Shiur #01: Why Our Generation Needs Torah Lishmah

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


A. Contemporary Torah Study: Tradition and its Neglect


            Our generation struggles a good deal in its attitude toward Torah study.  Thank God, there are many who engage in Torah, but many also question the significance of Torah in their lives.  Many feel a sense of commitment, but there is also an overbearing sense of alienation.  The perceived disconnect between Torah and the areas of meaning and relevance in real life prevents students from experiencing joy, fulfillment and satisfaction, and also diminishes from their intellectual achievement in Torah.


            Different strategies have been proposed to deal with this problem.  Today, we seem to be witnessing the emergence of an approach calling for new methods in learning Torah, specifically with regard to Gemara.  Methods drawing inspiration from the world of the sciences and literature have begun to spread.  Each halakhic topic is expected, methodologically, to reveal its experiential, inner core and philosophical depth through the use of these media. 


What distinguishes our generation in this regard is that the new approaches do not add a new dimension onto the accepted approaches to learning, but rather seek to replace and supplant them.  Modern-day teachers and students question the power of the traditional style of learning, which has been transmitted from one generation to the next for millennia, and prefer approaching the sources on an entirely new basis, asking questions that have never before been asked.  Typical of this approach is a comment attributed to a certain contemporary Rosh Yeshiva claiming that when a generation does not study in the method that specifically suits its needs, this constitutes bittul Torah (taking time away from Torah study).  One would be hard pressed to find even an echo of such a concept in earlier generations.


            While we must look favorably upon the shedding of new light on Torah, the movement away from traditional learning turns out to be a failure, from many perspectives.  For example, let us consider one point which might seem peripheral, namely, that the new techniques are impotent when it comes to drawing halakhic conclusions from the Talmud.  Presumably, those who utilize these methods would agree.  When they confront a practical halakhic issue and must determine how to act “in accordance with the Torah that they teach you” (Devarim 17:11), they turn to the rulings reached through the accepted methods of learning, and to poskim who are experts in the analysis and modes of decision-making that have guided scholars since time immemorial.  Does this not suffice to demonstrate the centrality of the traditional Beit Midrash?  Does it not indicate that those who would replace the learning tradition inevitably miss some of Torah’s vital heartbeats?


            Further reflection upon the new situation that has arisen causes us even greater unease.  We sense that our ancestors and rabbis of old connected with their Torah with every fiber of their soul, even though that same Torah seems to us moderns to be riddled with technicalities.  Why did they not feel the problems that trouble us?  Were our predecessors in the chain of tradition more detached from the depth of life than we?


            Consider the following, real-life description that appears in Avot De-Rabbi Natan (Nuscha 1, chapter 6):


At the time when a Torah scholar enters the city, do not say, “I don’t need him”; rather, go to him.  And don’t sit with him on the couch, chair or bench, but rather sit before him on the ground, and everything that comes from his mouth – accept it upon yourself with dread, fear, trembling and awe, the way your ancestors accepted [the Torah] at Mount Sinai with dread, fear, trembling and awe.


Replacing the “bride” under the Torah canopy is an abdication, a surrender, and an evasion of responsibility.  Distancing ourselves from our learning tradition means severing ourselves from our roots.  One contemporary Rosh Yeshiva and profound Jewish thinker expressed it this way:


The entire concept of “yeshiva” is “zikna” (“aging”).  It is impossible to study Torah only from young people or only from ourselves.  One who is not prepared to learn the Torah of the Ketzot, Reb Chayim, Reb Shimon and the Avi Ezri has no connection to Torah, because being connected to Torah means being connected to the merit of our ancestors, and this is the aspect of zikna

One who is not prepared to be part of that tradition and thinks he can begin the Torah by himself, one who is not prepared to reach that intimacy with the world of Torah and with Judaism, one who wants to be an individualist and remain alienated, and study like a “maskil” – he will never be a ben Torah.[1]


Our modern confusion should alert us to the possibility that we are the victims of some profound disorder, some internal as-yet undiagnosed distortion.  Rav Kook writes:


