Shiur #05: Torah for Torah’s Sake: Peak or Anti-Climax?

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


A.   Cognitive Lishmah and the Triviality Question


Thus far, we have looked at one of the three definitions of lishmah, the “functional” approach.  At this point, we will turn our attention to a different definition, the “cognitive” lishmah, the primary advocate of which is Rav Chayim Volozhin, who puts forth this approach in his Nefesh Ha-chayim.  Just as we saw with regard to the “al menat la’asot” understanding of lishmah, this definition, too, lends itself to two different interpretations.


            Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm succinctly formulates this view as follows: “The intellectual comprehension of Torah is the purpose of its study.”  Rav Chayim expresses this view very clearly in the fourth section of his work (chapter 3), which we cited extensively in the first installment in this series.[1]  He draws proof to his position from the comment of Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Tzadok cited in Nedarim (62a), “Speak in them [= words of Torah] for their sake.”  The Rosh, as Rav Chayim quotes, explains this remark to mean, “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.”


            In attempting to understand this approach, we confront a difficult question that very much resembles the dilemma we faced in dealing with the “functional” definition of lishmah, namely, the triviality issue.  We will address this question as a means of gaining a deeper and more precise understanding of the phenomenon of lishmah.


            It appears, at first glance, that this designation of learning for learning’s sake as a lofty goal attests to the fact that Rav Chayim viewed learning as the highest of all goals.  In truth, however, identifying this objective as the most important thing of all hardly glorifies the enterprise of Torah learning; quite to the contrary, it lowers it.


            Firstly, how much effort is required on the student’s part to ensure that his study constitutes Torah lishmah?  Many people enjoy learning, and Torah study in particular poses a mighty intellectual challenge to anybody who enjoys intellectual engagement.  Pursuit of intellectual satisfaction comes naturally to many, and for them there is no need to encourage it or preach it.  The cognitive definition of lishmah takes the natural intellectual curiosity that automatically surfaces with regard to any serious study, and simply puts it on a pedestal.  Such a definition does not substantiate the perspective that emerges from all the sources: namely, that lishmah is a lofty goal and a difficult level to achieve, a criterion which demands the student’s special effort apart from the learning itself.


            But this perspective not only downplays the efforts of the student; it also diminishes the overall experience.  This phenomenon is paradoxical, but nevertheless real. On the one hand, the basic assumption of learning “for the sake of Torah itself” is a very pretentious one.  We are to exert such immense efforts in Torah and not divert our attention to other areas, because there is nothing more lofty and exalted than Torah.  Yet, this lofty nature of Torah is very distant from the mind and experience of the student, who is trained to concentrate solely on understanding the material, a motivation that seems no different from that which drives any academic scholar to explore his field of research.  With all due respect to importance of innate human curiosity, its cultivation as the primary motivator in Torah study in effect removes the person from the sanctity and transcendence that fill the Torah – qualities which themselves are the ideological basis of lishmah.


            How might we resolve this dilemma?


            I would like to present here the first of two possible approaches that one could take.  As we shall see, these two views stem from a larger query: what precise message emerges from Rav Chayim’s work Nefesh Ha-chayim, and what is the relationship between the book’s different sections?


B.   Prof. Leibowitz’s View: The “Negative Lishmah


Let us return to the commentary of the Rosh that formed the basis of Rav Chayim’s view: “in order to know and understand … and not for contention or to pride oneself.”  In light of these remarks, we might claim that focusing on the intellectual ambition is in fact not much of a job, as we noted above. The challenge of lishmah lies rather in divesting oneself of improper intentions.  This goal can be quite demanding.  We can imagine that some people are naturally inclined toward self-centered arrogance, and freeing themselves from this tendency in the framework of study is no simple matter.  For certain people, then, lishmah indeed poses a great challenge because it demands overcoming their innate tendencies – not a “trivial” task at all.


            This approach, which we may call “the negative lishmah,” can in fact be expanded beyond the moral issue of conceit. To illustrate this, let us refer to the views of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz z”l, one of the important Jewish thinkers of modern times. Leibowitz attached great significance to the intention which ought to accompany mitzva observance, and his views on this subject occupied much of his writing and lecturing.  It must be noted that he did not view Torah study as a central value (and in this sense he differs from Rav Chayim of Volozhin), and when he deals with the definition of lishmah, he is talking about the entire range of mitzva observance.  In any event, his definition very closely resembles the approach of the Nefesh Ha-chayim toward Torah learning.  Namely, one should not perform a mitzva for any purpose other than the actual fulfillment of the mitzva, as God has commanded.  The value of a mitzva lies within the mitzva itself, and not in any purpose that may flow from it.


