Shiur #08: Intellect and Emotion in Torah Study - A Restless Symbiosis

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


I.              Can Intellect and emotion be Good Neighbors?


a) Two understandings of RAv CHayim’s postion


            I would like to begin this shiur with a brief review, that will give us a clear picture of what we have learned in the previous shiurim (5-7) about the position of Rav Chayim of Volozhin. We will outline the principal elements of the two different/contradictory understandings of the idea of Torah lishmah. Afterwards, we will address the relationship between these two understandings – must they and can they live together in peace?


Our first approach in understanding Nefesh Ha-Chayim emphasized exclusive dedication to profound intellectual understanding of the Torah ("to increase knowledge and analysis"). According to this, the Torah's greatness dwarfs every other value; the Torah stands in lofty uniqueness, wholly detached from human longings for purification and the deveikut experience of attachment to God. This interpretation utilizes Rabbi Norman Lamm's assertion in his book "Torah Lishmah" regarding the principle of “dissociation” between Torah intellection and the religious experience (with a little help from Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz).


            The second interpretation was generated by the intuition developed in shiur no. 4: the desire to learn is emotion-based. According to this, the idea of Torah lishmah means that the more a person deepens and nurtures this desire, the more intensely will he engage in the rational study of Torah in actual practice. The Torah is not detached from the experiential realm, but rather it grows from religious experience and spirituality. In the previous shiur, we also tried to acquaint ourselves with the ways in which a person, by way of his choices and actions, can activate processes that coordinate pathos and intellectual activity. In light of all this, we examined Rav Chayim's instructions for cultivating the fear of God before studying Torah. To help us understand the process, we made use of the writings of Robert Solomon on the subject of emotions and their relation to the intellect and other realms of life.


            I believe that Rav Chayim does not deny the truth of either one of these formulations – the one that joins the emotions to the intellect and the one that detaches the one from the other – and indeed he accepts both of them. A close reading of Nefesh ha-Chayim leaves us with a certain feeling of fuzziness, owing to the presence of these two different directions, one alongside the other: the prominence of the love and fear of God in the context of learning, on the one hand, and their “disappearance” on the other. The book rolls these two strands into a single skein. See once again, for example, in chapter 3 where Rav Chayim toils to present a purely cognitive approach, but nevertheless he concludes with an explanation of the verse, "That I may cause those who love Me to inherit substance" (Mishlei 8:21):


That it [the Torah] has the power to offer inheritance and provide fine reward to anyone who meditates upon and occupies himself with it because of love for it itself, this is "to increase knowledge and analysis," and this is [the meaning of] "to those who love Me."[1]


            Intellection and love, that flow from totally different places within the soul, appear here in a relationship of tense identification.


            I hope that the differentiation that we have made between these two tendencies has contributed some measure of clarity.


b) THe combination of And Tension between the intellect and the emotions


            But how, indeed, can these two outlooks be made to coexist in actual practice?


            Based on what we have already learned, this question can be answered both on the theoretical and on the practical levels. On the theoretical plane, we noted that even Rav Chayim is aware that the motivation for studying Torah is based on an emotional connection, and that this connection is composed of various elements: love, fear, purity, and repentance; but the action that is performed based on this love is a purely cognitive act. This provides us with a model for understanding the coexistence of the emotions and the intellect that parallels the distinction that we made between the emotional motivation and the intellectual objective.


            On the practical level as well, we can define the relationship between experience and cognition in Torah study. Rav Chayim of Volozhin provides guidance as to the appropriate places of these two components: A person activates his deep-seated religious sensitivity during the moments of contemplation before learning, but the learning itself is entirely detached from any experiential consciousness.


            All this is fine and good, but it does not suffice. Despite our desire to impose these elegant distinctions, we nevertheless encounter in Nefesh ha-Chayim tension between the intellectual and the emotional poles, the signs of which will be discussed below. What causes this tension?


            While it possible to distinguish "on paper" between emotional motivations and intellectual objectives, applying this distinction in practice is by no means a simple task. The religious consciousness is sorely tempted to turn the experiential element into the entire picture – both the foundation and the objective. Rav Chayim of Volozhin speaks of many (i.e., the Chasidim) who willingly slid down this slope with great joy and total conviction. They made deveikut the objective of Torah study, and did not deem intellectual understanding itself as the purpose of learning. At the other extreme, we already encountered a thinker like Leibowitz, who totally denies religious experience, because he understands the question as a "zero-sum game," that does not allow for the mutual setting of limits or compromise.


