Shiur #06: Learning Fueled by Love

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


A.           Is Torah Study Dissociated from the Spiritual Realm?


In the previous shiur, we noted the interpretive challenge we face in explaining Rav Chayim Volozhin’s approach toward Torah lishmah.  We must identify the underlying idea behind his “cognitive” understanding of Torah lishmah, for otherwise, this concept remains shallow, or, to use the term mentioned in the last shiur, “trivial.”


            Our first suggestion for dealing with this dilemma is that the task of lishmah is indeed a profound one because of the demand it makes to ignore one’s religious fervor and the aspirations for deveikut (spiritual attachment) that characterize the Jew serving his Creator.  This fervor, we argued, characterizes the first three sections of Nefesh Ha-chayim and the lessons and guidance they present.  Here, however, in the fourth section, which focuses on Torah study, we encounter the opposite demand, to disengage from the realm of religious experience and devote oneself to the cognitive process of Torah learning.  And it is specifically this kind of devotion which arouses in the student’s heart a sense of the greatness of Torah, which supersedes all other undertakings and human experience.  We referred to this line of thought as the “negative approach” toward understanding the concept of lishmah, and I noted that there is some amount of truth in this approach.


            At this point we are ready to examine a different approach toward the “cognitive lishmah.”


            The “negative lishmah” mentioned earlier is based upon a certain basic conception of the work Nefesh Ha-chayim, which is essentially the conception presented by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm in his work Torah Lishmah.  According to this understanding, the fourth chapter, which discusses Torah study, stands in direct contrast to the previous three chapters.  The purpose of the work, according to Rabbi Lamm, is to build Jewish values in such a fashion that Torah emerges as the highest and loftiest of all values.  According to this understanding, the importance of Torah overshadows all other moral values of which the work spoke until this point, and thus turning our attention to Torah entails the practical dissociation from that entire realm of sanctity and purity, in accordance with the “Dissociation Principle” discussed by Rabbi Lamm.  (See the previous shiur.)  The ideological assumption here is that the Torah itself is the embodiment of sanctity in its highest form, even if one cannot consciously experience this sanctity.


            Adopting this understanding will likely trigger a certain dynamic with far-reaching implications, a dynamic of progressive neglect of the entire world of the spirit, which constitutes the conceptual basis of the first three sections of Nefesh Ha-chayim.  After all, if I study Torah, then I don’t need anything else.  We will see that this was indeed a slogan that prevailed in Volozhin at a later period, when Torah scholarship was glorified to the point of near exclusivity.  As we will see later, even the work Nefesh Ha-chayim itself was forgotten at that time, for all that really remained were those two chapters from the fourth section that appear to elevate Torah learning over all else, without any connection to anything else.


B.           The First Three Sections of Nefesh Ha-chayim and Their Relationship to the Fourth Section


Quite obviously, an honest consideration of Nefesh Ha-chayim and the desire to identify its primary intent do not allow for dismissing an overwhelming majority of the work.  It would therefore appear that a different understanding is warranted, according to which the contents of the first chapters serve a purpose other than to establish that they are less important than learning.  The fourth section, then, should not be viewed as “dissociated” from the previous three; to the contrary, it is predicated upon them.  One cannot grasp the greatness and full significance of Torah learning without the entire educational and philosophical approach that Rav Chayim outlines throughout the work.


            In order to understand this point, let us briefly summarize the first three sections of Nefesh Ha-chayim.


            The first section presents a general explanation of the human being’s place in the world, or, more precisely, in the worlds, and puts forth a distinctly Kabbalistic outlook.  The human being is attached from the depths of his being to spiritual worlds which are the source and basis of all existence. All of a person’s actions, speech and thoughts determine the vitality of these higher levels of existence, which impact upon and mold all other levels of existence, including life in this world.  This results in the immense burden of responsibility cast upon the human being to engage constantly in Torah and mitzvot, both in deed and thought.


            The second section is devoted to the essence of prayer, and the explanation of its underlying concept further develops and applies the notion of the human being’s seminal role in the world’s existence.  The bounty of sanctity that flows through the chain of existence depends upon its relationship and connection to the Almighty, and prayer is intended to strengthen that link.  This concept stands at the heart of our mentioning the word “Barukh” when we turn to God.  In this context, Rav Chayim outlines a conceptual and practical approach toward achieving humility and purity of heart in prayer, which enhances the prayer and augments its blessed impact upon the worshipper.


            The third section consists mostly of a theological discussion about the Almighty’s relationship to the world from two opposite angles.  On the one hand, the Creator’s existence opposes and negates any other possible existence, whereas on the other hand, from the perspective of the human being, the Almighty sustains the world, including all its various aspects and different spiritual planes.[1]  Prayer relates to the first perspective, from which God is referred to as “Ha-Makom” (“the Place”), whereas halakhic observance is possible only from within the realistic existence which we behold.


