Shiur #09: Emotional Processes in Torah Lishmah

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein




I wish to summarize and sharpen the lessons learned from our analysis of Nefesh Ha-Chayim. In the previous shiur, we undertook this task from a fundamental and substantive perspective, and now I wish to consider the matter from a personal-emotional perspective. Our question will be what are the conscious or subconscious mechanisms and processes at work in the context of studying Torah “for its own sake.” It should be noted that our very ability to ask such a question attests to the great progress that we have made from the time that we first encountered the views of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, which on the face of it are based exclusively on cognition. For, as we have seen, the purely intellectual perspective on things has proven to be insufficient and incorrect. Without a doubt, the lion's share of time and conscious attention should be devoted to understanding the Torah in the most perfect and profound manner from a rational perspective. But as it turns out, this learning effort cannot succeed if detached from its more complex surroundings.


First of all, we have seen that the level of success of any learning effort is also a function of the level of the student's emotional involvement. He must love the object of his studies, and this love is an emotional quality. In the case of Torah study according to Rav Chayim, the love of Torah is based on an understanding of its lofty value. Here enter the words of praise that Rav Chayim reserves for the Torah, beginning with the tenth chapter of section 4. Rav Chayim understands that Torah study requires not only intellectual effort, but also emotional dedication, and therefore it is necessary "to excite the heart."


Having reached this conclusion, we then asked: Assuming that emotional involvement is indeed necessary, what should a person do if he lacks such involvement? Is the presence of such emotion a given that is not open to change, and therefore it either exists or does not exist? Or is it perhaps possible for a person to work on himself in order to cultivate it? We noted that Jewish tradition refuses to remove the world of emotions from the domain of man's responsibility. We also saw that the recognition of this responsibility is growing in modern thought and research as well. A person chooses actions that set him on a particular course, the significance of which he is well aware. He advances along this course of his own free will, not always consciously, but in a spontaneous manner. His consent to the process is expressed inwardly, usually unconsciously; only at certain moments does it take hold of his consciousness and identification in a clear and open manner. The course itself is both behavioral and emotional, and in a healthy situation it advances on its own steam, generating inner energy. From time to time, however, the person feels the need to "inject" a sense of identification into his actions. He might be able to satisfy this need by taking a break and "recharging his batteries," and perhaps even by stopping momentarily and asking himself, "Why am I doing this?" or "What do I gain from this?" Such encouragement strengthens the process, and is likely to contribute to its proper advancement.


Rav Chayim of Volozhin's teachings and explanations can be mapped within this system of ideas. The first three sections of his book, in addition to their independent objective of providing guidance in the realm of the spirit and the service of God, lay down the conceptual and emotional foundations that allow us to explain, and also to experience, Torah study as a multi-dimensional track, the significance of which goes well beyond intellectual activity in itself. This foundation is the source of the inner "energy" that will lead the student along the track of intellectual-emotional-moral progress, even when he consciously engages exclusively in the act of cognition. Most of the fourth section of the book is devoted to firmly planting in the student's heart the varied and diversified ways through which the Torah, from its lofty place at the height of existence, influences his personal world and ultimately the entire universe. Knowing and understanding this reality "joins" the student to it, and allows for its dynamic operation within his soul. The Torah is meaningful to him in a personal way, because he understands its objective meaning in the world. In this way his diligent study of Torah intensifies his fear of Heaven and raises him to the heights of repentance.




Rav Chayim of Volozhin does not content himself with an explanation of these ideas, but rather he sees a need to point to their proper expression in the context of Torah study, and to offer practical guidance in this regard. His most important directive relates to the preparations that one must make for learning – a few minutes of contemplation and emotional concentration. At this point – which we have likened to the moment that a person stands "under the bridal canopy" before setting out on life's journey – the student sets the sublimity of the Torah before his eyes, and tries to spiritually connect himself to it, through repentance and purification, while his explicit objective is "to cleave to the word of God," and through that to God Himself.[1] This contemplation arouses in the student's soul the spiritual charge that is needed to "preserve" the Torah. After this introduction, the person must wholly dedicate himself to the learning task, through which this deveikut is materialized in practice, even when there is no awareness of this process.