            I remind the readers that over the course of developing the topic, we have from time to time noted this confusion and the caution that it requires. The human soul tends to get carried away, and the balanced operation of a person's various faculties, each one in its own domain, requires sophistication, dexterity, and also practice and experience. Rav Chayim of Volozhin educates toward the development of both components, but he is fully aware that activating each faculty in the proper place and in the correct measure can be a delicate mission.


            Rav Chayim senses the danger primarily from the Chasidic direction, and he criticizes the excessive preoccupation on the part of the members of that movement with moral and ethical tracts. This is where he stands guard, warning that religious experience must not be allowed to jeopardize the quest for scholarship. He therefore repeatedly emphasizes that intellectual understanding is the purpose of Torah study, "the grain entering the storehouse," and that man cannot occupy himself exclusively with building the storehouse and not with seeing to it that he fill it to capacity.


II.            Five minutes a day?


In this context, mention should be made of Rav Chayim's position on the quantitative relationship between the time devoted to the cultivation of fear of Heaven and the time dedicated to Torah study itself. According to certain calculations,[2] Rav Chayim concludes that very little time should be allocated to the development of yir'at Shamayim. In his shiurim on tractate Avot recorded by his disciples, Rav Chayim spells out his position – five minutes a day should be enough![3]This ruling is quite perplexing: How is possible to study the Nefesh ha-Chayim itself in only five minutes a day? For that matter, how could Rav Chayim have possibly written the book with such a tiny allotment of time? Is the Nefesh ha-Chayim the exception to the rule, as opposed to the other works of ethical and moral guidance?


I addressed this question to Rabbi Lamm, and he answered that this problem need not worry us: Defending the Torah is part of the Torah, and Rav Chayim felt a need to go out in defense of the Torah because in his opinion the Torah was under attack. The degree to which we are prepared to accept this answer depends on our understanding of the purpose of the book. I would agree that defending the Torah is one of the book's components, but Nefesh ha-Chayim is fundamentally a work of all-embracing guidance, both in matters of ethics and religiosity, and regarding Torah study. Rav Chayim's son, Rav Itzele, reports that his father aspired to publish the book in order "to firmly plant the fear of God, Torah study and pure Divine service in the hearts of the upright who are seeking the ways of God."[4] Presenting the book as an important means of providing moral guidance to the public proves that there are additional spiritual goals, besides the study of Gemara and the codes, that demand attention and resources, and it is difficult to understand how five minutes a day suffices to achieve them.


Unfortunately, I cannot offer a satisfying solution to this mystery. In any event, Rav Chayim's radical statement demonstrates the extent to which he feared that Chasidic extremism was liable to undercut Torah study. It should also be remembered that nothing in the fourth section of the book negates the spiritual guidance offered in the previous sections. Anyone who actualizes Rav Chayim's earlier ideas through his daily prayers is already devoting much more than five minutes a day towards cultivating his personal religiosity. It is reasonable to assume that the author relied on this as well when he set aside so little time for contemplation before Torah study.


III.           Tending the Flames


There is still another practical aspect of the tension between emotion and study that makes its appearance in Nefesh Ha-Chayim. Even during the actual course of study, Rav Chayim does not rule out turning directly to an existential connection with the Torah, this too in apparent contradiction to the "Dissociation Principle." He writes in chapter 7 that even in the middle of learning it is proper:


To stop for a short time, before the fear of God (blessed be His name) that he had accepted upon himself before starting to learn becomes extinguished from his heart, to ponder again about the fear of God… He should not be concerned that this constitutes bittul Torah (taking time away from Torah study), because this is what will cause the knowledge of Torah to remain with him.


            The Torah student must tend the flame of the fear of God so that it not become extinguished during the course of his learning, and he must guard the embers of religious feeling in his sub-conscious, or at the edges of his awareness. This can be accomplished through shorter or longer contemplation – perhaps asking oneself, "Why am I doing this, what do I gain from this?"[5]


            Rav Chayim insists that the emotional connection not be broken for two reasons. First of all, this "fire" is the power supply and motivation for study. Second, this feeling is vital owing to the truth that it embraces, for Torah study demands a religious atmosphere and the fear of Heaven. All this, provided that the emotions do not overflow and inundate the cognitive act. One can imagine the extent to which this continuous need – to stoke the flames, but not excessively – demands vigilance and alertness.