            One who reads Leibowitz’s seminal essay, “Mitzvot Ma’asiyot,”[2] senses the extent to which he follows the “negative lishmah” track.  His “negative lishmah” negates a much wider range of negative ambitions that that of the Rosh.  The Rosh spoke of the objectives of pride and contentiousness, while Leibowitz rejects even feelings that most of us would identify as healthy, deep religiosity.  With regard to prayer, for example, he contends that Halakha does not see any value in pouring one’s heart and emotionally identifying with the requests expressed in the siddur.  According to Leibowitz, the very opposite is true:


“A prayer of an impoverished man when he is faint”[3] is individual and changes according to the person and place… In the end, it is merely satisfaction that a person gives to his soul – a service that he performs for himself… “A prayer of mercy and supplication” is nothing more than a psychological phenomenon which is irrelevant from a religious perspective.


Prayer, like other action-oriented mitzvot, is meant to express one thing only: accepting the yoke of the divine command: “If the commandments are the service of God and not a service to the person, then they must not be directed toward personal needs.”


            In light of his approach, Leibowitz rejects the study of ta’amei ha-mitzvot (the reasons underlying the mitzvot), as the notion of ta’amei ha-mitzvot constitutes in his view “a theological concept, and not a religious-faith concept.  The reason of a commandment is the service of God… and not the provision of a human need or interest.”  In short, a person serving God is meant to detach himself from his understanding, his experiences and his emotions, and accept the yoke of Halakha: “The characteristic quality of Halakha is its lack of pathos.”[4]


            I would like to take this approach as a model for the question of triviality under discussion.  Can Leibowitz’s position be critiqued on grounds of triviality?  Does his prescription elevate the challenge of proper intention in fulfilling mitzvot, or trivialize it?


            I believe the answer will depend on the kind of person under discussion.  A developed religious personality, possessing a high level of spiritual sensitivity, may experience existential and emotional suffocation if he accepts the need to rid himself of all his spiritual ambitions and feelings, and of all the spiritual significance that he had previously ascribed to his praying and other mitzvot, and accustom himself to acts that entail only subjugation to the divine will.  But the average person may feel the relief of a lightened burden, if we release him from the need to deepen his concentration and experience, and recommend that he fulfill mitzvot as ends in themselves, without any awareness of their reason or their meaning in his life.  This may partly explain why many people of secular backgrounds are attracted to Leibowitz’s viewpoint.


            It seems to me that Leibowitz himself implicitly addresses in his essay the issue that we called “triviality.”  He actually concedes the point and “pleads guilty,” but somewhat surprisingly, he sees nothing problematic with this conclusion.  This can be seen when he refers to the argument of his opponents that “God desires the heart. The heart’s intention is paramount, and hence – what value can there be in a religion that consists of a lifestyle ingrained by training and habituation, to the point where it becomes second nature?”


            Leibowitz responds that “‘A man’s duty done by rote’[5] is not a flaw in religiosity” by any means.  He adds that “only the prophet Yeshayahu, whose eyes saw the King, the Lord of Hosts, was allowed to scorn ‘a man’s duty done by rote’ and view it as a religious shortcoming…”  We, by contrast, are enjoined to strive to this level of mitzva observance.  Only once the religious routine has become entrenched in our lifestyle, and has been firmly anchored in a consistent, unchanging pattern of behavior that is not impacted by changing moods and mindsets, does the option of further refinement of intent and awareness present itself. But even this, says Leibowitz, would only be an “enhancement,” not an essential religious desideratum.


            In brief, Leibowitz holds that the standard of lishmah is indeed “trivial,” but this triviality is not perceived as a problem in need of a solution.