Rav Chayim insists that this spiritual awakening should also not be allowed to die out while learning. In accordance with the need and based on his own best judgment, the student should dedicate a small amount of his time of learning to renew the connection to his fundamental emotional drives. On the practical level, it is important to clarify how a person is to determine that such a need exists. When his thoughts are on the talmudic passage, and he is wholly immersed in his study, what are the inner signs that should draw his attention to the need to make room for spiritual contemplation? In light of what we have seen, two scenarios seem to be possible.


One scenario is that the person tires of his learning and finds it difficult to mobilize his willpower to continue. It is here that Rav Chayim's most important point in this context finds expression: Fear of Heaven is the storehouse that contains the Torah. When a person loses his awareness of the reasons for which he is learning, it negatively impacts upon his concrete achievements, and also leads to a feeling of exhaustion and a lack of desire. It is appropriate in such a situation that the person should once again join himself to the emotional foundation that can energize his will to continue toiling over the Torah.


The second scenario is the opposite of the first. In this case, the cognitive process appears to be very successful. The Torah student is swept away by the intellectual momentum. He delights in the rational challenge and becomes filled with satisfaction by the control and creativity that evidence themselves in intellection. This situation, however, is liable to cause him to forget that we are dealing with God's Torah. At this point this person needs an awakening and a moral gesture. It is precisely the sweeping power of the intellect that is supposed to serve man as a warning sign, for Rav Chayim already cautioned that it is impossible to study Torah without the fear of God. He vigorously argues that without it one cannot truly acquire Torah for the long-term, and therefore what is necessary is a momentary retreat from cognitive involvement, and a revival of existential involvement. Rav Chayim of Volozhin turns to the student and says: "Step back for a moment, for the sake of purification and deveikut, and once again accept upon yourself faith-based commitment as the foundation."




These two scenarios are a reflection of the fundamental duality that we have already seen in the relationship between Torah and experience. On the one hand, the cosmic-moral system is a throne on which the Torah sits in imperial splendor. This is the immanent side of the Torah, and from this perspective, "there is no king without a people" (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 11). This being the case, there can be no permanence to a person's Torah study without an active and conscious commitment to its spiritual foundation. On the other hand, the Torah's kingdom is transcendental, similar to what is stated in the piyyut, "Adon Olam": "who reigned before any being was created." From this perspective, when we occupy ourselves with Torah, there can be no room for anything else, and the intermingling of other feelings, even if they are good and moral, is a source of tension. A person must cast himself into the learning experience without any inhibitions or calculations. But it is impossible for a human being to remain at this lofty altitude without becoming “dizzy” – this instability is embodied in the pride and forgetting of God that creeps in to one’s heart. The student must retreat to the safer haven of the previous dimension, and take precautions that the cognitive storm not extinguish the embers of humility in his heart.




It is interesting that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z"l, a direct descendant of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, also took note of the duality of the learning experience, bringing to mind the dichotomy that we find in Rav Chayim's writings.[2] According to him, cognitive study is characterized by freedom of reason and will, which transcend sensual and emotional experience:


The world of the Torah scholar, which he builds on his own, cannot be perceived through the categories of the senses, the imagination or the emotions. It is too abstract for any of these experiences. (Rabbi J. Soloveitchik, "Al Ahavat ha-Torah u-Ge'ulat Nefesh ha-Dor," in Pinchas Peli, ed., Be-Sod ha-Yachid ve-ha-Yachad, Jerusalem 5736, pp. 407ff.)


            Rabbi Soloveitchik shares Rav Chayim's position, and says that when a person


exposes the light and the splendor in the Torah… and delights in the pleasure of innovation and novelty, he merits communion with the Giver of the Torah. The vision of deveikut becomes realized through the coupling of the intellect with the Divine idea embodied in the laws, rulings and discussions.


            At this stage, deveikut is actualized by way of cognition, without the participation of a person's deeper emotions. Immediately, however, the second stage arrives. What comes now is “the great religious experience, that expresses itself in a confusion of emotions.”  Rabbi Soloveitchik sees in this


an amazing metamorphosis. The idea turns into stormy and tempestuous experience, knowledge – into the fire of religion, strict and meticulous halakhic obedience – into desirous love, burning with the fire of holiness.