IV.          the essential conflict


Earlier, we asked: why don’t intellect and emotion enjoy a calm, relaxed relationship in the Nefesh ha-Chayim, in the context of Torah study? We suggested that Rav Chayim recognized the human frailty that pushes the Torah student to become carried away to one extreme and totally disregard the other. In his view, this weakness was embraced as ideology by the followers of the Chasidic movement, and it was against this tendency that Rav Chayim felt compelled to struggle. But in truth, there is another source of this tension, which also arises from the discussion in previous shiurim.


The two poles in man's encounter with the Torah are not only two stages in the process (preparation and contemplation, followed by the actual learning), and also not only an expression of two different faculties in the human psyche, but rather they represent two dimensions of the Torah itself, or two conceptions of the essence of the Torah. On the one hand, the Torah is over and above all human comprehension and experience; on the other hand, it is filled with blessing and bounty, holiness and loftiness that raise man and his world to the highest possible human levels. We connected these two conceptions to the issue of the significance of the structure of Nefesh ha-Chayim – does the fourth section serve as the summit of the previous sections, or does it outshine, or even overrule and “black them out”? It seems to me that both of these perspectives are correct. Between them they may work out a practical modus vivendi, as we have seen, based on the chronological and methodological division of the two dimensions. But on a more essential level, we are dealing with two absolute and total dimensions that stand in paradoxical conflict, with ontological and existential ramifications. The attempt to live with both of them is an act of sacrifice.


A similar paradox is found in most of the other parts of Rav Chayim's book. Our study of Nefesh ha-Chayim is focused on the fourth section, but for the sake of comparison note should be taken of the essential tension that characterizes different sections of the work. For example, Rav Chayim's theological discussion in the third section stands entirely in the shadow of the contradiction between God's transcendence and His immanence.[6] Rav Chayyim deeply probes this difficult and fundamental issue, its kabbalistic significance and its expressions in prayer and the service of God. It is reasonable to assume that when he writes about the Torah, he likewise thinks in terms of transcendence and immanence. The Torah is essentially incomprehensible, and its rational garb is the only handle available to us. On the other hand, the Torah presents itself to man and to the world on all levels of existence, it is the source of happiness and of all material and spiritual successes. From this perspective it is not detached from our most intimate experience: we develop a living connection to it, and it is the object of our emotional involvement, the focus of our faith, our love, and our fear.


V.           Dealing with Torah study as a moral challenge


Rav Chayim, as was stated above, is exceedingly sympathetic to deveikut, but sharply criticizes overdoing it. Why is this exaggeration dangerous? Thus far we have emphasized the danger of impairing the intellectual act of Torah study. Rav Chayim's deep-seated fear has, however, another source – the moral problem.


This concern of Rav Chayim is not explicitly spelled out in the fourth section of the book, but it finds due expression in the volume's "chapters" section. This section is comprised of eight additional chapters inserted between the third and fourth sections of the book.[7] Anybody who reads the book in order cannot fail to see that these "chapters" constitute the background for the struggle between the experience of fear of God and the act of intellection, discussed in the fourth section. Rav Chayim's objective in the "chapters" section is to balance and restrain the lessons of the previous sections. Why is this necessary? Because after leading his readers along the path of purification through Divine service, Rav Chayim felt that attention should be paid to the flaws and defects concealed in the drive for deveikut. This point is a characteristic element in Rav Chayim's dialectical approach, which we already encountered on the conceptual level, and now we meet in the realm of morality. Near the beginning of the "chapters" section, Rav Chayim writes as follows:


Be especially careful and cautious that you not become overbearing and that your heart not become haughty when you serve your Creator with purity of thought… For even if the arrogance is not evident to people, and it remains in the heart and is seen only by the person himself, it is a real abomination before Him, blessed be He, as it is known that it is the source and the catalyst of all the evil qualities.


            The emphasis placed here on the quality of humility is very typical of the path adopted by Rav Chayim of Volozhin. This quality stands at the heart of the biographical description written by his son, Rav Itzele, in his introduction to Nefesh ha-Chayim. The attribute of humility was also the focus of many of the public sermons that he delivered, as Rav Itzele writes there: "And most of his ethical admonitions were aimed at combating arrogance of the heart."


            One might expect that someone who purifies and sanctifies himself before his Creator would experience the lowliness of man naturally and concretely. Rav Chayim’s psychological intuition and experience told him otherwise. He knew that moral effacement and the aspiration for deveikut can turn into abominable pride, and turn the person to glorying in his service of God and even in his own humility. Only a dialectical moral stance, which recognizes that purity of the heart is not the only factor, can deal with this phenomenon. The fear of Heaven itself must surrender to strict and meticulous observance of Halakha, acceptance of the yoke of the practical commandments, and the obligation to diligently study the Torah with all one's strength. Only by way of such submission can man preserve his moral innocence. If, owing to his aspiration for deveikut,a person misses the time of the mincha service, not only has he violated Halakha, but he has also demonstrated that his immersion in spirituality is false and egotistically motivated.