C.   The “Negative Lishmah” According to Rav Chayim of Volozhin


Despite the above, one may safely presume – and this is borne out by the texts – that Rav Chayim of Volozhin adheres to the traditional outlook, which views lishmah not as a negligible challenge, but quite a formidable one, and that this is true even with regard to the “cognitive” lishmah which sees Torah study as an objective unto itself.  Therefore, although the path of the “negative lishmah” led Leibowitz to nothing more or less than “mitzvat anashim melumada” (mitzva performance by rote), that same path could lead Rav Chayim to a far more demanding commitment.  The reason is that Rav Chayim, as opposed to Leibowitz, accepts this conception of lishmah – for the sake of the thing itself – as a value only with regard to Torah study.  When it comes to other mitzvot, and to religious life generally, Rav Chayim advocates cultivating personal, spiritual dimensions, and believes that the value of one’s actions is increased to the extent to which they bring the individual to loftier levels of spirituality.  Indeed, a major portion of the first three sections (“she’arim”) of Nefesh Ha-chayim is devoted to guiding the spiritual elite along the path of deveikut (spiritual attachment) and purity of heart in the service of the Almighty.  Rav Chayim champions the emotional yearning for experiential attachment to the Creator, and is utterly removed from the “non-pathos” approach of Leibowitz.  Therefore, when he calls upon the student to forego all this and to concentrate his energies strictly on cognitive learning, he is posing a weighty demand indeed.


            In the third chapter of the fourth section of Nefesh Ha-chayim, the author is addressing young students who have already internalized the first three sections of the work.  Those earlier sections advocate methodical, personal spiritual elevation. But now, in the fourth section, we encounter a different emotional experience, and in fact an opposite one.  At this point in Nefesh Ha-chayim,the devotion to Torah itself is, with strong emphasis, translated into a cognitive exercise – in the Rosh’s words, “to increase knowledge and analysis.”  This intellectual exclusivity demands detaching oneself from yir’at ha-romemut – feelings of awe in the face of God’s greatness.  Rabbi Lamm already noted this aspect of Rav Chayim’s approach, and referred to it as the “Dissociation Principle.”  This principle strictly demands that the student ignore his aspirations for deveikut and the desire for practical fulfillment of what he learns, and instead devote his entire self to scholarship and comprehension.  The sacrifice entailed in this absolute dissociation is what redeems the cognitive lishmah from triviality.


D.   The Spiritual Environment of the Nefesh Ha-chayim


In order to properly appreciate the magnitude of the sacrifice that this demands, we must bear in mind the social background of this work.  Some consider Nefesh Ha-chayim as mainly an anti-Chassidic polemic.  Although this is not the widespread view, there can be no doubt that Rav Chayim’s opposition to the Chassidim was the backdrop of his “mitnagdic” ideology.  The new movement[6] did not capture the masses in Lithuania, but it exerted enormous influence and apparently succeeded in defining the cultural agenda.  Vast sectors of the Jewish population accepted the central importance of spirituality and the experience of deveikut.  The rapid dissemination of Chassidism also resulted in the spread of the language of Kabbalah and its concepts.  Proof of the popularity of Kabbalah can be found in the fact that Rav Chayim not only cites the Zohar extensively,[7] but even apologizes for doing so (at the beginning of the fourth section) not because he is revealing esoteric material, but on the contrary – because these Zoharic passages were already familiar to the reader!


            Rav Chayim thus composed this work in response to the expectations of a readership which, while not actually Chassidic, was nevertheless exposed to the new movement’s claims and points of emphasis, and wished to hear the response of the greatest of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples.  And this disciple does not reject the longing for deveikut; to the contrary, he requires it, builds upon it and shapes it.  He takes full advantage of the emotional tendencies that were strengthened by the public discourse of the time, in order to achieve educational goals that are not fundamentally different from some of the objectives of the Chassidic movement.  Note, for example, his comments at the conclusion of the first three sections of his work:[8]


Dear reader!  Behold that I have, with God’s help, guided you along the paths of truth … and you shall see with your eyes that the more you accustom yourself to each of the aforementioned levels, additional purity will be added to your heart, both in Torah study and mitzva fulfillment.


It thus emerges that the readers who identified with all that Rav Chayim taught prior to the fourth section, were people to whom spiritual elevation was centrally important.  Therefore, the obligation which Rav Chayim imposes upon the student in the fourth section is exceptionally demanding and paradoxical.  Notwithstanding the importance ascribed previously to the realm of experience, Rav Chayim now claims that Torah study is of unparalleled importance and centrality, and that one who enters the world of learning must, in effect, abandon deveikut and concentrate his efforts on cognition.  The student must sacrifice upon the altar of Torah that which is most precious and dear: all his religious fervor and aspirations.  He is to realize that with respect to Torah, “the thing itself” is far greater and loftier than the human being’s limited ability to contain it.  The radiance of Torah is simply too great to be touched by man, not to mention experienced.  Study of Torah impacts deeply on reality as a whole and on the soul of the student as well, but these effects are so profound that they occur entirely beyond our awareness and the limits of our senses.


