Shiur #02: Lishmah - In the Mind or in the Heart?

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


A.        “What is Lishmah?” – Defining the Question


In the previous shiur, we began our analysis of Torah lishmah by posing the basic question: how does one learn lishmah?  We presented the seminal passage in Rav Chayim Volozhin’s Nefesh Ha-chayim that addresses this question, where he records two theories: first, that one learns lishmah by learning for the sake of deveikut – spiritual attachment to God; second, Rav Chayim’s own position that lishmah is attained by learning for the sake of understanding the Torah.


            This debate, however, requires a more in-depth analysis.  That is, we must first take a step back and ask ourselves, what exactly is the question being addressed by Torah lishmah? Precisely what point is being debated by these scholars?


            On the surface, the answer is clear and obvious.  One who seeks to fulfill the mitzva of Torah study in the most complete fashion must study with a certain intention, and the question thus becomes what intention should accompany his learning.  As we will soon see, however, this formulation is far too simplistic.  To understand this, we will return to the point at which we concluded the previous shiur.


            Recall that Rav Chayim challenged the “deveikut”approach, noting that one can achieve this goal more easily through other means, such as reciting Tehillim, without engaging intricate Talmudic texts.  Why, then, should one study Torah?  In the previous shiur, we questioned the rationale behind this objection.  Seemingly, the question Rav Chayim raises relates to the thought and intention that must accompany the act of learning, and the Chasidim answered by pointing to the desire to attach oneself to the Almighty.  While it is true that other religious activities are well-suited for this goal, and even assuming that they are better suited than Torah study, why should this warrant neglecting the mitzva of Torah study in deference to those activities?  All parties to this debate accept the premise that there exists an obligation to learn Torah; the discussion surrounds only the intention with which one must study to achieve the standard of “lishmah.”

            Clearly, then, when Rav Chayim raised this objection, he made an important assumption regarding the essential nature of this topic of “lishmah.”  The question is not merely, as it superficially appears, which intention one should have as one learns.  A person must intend to attain the value that constitutes the basic objective of learning.  Thus, defining “learning lishmah” relates to a far more fundamental question: why do we learn Torah?  The Chasidim held that in order to achieve the quality of “lishmah” in learning, one must intend to attach oneself to God; but more fundamentally, they also believed that achieving this deveikut is actually the purpose of learning – and not merely an additional dimension whereby one fulfills the mitzva at the highest standard.  This explains Rav Chayim’s critique of their approach.  In his estimation, Torah learning is not the most effective way to achieve the stated goal, and he therefore could not accept the premise that Torah study was intended solely for the purpose of deveikut.


            Accordingly, the topic of lishmah actually inquires into the “soul” of Torah learning, and addresses the question: “What is this learning for?”[1]  However, even this understanding of the issue of lishmah does not yet get to the heart of the matter, as we shall presently see.


B.        Distinguishing Between Objective and Motive


The act of Torah study is an intellectual one.  However, if we say that this act of learning does not suffice, and it should take place with the added dimension of “lishmah,” then we in effect view the intellection as part of a process.  The meaning and quality of the act of learning change once we view it as part of a broader framework, as the learning leads to a certain goal, a goal which is perhaps not intellectual in nature.  We specifically emphasize our “viewing” of this process, because the demand of lishmah is not met simply by the fact that the Torah bears religious, cosmic, spiritual or other significance; it requires the intention and conscious awareness of the person studying.  We speak here of directing one’s learning toward the stated objective, and this intention is what transforms the learning into Torah lishmah.


            We may describe this process as follows:

the person’s inner motive -> learning -> objective.


            It is the final component – the objective – that is subject to debate among the different scholars, as we have seen.  Alongside the “religious” approach of the Chasidim (learning for the sake of deveikut) and the “cognitive” approach of Rav Chayim, Rabbi Lamm notes a third approach.  Namely, there are those who define learning lishmah to mean “lilmod al menat la’asot” – learning for the purpose of observance.  Rabbi Lamm explains this model – to which we will refer as the “utilitarian” approach – to mean simply that a person studies Torah so that he knows how to observe the mitzvot.  In any event, whichever of these three purposes one accepts, the student must direct himself toward that purpose in order for his learning to meet the demand of lishmah.


