Shiur #12: The Genesis of Rav Kook's Views on Torah Lishmah

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein




Let us briefly summarize what we have seen thus far of Rav Kook's teachings on the issue of Torah lishmah.


Rav Kook follows in the path of Rav Chayim in his advocacy of Torah lishmah, in the sense of studying Torah with the proper spiritual intentions. We noted that in contrast to his predecessor, Rav Kook sees no need to sacrifice religious consciousness for the sake of intellectual activity, and he adopts that pole in the Volozhiner approach which sees a positive and constructive relationship between well-developed fear of heaven and Torah study. We also saw that Rav Kook does not advise detachment, in the spirit of the "dissociation principle," between Torah study and religious consciousness, even when engaging in subtle pilpul and in the details of practical halakhot.


Behind all of this, however, stands a new perception regarding Torah lishmah. I would like to arrive at Rav Kook's novel idea in a gradated manner. For the present we will examine a source that should advance us toward our objective.


While in London during World War I, Rav Kook corresponded with Rav Moshe Yitzchak Segel from Manchester. Their correspondence deals primarily with halakhic matters, but incidentally Rav Segel mentions that he instituted a period of daily mussar study in his yeshiva, and asks Rav Kook for his advice on how to inculcate his students with the fear of heaven. Here is a passage from Rav Kook's reply:


Now… you gladdened my heart by informing me that you began to learn matters of mussar and fear of heaven with your students, wisdom from holy books; fortunate is your lot. Surely this is particularly necessary at this time and in this country, where the transient cravings for the vanities of the world, jealousy, desire, honor and the like, are so loud and clamorous. How can we stir the hearts of youths that they should open their eyes to see the glory and splendor, the brilliance and majesty of the Torah, if not by studying the discipline of genuine piety from the works of the great authorities of Israel, who delved into the wisdom of piety profoundly and expansively …?

I am unable at this time to offer you an orderly account of the ideas that are appropriate for your dear students. And it is especially difficult to specify the holy ideas in accordance with the level of the students, as I am not familiar with their state of mind and emotional strengths. Nevertheless, it would appear that, first of all, you ought to explain to all the students the fundamental principle that any success in Torah, sense of accomplishment in study … and one day achieving a high level in the crown of Torah – depends on the measure of fear of heaven and the depth of pure and holy faith that is implanted in one's soul. For the broadening and deepening of the intellectual faculty, its brilliance and its branching out in many directions, which is the great foundation for sharpness and fluency, depends on the depth of emotional will that awakens to value what is being studied. Since he is occupied with Torah, which is the word of the living God, the quality of the inner appreciation of his occupation with Torah depends on the sanctity of true fear of God that rests in the heart of him who is occupied in the Torah. For to the extent that the fear of heaven becomes strengthened in one's heart in sanctity and purity, so too the words of the Torah, which are the light of the countenance of the living king, become precious and elevated in one's eyes. And owing to their great dearness, inner desire attaches to them, and it is the nature of inner desire to arouse all of the soul's faculties with life, joy and good-heartedness, with great desire and the pleasantness of high and lofty spiritual delight. And since the soul's faculties are aroused - through the expansion of the holy quality of the fear of heaven - to love for the Torah and passion for all its words, and cognition grows from day to day…, the soul's faculty of memory is greatly strengthened, from the life force that the sacred desire for the Torah stirs up in the soul that contemplates genuine fear of heaven. And from the great respect and elevated value that he assigns to the words of the Torah, which grows every day in accordance with the fear of heaven that grows in his heart from day to day, as he continually occupies himself in the holy study of the true fear [of heaven] and its branches - his intellectual diligence is strengthened, the brightness of his mind grows, and true sharpness and sound reasoning increase.


It turns out, then, that the best advice for the students to succeed in their study, that their learning should be blessed and stay with them, and that they themselves should experience satisfaction and delight from their study, is to broaden their hearts every day with the study of the pure fear [of heaven]. All of its disciplines and all study of the soul and of character traits are offshoots branching out from the root of the elevated fear of God, which leads to perfect love of God, love of the Torah and its commandments, and love of Israel. (Responsa Da'at Kohen, no. 51; Iggerot ha-Ra'ayah, no. 795)


            Rav Kook assumes that the students want to succeed in their studies, both in depth and in scope. He maintains that the best practical advice for achieving this end is to increase one's fear of heaven. This is because piety brings a person to appreciate the Torah as a spiritual treasure, "the light of the countenance of the living king." Rav Kook is clearly speaking from his own experience of Torah life, but he maintains that his personal path to Torah is not limited to geniuses and exceptional talents. According to him, this is the recommended path for anyone wishing to grow in Torah.


            Rav Kook lists the stages in this process. First, the fear of heaven causes the words of the Torah to be precious and exalted in the student's eyes, and this plants in his heart the desire to connect himself to them. It is the nature of inner desire to arouse all of the emotional faculties – alacrity, joy, and good-heartedness. The person delights in the pleasantness of the Torah's sanctity. This general positive activation of the emotional faculties also ignites and spurs the cognitive faculties: memory is strengthened and creativity is greatly enhanced. Broadening the experience of the fear of heaven from day to day intensifies and concentrates the existential connection to the Torah, and this further fertilizes intellectual study.


