Heavenly Wisdom and Earthly Wisdom

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein




Shiur 16: Heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom





            In this shiur we shall continue to clarify the Gra's attitude toward general studies. We already encountered in the introduction to "Pe'at ha-Shulchan" the fundamental assertion that general knowledge is necessary for understanding the Torah and is "included" in it.


            A closer look at this passage will help us answer a question that begs to be asked: Where did the Gra acquire all of his general knowledge? In light of the assertion that general knowledge is in fact "included" in the Torah, it might be argued that the Gra engaged exclusively in Torah study, and from the Torah, and in a way that is difficult for ordinary people to understand, he learned the natural sciences as well. But the words of R. Israel of Shklov suggest a much simpler possibility – that the Gra acquired his knowledge from experts in the various fields. For the Gra wanted to learn pharmacology from doctors, but refrained from doing so because of his father's concern that attaining such knowledge would obligate him to actually work in the field, and this would steal from his precious time.[1] It should be noted that it never occurred to the father, nor apparently to the son, to refrain from the very study of this branch of knowledge, and thus it seems that they viewed the investment of time that would be needed to master the subject as justified. It was only the expectation of professional responsibility in the field that deterred them.


            Regarding the source of the Gra's knowledge, the book, "Kol ha-Tor,"[2] which is attributed to a disciple of the Gra (we shall expand upon this book below), states as follows:


Our master acquired his great knowledge of the seven sciences in three ways: 1) Through the heavenly wisdom… that is hidden in all its details in the mysteries of the Torah; 2) Through investigation of the forces of nature…; 3) Through his high level of holy spirit…


            We see from here that at least one of his sources involved natural study of the type with which we are familiar.


            The Torah authorities of the coming generations were not all comfortable with the idea that the Vilna Gaon dedicated time to the study of branches of knowledge outside the Torah. R. Eliyahu Rogoler, an important Lithuanian rabbi who lived two generations after the Gra, claimed that the Gra occupied himself with such matters only in the bathroom. This restriction, however, is contradicted by the Gra's readiness to study with doctors, and also by the fact that the Gra authored books on these subjects, as is attested to by his disciple, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov.[3] One such volume that has reached us is a book on geometry called "Ayil Meshulash," which includes an original proof for the Pythagorean theorem.


            With all this, we must still understand the Gra's attitude to general studies. As may be surmised, much was written on the subject already in the nineteenth century. The question of secular studies was a burning issue in the Jewish community throughout the century, and a clarification of the Gra's position was undoubtedly of great importance to both sides in the debate. Here we shall consider two central approaches that were adopted among those who enlisted the precedent established by the Gra in their advocacy of general studies.


            Let us preface with a general comment. We shall examine the viewpoints of Torah authorities and intellectuals who lived after the Gra, but saw themselves as following in his footsteps. Each of them is in effect an interpreter of the Gra's position. We must take into account that such interpretation is liable to be creative, and that the interpreter is not always aware of the boundary between him and the subject of his interpretation. Nevertheless, even creative interpretation shall be considered as relatively close to the source, provided that it rests on assumptions found in the source itself. This stands in contrast to one who would seem to be adopting the position of the Gra, but bases it on new assumptions that developed only after his time.


II. The Gra and the "Rivlins"


            The first approach may be found in the writings of the descendants of the Gra's disciples in Eretz Israel. Let us acquaint ourselves with the Rivlin family. The Rivlins share their ancestry with the Gra,[4] and they were known to be close to him spiritually as well. They lived in the city of Shklov, and their activity and presence there turned the city into a stronghold of the Gra's teachings, second in importance only to Vilna. The family established itself in Jerusalem among the disciples of the Gra, and its representatives were included among the most prominent leaders of the community in the second half of the nineteenth century.


            The Rivlin family has preserved written and oral traditions that include extensive ideological preoccupation with the Gra's teachings. These traditions focus on the issue of redemption, and the Gra stands at the center of these teachings as the herald of the messianic period. The Gra instructed his disciples to encourage and develop certain spiritual directions that were meant to hasten the redemption. The gist of these instructions is recorded in the book, "Kol ha-Tor," which is attributed to R. Hillel Rivlin, who studied with the Gra himself. The book was preserved in manuscript until forty years ago, and since then it has been published in stages.


