nothing, for there is no person who does not have his moment and there is nothing that does not have its place” (Avos 4:3). Every inclination and power of the soul has its role. Therefore the Torah does not compel us to suppress any of them, rather it teaches us how to find its purpose within the ultimate goal of a World of Yedidus. []
  2. Maimonides famously describes the proper tuning for each inclination to be the Middle Measure (Code, Laws of Dei’os 1:2). The Orchos Tzadikim (introduction) likens it to a recipe or a meal; some ingredients, such as the meat, is desired in large quantities, others, like salt, in far smaller ones. We saw this kind of description in the previous essay, when Rabbi Wolbe writes, “When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its limits and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control…”

    However, it is notable that his primary focus in both that section and the current one is not so much the quantity or intensity of each inclination, but coordinating when and how each is used. As when he writes, “When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary.” Or as we find here, “The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or destroy it.” []

  3. Note that these are also the three forms of relationship that Rav Wolbe earlier said characterize the World of Yedidus.

    There is an interesting comparison here between Rabbi Wolbe’s model and those of two earlier figures of the 20th century.

    Rabbi Shimon Shkop (introduction to Shaarei Yosher) also speaks of the goal of the Torah in terms of the person who is connected to others:

    The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people… And there are higher levels of this in a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and (even) all of creation.

    However, Rabbi Shkop’s notion is more radical; his perspective is outright humanistic. Spirituality is only the second step in a progression towards connecting to all of humanity. He opens by telling us, that God “planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator…”

    Similarly, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum’s Ha-Olim Society carried a three-part motto of “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres” to parallel Shimon haTzaddik’s three pillars. Translating, it called for “knowledge (of God), compassion (toward others), and a splendorous harmony (within).” And yet, he too gave his vision a very humanistic hue (Yavneh, year 3, issue 156-157 — Kisleiv-Teiveis 5691, published in Lemberg, p. 8-9). He describes Hashem’s Good as flowing from under the Throne of Glory and our job to aid its bestowal on ourselves and others. This requires being close to Him and thus connected to the Source, compassionate and thereby connected to others, and to form and master ourselves to become conduits through which that Good can flow.

    Whereas R’ Wolbe makes each kind of relationship — God, others and self — equally primary, both of these earlier thinkers speak of the value of relating to God and being whole in ourselves as deriving (at least in part, although possibly in total) from their being necessary to properly assist others. []

  4. Perhaps: “Ego” in the Freudian sense. []
  5. The Latin is in the original: a mystical union between the practitioner and God. []
  6. Behirus means mystical enlightenment, in contrast with Haskalah. []

Rav Wolbe’s World part I: Yedidus

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was a transitional figure in Jewish thought, presenting pre-Holocaust yeshiva mussar to students steeped in modern Charedi idiom. A German-born, university-educated ba’al teshuvah, he studied in one of the premier East European yeshivas and became a Mussar devotee, eventually marrying the daughter of R. Avraham Grodzinski, the martyred mashgiach of the famous Slobodka yeshiva. Until his passing in 2005, R. Wolbe disseminated a unique, sophisticated version of traditional Mussar that spoke directly to the concerns of traditional yeshiva students while still attracting university-educated newcomers to Orthodoxy.

In two installments, I will be translating part of an important essay in which R. Wolbe lays out his basic worldview. Our text is a 1982 article titled “Psychiatria veDat” [Psychiatry and Religion]” that Rav Wolbe contributed to a Torah journal published by Laniado Hospital in Kiryat Sanz (Bishvilei haRefu’ah [In the Paths of Medicine], volume 5, Sivan 5742). We will be examining the second section of that article (pp. 60-70), in which R. Wolbe discusses the purpose of Torah and life, from his Mussar-based perspective.

In this first installment, R. Wolbe describes the world of Torah as a World of Yedidus (affection, closeness). Halakhah gives us a set of tools. Mussar and the “Torah of the Heart” show us how to use those tools to develop personal relationships with God, other people, and an internal bond with our own souls that are characterized by that yedidus. Rather than stifling the spirit, Torah unleashes it.

(In part ii, Rav Wolbe explains how the Torah views the human makeup and how we are equipped to make this world manifest.)

The following translation, section headings and footnotes are my own.


A World of Affection
If we wish to outline the Torah of Israel in great brevity, literally “on one foot,”1 we would call it: “a world of yedidus” (affection). A great closeness predominates between Israel and God. “You are close, Hashem” (Tehillim 119:151) The Nation of Israel is called “His close nation” (Tehillim 148:14). The Jew does not approach God with celebration like to a god who is a rare, exalted guest, but like a son who approaches his loving and devoted father. A typical statement in the Talmud (Menachos 53a):

[God said:] “Let the yedid (dear one) the son of a yedid come and build a yedid for a Yedid in the portion of a yedid and the yedidim will be atoned with it.”

“Let the yedid come” — this is King Solomon (… [called] “Yedidyah…”) “the son of a yedid” — this is Avraham.… “And build a yedid” — this is the Beis ha-Mikdash (“How much yedidus have Your Tabernacles…” Tehillim 84:2). “For a Yedid” — this is HaKadosh barukh Hu (… “I will sing to my yedid” Yeshaiah 5:1). “In the portion of a yedid” — this is Binyamin ( … “[to Binyamin he said] ‘Hashem’s yedid…'” Devarim 33:12) “and the yedidim will be atoned with it” — they are Israel….

This closeness is not uni-directional. Not only did Avraham and subsequent generations draw themselves close to the Holy One, but He also draws Himself close to us. He gave us His Torah and rested His Shechinah on us. The clear feeling of Hashem’s closeness — which is called Shechinah — accompanies us in all periods: “Every place where they were exiled — the Shechinah was exiled with them” (Megillah 29a). This closeness is pervasive in all areas of life and even gratifies one’s physical life. The closeness between Israel and the Holy One establishes a yedidus and closeness between a person and his friends, which is what Hillel the Elder answered the non-Jew who wanted to convert on the condition that [Hillel] teach him the entire Torah “while he stands on one foot.”2 Hillel said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend — this is the entire Torah, and the rest is its explanation. Go study!” (Shabbos 31a). We see the central point of the Torah: “Fellowship”! This establishes a very close bond with each Jew, behavior in accord with the “ways of peace”3 with all people, caution against causing pain to any living being, and a positive relationship toward everything in the Holy One’s world. This finds expression in the maxim, “Despise no one and disdain nothing, for there is no person who does not have his moment and there is nothing that does not have its place” (Avos 4:3).