            But this is where the crucial question arises.  When considering the two stages which determine the student’s mindset – the motive and the objective – which of these is the primary component?  Which aspect is the main focus of lishmah – the objective, or the motive?  I believe this to be a very important question, and we will demonstrate its centrality by taking a closer look at one of the three definitions given for lishmah – the “utilitarian” definition.


C.        Sources for the Utilitarian Approach


            A passage in Berakhot (17a) serves as a source for the “utilitarian” approach to Torah lishmah:


Rava was wont to say: “The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds” – so that a person should not read Scripture and study, and then defy his father, his mother, his rabbi, and those greater than him in wisdom and numbers, as it says, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all who practice it gain good understanding” (Tehillim 111:10).  It does not say, “those who practice,” but rather “those who practice it” – those who practice for its sake, and not those who practice not for its sake.  And whoever practices not for its sake – it would have been preferable for him not to have been created.


For the time being, we will accept Rabbi Lamm’s definition of this approach, namely, that a person studies so that he will know how to fulfill the commandments.  Clearly, the objective and motive are here found in two different realms of activity.  The learning-motivation lies in the mindset of the student, whereas the objective is found in the realm of action and implementation.  Our question is: which area do we emphasize?


            Let us draw a comparison to a different area where we find a continuum of motive-action-objective.  A person shoots an arrow from a bow to a target.  His shooting has an objective, and because of that objective, he has a motive: since he wants to hit his target, he directs his action in a manner that can achieve this goal.  In this instance, the objective constitutes the main component.  It fully and precisely defines what is demanded of the individual in directing his action.  He must do whatever is needed to hit the target – no more and no less.  In order to succeed in his task as an archer, his intent and desire must conform to the professional requirements.


            At first this seems obvious, but if we take a closer look at the human reality in which that archer lives, we will realize that according to this definition, there are things occurring “inside him” that are not part of this process.  Worlds of feeling and experience may very well underlie this otherwise innocent act of releasing an arrow from a bow.  One person intends to hit the target for pure enjoyment, or to hone his athletic skills, while somebody else wants to succeed because he is competing in an Olympic event for which he has trained for years.  Yet, all those who hit the target are equally considered as having succeeded, regardless of whether the arrow was shot out of boredom, for recreation, to win an Olympic competition, or to save the life of one’s son (as in the legend of William Tell).  A high level of existential identification and emotional involvement does not afford the archer any advantage, as the action is evaluated strictly by a professional standard – the ability to execute the desire to achieve a predetermined goal.


            Let us now return from the analogy of the archer to our topic – the realm of Torah study, according to the model of “al menat la’asot”: learning for the purpose of knowing how to act. This model of learning may also be understood on the assumption that the objective alone, and not any underlying motivation, constitutes the critical element in defining lishmah – as we will see in the next section.


D.        The “Utilitarian” Lishmah:The Objective as the Primary Component


            We find in traditional sources a number of passages that urge us to learn Torah “for the sake of observing.”  We will give two examples. The first is from the introduction to the halakhic work Chayei Adam:


Torah includes two commandments.  The first part is to study Torah, as it says (among many other verses), “You shall teach your children” (Devarim 11:19).  In this regard, there is no difference between learning the tractates of Berakhot or those in Mo’ed [which deal with practically relevant halakhot], and learning the order of Kodashim [which deals with the laws of the Mikdash], for it is all the “words of the living God.”


The second part is that one should learn for the sake of fulfilling, and this takes precedence over the first part, for it accomplishes both objectives [i.e., learning itself and the facilitation of mitzva observance].  For if one does not learn, one will not know what to do.  And regarding this the [Sages] said, “It was decided that learning takes precedence [over mitzva observance], because learning leads to practice,” meaning that one thereby knows what to do.  Therefore, the ancient [scholars] – the Rif and the Rosh – composed [works] only on the tractates that are practically relevant for us, and they omitted many things that are not common.  This is because they saw that people’s minds had declined, and they therefore downsized the material to accommodate our capabilities.


