Rav Hutner: Multiple Activities in a Unified Vision of Life

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



The previous installments in this series can be accessed at:




Lecture #38:  Rav Hutner: Multiple Activities in a Unified Vision of Life


Several of R. Hutner’s sichot relate to the realm of devar reshut, areas of life neither religiously obligatory nor forbidden. The Torah challenges us not to view these areas as religiously neutral or indifferent, but rather to sanctify them. In one section, R. Hutner compares individuals and the national entity regarding this challenge.[1]


One well-known derasha of Rabbenu Nissim claims that Judaism includes two systems of justice – that of the court and that of the king.  The court adheres to the detailed principles of Halakha because judges represent abstract justice and bring about divine overflow, even though their rulings may not excel at maintaining an orderly society.  The monarch, on the other hand, administers extra-legal punishments to help keep the social order.  Thus, a king can solve the practical difficulties generated by halakhot that make it extremely difficult to convict a criminal of a capital crime.


R. Hutner explains that the court represents the area of life rigidly controlled by mitzvot.  The monarch, on the other hand, reflects the arena of devar reshut, lacking clear religious guidelines.  When Halakha states that a court appoints a king, it establishes that the two systems interrelate.  Correctly addressing devar reshut depends on more than human wisdom; Torah ideals guide the analysis even in areas lacking precise halakhic instructions.


An equivalent phenomenon occurs in the lives of individuals.  Yaakov’s final blessing for Yissachar compares his son to a donkey who carries his load, but he also speaks of his son finding pleasantness and tranquility (Bereishit 49:14-15).  We do not normally associate bearing a load with pleasantness.  R. Hunter explains that a person can identify with a task so strongly that the difficult performance of that task becomes a pleasure.  Based on Chazal, R. Hutner assumes that these verses refer to Yissachar engaging in talmud Torah.  Yissachar appreciates the joys of Torah study despite its obligatory nature.


This explains why Rambam praises the person who studies Torah at night (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:13).  Most people perform their obligations and duties in the daytime and engage in relaxing leisure at night. Those who study Torah at night have successfully transformed the duty of Torah study into a joyous endeavor.  R. Hutner sees this as devar mitzva conquering an area of devar reshut.  On both national and individual planes, we strive to use the world of halakhic duties as a guide for the more fluid and halakhically flexible parts of our lives.


Another relevant discussion employs a characteristically insightful parable.[2]  A student’s letter indicated that he felt that his secular career meant he was living a double life. Perhaps this student had recently left the yeshiva for the business world and felt that his yeshiva side and his professional side lived together in schizophrenic conflict. R. Hutner asserts that he would never consent to a student leading a double life, but he denies the assumption that a secular career entails a double life by definition. 


Someone who rents a room in a hotel and also rents a room in a house while switching off between the two leads a double life.  However, this is not true of someone who rents a house with many rooms. In other words, the mere fact that someone engages in multiple activities does not, in and of itself, indicate a fundamental duality. The varied endeavors can all take part in a unified vision.  When the different elements cohere within one story, a person lives a broad life rather than a double life.  Note again how clever usage of a parable elucidates an important position. 


R. Hutner relates that he once witnessed Dr. Wallach, the German immigrant who helped start Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital, just before a surgery.  The doctor asked a patient for his name so that he could pray for the patient. “Was he leading a double life?” R. Hutner rhetorically asks his student. For Dr. Wallach, human effort and medical initiative do not contradict belief in divine providence and the importance of prayer.  These two very different endeavors worked together in a common vision.


R. Hunter finds the same theme in the statement of Chazal that “someone who extends echad [in Shema] will merit an extended life.”  The simple interpretation refers to extending the daled sound at the end of the first verse of Shema.  For R. Hunter, the symbolic meaning of an extended “echad” indicates the ability to include many elements in a single vision of the good.  Varied elements are not points haphazardly scattered about, but rather points on a circle all surrounding an organizing principle. The same Torah ideals animate our behavior and guide our decisions in the study hall and in the boardroom. 