Excursus: Everything Has a Place, Even Insanity4

It should be stated quickly that our Sages also saw mental illness from this perspective. This is why they said (Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel 1:21 #131):

“He made everything beautiful in its time” (Koheles 3:11) — everything the Holy One made in His world is beautiful. David said before the Holy One, “Master of the universe, everything that You made in your world is beautiful. Wisdom is the most beautiful of everything. Except for insanity; what benefit exists in this insane person? A person walks in the marketplace, tears his clothing and children laugh at him and run after him, and the people laugh at him — this is pleasant before You?” The Holy One said to him, “David, you call a challenge over insanity?! By your life, you will need it!… You will be pained and pray for it until I give some [insanity] to you.” David didn’t do anything but [immediately] went to the Philistines… The Holy One said to him, “You are going to Akhish [the Philistine ruler of Gath]? Yesterday you killed Goliath and today you go by his brothers with his sword in your hand, and his brothers are Askhish’s bodyguards. The blood of Goliath hasn’t yet dried!” When David reached Askhish, they came to Askhish and said to him, “Let us kill the one who killed our brother!” … At that point David became afraid… he started to pray and said, “Master of the universe, answer me at this time!” The Holy One said to him, “David, what do you request?” He said to Him, “Give me some of that thing [insanity]!”… He made himself like that insane person, writing on doors, “Akhish the king of Gath owes me 10,000, and his wife — fifty [thousand]….….” Akhish said to them, “You know I am short on fools?”, as it says, “Do you think I lack crazy people?” (Shmuel I 21:16)

As is well known, in this way David was then saved. Our Sages didn’t reveal to us the reason, the need for which God created mental illness in the world. They only said that David questioned the existence of mental illness and through this he entered the domain of “despise it.”5 His punishment was that he himself needed to appear like a mentally ill person in order to be saved. Our Sages implied to us with this that even the mentally ill have a place in the Holy One’s world. Let us return to our topic.…


Torah, Halakhah and Yedidus

When we enter the world of Torah, we find ourselves in the world of yedidus. This yedidus is not an abstract theory. The Torah speaks in the language of action: It gives us commandments. They are what establish the connections between a person and his Creator, between a person and his peers, and between a person and himself.

Here there isn’t merely a religious ritual but a lifestyle that encompasses all aspects of life. All the mitzvos, even though they are many, would still remain isolated points in the broad expanse of life if it were not for the thread that ties it all together, and like a faint web which actually surrounds all the situations of life: this network is the halakhah. The Talmud from which we draw practical rulings is not a collection of stringent decrees but a profound and specific wisdom. As the Rambam expressed, “Its way [of halakhah] is exceedingly deep” (introduction to Mishneh Torah). This wisdom is not the privilege of rabbis; every Jew is invited to take part in it.

Halakhah is the workshop of the Jewish lifestyle. One who stands on the outside would perhaps think that the mitzvos and halakhah do not leave space for an emotional life and stifles individual development. Later we will see that this is not the case. Of course, the Torah does not declare that the spirit is a hostile power to the soul, as [Ludwig] Klages[6. Ludwig Klages (1872-1956) was a German philosopher and psychologist.] thinks. On the contrary, the spirit completes the soul. Halakhah guides a person even in confusing and unusual situations in a sober, objective manner without giving the person the feeling of being alienated. That approach which characterizes the modern psychologist’s relationship to his patient is precisely the approach of halakhah and [its] decisors, even to questions about ethical failings. Instead of causing a person to be mired in guilt feelings, halakhah determines how to behave and fix his failings according to his abilities.

The Torah of the Heart

The high road of Judaism is halakhah. However, a unique segment established for itself the “Torah of the Heart.” Its fabric was woven by the prophets and poets (Tehillim!), the masters of agadata in the Talmud and Midrashim, philosophers and kabbalists. Two later developments in this area are the Chassidic (established by R’ Yisrael the “Baal Shem Tov,” 1700-1760) and Mussar (established by R’ Yisrael Lipkin — Salanter, 1808-1882) Movements. Emotion occupies a central position in Chassidus; the sublime experience of communal unity around the Chassidic Master, and the encouragement and paternal supervision of the Chassidic Master — the rebbe for his chassidim — are the mainstays of Chassidus.

In the Mussar Movement, too, emotion occupies a central position. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter emphasized that a person could not reach sheleimus (wholeness) if he doesn’t straighten out his subconscious forces. He calls these “dark forces.”6 (Rav Yitzchak Blazer’s Or Yisrael, ch. 6) His classical example:

A man has a wild son whom he hates because of [the child's] belligerence, and an excellent and very beloved student. The son and the student live in the same room. A fire breaks out in the house and the father-teacher rushes to rescue the two youths. He runs to their room, and who does he save first? His son, even though he hates him. His love for [the son] was suppressed into the subconscious, but in the chaos of the danger it overcomes the love of the student that was in his conscious. (Even Yisrael, Jerusalem 1954, p. 62) (These things were written some 60 years before Freud!)

Rav Yisrael Salanter further found that the subconscious forces are not influenced by intellectual persuasion alone, but specifically by hispa’alus [working on oneself experientially and emotionally] (Or Yisrael, ch. 30). (This principle is also known from psychoanalytic technique, and as already said — Rav Yisrael preceded it by sixty years!) We achieve this hispa’alus through Mussar study “with the soul’s feeling and the spirit’s storm” (Ibid., “The Mussar Letter,” [ch. 10]) in other words, self-study. The Mussar Movement also created an institution like the Chassidic Rebbe in respect to authority and stature–the spiritual dean of the Lithuanian Yeshiva (called “The Mashgiach”). He guides his students with Mussar talks, small working groups, and a close personal connection with the students.

We tried to portray, in a nutshell, the “World of Yedidus” of Judaism. In practice, every congregation that Jews establish, on foundations of its assistance and the mutual feelings of responsibility of the community members, makes a microcosm of the “World of Yedidus.” Here we have a complete lifestyle based on the mitzvos of the Torah, enhanced by halakhah and the Torah of the heart and feeling.

Yedidus vs. Fear

It can be said that the fundamental feeling of someone who lives in the world of Torah is bitachon—trust. “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid!” (Yeshaiah 12:2) Or, “[A psalm] of David: Hashem is my light and salvation, of whom would I fear? Hashem is the stronghold of my life, of whom would I be afraid?” (Tehillim 27:1) This is the spirit that blows through all of the Holy Scriptures — and in the Jewish home established in the World of Yedidus of Torah.

