R. Hutner and Religious Inwardness

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Please pray for a refua sheleima for

Shimon Elimelech HaCohen ben Sima Rivka

Gilad Hillel ben Bracha Mirel



Shiur #43: R. Hutner and Religious Inwardness



Unlike most modern roshei yeshiva, R. Hutner’s most important contributions to Torah were in the realm of Jewish thought and not in Gemara or Halakha.  On the title pages of Pachad Yitzchak, R. Hutner’s describes his literary efforts as “Divrei Torah Be-Hilkhot De’ot Ve-Chovot Ha-Levavot.”  The first phrase alludes to the Rambam’s term for the section of Mishneh Torah discussing issues of character and moral growth. Chovot Ha-Levavot alludes to R. Bachya Ibn Pekuda’s work contrasting chovot ha-evarim, duties of the limbs, with duties of the heart.  R. Hutner’s choice of terminology places his work in the tradition of classic medieval works of Jewish thought, which explore character and the inner life of a religious person. 


An introductory essay, appearing at the beginning of every volume of Pachad Yitzchak, addresses the difference between study of Jewish law and study of “hilkhot de’ot ve-chovot ha-levavot.”  R. Hutner agues that the road from study to fulfillment differs when we study duties of the heart. Just as in the physical universe light travels faster than more corporeal substances, so too in the realm of the spirit mitzvot closer to the world of abstract spirit move with greater speed. Thus, when we study laws of sukka or tzitzit, it takes time for the study to impact on our physical actions. However, when we study laws pertaining to obligations of the intellect and the heart, we move immediately from limmud to kiyyum.


This introduction reveals a self-awareness that R. Hutner is embarking on an analytical endeavor different from works on Jewish law and that his topics call for a special approach. When addressing a person’s internal religious world, the study should immediately impact on our fulfillment, as realized in our intellectual and emotional state.


One student apparently had trouble appreciating aspects of R. Hutner’s contribution. He wrote to R. Hutner contending that some of the analysis in Pachad Yitzchak on Chanuka does not contribute towards love and fear of God.  R. Hutner’s response cites the Sifrei (Devarim 11:2): “Do you want to know the One who spoke and the world came into being?  Learn Aggada and you will come to know God and cling to His ways.” The Torah reveals the commands of God as manifest in Halakha and the ways of God as taught in the Aggada.  This midrash implies that Aggada in particular leads to devekut with the Holy One, blessed be He.  R. Hutner contends that his analyses, about which the student struggled to see the purpose, investigate the ways of God. 


For example, essays discussing the specific qualities of the beit din of the Hasmoneans who established Chanuka reflect the history of Israel and their relationship with their Creator. This constitutes study of the ways of God, which bring a person close to Hashem.  “Whoever limits the service of love and fear to discussion of Gan Eden and Gehinnom has no place in our beit midrash.”[1]  According to R. Hutner, studying the creation of Chanuka and the specific nature of that historical epoch will motivate the religiously sensitive soul towards greater attachment to God.


Towards the letter’s conclusion, R. Hutner aims an arrow at those who fail to appreciate this. 


If a person studies in depth our investigation of the Hasmonean beit din and his soul is not uplifted and he feels no connection to sanctity, this is a clear sign that his soul is not a vessel for expanding the light of yirat Shamayim, and he should truly restrict himself to the boundaries of individual details.  About him, it is said: He constricts and it is good for him (mitztamek ve-yafeh lo).[2]


Some people enjoy halakhic study and more simplified issues pertaining to Jewish thought; they will not enjoy the type of analysis R. Hutner employs.  This letter clearly implies that those with a deeper understanding will not fall into this category. The final phrase cited exemplifies R. Hutner’s clever use of language.  In its original context within the laws of Shabbat, the phrase refers to food fully cooked that still improves with further cooking.  The root, tzadi mem kuf, means to shrink, since heat causes the food to contract. R. Hutner creatively applies the phrase to someone who needs religious constriction.


As part of his study of the duties of the heart, R. Hutner often considers what R. Soloveitchik called the kiyyum she-balev, the inward component of commandments. Certain mitzvot remain incomplete even if performed physically when an internal emotional or cognitive component is lacking. In R. Hutner’s thought, the commandment to love the convert reflects an instructive example.  We might think that this commandment simply demands treating converts (gerim) well.  R. Hutner insists that correct reason and motivation for love of the convert constitutes an essential part of the fulfillment.


Two possible different sources could motivate love of the convert. A convert lives a difficult life, having abandoned his familiar world of family, friends, and religion and entered a new society, where he may very much feel an outsider.  He lacks connections and an awareness of how the Jewish community works. Perhaps we act benevolently to the convert because we feel badly for him. From this perspective, the convert resembles the widow and the orphan, people lacking power and influence and in need of help. 


On the other hand, we could admire the convert as someone exalted who did something quite noble. A person who makes a dramatic and difficult life change in the pursuit of an ideal deserves our highest estimation. Perhaps this factor motivates love for the convert.


The Rambam writes that we are commanded to love the convert just as we are commanded to love God.[3] Why does the Rambam add this comparison, something he does not do regarding love of fellow Jews?  R. Hutner explains that the Rambam uses this analogy to clarify the authentic nature of love of the convert.  We certainly do not love God because He is weak and needs our help; we love His goodness, sanctity and wisdom. Love of the convert resembles love of the divine in that our love is rooted in admiration. 