Although R. Hutner was certainly not a Modern Orthodox thinker, this idea has remarkable significance specifically for that community. Modern Orthodoxy teaches that the ideal religious life need not restrict itself to the study hall and the synagogue, but also includes a host of intellectual and professional endeavors.  For example, it values reading Dostoevsky, training to become a social worker, and interacting with the broader world. 


Unfortunately, the same communal positions can be used to justify a more laissez faire approach to religion with an uncritical engagement with the wider world. From this perspective, Modern Orthodox Jews need not ask hard question about the television shows they watch, the books they read, or the type of professions they enter.  In a sense, this causes a double life in which religious and secular components fail to interact. Thus, a thinker of more Charedi persuasion articulates a vision of particular significance to the Modern Orthodox.


A similar theme animates an insightful piece in the Pesach volume.[3]  R. Hutner asks why R. Akiva states that all biblical songs are holy, whereas Shir Ha-Shirim is "kodesh kodashim."  He explains that we encounter two different religious battlefields – the clash between good and evil and the meeting of the holy and the mundane.  The former battle, the attempt to eradicate evil, has chronological priority.  Following that, we move on to the second battle, in which we attempt to elevate, not eradicate, the mundane.  The second stage represents a more advanced level.


Military victories over evil forces inspire most biblical songs. The songs after the Egyptian exodus and those of Devora and King David all belong to the category of good triumphantly destroying evil. Indeed, a gemara states that King David only sang after he witnessed the downfall of the wicked (Berakhot 9b).  Such songs are holy.  Shir Ha-Shirim, however, is an example of the holy sanctifying the mundane; therefore, R. Akiva terms it the “Holy of Holies.”


According to R. Hutner, the generation of Shlomo excelled at this theme. This was a unique time of Jewish history, in which secular and political institutions of government functioned under Torah guidance.  Thus, this epoch was the supreme time for the theme of sanctifying the mundane.


How does a person utilize a mundane entity, such as sleep, for a holy purpose?  The simplest explanation focuses on sleep’s ability to replenish energy.  We go to sleep exhausted and devoid of initiative and we awaken full of enthusiasm for our next religious project. R. Hutner accepts this model but adds another dimension. We can also think carefully about mundane elements in this world and utilize them as metaphors for more spiritual aspects.  Thus, awakening after a rest serves as a metaphor for the resurrection at the end of days.


Shlomo’s Shir Ha-shirim uses the same model.  The love between a husband and wife is one of the most powerful human emotions.  The wisest of all kings took this potentially profane image and employed it as a metaphor for the enduring love between God and the Jewish People, even employing physical attributes of body parts to stand for the eternal values of Kenesset Yisrael. The very content of this book reflects the special talent of Shlomo’s generation to let sanctity conquer the mundane.


Ending with a playful conclusion, R. Hutner notes how the words "mashal" and "memshala" resemble each other and how the name Shlomo shares the identical letters with the word "ha-mashal."   Shlomo successfully uses parables to convey religious themes and his very sovereignty serves as a symbol for the reign of the One above.  As our Sages said, the term “king” in the Song of Songs refers to the King of Kings (Shavuot 35b).


In the previous lecture, we mentioned R. Hutner’s relationship with R. Kook.  Although it is difficult to find clear influence of R. Kook in R. Hutner’s writings, I believe this is one unambiguous case.  R. Kook writes of Shlomo’s time as a unique era in which the divine idea and the national idea worked in tandem. Later Jewish history brought about a split between these two ideals; we are still trying to repair the rift.[4]  


The similarity and the differences between the two presentations are quite telling.  Both R. Hutner and R. Kook view Shlomo’s era as a time when court, king, prophets, and government shared a common religious vision. R. Kook even cites the same statement of Chazal that Shir Ha-shirim represents the “Holy of Holies.” Presumably, R. Hutner derived this idea from R. Kook.  At the same time, he transforms R. Kook’s “national idea” into the category of devar reshut.  R. Kook saw nationalism as part of the essential Jewish mission and he viewed Zionism as full of religious value. R. Hutner, a fierce critic of Zionism, did not grant value to Jewish nationalism per se. In line with other aspects of his thought, he emphasized sanctifying the mundane instead.