It is clear that the cold world that is embedded in “the battle of life,” which is essentially materialistic, is fertile ground for fear. It is not coincidence that fear is a common theme for modern philosophy and psychology. Martin Heidegger claims that fear is man’s basic sense in the world (Sein u. Zeit). There is no need to point out the broad space that fear occupies in psychology and psychiatry. Perhaps fear is the stigma of our generation. It is made that way by the economic faithlessness and certainly also the development of nuclear arsenal. But there is no doubt that also the loss of faith in God is a strong cause for the spread of fear. A person born and raised in the “World of Yedidus” knows and feels that the main existential feeling is not fear but specifically yedidus. (Of course, these explanations are not said about fears caused by trauma in one’s youth or the like, but in existential fears like the feelings of life’s emptiness.)

  1. This idiom, “on one foot”, is a reference to an exchange in the Talmud later retold in this article between Hillel the Elder and a conversion candidate. It is usually taken in accord with the literal translation: that the explanation is quick, fitting within the time someone could balance standing on one foot. However, it could also mean “foot” idiomatically: to explain a major concept using a single foundational principle. This second interpretation also fits here and in the Talmud. []
  2. Or, a demand that Hillel teach him the entire Torah as stemming from a single principle. See above, footnote 1. []
  3. An idiom used in a number of places, e.g. Mishnah, Gittin 5:8-9; BT Sotah 61a, describing our duty to uphold peace and amicable relations, both among Jews and in our relationship to non-Jews. []
  4. I presume this paragraph was added because of its role in the larger paper. Insanity does not play a central part of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe’s worldview, but here serves to highlight the contrast between how psychology and Torah view the world. Everything has its place, as Rabbi Wolbe was saying. Mental illness is a means of pulling a person, in this case King David, toward yedidus. Insanity is not only something to be cured and disposed of, but first poses an opportunity for growth. Perhaps this growth happens by overcoming the malady, perhaps in another way — “our sages didn’t reveal to us the reason and need.” []
  5. By denying the value of insanity, he violated the previously cited dictum from Avos of “Despise no one and disdain nothing.” []
  6. Emanuel Kant refers to unconscious aspects of our thoughts as occurring in der dunkel, the dark. []

Mixed Motives

See the value of a single mitzvah, even if performed for primarily ulterior motives!

From Yerushalmi Qiddushin 22b:

א”ר יוחנן: אם שמעת דבר מר’ ליעזר בנו של ר”י הגלילי, נקב אזנך כאפרכס. הזו ושמע דאמר רבי יוחנן, ר’ ליעזר בנו של רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר: אפי’ תשע ומאות ותשעים ותשעה מלאכים מלמדין עליו חובה, ומלאך אחד מלמד עליו זכות, הקב”ה מכריעו לכף זכות. ולא סוף דבר כל אותו המלאך. אלא אפילו תשע מאות ותשעים ותשעה צדדין מאותו המלאך מלמדין עליו חובה, וצד אחד מאותו המלאך מלמד עליו זכות, הקב”ה מכריעו לכף זכות.

מה טעם? “אִם-יֵשׁ עָלָיו מַלְאָךְ מֵלִיץ אֶחָד מִאָלֶף” אין כתיב, אלא “אֶחָד מִנִּי-אָלֶף” מאלף לצדדין של אותו מלאך.

Rav Yochanan said: If you hear something from Rav Leizer the son of Rav Yosi haGelili, place a hearing tube in your ear. Attend and hear that R’ Yochanan said that R’ Leizer the son of Rav Yosi haGelili would say: Even if 999 angels find fault in him, and one angel finds merit in him, the Holy One allocates him to the side of merit. And it doesn’t end with all of that one angel! Rather, even 999 aspects of that angel [also] find fault in him, and one side of that angel find merit. The Holy One [still] allocates him to the side of merit!

What’s the source? It doesn’t say, “If there is one defending angel from 1,000 [mei'alef]“. Rather it says, “one of a thousandth [mini-alef]” (Iyov 33:23) Of the thousand aspects of that one angel.

So, a person who created 999 prosecuting angels by his sins but did one mitzvah, and even that mitzvah was primarily due to bad ulterior motives — so that only 1/1000th of the resulting angel (one one millionth of the angelic retinue) can defend him, Hashem will still take that tiny spark of good and judge the person as meritorious!

The Rambam, Knowledge and Akrasia

(Version 3.)

In the previous entry, I wrote: “Rav SR Hirsch argues that the Rambam only failed to find the meaning to the details of the mitzvos because his assumption that mitzvos serve to either (a) teach true monotheism, (b) wean us away from idolatry, or (c) create a society which enables us in these pursuits is based on Aristotle’s emphasis on abstract knowledge rather than the Torah’s emphasis on ethics and personal refinement.” And that this orientation came from the Rambam’s embracing of Greek Thought, and its placement of knowledge as central to the human quest.

We saw quotes from Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 8  that the Rambam considers the cause of eternal existence in the World to Come and of all of the Torah’s blessings to be the soul’s knowledge of G-d.

Similarly, when they said that the righteous people have crowns on their heads they were referring to the knowledge because of which they inherited a place in the World To Come. This knowledge is always with them, as is their crown, as Solomon said, “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him.” It is also written, “and everlasting joy shall be upon their head”—this is not physical pleasure that they will receive, but the crown of the Sages, i.e. knowledge. When they said that they will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence they meant that they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry bodies.
Whenever the word “soul” is mentioned, it does not mean the soul-body combination but the actual soul itself, which is the understanding given by the Creator and which causes other understandings and actions. …

This theme of the primacy of philosophical grasp of G-d is so central to the Moreh, it both opens and closes on this point. Quoting 1:1, on man’s creation in G-d’s image (demus):

As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared–though only apparently, not in truth–to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.

And continuing in 1:2, when he discusses how this image was sullied by the sin of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge:

… Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Tehillim 8:6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Bereishis 3:6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper….

It is also the thesis of the closing chapter, 5:54:

The ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection.

 

The first kind, the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property; the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like; the possession of the title of a great king belongs to this class. There is no close connexion between this possession and its possessor…

 

The second kind is more closely related to man’s body than the first. It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of mans body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim…

 

The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connexion whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.