Although R. Hutner does not cite it, the Rambam’s letter to Ovadia the convert supports this interpretation. Ovadia asked the Rambam three questions, the answers to two of which reveal the Rambam’s admiration for converts.  The Rambam rules that Ovadia can say “God of our fathers” in prayer since converts are ideological children of Avraham, even if not biological descendents.  Ovadia also debated a rabbinic scholar regarding whether to consider Islam an idolatrous religion; in the context of debate, that scholar had called him a fool. (Ovadia was a convert from Islam to Judaism.) The Rambam reacts with indignation, stating that someone who made a heroic move of conversion deserves the title maskil (person of intelligence) rather than kesil (fool).[4]  This letter bolsters R. Hutner’s contention that the Rambam emphasizes the nobility of converts.


A revolutionary reading of a biblical verse helps R. Hutner’s position. The Torah’s juxtaposition of converts together with widows and orphans (Devarim 24:17, 27:19) suggests that we feel sympathy for the convert as someone disadvantaged, akin to those lacking husbands and parents.  In theory, Devarim 10:18, “who does justice for the widow and orphan, and loves the convert,” conveys the identical implication. R. Hutner contends that the verse distinguishes between two categories. God takes care of justice for widows and orphans in need; He loves converts for their noble choices.[5] 


The Ramban clearly disagrees with this mode of analysis, since his commentary on the Torah emphasizes the victimhood of the convert.[6] The simplest reading of the Chumash supports the Ramban. The Torah commands us not to oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot 22:20). The Torah uses the same rationale to explain the commandment to love the ger (Devarim 10:19). A people who experienced the suffering of the stranger should have special sympathy for converts. This reading returns us to theme of sympathy for the oppressed.


R. Hutner contends that these verses cohere with the Rambam’s position as well.  The convert’s willingness to undergo hardship is precisely what proves the strength of his character and idealism. Jews should appreciate this kind of dedication to cause. Due to the sanctity of Israel, the Jews remained a distinct nation in Egypt and they suffered as a result. The Torah mentions our Egyptian servitude to reminds us how much we should value those who embark on a painful journey in pursuit of an ideal.[7]


This analysis is not just an exercise in ta’amei ha-mitzvot irrelevant to halakhic reality. R. Hutner contends that those who love the convert for the incorrect reason do not fulfill the commandment. He cites an Acharon who questions why the Rambam lists loving the convert as a commandment, since we must love the convert in any case as part of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  In a seemingly analogous scenario, the Rambam writes that he does not list the prohibition of kohanim taking from the spoils of war as a separate commandment, since a prohibition on participating in the spoils already applies to the entire tribe of Levi.[8]  Can we not make the identical argument regarding love of the convert and subsume one commandment within the other? R. Hutner’s analysis solves the problem. We must love the convert because of the nobility of the act of conversion. This reflects a separate theme that is not subsumed under love for fellow Jews. 


R. Hutner also adds an internal component to the commandment of circumcision. He notes that every mila includes a blessing on the act of circumcision and another blessing on entering the covenant of Avraham. This implies that the mitzva demands an awareness of entering a covenant.  Absent that awareness, mere physical performance of the commandment does not suffice. The formulation in Pachad Yitzchak emphasizes the category of obligations of inwardness. “Even though a mitzva with this added covenantal component does not have an additional action, nonetheless, if we have no duty of the limbs, we do have a duty of awareness.” 


The same idea applies to the asseret ha-dibrot, since Devarim 4:13 identifies the dibrot as a brit.  This covenant could not possibly refer to the need to fulfill the Ten Commandments, since that demand would relate to the whole gamut of 613 commandments and not just to ten.  Instead, suggests R. Hutner, the verse in Devarim adds an awareness of entering a covenant centered on the asseret ha-dibrot.[9] 


Along the lines laid out above, R. Hutner sensitively probes the internal world of mitzvot such as prayer, joy, love and fear of God, and repentance.  An earlier shiur explored his analysis of the purpose of petitionary prayer.  Another profound piece explores the uniqueness of prayer among all commandments.  The Maharal suggests that traveling to a synagogue further away merits reward in a way that traveling to a distant sukka does not.[10] R. Hutner explains that other mitzvot can bring a person close to God, but prayer essentially consists of kirvat Elokim. Therefore, even when a person finishes the amida, kirvat Elokim continues until he takes three steps back.  Distance traveled on the way to prayer itself constitutes an act of kirvat Elokim, which explains why for prayer in particular we value the effort spent getting to the mitzva.[11]


Regarding repentance, R. Hutner probes multiple themes in undertaking not to sin in the future[12] and finds joy in repentance as a special theme beyond generic simchat ha-mitzva.[13] In a discussion of simcha shel mitzva, he differentiates between two Jews joyously performing the divine command.  One experiences his mitzva as reaching the heights of impacting on cosmic forces.  The other humbly feels he has no right to attribute such metaphysical impact to his actions but he accepts the words of our sages that any mitzva act produces grand results.  Both certainly achieve simcha shel mitzva; only the latter adds an element of subjugation that raises the joy to a level of nobility.[14]


Next week’s shiur will continue with a connected theme, R. Hutner’s approach to talmud Torah and the role of joy and pleasure in Torah study.


[1] Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot u-Ketavim, p. 90.

[2] Ibid., p. 91.

[3] Hilkhot Deot 6:4.

[4] The letters appears in R. Yitzchak Shilat’s edition of Iggerot Ha-Rambam (Jerusalem, 5747), pp. 323-341.

[5] Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 8.

[6] Ramban, Shemot 22:20.

[7] Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 29.

[8] Sefer Ha-mitzvot, prohibition 170.

[9] Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuot, no. 37. 

[10] Netivot Olam Netiv Ha-Aoda, perek 5. 

[11] Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashana, no. 5.

[12] Pachad Yitzchak, Yom Ha-Kippurim, no. 19-20.

[13] Ibid., no. 8.

[14] Sefer Zikkaron Le-Maran Ba’al Pachad Yitzchak zt”l, Reshimot, no. 23