            Rav Chayim concludes the third section with the following comments:


Behold that I have, with God’s help, guided you along the paths of truth, showing you the path on which to walk securely, and you can train yourself slowly in the order of the aforementioned levels, in accordance with the purity of your heart… 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, mitzva fulfillment, and the fear and love of Him, may He be blessed.


Rav Chayim’s language and frame of reference in this passage are most critical for understanding his approach in the fourth section, the section dealing with Torah learning, which is aimed at encouraging the reader to study lishmah.  In the first chapter of the fourth section, Rav Chayim expresses his nostalgia for the earlier generations, when “the flame of love for the sacred Torah would burn in their hearts like a raging fire, with pure love and fear of God, and all their desire was to increase its honor and glorify it.”  In order to relive, if only in small measure, that magnificent level, Rav Chayim sets out to assemble sources from the midrashim and Zohar to “stir the hearts of those who desire to attach themselves to the love of His Torah (may He be blessed), and bask in its sublime, awesome shadow.”


            The way to “stir the hearts” to Torah is, once again, through a moral, spiritual outlook, which charts man’s place within the system of the various worlds (i.e., levels of existence).  Torah is depicted as a spectacular, enthralling vision, as it constitutes the primordial root from which all the worlds draw their existence even in the present:


The sacred Torah – whose upper root is higher and above even the emanation of His sanctity (may He blessed), as mentioned, and the Almighty and the Torah are one – is the soul and source of life, the light and root of all the worlds… Without the bounty of [Torah’s] light in [the worlds] at actually every moment, to illuminate them, to give them life and to sustain them, they would all return to actual nothingness.  As such, the main source of all the world’s proper life, light and sustenance is only our engaging in [Torah] as we should, for the Almighty, Torah and Israel are all one, in that the upper root of the soul of each member of Israel is attached to and held by a letter from the Torah, rendering them actually one. (Chapters 10 & 11)


            In this passage, the author reveals the secret to all those who properly studied the first sections of the work.  The human being’s cosmic place and role in sustaining the bounty of sanctity and light throughout all levels of existence stem and draw from the connection of Israel and of all existence to the Torah.  The twenty-five final chapters of the fourth section develop this concept in great detail, noting its different aspects and numerous implications.  These chapters essentially constitute a song of praise of the greatness of Torah and Torah study.  Rav Chayim wrote this inspiring essay for the purpose of igniting the love of and passion for Torah learning.


            For our purposes, it suffices to note that Rav Chayim clearly did not view learning lishmah as something trivial.  It flows from a person’s deep-seated desire that binds his consciousness with his deepest and loftiest aspirations.


C.           The Objective Versus the Motivation


The point we just made can be more clearly understood in light of our discussion in previous shiurim as to how to define the question of lishmah.  Are we interested in defining the purpose of learning, or the inner emotional motivation to learn?  Rabbi Lamm, in explaining Rav Chayim’s approach, placed the emphasis on the objective, and the objective of learning is the cognitive process itself, as Rav Chayim explicitly states in the third chapter.  Rabbi Lamm is aware of the fact that Nefesh Ha-chayim contains much more than cognition, and he even concedes the necessity of this fact, since focusing exclusively on cognition ultimately reduces learning to the level of merely satisfying one’s intellectual curiosity – meaning, the problem of “triviality.”  In Rabbi Lamm’s view, however, the talk of yir’at Shamayim (fear of God) and cosmic responsibility stand separate and apart from the central, cognitive lishmah, which constitutes the primary message introduced in Nefesh Ha-chayim: “Thus, R. Hayyim, while accenting above all else the cognitive definition of lishmah, also includes, as essential to the whole conception of Torah, the functional and devotional definitions…”  And so, Rabbi Lamm demonstrates how the Nefesh Ha-chayim mentions the need for the student to accept upon himself the practical observance of the Torah, and how Rav Chayim “also includes what has been broadly termed the devotional elements as subsidiary to the major theme of ‘for the sake of Torah.’ ”  We, too, will address these points later.


            On the surface, however, this understanding seems peculiar.  It emerges that the central component, the primary intention which Rav Chayim emphasizes as the highest purpose of learning, by its essence lowers the stature of learning and threatens to reduce it to the level of simply satisfying the desire for knowledge.  The only thing that can save the learning from ruin is the “support” offered by the classic intentions of lishmah mentioned in other sources – the functional and the devotional intentions, whose dethroning from the focal point of lishmah is Rav Chayim’s primary message in this work.  I believe that this complication is the product of a certain fundamental view of this topic, which focuses on the purpose of learning.  They key to solving this problem, then, lies in changing our perspective on the subject.