            As may be recalled, the Nefesh ha-Chayim also posited the fear of heaven as a necessary condition for Torah study. However, Rav Kook's explanation of the nature of this connection is unique. Rav Chayim described the fear of heaven as the Torah's "storehouse" – preserving the Torah so that it not be ruined - but he does not explain this point. It is possible to understand that according to Rav Chayim the connection is moral, namely, that the Giver of the Torah refuses to “dispense” it to one whose piety is deficient. We also saw that in Nefesh ha-Chayim, God-fearing is part of the definition of lishmah – study that is based on deep emotional involvement. But Rav Chayim does not explicitly mention the practical connection about which Rav Kook speaks. Though we have already noted in the past that, generally speaking, intellectual achievements depend upon the student's emotional make-up, and we used this principle to explain Rav Chayim's argument, Rav Chayim does not say this in explicit manner. In any event, Rav Kook seems to be the first to tell us outright that a proper spiritual and emotional attitude toward the Torah is the most important and practical basis for cognitive efficiency and fecundity in study. Moreover, Rav Chayim described the fear of heaven as a condition necessary for study in general. Rav Kook, on the other hand, links the fear of heaven to specific intellectual faculties in an immediate manner – veneration and appreciation of the Torah give rise to memory, diligence, creativity and emotional satisfaction.


            To summarize, Rav Kook greatly elevates the importance of emotional involvement in Torah study – not yet in connection with the level of lishmah, but rather as an important and practical instrument for advancement in learning.




It is worthwhile to compare all that has been said above with the words of Zalman Epstein (cited in the previous shiur), that the Torah was studied in Volozhin not motivated by religious devotion, but rather "because it was something real, science, wisdom… and the intellect finds so much satisfaction in it." Rav Kook does not believe that intellectual curiosity by itself can serve for very long as the foundation for Torah study. If we continue his line of thought, then, just the opposite is true: the more a person studies in detachment from the fear of heaven, the more he impairs the likelihood that he will continue his studies for the long term. Since the Torah's true value can only be recognized through the cultivation of the spiritual senses, without a doubt those who study Torah solely because of its intellectual charm will sooner or later lose interest in it. With such an approach, it is no wonder that Rav Kook felt himself isolated from his fellow yeshiva students.


Does Rav Kook assign no role at all to the intellectual pleasure that accompanies scholarship? It would be very surprising were this the case – as we all know, Rav Kook was wont to see the good and the beneficial in everything. Indeed, in one place in his Orot ha-Torah, Rav Kook writes as follows:


When the desire to delight oneself with the study of Torah becomes intermingled in one's study, this is not called Torah studied not lishmah, God forbid. For joy and removal of sadness is also a great mitzva, and part of character improvement, which is the unique virtue of Torah. (Orot ha-Torah, chap. 9, sec. 10)


            Once again, Rav Kook is not prepared to admit the practical benefits of this desire. As a motivation for study, the cognitive urge in and of itself is should not be relied upon. On the fundamental level, however, it has significant value with respect to the virtue of the joy of life. Regarding this point, Rav Kook deepens our way of looking at things: The satisfaction that we experience when we come up with a good explanation or an elegantly-formulated concept should not be understood as something incidental to Torah. The fact that the Torah appears externally in pleasurable thought-forms is a reflection of its inner unique essence, which perfects man's character traits and personality.


            Thus far we have seen the practical role of the fear of heaven as a basis and foundation for study. But we have still not come to Rav Kook's definition of lishmah. We shall continue to head in that direction, as we arm ourselves with a bit more patience. In order to finally encounter the full force of Rav Kook's position, it is preferable not to rush. I suggest that we first return to Volozhin, and pay attention to some other representatives of the student body.




We will dwell upon the impressions of some alumni of Volozhin who gave expression to their feelings. This time, however, I will not deal with nostalgic factual accounts of what took place inside the walls of the yeshiva, but with impressions recorded in belles lettres.


Thus far we have been under the impression that the youths who studied in Volozhin were enraptured by an exciting intellectual-scientific adventure. It turns out that there were other voices. There were those who in practice cast off the yoke of the mitzvot, who expressed reservations and dissatisfaction with the excessive intellectual emphasis that ruled in the yeshiva, and dominated much of Jewish life in general. For the veneration of scholarship as the supreme value was not limited to the yeshivot in Lithuania, but was an unchallenged convention throughout traditional Jewish society.[1]


An examination of the writings of former students in the Volozhin yeshiva who rose to prominence among the second generation of Russian maskilim suggests that the focus on the rational faculty was problematic not only from a practical perspective, as we saw thus far in the words of Rav Kook; the deficiency went far deeper. Rav Kook’s understanding of Torah lishmah took shape in light of this more penetrating appraisal, which he met with a large measure of understanding and identification.


To illustrate this point, let us conclude with a short "promo." The following citation is taken from "Urva Parach," a novella written by Micha Yosef Berdichevski, a former student at Volozhin, and one of the most influential figures in Enlightenment literature:


It saddens me to see that we, the people of Israel, are usually masters of calculation and intellect precisely in those areas that are beyond calculation and intellect, that is - in life itself.


Real life has become lost to us, because of the books and the spirits of books in which our souls have been bundled for generations. We have thoughts upon thoughts, ideas, notions, great knowledge and erudition; we are capable of comprehending and understanding everything; but we are incapable of living, and our souls lack the innocence of life and its simplicity.


Our feelings and the strength in our souls are also diluted by intellect and confounded with calculations. Our lives are merely shadows of life and of the knowledge of life, for we lack direct connection with life. This is because we know too much and investigate and contemplate too much.


            The writer argues that owing to an overabundance of thinking, we have forgotten how to live. The intellect has turned into a screen that filters out concrete reality. Thought, the crown of human activity according to the Volozhiner view of his day, plays an exaggerated role in the Jewish world. It turns life into a shadow and erects a barrier between the human soul and the heart of existence.


            Is there truth in Berdichevski's claim? And if so, how will Torah study be able to survive at the center of the Jewish people's spiritual life? We shall deal with these questions in the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In Eastern European Jewish society, social class was determined by three factors: Torah scholarship, wealth and lineage – in this order. See M. Zborowski and E. Herzog, Life is With People (New York, 1952), pp. 71-87.