11. The Need for Inwardness

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler


Yeshivat Har Etzion




by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #10: The Need for Inwardness


 For Rav Soloveitchik, the Jew's main arena of religious struggle is the internal, emotional realm. This explains his intensive focus on mitzvot such as prayer and repentance (to which we will devote several shiurim). It also accounts for the deeply passionate and personal tone of his writings. Even regarding Torah study, which would seem to be a purely intellectual pursuit, Rav Soloveitchik invariably emphasizes the experiential element. [Actually, the experience of talmud Torah is multifaceted; we will explore its different expressions in lecture #12.] When we recall that the Rav was a paragon of the abstract and highly intellectual Brisker approach to Torah study, his emphasis on the experience of "learning" becomes even more striking.


The reason for the Rav's emphasis on inwardness in religious life is twofold: it is central to Judaism, and it is so lacking in modern man. Rav Soloveitchik highlights this problem especially in his sermons. For example, in one of his discourses on repentance, he laments the disappearance of the "Erev Shabbos Jew" in America:

"Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the 'sanctity of Shabbat.' True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat... But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten 'erev Shabbat' (eve of the Sabbath). There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no 'erev Shabbat' Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths - but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!" (On Repentance, pp. 97-98)


The emotional poverty of the religious life of most contemporary Jews greatly disturbed Rav Soloveitchik. Although he had no easy solutions to this fundamental problem, he did offer some speculations as to its cause:

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

("Al Ahavat Ha-Torah U-ge'ulat Nefesh Ha-dor," p. 419; see "For Further Reference" below)


The problem, according to the Rav, is not confined to the uneducated or to those whose religious commitment is weak. It affects even the young generation of talmidei chakhamim (Torah scholars), and its consequences are dire. Although they know the Torah intellectually, they have not experienced it by means of "living tangible sensation, which causes the heart to tremble and to rejoice" (ibid., p. 408). (He wrote this in 1960; we must judge whether it is still applicable today.)


In a resonant kabbalistic metaphor to which he returns in later writings (see "For Further Reference"), Rav Soloveitchik describes this as the dialectic of "gadlut ha-mochin" and "katnut ha-mochin." Rav Lichtenstein has paraphrased the former as: "the depth and force of a powerful mind mastering its environment and impacting upon it," and the latter as "the simplicity of the child ... the archetype of a helpless humble spirit groping towards his Father and finding solace in Him and through Him" ("The Rav at Jubilee: An Appreciation," Tradition 30:4 [Summer 1996], p. 50). Although "gadlut ha-mochin" is the necessary starting point for a scholar, those who lack the "naive curiosity, natural enthusiasm, eagerness and spiritual restlessness" of the child, as well as his sense of dependence and unlimited trust, cannot truly pray or have faith. In effect, they cannot approach God.

"The adult is too clever. Utility is his guiding light. The experience of God is not a businesslike affair. Only the child can breach the boundaries that segregate the finite from the infinite. Only the child with his simple faith and fiery enthusiasm can make the miraculous leap into the bosom of God... The giants of Torah - when it came to faith, became little children, with all their ingenuousness, gracefulness, simplicity, their tremors of fear, the vivid sense of experience to which they are devoted." ("A Eulogy for R. Hayyim Heller," p. 63; see "For Further Reference")


Returning to the young generation of talmidei chakhamim who are intellectually proficient but experientially lacking, the Rav writes that, aside from missing a fundamental dimension of Judaism, they are also generally unable to formulate a balanced and authentic approach to Torah:

"On the one hand, the young [talmidei chakhamim] of America occasionally tend to exaggerated extremism, which is frightening in its arrogance; frequently, they move in the opposite direction and agree to concessions and the path of least resistance. In a word, they are perplexed in the pathways of Judaism, and this perplexity is the product of an imperfect grasp and experience of the world." ("Al Ahavat Ha-Torah," p. 408)


[We will pursue this point in lecture #14, regarding the catharsis of the religious experience.]




Having posited the need for internal fulfillment of mitzvot, the Rav proceeds to fill his writings and discourses with memorable descriptions of those experiences. [For example, see the essays "Jews at Prayer," "The Unique Experience of Judaism," and "The Seder Meal" in Shiurei Harav.] However, aside from direct sermonizing and personal example, one of the Rav's main and most potent vehicles for promoting inwardness among his students was his halakhic scholarship. As we discussed in the last lecture, he more or less innovated the category of mitzvot whose fulfillment (kiyyum) is internal but which require external action (ma'aseh) as well. It is evident from the sources listed at the end of the last shiur that the Rav devoted considerable attention to this category of mitzvot, especially in his public lectures. To recall, some of the mitzvot which fall under this category are mourning, rejoicing on holidays, Keriat Shema, fasting, prayer and shofar. What is important to note regarding this category is that the feelings are not merely "aggadic" or pietistic accessories to a formal halakhic act. Rather, the emotions are part of the formal halakhic requirement itself; indeed, they are the main component of the mitzva.