The credibility of the book has been discussed by traditional rabbis and academic scholars, and certain questions are still open. For now, let us suffice with the fact that these traditions are old, and owing to the distinguished status that they enjoy in the community of the "Perushim," they undoubtedly belong to the Gra's legacy. We can therefore draw from them an important perspective that may shed light on the degree of the Gra's connection to the world of general knowledge.


According to "Kol ha-Tor," the study of the "seven sciences" is part of the program that will lead to redemption. The author does not question that the considerations mentioned by R. Baruch Shick in his introduction to the book of Euclid, which incline in favor of the study of the natural sciences, were indeed voiced by the Gra himself. Spreading knowledge among the Jews removes "the stolen property from their mouths" (of the non-Jews), raises the horn of Israel and sanctifies the name of heaven. Kol ha-Tor adds a new perspective, based on the teachings of the Gra and his disciples about the redemption: all of these achievements – beyond their intrinsic importance - are stations along the course of the return to Zion. In order for Israel to fulfill its historical destiny, the nations of the world must recognize their superiority and the superiority of their Torah. The restoration of the seven sciences to the people of Israel will, therefore, hasten the redemption.


When, however, the reader reaches the fifth chapter of "Kol ha-Tor," he clearly sees that the Gra builds his position on the organic connection between the natural sciences and the Torah. The promise "to make you high above all nations which He has made, in praise, and in name, and in honor" (Devarim 26:19) relates to the recognition on the part of the nations of the world of the superiority of Israel's Torah and wisdom. The Zohar expresses this idea using its own formulation:


In the year six hundred of the sixth millennium, the gates of wisdom above and the springs of wisdom below will open, and the world will be fit to enter into the seventh millennium.


            The year 5600 (1840) is noted here as the year in which the gates of heavenly spiritual wisdom will open, and in corresponding fashion, also the springs of earthly wisdom. The metaphor brings to mind the destructive deluge that was brought upon the world at the dawn of history, when "all the fountains of the great deep were broken open, and the windows of heaven were opened" (Bereishit 7:11), and the flood waters inundated humanity. Only that now the waters are a blessing. Not only is wisdom from "below" described here in a positive light, but it may be surmised that the two sources of wisdom are strongly connected to each other, for the revelation of the two is coordinated. This is quite distant from the barbs aimed by R. Pinchas of Polotzek at those who are drawn after general knowledge! As may be recalled, R. Pinchas referred to such knowledge as "bitter, accursed, turbid, salty, and murky waters, alien wisdoms."


III. Natural science that is hidden in the Torah


            In light of the aforementioned assertion of the Zohar, we can easily understand the position of the Gra (as opposed to the words of his disciple, R. Pinchas) that these two sources of wisdom are not divided up between Israel and the nations of the world, but rather they are both part of the wisdom of Israel. We shall cite here from "Kol ha-Tor":


The most fundamental element of all of creation… is the light of heavenly wisdom. Divine wisdom with its heavenly sanctity includes within it a heavenly quality, from which stem all the spiritual and material qualities of all of creation…. According to the great principle of our master the Gra in his commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta – all the characteristics of the heavenly lights stem from the sublime and holy force of the heavenly light of wisdom, and their sparks descend from on high to the world of action and materialize in the lower world… According to this all the natural qualities in the lower world follow from the heavenly light of wisdom. All the qualities that descend from on high are concentrated in seven compartments, as it is stated: "Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars" (Mishlei 9:1), which are the seven branches of knowledge that are included in the seven pillars of the world as is known… And all these are included in the mysteries of the Torah, for there is nothing that is not alluded to in the Torah, and the entire Torah stems from the heavenly wisdom, as stated in the midrash. And our master added that what falls off from the Torah is the seven earthly sciences… And in order to understand and apprehend the wisdom of the Torah that is included in the heavenly light of wisdom, it is necessary to study also the seven sciences that are hidden in the lower word, the natural world, "the foot of the mountain." And our master said: To what may this be likened? To a primary school teacher who explains certain Torah matters to his young students by way of toys, and the like, and simple drawings.