            A moral debate about Torah study was at the heart of the controversy between Chasidim and Mitnagdim. The Chasidim claimed that Torah scholars who boast about their sharpness are not serving God, but rather their own egos. The Chasidim, therefore, sought to shift the emphasis from Torah study and towards purity of heart and innocent worship. Rav Chayim counters that deveikut can also lead a person to moral corruption. The dialectical balance between the two is the correct and only way to fight this human weakness.


            Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, author of Mesilat Yesharim, regularly cast sharp criticism upon the Torah scholars of his period. In the letter brought below, he directs his reproach at his own teacher, Rav Yeshayahu Bassan, for wholly occupying himself in traditional Torah studies and neglecting Kabbala:


Why does a man like him, an officer and leader in Israel, forsake the inner good [Kabbala], the bright light and fine flour, to fill his noble soul exclusively with grass of the field, namely, the plain sense of the Torah… What pleasure for our Creator, blessed be He, is there in all his great dialectics and many uncertainties?… Surely this is evil, owing to our many sins, that most of the Sages of Israel have distanced themselves from the truth and from the lovely light, the Glory of our God, to follow after their vain dialectics. And God, who examines the hearts [of man] knows… that they are driven exclusively by gain and glory. And they will choose whatever will bring them these things to their heart's desire. (Iggerot Ramchal, letter 88)


In another letter he writes:


In Frankfurt alone there are about three hundred Torah scholars, yeshiva students, with hearts of broad understanding. And lo, they spend all their time on their dialectics, but not a hint of piety is found among them… If there be found in all of Germany, through which I have traveled, and in all of Holland, where I reside, people who tremble at God's word and seek to learn how to fear God, love Him and practice benevolence toward their Creator, they will certainly be written off as fools… At this time there is no enlightened man who seeks God. (ibid., letter 118)


            It is clear to the Ramchal that one who diligently studies the non-esoteric portions of the Torah distances himself from piety and from religious life in the deep sense of the term, and perforce he subjugates himself to external glory and praise.[8] How far this picture is from the Nefesh ha-Chayim's outlook! According to Rav Chayim of Volozhin, studying the revealed portions of the Torah is the highest form of Divine service, and an unparalleled moral process. Intellectual study brings a person to the most elevated spiritual levels, this owing to its emotional roots that find explicit expression before learning and also in the course of learning. Rational study is the tree of life that is nurtured by the spring that flows in man and in the universe; the tree and the spring strengthen each other in a constant dynamic process.


VI.          conclusion


We have summarized the major elements comprising the teachings of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, as we have come to know them in our previous shiurim. We paid special attention to the relationship between these components, their mutual reinforcement, and also the tension between them.


Before us remains one more task of summation. Over the course of our study, we have occasionally encountered experiential processes which manifest and concretely express the principles discussed. In the next shiur we will survey this realm systematically. After that, our concern will be with the continuing narrative. We will need to ask: Did Rav Chayim’s ethical and educational philosophy withstand the test of time? In particular, did it remain effective as changes took place between the walls of the bet midrash in Volozhin itself? This question has important ramifications that impact upon modern man’s ability to relate to the issue of Torah lishmah.


(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] As I have indicated in the past, interpreting "love" as mental amusement and intellectual pleasure is not a tenable option.

[2] See section 4, chapters 7-9.

[3] Ru'ach Chayim, Avot 1:1.

[4] From the introduction to Nefesh ha-Chayim.

[5] The formulation is modeled after a suggestion of Robert Solomon in his aforementioned book (see the previous shiur).

[6] In general, the transcendental outlook maintains that God is "outside" the world and in a certain sense detached from it, whereas the immanent outlook argues that God is "in" the world, and in a certain sense part of it. So too it can be said that in general the philosophical schools in Judaism, like that of the Rambam, identify more with the transcendental outlook, whereas the kabbalistic schools and the Chasidim accept the immanent outlook.

[7] One of the curiosities connected to the Nefesh ha-Chayim is the fact that for an unknown reason, these chapters did not appear in the first printing. Starting with the second edition, they have appeared in all subsequent editions.

[8] It is interesting to not that a similar criticism was heard in the circle of Chasidei Ashkenaz against the method of Torah study associated with the Tosafists, and that this circle as well was deeply committed to mystical studies.