 

The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man. Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others; according to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours; no one else owns any part of it, “They shall be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee” (Mishlei 5:17). Your aim must therefore be to attain this [fourth] perfection that is exclusively yours, and you ought not to continue to work and weary yourself for that which belongs to others, whilst neglecting your soul till it has lost entirely its original purity through the dominion of the bodily powers over it. The same idea is expressed in the beginning of those poems, which allegorically represent the state of our soul. “My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Shir haShirim 1:6). Also the following passage refers to the same subject, “Lest thou give thine honor unto others, and thy years unto the cruel” (Mishlei 5:9)….

In my humble opinion, Rav Hirsch’s critique stands, but the Rambam’s distance from other rishonim is greatly diminished by taking the his explanation of akrasia (ἀκρασία) into account. Akrasia is an ancient Greek term that means “lacking command [of oneself]“. I still see the consequences that bother Rav Hirsch standing, though.

As a philosophical term, the question of akrasia was posed by Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras, who asks how it is possible that someone can know that action A to be the best course of action, and yet may end up actually doing something other than A? Central to the Mussar perspective is that religion is about akrasia — not only theoretical moral knowledge, but having the character by which one’s behavior reflects that knowledge.

In Plato’s opinion (which most assume was that of the historical Socrates as well), akrasia can only be the product of ignorance about the realities of the situation, or about what is the person’s best interest. In other words, bad decisions come from ignorance.

Aristotle breaks down the problem into two — a failure of opinion, or a failure of appetite (desires of the body). Rather than being due to ignorance, opinion is subjective, a produce of disposition.

I mention the Greek debate as a backdrop to explaining how I see the Rambam’s position. Yes, the Rambam values philosophical knowledge in a way that is atypical for the mesorah. In particular in his placing it as more important than moral refinement. However, he also fuses such knowledge to our ability to be moral beings in an way other baalei mesorah do not.

In “Text & Texture“, the RCA blog, R’ Alex Sztuden suggests answers from R’ JB Soloveitchik’s writings to questions given on R’ Soloveitchik’s 1936 final exam in Jewish Philosophy. (Thereby showing that these questions were ones R’ Soloveitchik considered during much of his life.) The first question, which had two parts:

I.a. What is the basic idea of the “Intellectualist Theory” of the religious act?

In Halakhic Mind (41-43), the Rav distinguishes between 3 different views of emotional states (and by implication, of religious states):

1.       Emotions are non-cognitive. They do not express any facts or statements about the world. In a footnote, the Rav cites Hume as a typical example of this view: “Hume denied the intentional character of our emotional experiences: ‘A passion is an original existence…and contains not any representative quality which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. When I am angry, I am actually possessed with the passion, and in that emotion have no more a reference to any other object, than when I am thirsty, or sick or five feet tall…’” (116, footnote 49).

2.       Emotions have a cognitive component. In fact, “every intentional act is implicitly a cognitive one…by way of simple illustration, the statement ‘I love my country’ may be broken down into three components: I. There exists a country – predication; II. This object is worthy of my love – valuation; [and] III. I love my country – consummation of the act.” (43). According to the Rav, I. (“There exists a country”) is a statement of fact that is in effect contained by and in the emotion. Emotions are not irrational outpourings of the heart. They make claims about the world.

3.       Emotions are cognitive, but they are confused ideas. This is the Intellectualist Theory of Emotions (and religious states). “Of course, the intellectualistic school, regarding the emotional and volitional activities as modi cogitandi, had to admit some relationship between them and the objective sphere. Owing, however to the contempt that philosophers and psychologists had for the emotional act which they considered an idea confusa…”

b. What are the conclusions? Criticism.

The intellectualist theory correctly perceived that emotions were cognitive, but incorrectly assumed that they were inferior forms of cognition, confused ideas. For the Rav, all psychic states are intentional, and religious acts therefore contain a cognitive component, subject to elaboration, refinement and critique on its own terms.

The Rambam appears to follow the position that Aristotle’s primary focus in answering the problem of akrasia is on our holding bad opinions. Of the three answers to 1b, the Rambam appears to answer “3. Emotions are cognitive.” I think this shows through in his naming “hilkhos dei’os“, his discussion of what we today call “middos“,  words that literally mean “laws of opinions”.

In Litvish and Yekkish derakhim, they define self-completion in ethical, moral, and personal refinement terms. Even Litvaks, with their/our emphasis on learning, expect the immersion in learning to cause a character change by the miqvah-like experience of learning — not by the knowledge. See the opening chapters of Nefesh haChaim cheileq 4. (Yes, that really is an online copy of NhC that those words link to!) This is how R’ Chaim Volozhiner emphasizes the lishmah experience rather than the knowledge gained. Something the Rambam’s approach wouldn’t allow for — the more you know of G-d, the greater your soul. The Rambam describes the hoi paloi whose beliefs never get beyond the 13 principles of emunah as possessing a  nefesh qetanah, literally possessing smaller souls. Because it is knowledge, not the experience of gaining knowledge, which is essential in the Rambam’s worldview.

According to Aristotle, the Rambam, and to a lesser extent R’ Saadia Gaon, the goal is knowledge. It’s not just that knowledge prevents akrasia, that the person who knows G-d well will not sin. But it’s the knowledge itself that is the highest perfection. We usually speak about imitating G-d in order to know how one should give tzedaqah. The Rambam would have you give an a poor person “dei machsero — according to what he lacks” in order to emulate and thereby better understand the Creator.

Now let’s add in another factor. The Rambam had confidence in philosophical proofs above other forms of justification.  This is in contrast to the position of rishonim like R’ Yehudah haLevi and R’ Chasdai Crescas, as well as running against the general trend of contemporary philosophy and the field of psychology. To quote from my post “The Kuzari Proof, part I” (in which I argue that the Kuzari itself argues against the so-called “Kuzari Proof” — because he rejects dependence on philosophical proof altogether):

Rabbi Prof. Shalom Carmy posted something similar to Avodah:

People who throw around big words on these subjects always seem to take for granted things that I don’t.

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.

Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

R’ Gil Student posted the following quote from Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe, pp. 25-26, 28-30 on Hirhurim:

Since Kant, these proofs [of God's existence] have been heavily assailed…. Many theologians, nowadays, accept the validity of these refutations and admit that there can be no proof of God in the sense that there can be no proof of a mathematical formula… But they go on to remark that we can be convinced of a thing beyond of a shadow of a doubt by means other than that of mathematical proof. There is no such proof, for instance, of the existence of other human beings beside ourselves, yet we are convinced that they do exist… In other words a distinction must be drawn between proof and conviction — proof is one of the ways to conviction but there are other ways, too…

Many have arrived at this conviction as the result of a personal experience which convinces them that God exists. These men would rule out of court the very discussion of whether God exists, for, they would say, if a man is truly in love he does not ask himself if he is in love. The experience of God’s Presence is sufficient…

Combining the Rambam’s emphasis on knowledge and his position that philosophical proof is the surest way to know something, we can see why to the Rambam:

1. Emunah is knowing things philosophically.

2. It is through such knowledge that one gains persistence after death, that one enters the World to Come.

Both of these notions are expressed in his introduction to his commentary to chapter Cheileq (Sanhedrin ch. 11), and are made his foundation for making his famous list of 13 Articles of Faith. The mishnah upon which he comments says that “All Israel has a place in the world to come”, and then Maimonides adds that only those who believe these articles, and not just by faith but via philosophical proof, are “Israel” in this context.

3. Ahavas Hashem is wanting to know more about Him philosophically. Quoting Yesodei haTorah 2:1-2:

וְהֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ, וְיִרְאָתוֹ:  בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים, וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶם חָכְמָתוֹ שְׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ–מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד “צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי, לֵא-לֹהִים–לְאֵ-ל חָי” (תהילים מב,ג).

And what is the way to love Him and be in awe/fear of Him? When a person contemplates His acts, His amazing and great creations, and his wisdom sees from them that there is no length or end to it, immediately he loves, praises, glorifies, and desires with a great desire to know [His] great Name/Reputation. As David said (Tehillim 42:3), “My soul thirsts for G-d, for the ‘Living’ G-d.”

Love comes from and is a draw to knowledge, not an experiential relationship with the Almighty. (See my post on Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah, on how others balance the philosophical transcendent and the experiential immanent.)

Similarly from the third mitzvah in Sefer haMitzvos (tr. David Guttman):

היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג – וזוהי האהבה המצווה [עלינו].

The third mitzvah is that we were commanded to love Him. [Meaning] that we should contemplate and look into His commandments and His actions so that we apprehend Him, thus experiencing [lit: enjoying] the ultimate enjoyment through that apprehension of him. That is the love that we were commanded.

4. Providence is a function of how well one knows about G-d. The Moreh (3:17) argues that only people get providence, and (3:18) the borders of who is a person with regard to providence are blurry. Greater knowledge of Hashem earns one more providence. To quote:

It is an established fact that species have no existence except in our own minds. Species and other classes are merely ideas formed in our minds, whilst everything in real existence is an individual object, or an aggregate of individual objects. This being granted, it must further be admitted that the result of the existing Divine influence, that reaches mankind through the human intellect, is identical with individual intellects really in existence…

… and so on. We’re talking about what the Rambam calls the fourth and highest kind of perfection — knowledge, and in particular knowledge through philosophical proof.

Today’s Daas Torah

Here’s a theory that I developed recently [when this was posted in its first, much shorter, version on 26-Nov-04]…

The gemara uses the term “da’as Torah” in a sense totally different than today’s usage. It appears once, in Chullin 90b, to ask whether a cited opinion on a halachic matter was from sources, which it calls “da’as Torah“, or whether it is the tanna‘s own conclusion, da’as atzmo. Orthodoxy requires giving rabbis authority on halachic questions. And it’s not overly novel to say that such authority doesn’t come from just formal knowledge, but also having a feel for the material and perspective caused by long exposure to Torah. Otherwise, someone with a good CD should be able to out-pasqen a learned rav who relies on his own memory. But it’s ironic that we call this feel “da’as Torah“, since it is an instance of what the gemara identified in contrast to da’as Torah.

It is also not overly controversial to extend this authority to Torah questions that aren’t halachic, such as questions of philosophy or identifying appropriate areas for going lifnim mishuras hadin (beyond the letter of the law).

Where da’as Torah as meant by the contemporary usage hits shakier ground is when it’s extended in the other direction: pragmatic questions where the unknowns revolve around the facts on the ground rather than the Torah issues. Such as most career or shidduch questions. After all, the gemara advises the rabbinate to leave military questions to the generals. Should we not leave medical ones to the doctors, career questions to career counselors — or at least people who work in the jobs in question?

The extension of da’as Torah from the Talmudic usage is first found in R’ Yisra’el Salanter’s Or Yisra’el. In Mussar, it’s about the role of Torah in personal development. Yes, his formulation justified approaching the rav on non-halachic issues by noting that every decision has impact on which life experiences one has, and in turn on one’s mussar growth. Someone who chooses to consult a rav who knows their personality and in which ways they’re trying to grow, could use the insight.

However, robbed of the connection to Mussar, the original motivation is gone and the term has a totally knew meaning. What’s called “da’as Torah” today often involves approaching a gadol who doesn’t know the asker well enough to give such mashgi’ach-style help. Or even if one’s own rosh yeshivah, it could be done even years after their daily contact. Not at all what Rav Yisra’el was describing.

Rav Yisra’el does ascribe importance to the effect of Torah on shaping the thought of the one who learns it. If I may add, the word da’as is not merely zikaron (memory), but knowledge that both comes from chokhmah and binah, but is also at times replaced by the sefirah of keser which is their cause. Knowledge that comes from thought, and shapes thought.

The current conceptualization of da’as Torah relies entirely on this notion, which Rav Yisra’el cited as buttress for why one should seek about Mussar advice. Without it being about Mussar advice, and fitting in one’s plan to shteig, to ascend the ladder, da’as Torah is a totally new invention.

Yes, da’as Torah should give the rav better ability to analyze questions than the asker, or anyone else whose mind lacks that Torah development. However, does that ability compensate for not having as many of the facts about which to reason — including the da’as (if I may use my own conceit) of the topic at hand? My personal opinion is, rarely. HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein makes this point far more scathingly in a talk to Yeshivat Har Etzion titled “אם דעת אין, מנהיגות מנין?”, available in Hebrew here, and in unauthorized translation by Joseph Faith titled “If There Is No ‘Da’at,’ How Can We Have Leadership?”, here.

So we’re discussing rabbinic authority in three different domains:

  • Pesaq halakhah, where (barring grievous errors discernible to all, mistakes in zil q’ri bei Rav) it is binding.
  • Spiritual guidance, as proposed by Rav Yisrael Salanter. The advice is certainly of value, (not being legal) is not binding.
  • Guidance where the primary question involves unknowns about the logistics of the situation. That if we understood what was involved better, the religious dictates would be obvious.