            We can now ask again: According to the Gra, is the study of the natural sciences merely of "instrumental" value, a technical condition that is necessary for the proper understanding of the Torah, as argued by Emanuel Etkes? On the face of it this is what the Gra says in the last lines of the aforementioned passage, when he offers the example of a primary school teacher who concretizes the abstract ideas of the Torah through toys. But it is clear from the entire passage that the matter is not so simple. In order to explain the essence of the sciences, the Gra relates to the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 44, 17): "What falls off from heavenly wisdom is the Torah." According to this, our worldly Torah is like fruit that has fallen off from heavenly wisdom. The Gra developed this idea further: The natural sciences are "what falls off from the Torah." They constitute an additional stage, a foundation that was laid by the Torah in the real world. The sciences concretize the Torah, not in the simple didactic sense – as a means of illustration to make it easier to understand – but because this is their entire essence: a concretization in the real world of the heavenly wisdom that "fell" from the Torah.


            Thus we see that the sciences are included in the Torah, or more exactly, as formulated by the Gra – "in the mysteries of the Torah." For "there is nothing that is not alluded to in the Torah." When we heard the "Pe'at ha-Shulchan's" citation of the Gra's position that the natural sciences are "included" in the Torah, we asked whether he is talking about an essential and organic inclusion, in the same sense that Halakha is included in the Gemara, and the Gemara is included in the Mishna. Our question is thus answered, at least according to the understanding of "Kol ha-Tor."


            Without a doubt, this understanding is unique, but on the other hand it is in no way surprising, for it follows a certain logic that complements in a most natural manner what we already know about the Gra's thinking. We are familiar with the inner picture of the Torah according to the Gra, as built on a process of emanation: One source gives rise to another source, and so on. This pattern of emanation is very common in kabbalistic thought, as a description of the structure of the cosmos. But the expansion of this concept is a novel addition of the Gra. According to him, emanation is relevant not only to the kabbalistic spheres, but also to knowledge, and this emanation creates a structure that is shared by the real world and the world of knowledge. This correspondence is not coincidental. The Torah mirrors reality: "There is nothing that is not alluded to in the Torah." In its original context (Ta'anit 9a), this statement asserts that that there is nothing that is learned from the books of the Prophets and the Writings that is not alluded to in the five books of the Torah. But according to the Gra, "there is nothing" is understood in its plain sense as including all of reality. Thus, there is no logical escape from the conclusion that the natural sciences are hidden in the Torah.


Iv. Did the Gra's disciples study the Sciences?


            The picture that we have painted raises a question: If indeed this was the Gra's position, we might have expected to find traces of it by his disciples, already in the first generation. These disciples should have occupied themselves with general studies, and not only with the exoteric and esoteric aspects of the Torah. We might also have expected to come across real encouragement of such study in a broad manner on the part of the Gaon, beyond that isolated statement cited by R. Baruch of Shklov. The traditions cited above are impressive, but they only surfaced with the publication of the book, "Kol ha-Tor." Do they find earlier expression? If not, it may be that we must discount the importance of this idea as a component of the Gra's legacy.


            First, it should be noted that academic scholars have reached the conclusion that the Gra's principles did not all leave a clear and unequivocal literary impression. For example, we do not find that his disciples cited him with respect to the need to actively work toward national revival in Eretz Israel, despite the fact that some of his greatest disciples were apparently convinced that this was his dream, and they themselves fulfilled this mitzva. This observation is relevant to any perceived ambiguity in the sources about the Gra's attitude to general knowledge.