            Once again, we see that the issue of lishmah relates not to the definition of the purpose of learning generally, but rather to the deep emotional involvement of the student; indeed, this is Rav Chayim’s goal throughout the fourth section.  Needless to say, in order for the cognitive learning to serve as the focus of the student’s existential involvement, we must understand full well the significance of Torah, both in the objective sense as well as in the personal experience of the student.  What is there in Torah that has the capacity to arouse my most fundamental loyalty, the awareness regarding which Rav Chayim said that if we fail to perceive it properly we can “drown in the stormy sea”?[2]  The author diligently addressed this question in the fourth section of his work.  As noted above, his objective was to “stir the hearts of those who desire to attach themselves to the love of His Torah” – an objective that is clearly not a cognitive one, and rather appeals to the student’s deepest emotions.  Rav Chayim felt obliged to create an inner identification with Torah in order to endear its study to his readers not only on the rational level, but in the manner that he constantly emphasizes – ka-ra’ui (“as warranted,” or “properly”).  This is not a trivial goal by any means, but rather a very demanding one which requires contemplation, internalization and in-depth thought.


D.           The “Cognitive Lishmah” Before Rav Chayim of Volozhin


1) Similarities and Differences between Rav Chayim and the Rambam


At this point, it behooves us to revisit the consensus asserted by Rabbi Lamm that the “cognitive lishmah” was first introduced by Rav Chayim of Volozhin.  This assumption seems correct only if we build the definition of lishmah around the purpose of learning.  By contrast, if we assume that even learning directed toward cognition draws from more basic, spiritual forces, within which lies the focal point of the concept of lishmah, then it emerges that Rav Chayim’s outlook has ancient roots, very distant from 19th-century Lithuania.


            As mentioned, Rav Chayim maintains that one should study Torah not to achieve any purpose outside of Torah, but rather for the learning itself – to study, understand, analyze and gain knowledge.  The Rambam’s comments in his commentary to the Mishna (Sanhedrin, chapter 10) are very reminiscent of this approach.  The Rambam describes a youngster who does not recognize the inherent value of his studies, and so his teachers, in an effort to spark his interest, must resort to different methods of luring him in accordance with his emotional development – such as sweets, clothing, money and honor.  The Rambam writes:


This is what the Sages call she-lo lishmah (“not for its sake”), meaning, that he fulfills the mitzvot and performs them, and studies and exerts effort not for that thing itself, but rather for some other thing.  The Sages, of blessed memory, warned us about this and said, “Do not make them into a crown through which to be glorified, nor a spade with which to dig.”  They allude to what I explained to you – that one should not make the purpose of study that people should give him respect or the acquisition of money, and one should not turn God’s Torah into a source of a livelihood.  The purpose of learning should be nothing other than the knowledge of Him.  Indeed, the purpose of truth is only to know that it is true, and the mitzvot are true; hence, their purpose is their fulfillment.  It is forbidden for the complete person to say, “If I do these good deeds and avoid these bad deeds which God forbade – what will be my payback?”  For this is like the child who says, “If I learn, what will I get?” and they say to him, “Such-and-such thing.”  When we see his lack of knowledge, that he does not understand the value of this matter and seeks a purpose for it, we answer him in accordance with his foolishness – “Answer a fool in accordance with his folly” (Mishlei 26:5).  The Sages have already warned us also about this – meaning, that a person should not make the purpose of his [religious] service and mitzva fulfillment any [external] thing.  This is what was said by the perfectly pious one, who understood the truth, Antignos of Sokho: “Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward; rather, be like servants who serve the master in order not to receive a reward” (Avot 1:3).  They meant by this [that one should] believe in truth for truth itself, and this is the concept that they call “serving out of love.”  And they [the Sages], of blessed memory, said, “…who very much desires His commandments” (Tehillim 112:1) – Rabbi Elazar said: His commandments, and not the reward for His commandments.


Similar comments appear in the Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva (10:2-4):


One who serves [God] out of love engages in Torah and mitzvot and follows the paths of wisdom not for [the purpose] of anything in the world, and not out of fear of evil, and not to inherit goodness; he rather does the truth because it is truth, and the goodness will eventually come as a consequence.  This is a very lofty stature, which not every wise person is privileged to attain…

The early Sages said: “Lest one should say, ‘I will hereby study Torah so that I will be wealthy, or so that I will be called a rabbi, or so that I will receive reward in the next world’?  The verse therefore states, ‘to love the Lord’ – you shall do all that you do only out of love.”  The Sages also said, “ ‘who very much desires His commandments’ – and not the reward for His commandments.”  Similarly, the greatest Sages would especially instruct their brightest and most intelligent disciples, “Do not be like servants who serve the master… Rather, it is worthwhile to serve Him because he is the Master.”  Meaning, serve Him out of love.