This distinction between outer action and inner fulfillment is a powerful tool in solving many halakhic conundrums. Last week, for example, we saw how it answered the question of why holidays interrupt mourning, while Shabbat does not. Another famous question which this distinction answers relates to the opening of Rambam's Laws of Repentance (1:1): "...When a person repents and returns from his sin, he must confess before God." Many have asked: isn't repentance itself a mitzva? From the Rambam's formulation, it would seem that one is not commanded to repent, but if he wishes to do so, he must offer a verbal confession to God.


Rav Soloveitchik answers that here the Rambam is interested in detailing the performance of the law; however, in the heading to Hilkhot Teshuva, he sets out to define the law, to expose its essence, and therefore he writes, "The Laws of Repentance contain one commandment, namely, that the sinner should repent of his sin before God and confess." In other words, the kiyyum of the mitzva is the long process of inner repentance, while the external ma'aseh is confession. Without the inner component, the outer action is meaningless. Similarly, the Rambam begins the Laws of Prayer by relating to an action: "It is a positive commandment to pray daily." However, in the heading to this section, he defines the law in terms of its essence: "to serve God daily by means of prayer." The kiyyum of the mitzva is the seof the heart; this must be manifested in the act of praying.


Aside from shedding light on individual halakhot, the Rav occasionally employs this "chakira" and others to draw broader conclusions about the nature of Judaism and of man's relationship to God. This is especially evident in his treatment of prayer, which we shall deal with separately. But to return to our familiar example of a holiday canceling mourning, the Rav notes that a similar phenomenon applies to the kohen gadol (high priest): like a Jew during a holiday, he is exempted from mourning, but his exemption applies all year round. On the other hand, a metzora (leper) and menudeh (excommunicate), who are required because of their status to observe mourning rituals, must do so even during holidays. The Rav connects these phenomena to form an overarching theory.


What is common to the Jew during a holiday and a kohen gadol year round is that they are standing in the presence of God. (According to the Rambam [Hilkhot Bi'at Mikdash 1:10], the kohen gadol has the status of "being perpetually in the Temple.") Nearness to God is man's main source of joy, and therefore it is incompatible with the sadness of mourning. In fact, the mourner, leper and excommunicate all experience a sense of distance from God, and therefore must perform mourning rituals. The mourner, though he feels distant from God, is still part of the community, and therefore must join them in rejoicing in God's presence during the holiday. The leper and excommunicate, on the other hand, have been excluded from the community, and therefore do not fully experience the joy of God's presence.


This discussion is actually much more complex and nuanced than presented here. [See the sources cited last week, particularly Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari z"l, vol. 2, pp. 182-196, and U-vikkashtem Mi-sham, footnote 19.] It is a classic instance justifying Rav Soloveitchik's claim that a philosophy of Judaism can and must be drawn from the sources of Halakha.




Despite all of his efforts to enrich the religious and emotional lives of his students, the Rav lamented what he saw as his failure to convey adequately the experiential side of Judaism:

"Therefore, I hereby announce that I am able to identify one of those responsible for the present situation - and that is I myself. I have not fulfilled my obligation as a guide and teacher in Israel. I lacked the spiritual energies which a teacher and a rabbi needs, or I lacked the necessary will, and did not dedicate everything I had to my goal. While I have succeeded, to a great or small degree, as a teacher and guide in the area of 'gadlut ha-mochin' - my students have received much Torah from me, and their intellectual stature has been strengthened and increased during the years they have spent around me - I have not seen much success in my efforts in the experiential area. I was not able to live together with them, to cleave to them and to transfer to them from the warmth of my soul. My words, it seems, have not kindled the divine flame in sensitive hearts. I have sinned as a disseminator of the Torah of the heart... Blame me for the mistake." ("Al Ahavat Ha-Torah," p. 420; translation based on that of Rav Lichtenstein, "The Rav at Jubilee," p. 55)


With regard to this quote, Rav Lichtenstein poignantly comments:

"That, too, is part of the Rav's legacy. Not just spellbinding shiurim, magnificent derashot, electrifying chiddushim, but the candid recognition of failure - failure which is transcended by its very acknowledgement. In his own personal vein, so aristocratic and yet so democratic, he has imbued us with a sense of both the frailty of majesty and the majesty of frailty. He has transmitted to us not only Torat Moshe Avdi, but the midrashic image of Moshe Rabbenu constructing and then dismantling the mishkan during shivat yemei ha-milu'im - whose import the Rav interpreted as the fusion of radical, almost Sisyphean frustration with ultimate hope." (ibid., pp. 55-56)


The above confession by the Rav can help us solve a riddle which has puzzled many. Given the esteem in which the Rav held the Lithuanian tradition of emotional reticence, why did he discuss his feelings so openly in his public teaching? The Rav writes in numerous places of the need to maintain one's reserve, to shield one's deepest feelings from the prying eyes of the public. This is clearly imbibed from the scholarly Lithuanian milieu in which he was raised. In fact, as is his wont, the Rav raises a personality he esteems into a general model, an ideal type.