In short, although even theoretical learning has a purpose, one should afford precedence to the study of practical Halakha, according to Chayei Adam.  A somewhat sharper expression of this notion appears in the writings of one of our generation’s great Torah sages, Rav Ovadia Yosef shlit”a (Yabi’a Omer, introduction to vol. 3):


From all that has been said we may learn that the leaders of Israel and Roshei Yeshiva everywhere bear the sacred obligation to guide yeshiva students … in an appropriate manner and closely supervise their courses of study … and educate them in the paths of hora’a [halakhic decision-making] and the proper methodology of study, to understand and rule [on halakhic matters] for today and for the distant future – regarding which [the Sages] said (Kiddushin 40a), “Learning is great for its leads to practice” – and to engage in the halakhot required of every rabbi in Israel.  How distressing it is to see many of the fine young men of Israel spending all their time only in pilpulim [Talmudic sophistry] without discerning whether their words are correct according to Halakha and sound reasoning!  What a waste of their brilliant talents, which they could have utilized for the knowledge and clarification of laws and practical halakhic problems!  But instead, they invest all their energy in fruitless pilpul which grants them temporary gratification.  It is appropriate to apply to them [the Talmud’s remark], “They abandon eternal life for the sake of the thrill of the moment” (Shabbat 10a).  It is almost certain that when somebody like this needs to rule on a halakhic matter, he will leave the straight “path of vineyards” and wander aimlessly.


Rav Yosef goes further than Chayei Adam, describing the study that is not “al menat la’asot” as “fruitless pilpul” and bordering on actual waste of time.  In any event, we will endeavor at this point to understand more precisely the dynamics of this quality of “al menat la’asot.”


            According to this approach, the main goal is knowledge of the Halakha, similar to the goal of hitting the target: the one who studies wants to know how to observe the Halakha.  Once he has this intent, he will naturally develop his learning program accordingly, just as the athlete utilizes all available means that enable him to fulfill his goal.  Here, too, we know nothing of, nor are we concerned with, the existential world underlying the individual’s desire to know the Halakha.  It could be that he simply wants to know how to fulfill his obligations, and nothing more, or that he wants to act “the way a Jew is supposed to act.”  He might be afraid of punishment in the next world. Possibly, his desire to fulfill the divine word stems from deep-seated ideological commitment, or from the depths of his soul, or from his love or fear of the Almighty.  These motivations certainly differ from one another in terms of the person’s religious and spiritual stature.  But if the definition of “lishmah” considers the objective alone, then all of these people share the same goal, namely, to know the Halakha. Thus, from the perspective of the level of “lishmah,” there is no difference between all the people described, despite the experiential and religious distinctions.[2]


E.        The Requirement of Lishmah When Writing a Get


            Rabbi Lamm compares the “utilitarian” definition of lishmah with the halakhic requirement of lishmah that applies to writing a get (divorce contract).  One who writes a get must write it with the intention that it will be used for the divorce of such-and-such woman and such-and-such man.  This intention itself becomes a formal, legal quality of the document, without which the document is not legally qualified to effect the divorce of this couple.  In this instance, too, we see that the objective – the halakhic efficacy of the get – constitutes the primary component; it dictates the need for the intention of lishmah, and it fully and precisely defines that intention.  The scribe must “express” through his thought his desire that the document fulfill its goal.  The mental act is the intent, comparable to the archer directing the arrow toward its target.  This intention is completely defined by the predetermined objective.  And here, too, whatever other intentions the scribe has in his mind are of no consequence. 


For instance, let us imagine a scribe who invests extraordinary concentration and emotion into his work.  He may be a good friend of the couple and thus shares in their heartbreak; he emotionally identifies with the pain of their separation, realizing that this is the only option to extricate them from their current family crisis.  All this added emotional baggage is absolutely meaningless as far as the lishmah element is concerned, as the efficacy of the document is secured by the simple thought and plain desire to meet the halakhic requirement that the document be written with its legal purpose in mind.  The get’s validity is the objective, and this validity cannot compensate the scribe for the impressive seriousness with which he goes about his work, nor does it rise to a higher level as a result of his emotional efforts.  In general, emotion plays no role whatsoever in this endeavor.  Achieving the desired goal demands the will of consciousness, rather than the will of emotion.