            The Rambam repeatedly emphasizes the notion of engaging in Torah and mitzvot not for any purpose that is external to them, but rather for their own sake.  The purpose of study is only for the knowledge of God, and as for the mitzvot – “their purpose is their fulfillment.”  Are these comments not very similar to Rav Chayim’s demand that the student not look toward any other objective?[3]  True, the context of the Rambam’s remarks differs from that in which Rav Chayim presented his view.  The “competing” objective against which the Rambam speaks is any kind of self-serving purpose, whereas Rav Chayim comes to reject the striving for mystical deveikut.  But this difference is immaterial, for the apex of “self-serving purposes” for the Rambam, and the most delightful of them all, is the life in the next world – which is not very far from the mystical deveikut spoken of by Rav Chayim.


            Rabbi Lamm, of course, saw the Rambam’s comments, but did not see any substantial association between them and the Nefesh Ha-chayim.  Why?  Because the Rambam emphasizes repeatedly that this kind of learning constitutes learning “out of love.”  Meaning, he looks at not the “cognitive lishmah,” but rather the “devotional” intention, viewing learning as a means of strengthening the bond between the human being and his Creator.


2) Distinguishing between the Goal and the Motivation


            However, despite the emphasis on love, the Rambam’s assertion that knowledge itself is the purpose of learning could not have been made any clearer.  And with regard to the prominence of “love” in his comments, he means, quite simply, that love is the exclusive motivation, the emotional fuel that sustains the connection to the cognitive learning, which is an objective unto itself.  We must be sure not to confuse the motivation with the goals.  Learning has no goal outside of itself, because the person is overcome by the love of God; he concentrates on Torah by the force of his love, and this love fills his learning with personal meaning.  His commitment to learning therefore runs very deep, and for this reason we can describe his learning as lishmah


           There can be no doubting this distinction between motivation and goal, which we have repeated numerous times.  To illustrate this further, I would like to draw attention to a textual nuance in a Talmudic passage that has been cited countless times by later writers: “A person should not say, ‘I will read so that they call me wise; I will review so that they call me a rabbi; I will study in depth so that I will be a respected elder sitting in the yeshiva.’  Rather, learn out of love, and the honor will eventually come” (Nedarim 62a).


            The intention which the Gemara here considers invalid is formulated as a purpose and goal: “I will read so that they call me wise” – meaning, he learns in order that he will receive honor, a livelihood or authority.  The desired intention, by contrast, is expressed without any indication of a goal: “learn out of love.”  The same is true in the Rambam’s discussion in Hilkhot Teshuva, as cited above.  The Rambam never speaks of the inappropriate intentions in the form of “out of…”  It appears, then, that the flaw in she-lo lishmah lies in the inappropriate objectives.  But how did the person reach this point where he aspires to such petty goals?  What caused this subjugation of Torah study to self-serving interests?  It turns out that the problem lies deep within the person, in the motivation.  Had the person truly loved truth because it is truth, his heart would not have strayed after other things.


            In short, the Rambam does not present deveikut or the cultivation of one’s connection to his Creator as the goal of Torah learning and mitzva observance, because their purpose actually lies within themselves.  He does, however, maintain that in order to learn lishmah, one must act out of the motivation of love, and the deeper the love, the greater a connection he will have to Torah and mitzvot, and the more deserving he will be of having his learning considered lishmah.  I believe that Rav Chayim of Volozhin also held this view, in reference to Torah study.


E.           Interim Summary


Based on our evaluation of the structure of Nefesh Ha-chayim, we suggested that Torah study, and particularly learning lishmah, is built upon an entire emotional, existential world of spirituality and purity of heart.  In the “cognitive lishmah,” the goal is cognitive, but the motivation is emotional.  The ideal learning combines emotional identification with the significance of Torah.


            In the coming shiurim we will continue our study of Nefesh Ha-chayim and see additional expressions of the existential roots of learning lishmah.  We must also see how this approach can be practically implemented during Torah study.


[1] This contradiction and the different ways of resolving it constitute one of the most important issues addressed in Kabbala and Chassidic thought.  See, for example, Zohar, Re’aya Mehemana, Parashat Pinchas, p. 225; Tanya, vol. 1, chapter 31; and Likutei Moharan – Torah, 64.

[2] “Thus, the sacred Torah is called the ‘tree of life,’ the ilana de-chayei, because only at that time when the person is gripped by the love for it and consistently engages and occupies himself in it – only then does he live the true, sublime life… But if, Heaven forbid, he neglects his learning…to engage in the vanities and pleasures of the world, he is severed and cut off from sublime life and drowns himself in the raging waters, Heaven forbid” (Nefesh Ha-chayim, 4:33).

[3] The Rambam differs from Rav Chayim in that he applies this definition to the observance of mitzvot, as well, and not merely to Torah learning.  Regarding this point the Rambam’s outlook resembles that of Leibowitz, which we mentioned on a previous occasion, though the Rambam incorporates an emotional emphasis which is of course very far from Leibowitz’s thought, as we will soon see.