In his eulogy for the Mizrachi leader Rav Ze'ev Gold, entitled "Be-seter U-vegalui" (Divrei Hagut Ve-ha'arakha, pp. 163-186), the Rav develops the character of the Ish Rosh Chodesh, the "New Month Man." He is so called because Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month, is a day whose inner sanctity is almost completely shielded from public view. Although on Rosh Chodesh one goes about his daily routine, merely adding some additional prayers, the Torah groups it along with the major holidays, and its inner sanctity is fully revealed only within the precincts of the Temple. Similarly, there are some personalities whose inner passion and sanctity are concealed beneath a solemn exterior (such as the Rav's father) or beneath a sparkling exterior (such as Rav Gold). Rav Soloveitchik confesses that he has always been attracted to such personalities, partially due to his upbringing:

"From childhood, I was taught to control my feelings and not to display what was taking place in my emotional world. Father z"l used to say: 'The holier the feeling, the more intimate it is, the more it needs to be buried in the depths...' What is the holiest of places if not the Holy of Holies of the emotional life? If man is full of joy and happiness, let him reveal his feelings to God ... but let him not exhibit them to others, lest a stranger's look desecrate his Holy of Holies. If, on the contrary ... man is given over to suffering and torment ... let him confess before the Master of the Universe ... but let no stranger approach the Holy of Holies, for he might desecrate with indifference the sanctity of mute suffering oppressing man." ("Be-seter U-vegalui," p. 174)


Why, then, did the Rav take the uncharacteristic step of revealing his emotions so passionately in his lectures and his writings, sharing his innermost feelings with an audience? I believe several factors can account for this.

1. He was so passionate and so poetic that he could not contain himself; his emotions simply burst out. Additionally, as he states in "The Lonely Man of Faith" (p. 6), revelation of one's stormy inner feelings has a cathartic effect:

"All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu the son of Berachel of old, who said, 'I will speak that I may find relief;' for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing."


2. It was a pedagogical necessity. As we saw above, the lack of religious feeling among many observant Jews greatly distressed the Rav, and he consciously set out to rectify the situation. Rav Shalom Carmy reports: "The Rav once remarked in my hearing that old-time Gedolim refrained from talking about themselves, but that the disconnection of modern man from living exemplars of religious existence has made self-revelation an educational necessity" ("Of Eagle's Flight and Snail's Pace," Tradition 29:1 (1994), p. 31 note 22). This applied to more than just the need to communicate his experience of halakhic living. The centrality of crisis in his thought, and of failure and insecurity which lead to humility, necessitated that he share his sense of personal vulnerability with us.


3. At all times, even when religious emotion runs strong within the community, it is the role of the teacher to share his existential experience with his student. According to Rav Soloveitchik, the teacher must mold not only the student's mind but his soul as well. This goes far beyond the ancient tradition (to which Rav Carmy alluded above) of students learning a way of acand feeling by observing the behavior of their teacher. Rather, it is accomplished by self-revelation, a spontaneous, almost involuntary overflow of the teacher's inner self towards the student.


In a way, we have returned to the first answer, but in a far deeper sense. This colloquium of souls between teacher and student, and indeed between generations, is the essence of the Massora (passing on of the tradition). It is also the basis of the Rav's understanding of the nature of Torah She-be'al Peh (Oral Law) and of prophecy. The Rav ends his magnum opus on the religious experience, U-vikkashtem Mi-sham, by discussing this very theme - the teacher's overflow towards and merging with his student - and its manifold ramifications. Since we discussed this topic in lecture #4, regarding the teaching community, we will not elaborate here too much. [Interested readers are referred back to lecture #4 and to chapter 19 of U-vikkashtem Mi-sham for development of this concept.] However, in light of the Rav's espousal of this idea, it becomes clear that, in his writing and teaching, he himself was engaged in such a process of sharing himself with others. And we are all the richer for it.



 1. Katnut Ha-mochin:

A. "Al Ahavat Ha-Torah U-ge'ulat Nefesh Ha-dor," in Be-sod Ha-yachid Ve-hayachad, ed. P. Peli (Jerusalem: Orot, 1976), pp. 403-432; reprinted in abridged form in Divrei Hashkafa (Jerusalem: WZO, 1992), pp. 241-258. Quotations here are my translation, based on the former edition.

B. "Peleitat Sofreihem," in Divrei Hagut Ve-ha'arakha, pp. 137-162; slightly abridged translation by Rav S. Carmy, "A Eulogy for R. Hayyim Heller," in Shiurei Harav, ed. J. Epstein (Hoboken: Ktav, 1994), pp. 46-65.

C. "The Covenantal Community," in Shiurei Harav, pp. 120-125.

2. On the inner fulfillment of mitzvot: see the sources quoted at the end of last week's shiur. Regarding avelut, see especially the discussion of aninut at the beginning of "A Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe" and in the essay in vol. 2 of Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari z"l.

 3. Rosh Chodesh man: Rav Shalom Carmy, "Anatomy of a Hesped: Reading an Essay by the Rav," in Bein Kotlei Ha-yeshiva (published by SOY, Yeshiva University), vol. 6 (5748), pp. 8-20. Translations of passages from "Be-seter U-vegalui" are taken from this essay.



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