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. []

And your thoughts...?