Just as the healthy person desires life and does not search for reasons and proofs for it, whereas the patient suffering emotional illness, who is close to suicide, is mired in doubts concerning the purpose of life, similarly, one with a healthy soul loves Torah and its studies with heart and soul, and a single word of Torah – even involving the minutiae of the scribes – is more precious to him than any fortune, and only when the spiritual foundation takes ill will he come to say, “This passage suits me, and this one doesn’t.” (Orot Ha-Torah 6:10)


Love for Torah ought to be both spontaneous and existential, and not conditional upon finding a close connection between all its laws and any corresponding ideas.  Modifications in the fundamentals of Talmudic logic bespeak a certain sense of despair from returning to that natural bond with the Torah.


            At the same time, we cannot deny that the problem exists.  Our generation cannot be blamed for the fact that what was apparently taken for granted by Chazal is today very rare.  Assuming that we adhere to the chain of transmission received from previous generations – what are we to do?  What are our chances of finding meaning within that chain?


            This last paragraph brings us to an important question: to whom is this series intended?  It is lovingly dedicated to anyone for whom it will be useful, anyone who seeks to delve into one of the exciting topics relevant to the life of every yeshiva student or former yeshiva student, and indeed any Jew devoted to the study of Torah.  But I know that the quandary described above is common to many people, and my hope is that some of them will be learning with us in this program.


            Why should these people participate in this series?  To be sure, I can’t promise them more than a struggle, in which I will try to help and guide to best of my ability over the course of our learning together.  We will not aim for a neat recipe or a clear solution, but first of all for wisdom, and from there – directions of thought which can suggest actual strategies. For I believe that in the topic of Torah lishmah (Torah [study] for its own sake) one can find an approach – and perhaps a key – to the understanding of our connection with the world of Torah learning.


B. Torah Lishmah, by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm


            Before beginning our study, it is worthwhile to first familiarize ourselves with the research that has already been done on this topic.  Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s work, Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries (New York, 1989), is a thorough, comprehensive treatment of the topic of Torah learning, from its various halakhic and philosophical angles.  The book revolves around the figure of Rav Chayim of Volozhin and his famous work Nefesh Ha-chayim.  In effect, however, Rabbi Lamm’s work explores far beyond Rav Chayim and his approach, as it addresses the proper place of Torah study in the life of a Jew according to traditional Jewish thinkers of all generations.  The name of this book alludes to the issue that stands at the center of this entire discussion, namely, the question of how one should perceive the purpose of one’s learning, and toward which goals one should be aiming.


            A number of reviewers critiqued different points in the book, but nobody denies its primacy or importance.  Ongoing study of the material that Rabbi Lamm assembled and arranged continues to raise questions and invite further discussion.  Our study will rely heavily on Rabbi Lamm’s work, though I wish to evaluate this topic from a new angle, and take a somewhat different approach.


C. The Structure


            We will divide our study into two sections: sources until Rav Chayim of Volozhin (the point at which Rabbi Lamm’s research ends), and those after him.  At the beginning (shiurim 2-3), we will pose a basic question concerning the concept of “lishmah” as it applies to Torah, and in light of this question we will proceed to study the relevant sources.  We will pay particular attention to the writings of Rav Chayim of Volozhin.  In the second stage of our series, we will emphasize the teachings of Rav Kook.  We will examine Torah lishmah by exploring both traditional sources and the social and philosophical context of this topic.


            Let us now begin our study with an important source, which contrasts the two different understandings of Torah lishmah.