            At the same time, on closer inspection, sources that have reached us from the Rivlin family do indeed point to the impact that the Gra's position had already in his lifetime, and in the circle closest to him. A key figure here is the family patriarch, R. Binyamin Rivlin. He was the central Torah figure in Shklov – "Through him the glorious city, the holy community of Shklov, was built, and they accepted upon themselves many of the [Gra's] practices in the paths of study and the ways of [observing] the mitzvot in the proper manner" – so write the Gra's sons in their introduction to their father's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh. R. Mordechai Natansohn who knew R. Binyamin Rivlin personally writes of him as follows:


And he studied all day and all night, and there was always a pencil in his hand to record his novel insights in the margins of his books. About this he was accustomed to say: "And acquire[5] for yourself a friend"… He was happy and good-hearted, he would receive all men with love, he would delight them with his pleasant stories about the Torah authorities of Israel, and especially about his master the Gaon, the pious Rabbeinu Eliyahu. Whenever he would mention him, he would shake and tremble. He was involved in various matters; he spoke about trees and mines and animals; and he understood all the crafts. In the summer he would go out for a walk for several hours every day and collect herbs, roots and flowers, and prepare medicines in accordance with the science of pharmacology, which he knew well from the books of the wise men of the nations written in their language, just as he knew all branches of natural science from mineralogy to botany to zoology. And he would give the herbs and the medicines that he had prepared to any sick person who sought his help. For he also had great knowledge in the science of medicine, based on the laws of science. Even the Gaon, our master R. Yitzchak, when he was sick, did not seek out doctors, but rather R. Binyamin. And I saw him sitting on his bed, holding his hand, and checking his pulse with a watch. Sometimes he would stay up with him all night, with his book in his hand.


            We are dealing here with a Torah authority who, according to this report, was fluent in the natural sciences and even mastered pharmacology. As we recall, the Gra himself was conflicted about whether to study the subject, and here we can see his dream being realized by his disciple-relative.


            These biographical details do not compel us to assign any particular ideology to R. Binyamin. We could dismiss his broad knowledge as a personal/professional matter; he was not the first Torah scholar who also mastered general studies. But upon closer examination, the passage seems to imply that R. Binyamin did not acquire all of this education in order to make a living. The medicines he would "give to any sick person who sought his help," apparently for free. Indeed, R. Binyamin Rivlin was an exceedingly wealthy person, and did not need to earn a living from preparing medicines. What then can we learn from the fact that someone who was very close to the Gra dedicated a significant part of his time and life – hours every day - in pursuit of general knowledge?


            According to family tradition, this pursuit of general education was a fulfillment of the instructions and will of the Gra. So it was recorded by, among others, his great-grandson, R. Yosef Rivlin, who was a prominent leader and pioneer who established several new neighborhoods in Jerusalem.[6] The tradition mentions several other people from among the scholars of Shklov who were close to the Gra and fluent in the natural sciences: R. Yehoshua Zeitlin, R. Baruch Shick, R. Menashe of Ilya,[7] and others.


            In retrospect, then, at least one branch of the heirs to the Gra's legacy had a positive attitude toward general studies, which began with the first-generation circle of disciples. Did all the branches share that perspective? This is one of the questions that will accompany us as we continue to clarify this issue. The silence that hangs over this aspect of the Gra's legacy is not an optical illusion. It is important that we consider the question: Who emphasized the Gra's attitude toward general studies? Who was influenced by it? And, and in contrast - who ignored it?


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] It is, of course, possible, even though there is no mention of this in the passage before us, that the Gra learned these subjects from books.

[2] Kol ha-Tor, chap. 5, no. 10.

[3] This is found in R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov's introduction to the Gra's commentary to Pirkei Avot.

[4] The name "Rivlin" is derived from the name of R. Moshe Rivkish, author of "Be'er ha-Gola" on the Shulchan Arukh, who was an ancestor of both the Gra and the Rivlins.

[5] This is a play on words. "Acquire a friend" is "keneh lekha haver", whereas the word used here for "pencil" is "keneh 'oferet".

[6] Cited in Midrash Shlomo, written by his son, R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, p. 149.

[7] R. Menashe did not live in Shklov, but apparently was a close acquaintance of R. Yehoshua Zeitlin.