            Applying this example to the issue of learning “al menat la’asot,” we reach the exact same conclusion: the deep, inner world of the student has no bearing at all on the definition of his learning as Torah lishmah.  There is no advantage in this respect to a pure heart, strength of desire, or internal identification with the material.  The student is simply called upon to direct his act of learning toward the goal of familiarizing himself with the Halakha – and this suffices.


            However, we will now see that this approach suffers from a serious flaw indeed – one which renders it almost untenable.


F.         Lishmah – A Trivial Task?!


            The problem is simple.  Lishmah differs from ordinary learning in that it entails a heightening of one’s learning; it is a challenge that requires the student to add meaningful intent to the intellectual exercise of learning.  It goes without saying that lishmah is not meant to lower the stature of the learning or diminish from its importance.  Remarkably, however, if the quality of “lishmah” defines mainly the objective of the learning, and this objective is acquiring the knowledge needed for halakhic observance, then it effectively lowers the inherent value of the learning.  According to this perspective, learning has no significance other than as a means by which one fulfills other mitzvot.  Learning has now descended to the level of a medium that facilitates halakhic practice – just as the requirement of lishmah in writing a get serves only as a means to the objective of producing a valid document.


            The magnitude of the problem emerges from the comments of the Beit Halevi (responsa, 6) regarding the ruling of the Semag that women are required to study practically relevant Halakha.  The Beit Halevi questions how we may reconcile this ruling with the blanket exemption given to women from Torah learning, as established in the Gemara (Kiddushin 29a).  He gives the following answer:


Undoubtedly, then, they [women] do not bear the obligation of Torah study that applies to men at all, even with regard to the mitzvot that apply to them.  For regarding men, the learning constitutes an affirmative command like laying tefillin, and when one learns he fulfills an affirmative command.  And even with regard to the mitzvot that are not practically relevant to him, he is nevertheless obligated to study [their laws] due to the affirmative command of Torah study.  Regarding women, however, their study does not entail any mitzva at all, intrinsically.  Rather, the Semag wrote that women are nevertheless obligated to study the mitzvot that apply to them in order that they will know how to fulfill them.


The Beit Halevi presents a convincing argument that learning intended only to provide the knowledge necessary for observance does not fulfill the mitzva of Torah study.  Obviously, one who is obligated in a mitzva must first learn how to observe it. But we cannot begin to understand the exalted ideal of talmud Torah, and its lofty stature within Jewish life, unless we release it from its subjugation to practical halakhic observance.


            Thus, if we accept the “utilitarian” understanding of Torah lishmah, then learning lishmah, which is meant to be the loftiest and highest goal, actually lowers and trivializes Torah study.


            This problem arises because of the way we presented the “utilitarian” approach to Torah lishmah.  We developed it according to the model of shooting an arrow and writing a get, so that everything is determined solely by the objective, and no meaning at all is ascribed to emotional involvement.  This resulted in a lishmah which is far too trivial to be true.  It is very difficult to assume that this was the intent of those scholars who identified Torah lishmah as learning “al menat la’asot.”


G.        Interim Summary


            We have begun analyzing the process of lishmah by breaking it down into its various components: the motive, the intellectual act, and the objective.  We posed the question of whether the root of the process lies specifically in the designated objective, and assessed this possibility based on one of the three definitions of lishmah – the “utilitarian” model – which led us to a critical problem.


            From here, we must turn to the second option, and examine the opposite premise: namely, that the student’s existential motivation is not to be ignored, In fact, existential motivation is what lies at the very heart of the process of lishmah. This premise will be fleshed out in our next shiur.


[1] Clearly, Rav Chayim Volozhin’s very discussion assumes this to be the basis of the whole inquiry, even before he poses his own position on the matter.  In all fairness, we should raise the question of whether all those who dealt with this subject agreed with Rav Chayim Volozhin’s premise.  We might find somebody who views lishmah simply as a kind of hiddur mitzva (higher standard of performing the mitzva of learning) and does not relate to the primary purpose of Torah and Torah study.  So far, however, I have not found any proof of the existence of such a view.

[2] We should qualify this point by noting the condition that the person has no negative intent from an ethical standpoint.  If a person learns in order to observe, but his desire to observe stems from the desire to argue or boast, then he is not considered as learning “lishmah.”