There is obvious gray area, in fact, I identified a minimum of two:

  1. The line between what is a bad idea in terms of values and what is halachically prohibited is complex. In his famous commentary on “you shall be holy“, the Ramban coins the phrase “menuval bireshus haTorah — disgusting but with the permission of the Torah”, and tells us it is prohibited. But if it’s prohibited, how is it “bireshus haTorah“? His point, following the Toras Kohanim before him, is that not everything that which is permitted by the Torah’s black-letter law is actually permissible in practice. For each person to know when and how to follow the obligation to go lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the black-letter law, is in a way halachic, and in a way aggadic.
  2. When we do not know all the facts of a situation and have to work only with probabilities, we are doing risk assessment. Risk is a combination of both the odds, and the gains or costs if the situation comes to pass — probability and religious merit merged into one. Knowing which risks are halachicly acceptable, and which long-shot opportunities we are allowed to ignore is itself a religious assessment.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel of America’s spokesman, described the mechanism of da’as Torah in the terms I described above in an article in the the New York Jewish Week:

Da’at Torah is not some Jewish equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. Not only can rabbis make mistakes of judgment, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that they can, that even the Sanhedrin is capable of erring, even in halachic matters. What Da’at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews – just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice.

I would have thought that this yeshivish conception is to be distinguished from the chassidic belief in the ru’ach haqodesh (holy inspiration) Hashem grants tzadiqim, so that their decisions even in non-Torah matters is of value. One is about the quality of mind, the other about Divine Aid given people who carry their kehillos‘ burdens. There it’s from Hashem, the rebbe‘s own knowledge is irrelevant so this objection wouldn’t apply. One either believes the help is granted freely, or less so. However, here is how Rabbi Bernard Weinberger describes da’as Torah back in the second issue of Jewish Observer (1963). To him, da’as Torah is:

a lot more than Torah weltanschauung or a Torah saturated perspective. It assumes a special endowment or capacity to penetrate objective reality, recognize the facts as they ‘really’ are, and apply pertinent Halachic principles. It is a form of ‘Ruach HaKodesh,’ as it were, which borders if not remotely on the periphery of prophecy.

(According to the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed 3:36, one might be justified in identifying the two. Prophecy is a natural faculty of an intellect developed enough to receive it. But then, today’s da’as Torah has come out against learning the Guide… ☺)

But even among Chassidim, the near-prophetic version of trust in rabbeim was originally resisted. Here is the Tanya’s description, from Igeres haQodesh #22 (notice the contrast between the close of this quote to the last words I quoted from Rabbi Weinberger):

Has such a thing ever happened in days past? Where indeed have you found such a custom in any of the books of the early or latter sages of Israel, that it should be the custom and established norm to ask for advice in mundane matters, as to what one ought to do in matters of the physical world?

[Such questions were not asked] even of the greatest of the former sages of Israel, such as the tannaim and amoraim, the authors of the Mishnah and the Gemara, “from whom no secret was hidden,” and “for whom all the paths of heaven were clearly illuminated,” but only of actual prophets who used to live among the Jewish people, such as Samuel the Seer to whom Saul went to inquire of G-d through him about the donkeys that his father had lost.

Why, indeed, were sages of stature such as the tannaim and amoraim not asked about mundane matters? For in fact all matters pertaining to man, except for words of Torah and the fear of heaven, are apprehended only by prophecy.

The other issue that is different than R’ Yisra’el’s original formulation is a shift to an all-or-nothing. Something “the gedolim” have that the rest of us lack. Rather, it ought to be relative. Whomever learned more Torah should be more shaped by it; whomever less, less. This artificial division into have and have-not has returned back to affect the core of Torah questions, halakhah. The local shul rav lost most of his authority, both in his mispallelim‘s eyes and in his own, as he’s from the have-not class. Many local rabbanim are merely conduits, forwarding all but the most trivial questions to their rashei yeshiva.

By making such a class, “the gedolim“, as opposed to speaking of relative greatness, the community is subtly guided toward believing that da’as Torah is monolithic. And with a bit of unconscious circular reasoning, this is made true. The definition of da’as Torah is made to be the conclusion of the gedolim and the definition of who is a gadol is restricted by who agrees with the accepted answer.

This is so well accepted that authors and publishers can not put out histories that disprove such unity of thought. If it’s told that the Netziv read the newspaper on Shabbos, or allowed secular studied in Vilozhin, or that fellows in Salbodka argued issues like Communism, Freud, or the other hot topics of their time, the hoi polloi will question the rav‘s greatness, which raises problems of shemiras halashon. Even when from an unimpeachable source, like the Torah Temimah or R’ Noson Kamenetzky. It’s not a judgment of fiction, but of inappropriate truth.

There is another way in which absolutism is turning today’s da’as Torah into something new. Hyperbolic retoric has pronouncements of da’as Torah introduced as pesaq. For example, a poseiq told an audience of tens of thousands that he pasqened that non-business use of the internet was assur. But then days later spoke about the need for filters in the home. Relative authority between halachic pesaq and aggadic guidance is gone, and the masses increasingly think both are legally binding.

Without the core notion of having a Mussar plan, one can’t transplant the notions that depend upon it. Such drastic transvaluation of terms is inevitable. Having a moreh derekh, a mentor providing religious guidance in the areas beyond black-letter halakhah is one thing. Abdicating difficult decisions, perhaps to a gadol who can’t know you or the side-effects of his advice due to you life situation, and then saying the answer is a pesaq that must be followed, is something new entirely.

3×2 Constant Mitzvos

There Chinuch famously states in his introduction that there are six mitzvos that because they refer to a state of mind, can be performed constantly or perpetually. (At least, while awake; I won’t speak to whether you fulfill them while sleeping.)

… והחיוב של אלו לעשותן אינו בכל עת רק בזמנים ידועים מן השנה או מן היום. חוץ מששה מצוות מהן שחיובן תמידי, לא יפסק מעל האדם אפילו רגע בכל ימיו, ואלו הן:
א. להאמין בשם.
ב. שלא להאמין זולתו.
ג. לייחדו.
ד. לאהבה אותו.
ה. ליראה אותו.
ו. שלא לתור אחר מחשבת הלב וראיית העינים.
סימנם “שש ערי מקלט תהיינה לכם.” [במדבר לה:יג]

… and the obligation of these [270 mitzvos that all Jews are obligated in, regardless of other causes] are not at all seasons, rather at known times of the year or of the day. Except for six mitzvos of them that their obligation is constant; they do not pause from bearing on a person even one minute of his whole life. And they are:

  1. To believe in G-d
  2. Not to believe in anything but Him
  3. To [declare] His Unity
  4. To love Him
  5. To feel yir’ah (fear / awe) of Him
  6. Not to veer after the thoughts of the heart and the sights of the eyes.