E.   Summary


In this shiur we have presented one approach to understanding the “cognitive lishmah” in a manner that justifies viewing it as a challenge of the first order.  The “negative” approach to “cognitive lishmah,” meaning, avoiding ethically improper intentions such as pride and the like, becomes more significant as we expand this demand to include even detaching oneself from ethical, pure and sacred ambitions while studying Torah.  Rav Chayim acknowledges the lofty value of aspiring for spiritual achievement, but the power of Torah lies specifically in the paradoxical demand to focus strictly on understanding the material.  The student to whom Rav Chayim of Volozhin speaks is a spiritual person, for whom the demand does not undermine the value of Torah, but, quite to the contrary, allows him to fully absorb its majesty and exalted stature.


            I hope that we will not forget that the central purpose of this series is to think about the meaning our discussions have for ourselves and our lives.  In this spirit, I would like to ask for your opinion on this outlook.  Does it “speak” to you, or is it perhaps too sophisticated?  I imagine some readers feeling this way.  Perhaps this idea can only be meaningful to those students of highly developed spiritual character, for whom cognitive learning itself could constitute a profound expression of allegiance to Torah. 


I would venture to suggest that perhaps these concepts are not entirely “beyond the pale” even for us.  Consider that every person can find himself in situations that require him to clear his mind of even positive thoughts.  Imagine, for example, a person who confronts a task that requires attention and concentration – such as prayer or a practical, real-life task – and his thoughts suddenly begin floating onto matters that are, in themselves, worthwhile and important, but – not now!  It is often difficult to chase away these preoccupying musings.  They are inherently good, and engaging in them leaves a person with an uplifting feeling.  This is precisely the kind of problem we have discussed here.


            In closing, let us get back to the understanding of Nefesh Ha-chayim suggested here.  I believe that there is much truth in it, but I also believe that it is not the complete truth.  The solution that we proposed for the problem of triviality relies upon a certain understanding of the relationship between the different sections of the book.  Namely, it assumes that the fourth and final section constitutes a radical departure from the first three.  The earlier parts deal with the fundamental ethical and theological values in avodat Hashem, whereas the final section says that despite all that has been said, there is nothing more important than Torah study, and that a “Dissociation Principle” separates it from all else.  This is how Rabbi Lamm understood the main message of the work.  In his view, Rav Chayim’s intent is to draw a hierarchical picture of the Jewish approach, according to which Torah study is the basis, the focus, and the summit of the entire system, and thus enjoys undisputed superiority and preference as opposed to all other values.


            Yet I believe that this interpretation of Nefesh Ha-chayim is open to question. There is a different way of understanding the structure of Rav Chayim’s thinking, which also offers a different solution to the problem of triviality. By extension, this will also entail a different understanding of Torah lishmah.


            This will be discussed, please God, in our next installment.


Translated by David Silverberg


[1] In the interest of convenience, I shall cite R. Chayim’s remarks here:

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.”

[2] In Yahadut, Am Yehudi U-medinat Yisrael, pp. 13-36.

[3] A phrase from Tehillim 102:1 – “A prayer of an impoverished man when he is faint, and pours his prayer before the Lord.”

[4] Though he hastens to add: “And specifically in this lack of pathos there is immense pathos.”  Leibowitz does not spell out his meaning, and I believe that the remark may attest to a certain paradox in which his approach ultimately becomes entangled.  But this matter is not our concern here.

[5] Taken from the prophet’s condemnation of the people: “The Lord said: Since this nation has approached [Me only] with its mouth and lips, they have honored Me but their heart was distant from Me, and their fear of Me was only a man’s duty done by rote – therefore, I will hereby baffle this nation bafflement upon bafflement, and the wisdom of its wise men shall be lost, and the insight of its discerning ones shall be concealed” (Yeshayahu 29:13-14).

[6] The controversy surrounding the Chassidic movement was approximately fifty years old at the time of the publication of Nefesh Ha-chayim.

[7] This is as opposed to his primary mentor, the Vilna Gaon, who generally did not cite the Zohar except in his strictly Kabbalistic writings.

[8] In the “Perakim” section before 4:1.