New feelings arise, and they “roll in the sparks of the flame of a mighty experience that sweeps man to his Maker.”  Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasizes the immanence of this experience. Man “feels the presence of God with all his senses, and this feeling intoxicates his attentive soul to the point of madness and folly.”


            We cannot undertake here an exhaustive comparison between the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik and those of the Nefesh Ha-Chayim on this issue. For our purposes, let us turn our attention to one difference between them. What are the sources of the emotional-existential experience that, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, makes its appearance during the second stage of Torah study? Rabbi Soloveitchik describes this as an upheaval that transpires almost by itself ("metamorphosis"). The account romantically describes a passive subject whose soul is swept away by these experiences. The intellectual idea "turns into stormy experience," the person is "swept to his Maker," he "feels the presence of God," and this "intoxicates his soul to the point of madness." This receptivity stands in stark contrast to the markedly didactic tone of Rav Chayim, who places the responsibility on the person: there is no "free" religious experience, and everything comes from "a stirring from below." Man must plant the fear of God in his own heart.


            Rabbi Soloveitchik expresses there his own disappointment that the American students with whom he came into contact halted after achieving the cognitive experience. The Torah reveals itself to them –


in scholarly forms of thoughts, intellectual cognition and cold logic. But they do not merit its revelation in living sensual feeling that causes the heart to tremble and rejoice.[3]


            Understanding the experience as a passive process, which transpires virtually on its own, undoubtedly hampers our search for the roots of its modern rarity, as compared with its relative prevalence in previous generations. Rabbi Soloveitchik struggled with the issue of who is responsible for the situation, and in connection with his own students, he concluded that he himself must bear some of the responsibility:


I did not fulfill my obligation as teacher and guide in Israel… I did not see much blessing in my actions on the experiential level… Apparently my words did not ignite the flame of God in sensitive hearts. I failed as a disseminator of the Torah of the heart…


He seems to believe that the very exposure of his students to his own experiences ought to have implanted emotional capabilities within them.


      It stands to reason that Rabbi Soloveitchik's evaluation is related to his distance from the moral-didactic tradition, so prominent, among other places, in the approach of the Nefesh Ha-Chayim. This distance was a prominent feature of the education that he received in his father's home. His grandfather, Rav Chayim of Brisk, rebuffed the proposal of a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter to introduce the study of "Mussar" into the yeshiva of Volozhin.[4] Rabbi Soloveitchik himself maintained that in the realm of spiritual experience, there is only one way for him to try to influence others – by opening a window for them to his own experiences. Therefore, rather than trying to talk to his audience about what they should do, he as a rule describes his own religious life, in the hopes of arousing a responsive, formative effect in the listeners and readers.


            Rav Chayim's method is different. He does not hesitate to address words of guidance directly to the Torah student who wishes to elevate himself and his study. He is convinced that the person himself is very capable of mastering his spirit and managing both his consciousness and his emotions.




In this shiur we discussed several emotional processes that accompany Torah study undertaken for its own sake. The point of departure for much of the discussion was the issue of "triviality," i.e., our impression that the cognitive definition of "lishmah" diminishes, or even dwarfs, the entire matter. I hope that in the meantime you have become convinced that this initial impression was wrong. Anyone who attempts to apply in practice the ideas that we have been discussing will discover how complex and demanding this challenge is. If anything, I am afraid that we may have slid to the opposite extreme, and perhaps even created the impression that this ideal is excessively difficult and impractical.


It is not my intention to go back and lower the level of lishmah, but it is important that we maintain a sense of proportion. The truth is that emotional complexity is part of our humanity: it finds expression in our daily lives, and certainly in the realms of the spirit, ethics and religion. Awareness of this will help us understand the matter in connection with Torah study as well. In the next shiur, I will try to expand upon this issue.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Regarding this point it is interesting to compare the position of Nefesh ha-Chayim to that of the Tanya – see Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, chap. 5.

[2] Rav Soloveitchik also cites from the words of Rav Chayim of Volozhin.

[3] Pay attention to the passive tone in Rabbi Soloveitchik's description.

[4] With or without any connection to this opposition, we shall see that the phenomenon which Rabbi Soloveitchik identified among the Jewish youth of America was by no means rare already in Volozhin.