D. The Nefesh Ha-chayim on Torah Lishmah


            We cite below the key passage in Rav Chayim Volozhin’s work Nefesh Ha-chayim, taken from chapters 2-3 of the fourth and final section (“sha’ar”) of the book, a section devoted entirely to the lofty ideal of Torah learning.  Chronologically, we are giving precedence to one of the later sources, but before we study the earlier texts, I would like to present Rav Chayim’s comments as a point of departure for our discussion.  Other sources relevant to our subject generally follow a simple approach and explain the concept only according to the particular outlook of the author, without any deliberation.  One of the unique features of these paragraphs in Nefesh Ha-chayim is that they deliberately present the question surrounding the definition of Torah lishmah as a topic that warrants discussion and regarding which different views exist.  In chapter 2, Rav Chayim presents an understanding of Torah lishmah which he does not accept.  Rabbi Lamm refers to this approach as the “religious” approach, meaning, that it relates to the service of the Almighty.  As we read this segment, we should pay close attention to the objections Rav Chayim raises against this view:


Chapter 2


Regarding the issue of Torah lishmah – the clear truth is that “lishmah” does not mean deveikut (“attachment” to God) as most people currently think.  For our Sages commented in the Midrash (Shocher Tov) that King David a”h asked God that one who studies Tehillim should be considered by Him as one who studies [the mishnaic tractates] Negaim and Ohalot.  Studying the halakhot in the Talmud with intensity and exertion is thus a higher and more beloved matter than the recitation of Tehillim.


And if we say that “lishmah” means specifically [study for the sake of attaining] deveikut, and the entire concept of studying Torah lies specifically in this – is there a more wondrous deveikut than properly reciting Tehillim all day?


Furthermore, who is to say that the Almighty agreed to his [King David’s] request on this matter?  We do not find in their [the Sages’] writings the response with which He answered to his request…


Furthermore, for the purpose of deveikut it would suffice for there to be a single tractate, chapter, or Mishna which one studies all his life with devotion.  But this is not what we find in [the comments of] our Sages (Sukka 28a) who said about Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai that he did not leave [unstudied] any Scripture, Mishna, Halakha or Aggada, etc.  This is because he always had in his mind that he has not fulfilled the obligation of studying Torah for its own sake with what he had learned until that point.  He therefore applied himself diligently his entire life to always add more learning, every day and every hour…


This also follows logically.  For there are many laws in the Talmud that when a person studies them, he must intensively focus his thought and mind on their physical matters, such as kinin [the laws of birds consecrated as sacrifices] and pitchei nida [the calculations concerning the onset of menstruation], which constitute “essential precepts of Halakha” (Avot 3:18), or the give-and-take in the Talmud, and the principles governing the laws of migu [trusting a litigant on the basis of alternative claims he could have made] that involve deceitful claims the liar could have made.  And it is all but impossible that he will also experience complete, proper deveikut at that time.


Let us now proceed to chapter 3, where the author describes the true meaning of Torah lishmah, according to his view.  The perspective put forth in chapter 3, according to Rabbi Lamm, represents the “cognitive” definition of lishmah:


Chapter 3


But the truth is that the concept of “lishmah” means “for the sake of Torah,” and this means, as the Rosh z”l explained Rabbi Elazar ben Tzadok’s comment (Nedarim 62a): “‘Do things for the sake of their Maker’ – for the sake of the Almighty, who made everything for His own sake; ‘and speak in them for their sake’ – all your speech and discussion in words of Torah shall be for the sake of the Torah, such as in order to know and understand, and to increase knowledge and analysis, and not for contention or to pride oneself.”


He [the Rosh] was careful to explain the shift in Rabbi Elazar ben Tzadok’s terminology.  Regarding performance [of mitzvot] he said, “for the sake of their Maker,” whereas regarding speech he said “for their sake.”  Therefore, with respect to performance he [the Rosh] explained, “for the sake of the Almighty, who made everything for His sake,” and with respect to learning, he explained “for the sake of the Torah.”


His intention is clear.  Namely, performing a mitzva must certainly be – in order to be at the highest standard – with deveikut and the purest of thoughts in accordance with one’s intelligence and understanding, so that he may be praised up above to bring about the perfection of the upper worlds, forces and orders.  This is “for the sake of their Maker”: “for all that the Lord made – was for His own sake” (Mishlei 16:4), and the Sages explained “for His own praise.”


And although even regarding mitzvot, the primary and indispensable component is the concrete action, and the extra intention and purity of thought is not indispensable at all, as properly explained above at the end of section 1 with God’s help, nevertheless, the sanctity and purity of one’s thought combines with the concrete action to arouse and achieve greater perfections in the worlds than if the mitzva is performed without deveikut and sanctity of thought.