Their symbol is “six cities of refuge you shall have for yourselves.” (Bamidbar 35:13)

The Beiur Halakhah (1:1) cites this Chinukh. My translation reflects his lengthier presentation.

For example “emunah” is from a root that means trust. So the Chinukh could mean that the first two mitzvos are to trust in G-d and not to trust in any other deity or demigod. But “emunah” also refers to belief, in the sense of trusting that a concept is true, considering it reliable. the Beiur Halahah has “להאמין שיש א-לוה אחד בעולם — to believe that there is one G-d in the world…” who created it, is eternal, took us out of Egypt and gave us the Torah.

Similarly, my inserted word in “leyachado — to [declare] His Unity”. One could speak on a Qabbalistic level or even a rationalist-philosophical one, about closing the gap between G-d as He Is and G-d as He appears to people. Or as it is put in Chassidic prayers composed to be said before a number of mitzvos, “For the sake of unifying the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah — His ‘Presence’.” They can never be fully made one — the human mind can’t grasp G-d as He Is. But this could have been taken to be a mitzvah to work on ever closing that gap. Here is the Beiur Halakhah’s version:

3. Leyachado. As it says “Shema Yisrael, H’ E-lokeinu H’ Echad. And its explanation: Listen Israel, and know that it is Hashem who makes everything exist through His Will, and He is our G-d Who guides / provides Providence in all the worlds. He is the One G-d without any partnership.

Again, about knowledge. Both my knowledge as well as spreading it — “Hear Israel”. So I inserted “declare”.

Looking at the list, though, I noticed that three were particular theological truths we must believe, while the other three are attitudes we bring to how we face life. Which suggested that there are correspondences, if whether each of the three in one set has a partner in the other. Which led me to this table:

BeliefAttitude
1- להאמין בשם To believe in G-d4- לאהבה אותו To love Him
2- שלא להאמין זולתו Not to believe in anything but Him6- שלא לתור אחר מחשבת הלב וראיית העינים Not to veer after the thoughts of the heart and the sights of the eyes.
2- לייחדו To [declare] His Unity5- ליראה אותו To feel yir’ah (fear / awe) of Him

To explain:

1-4: Believing that there is a Creator Who guides history and our lives and revealed His Plan for our lives naturally leads to our loving Him. As the Rambam puts it (Yesodei haTorah 2:2):

When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God's] great name, as David stated: “My soul thirsts for G-d, for the ‘Living’ G-d” (Psalms 42:3).

2-6: The sin of idolatry has become much more rare since the early days of the second Beis haMiqdash. The yeitzer hara for it was trapped in a lead cauldron, so to speak, its voice muffled (Yuma 69b). What then is idolatry in today’s terms? According to the Vilna Gaon, it is egotism — self worship. It is strong desire where the passion for something becomes a higher priority than Hashem’s Will. Thus the belief that there is only one G-d is what keeps me from straying after my heart’s thoughts and my eyes’ sights.

3-5: Hashem’s unity is beyond our usual concept of the number one. To be one in the usual sense is to be like other things that are one. Hashem’s Oneness (note the capitalization) is unique in the extent of how unique it is! It sums up why Hashem can’t have different moves or motives, how everything that exists or that happens are effects of one Act, how the word “Act” wasn’t quite used appropriately just then, the Unity of Knower and Knowledge, etc… Hashem’s Unity is why He is unfathomable. And realizing His Otherness is what yir’ah is all about.

Learning and Teaching, part II

Concluding the Meshekh Chokhmah’s comment on Devarim 28:61… In the first installment, we saw Rav Meir Simcha haKohein miDvinskzt”l distinguish between Torah, which could only being given via Moshe, and the Sefer Torah, which also includes the last eight pesuqim even if they were transmitted through Yehoshua after Moshe Rabbeinu’s passing. That there is something about the passing of a teacher that is an integral part of the linkage between the abstract Torah and its presence in this world (the sefer). We didn’t get what that is, yet. In the second entry, the Meshekh Chokhmah says that the value of Torah is in teaching it and performing its mitzvos. Learning Torah “simply” to know Torah is something one could even do better as a pure intellect. Or, as the gemara put it, someone who only learns to know, rather than learns in order to do, is better off not having been born. And indeed, the central goal a person should pursue in life is the perpetuation of the human species on the spiritual plane. Teaching, and providing people the physical wherewithal to be students and spiritual beings. (And I noted the difference between this position and that of R’ Shimon Shkop in the haqdamahto Shaarei Yosher, where Rav Shimon defines man’s contribution to others across the world, less so than focusing on spirituality in particular and perpetuation. But in any case, this contrast is far smaller than these two positions and that of Rav Chaim Volozhiner.)

With this what I wrote in my novellae on [tractate] Kesuvos can be understood that which we find in the Yerushalmi Berakhos [1:2, vilna 8a]: Does not Rabbi Shimon bar Yochaiagree that we would stop [learning Torah] to make a sukkah or to set up a lulav? [Does not Rashbi agree that one must study in order to do, and not to study not in order to do, for someone who studies not in order to do is better off not having been born?] In [tractate] Sukkah [25a], Rashi ["sheluchei mitzvah"] explains that those who are going someplace to learn Torah are exempt from sukkah and lulav. I explained there that the gemara is speaking of [travelling to] serve a talmid chakham. (see there)

According to this, the reasoning is astounding: If it were about learning Torah, isn’t that  something he could do before being born? Thus it is only to do. Therefore for the preparation for a mitzvah, such as the building of a sukkah, we also interrupt word of Torah. But to teach, even the preparation for [teaching], is dearer than fulfilling a mitzvah. For the mitzvah of teaching Torah is greater because one can only do the mitzvah via someone else.

As [Rav Zei'rah] the Jerusalemite is quoted in Peiah [22a; a guess since I found this citation, but couldn't find on in the Y-mi Pei'ah], this is the apprenticeship-service of a sage to understand the halakhah as it was established [i.e. with its underlying reasoning], for then one can teach others and without apprenticeship-service of a sage one is not able to teach others. Like they say in [tractate] Sotah [22a], “‘Swallowers of the world’ … — these are the sages who teach halakhah from their study of mishnah [i.e. decided law in without also the mastery principles and having a feel for the mechanics gained through apprenticeship].” For this reason they said in Berakhos [47a] that an am haaretz [ignorant peasant] is someone who learned scripture and mishnah but didn’t apprentice to a sage, because [such a person] can’t help others.