These themes relate to another common idea in R. Hutner’s writings.[5]  Several sichot in the Shavuot volume stress a unique aspect of Torah study, that of “bittulo zehu kiyyumo.[6]  Reish Lakish derives this principle from the congratulations that God gives Moshe for breaking the luchot: “Yeyasher kokhaha she-shibarta” (Menachot 99b).  R. Hutner notes that God does not praise the positive impact of the breaking of the luchot, but the very breaking itself.  This conveys the idea that interrupting Torah can serve as an enhancement of Torah.


When one commandment overrides another, we do not normally view this as a fulfillment of the commandment we violate.  If tzitzit enables the wearing of shaatnez, wearing such a garment fulfills the mitzva of tzitzit, not that of shaatnez.  However, talmud Torah generates a different dynamic.  As Meiri explains, we do not exempt someone studying Torah from performing other mitzvot since one aspect of Torah study is that it should lead to mitzva performance. Interrupting study to bring joy to a bride and groom does not diminish Torah study; it adds a crucial dimension to that study. The very interruption counts as an act of talmud Torah - “bittulo zehu kiyyumo.[7] 


This idea resolves many questions.  Tosafot (Berakhot 11b) ask why we only recite one birkat ha-Torah daily, whereas we make a new blessing every time we eat something in the sukka.  They explain that a person never truly interrupts his thinking about Torah.  According to R. Hutner, this does not mean that the person literally thinks about Torah every second.  Rather, the other activities properly performed constitute part of the continuum of talmud Torah.[8]


Rambam says that we interrupt Torah study to fulfill a mitzva that no one else can perform. This principle derives directly from the gemara, but Rambam adds, “and then he returns to his Torah study” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:4).  What explains this addition?  R. Hutner says that interrupting Torah learning can reflect this additional dimension of Torah study described above or a lack of commitment to Torah study.  The determining test is what happens after the other endeavor finishes.  A person who returns to Torah study indicates an ongoing continuity of purpose. On the other hand, someone who does not resume study reveals that his other mitzva does not integrate into a commitment to deeper forms of Torah study.


In an analogous fashion, R. Hutner explains how the blessing of Ahava Rabba counts for birkat ha-Torah when a person learns immediately after finishing prayer. Normally, a berakha focuses exclusively on a single theme, so how could a berakha with multiple themes count for birkat ha-Torah?  Once we recall that talmud Torah encompasses other activities within it, it makes sense that the many themes of a blessing can all relate to Torah study.  As mentioned, this continuum is only generated when a person returns from the other activities to Torah learning.  Therefore, only the person who studies after prayer can utilize Ahava Rabba for birkat ha-Torah.[9]


This theme coheres with R. Hutner’s ideas about devar reshut.  People legitimately engage in different activities, but those activities should all reflect a unified vision.  We sanctify mundane aspects of life and our interruptions of Torah study actually further that study.  

[1] Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot, no. 36.

[2] Pachad Yitzchak Iggerot U-Ketavim, pp. 184-185.

[3] Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, no. 68.

[4] Orot (Mosad HaRav Kook: Jerusalem, 5745), p. 106.

[5] Cf. R. Shalom Carmy, “Rav Yitzchak Hutner’s Lecture to a Teacher’s Conference,” Tradition 19:3 (Fall 1983): pp. 219-220.

[6] In addition to the references below see Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot, no. 18:3, and Pesach no. 68.

[7] Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot, no. 5.

[8] Ibid., no. 13.

[9] Ibid., no. 40.