However, with regard to a person’s conduct at the time of studying Torah, the laws and halakhot of the commandments, he said, “speak in them” – meaning, speaking in matters of mitzvot and their halakhot should be done – “for their sake” – meaning, for the sake of the words of Torah, that is, to know and to understand and to increase knowledge and analysis…


This is why the Talmud concludes regarding Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, who did not leave [any subject in Torah unstudied] etc. – “in fulfillment of that which is stated, ‘I am capable of bequeathing to those who love me’ (Mishlei 8:21)…”  It is clear from that entire section [in Sefer Mishlei] that this statement is made by the holy Torah itself, who sings jubilantly “in the outdoors” that it has the capacity to bequeath and grant proper reward for whoever engages in and studies it out of actual love for it itself – meaning, to increase knowledge and analysis, and this is [what is meant by] “those who love me.”


            The lishmah of chapter 2, where Torah study serves as a means of attaining mystical attachment to the Almighty, was very widespread during the time of Rav Chayim, according to his testimony in the same chapter.  This approach was certainly the accepted outlook of the Chasidim, with whom Rav Chayim argues on many pages throughout Nefesh Ha-chayim.  Rav Chayim recognizes the legitimacy of the desire for this kind of closeness, and even encourages it.  In fact, he goes even further in explaining the significance of this deveikut, claiming that pure thoughts such as these achieve the loftiest goal of Kabbalistic teaching – perfecting the upper worlds.  However, in his view, the proper place for this desire of “perfecting the upper worlds” is mitzva performance.  With regard to Torah learning, by contrast, this objective undercuts the intellectual achievement, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  The emotion and spiritual focus diminish from the clarity of thought that is so critical for in-depth comprehension.


            Rav Chayim therefore contends that the unique quality of lishmah in the context of Torah study differs fundamentally from the lishmah of other mitzvot.  Namely, the purpose of learning Torah is the wisdom itself; the learning is its own purpose, and not a means for some other goal, admirable and lofty as that goal may be.  The Rosh, upon whose comments Rav Chayim bases his approach, defines Torah lishmah in strictly cognitive terms – “to know, to understand, to increase knowledge and analysis.”


            In our next shiur we will study the Nefesh Ha-chayim’s remarks further.  But I would like to conclude this introductory essay by posing a question about this passage in Nefesh Ha-chayim.  Let us return to Rav Chayim’s claims against the Chasidim.  He claims that if the Chasidim are correct in explaining “lishmah” to mean “for the sake of attaching oneself to the Creator,” then it would have been possible, and even preferable, to simply recite Tehillim all day instead of learning Torah.  This claim works off the assumption that reciting Tehillim does not qualify as Torah learning, at least as far as this discussion is concerned.[2]  However, even within this assumption, Rav Chayim’s argument seems difficult to understand.  The question he addresses is how to define “lishmah” in reference to Torah study.  Meaning, when a person studies Torah, what should his objective be?  The Chasidim gave their answer to this question.  Seemingly, the obligation to study Torah is the basic assumption upon which this entire discussion rests.  The question relates only to the intention that should accompany this central religious act.  One cannot claim that according to the Chasidim’s view it would be preferable not to learn but to do something else, because all parties to this debate agree that there exists an obligation to learn!


            I believe that the answer to this question teaches something critically important regarding this topic which we are now beginning to study – as we will discuss more fully in the next shiur.


Translated by David Silverberg


[1] Rav Shagar z”l in Panekha Avakesh, eds. Meir Werdiger and Uziel Fuchs (Efrat, 2008), p. 12.  These words were written by a man who is regarded as a most original thinker and lamdan, despite the tension that he faced between creativity and fealty to tradition, as mentioned in that book.

[2] Perhaps Rav Chayim meant that, qualitatively speaking, reciting Tehillim would be considered “bittul Torah” in contrast to the intellectual exertion of in-depth Talmudic study.