Therefore [summing up the "astounding reasoning], to fulfill a mitzvah we interrupt from learning Torah. For this [the mitzvah] was why he was created, and that he could do even before he was created. And this is That Rav said “eulogize me”, for Rav taught others and many schools. As Rashi explained in the beginning of [tractate] Gittin, “when Rav went to Bavel”, and in Bava Qama he explains. Therefore he wanted that his yeshivos [that he founded in Bavel] and the Torah study he established in his life would persist so that there would be preservation of the species also on the spiritual level. That is over there (in the physical world) persists on the spiritual level also. And understand this.

Rav Meir Simchah haKohein prioritizes mitzvos as followest:

Lowest priority is learning, since we could do that even without being born. Learning derives its value from its being necessary in order to be able to do anything else. Then come other mitzvos. Then comes teaching. And not just the teaching of facts, but the internalization of modes of thought that can come only through shimush, apprenticeship. This is the spiritual development of the next generation, our entire purpose in having been born. In contrast to Rav Shimon Shkop’s notion of imitating Hashem by bestowing chesed on others, where becomes unified with all other people primarily in the now. Rav Meir Simcha haKohein sees a person’s value as being unified with the chain of mesorah and the spiritual progress of the human species.

This was the great truth Yehoshua needed to record in the last 8 verses of the Seifer Torah. Just as Rav left behind his seifer, his academy and students. Moshe Rabbeinu was just that — rabbeinu, our mentor. He contributed to the spiritual development of the species, and in that way endures beyond his lifetime and his transmission of the Torah itself.

Learning and Teaching, part I

Continuing from the previous entry‘s coverage of Rav Meir Simchah haKohein miDvinskzt”l‘s commentary in the Meshech Chokhmah on Devarim 28:61. He segues from the idea that the last eight verses of the seifer Torah were added via Yehoshua to the Torah itself that we received through Moshe in order to teach us about the effect of the death of the righteous on the generation.

“Rav said to Rav Shemu’el bar Shilah: Prepare for me a touching eulogy, for I will be there.” (Shabbos 153a)

It was explained in the beginning that a person exists in his intellectual soul, like all the lofty people and like the heavenly causes. Before he was created, a person was also a seikhel nivdal [separated intellect; i.e. a pure intellect with no body, like angels; metaphysical] which grasped its Creator. As it says in Niddah pg. 30. [The soul] had personal existence and descended into the lower world in order to do mitzvos maasios [mitzvos that are actions] which require material substance. Like Moshe’s answer to the angels [when they asked that Hashem leave the Torah with them rather than give it to us at Sinai], “Do theft etc… have meaning for you?” Therefore they said, “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world.” (Yerushalmi ch. “Hayah Qorei” [I found it elsewhere -- Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b -micha]) Because then [before birth] too he was a seikhel nivdal who grasped his Creator, may He be blessed. (Qorban Aharon, introduction) Similarly if he teaches others then his learning has a purpose, which is to preserve the species on a spiritual level. Therefore also, the one who learns but not for the sake of teaching they thus said, “it would have been pleasanter for him not to have been created.”

Even his creation on the physical level, we find in the Torah that it is for the intent of his preserving the species on a spiritual level. As Hashem (blessed be He) said [of His selection of Abraham], “For I know him, that he will teach his children after him…” (Bereishis 18:19) Similarly, it says in “Yeish Nochalin” [Bava Basra 116a, quoting Yirmiyahu 22:10] “‘Weep for the one who goes…’ Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: the one who goes with no male children. Rav Yehoshua ben Levi said: it is one who goes without a student.” Both preserve the species and to the same effect.

As it says in chapter “Cheileq” [Sanhedrin 99b, on  Iyov 5:7] “Man was born to toil” that is the toil of learning in order to teach, learning in order to do. For it is only for this that he was born, as we explained.

The Meshekh Chokhmah further develops this idea, and returns back to Rav’s funeral instructions and the importance of the last eight pesuqim of the Sefer Torah. But that’s for an upcoming post; I decided that putting it all here would further delay the post, but worse — would bury the point that made me want to blog his comment on this pasuq to begin with.

Rav Meir Simcha haKohein argues that if the purpose of learning was purely to know, then not only is there not purpose to being born, birth actually interferes with that goal. It is easier to learn Torah as a pure intellect, unencumbered by a body. Rather, we are born because the goal of learning is to practice what one has learned, and to teach others.

It’s an interesting comparison to R’ Shimon Shkop’s version of a person’s raison d’etre. Both define the purpose of life in terms of our contribution to the greater whole.

To Rav Shimon, this is is defined “horizontally”, the community of Jews and all of humanity alive when I am. “[T]o be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator…” And it is fundamental on all levels of interaction — physical support no less or more than spreading Torah.

But to the Meshkh Chokhmah, it is defined down the generations — qiyum hamin mitzad hanefesh, preserving the species on a spiritual level. Even our physical aid is in order to provide people the opportunity to develop spiritually. “And you shall teach your children” includes students because it is the passing down of our values, beliefs and knowledge that is the primary purpose of parenthood, not genetics.

Both visions stand in stark contrast to that of Rav Chaim Volzhiner.  In the 4th section of Nefesh haChaim, Rav Chaim teaches that the essence of Jewish life is Torah Lishmah, Torah purely for its own sake. That this clarifies the soul like a miqvah removing impurity, even in ways that go beyond understanding. In the other 3 sections, Rav Chaim Volozhiner draws a picture of man integrated with the metaphysics of the universe — so much so that repairing either requires repairing both. And it is this repair which is man’s purpose in life.

In contrast, HaRav Meir Simchah haKohein miDvinsk plays down the value of learning Torah just to know Torah for oneself.

RCV’s notion of a person’s job to improve the world around him is on mystical and metaphysical planes. This would of course include R’ Shimon’s “bestowing good” and R’ Meir Simcha’s notion of advancing the species’ spiritual progress. Just as the Meshekh Chokhmah believe in the value of learning, even if it’s not to his mind inherent. These are three approaches to the same Torah . But they are different derakhim, non-identical approaches that yield differences in self-image and thus prioritization.