Shiur #13: Torah - An Intellectual Ivory Tower?

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



I.          Berdichevski's critique


            We have begun to uncover the reservations about the "cognitive exclusivity" that reigned in Volozhin during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. As we saw, this rule of scholarship as a value was a dominant feature of Eastern European Jewish society as a whole, and was the brunt of the criticism of Hebrew writer and thinker Micha Yosef Berdichevski, who was a Volozhin alumnus. We shall begin today with another excerpt of Berdichevski’s, this time from one of his journalistic articles, "Shinui Arakhin" ("Change of Values"):


You asked me: Do the skills of the Jewish people have hope and a future? This is a question that is difficult to answer… Who knows whether we have skills?


It is not a skill to be keen or fluent, to have a sharp memory or the brilliance to move mountains; it is not a talent to know and understand many things, to learn and remember many matters.


All we have are men of great minds and intellect; our thinkers, as it were, recite their thoughts from books. We deal with thoughts and ideas, without any inner necessity or emotional need whatsoever.


Our young people accustom themselves to answers given to questions that they themselves never asked. They discuss matters that have no relevance to them.


Our young people lack the faculty that leads to serious contemplation; they have no animated feelings; their thoughts do not flow from the excitement of life, for they have no inner life and lack spirituality without even knowing it.


Our millennia-old ancient tradition, everything that was received and taught to us for generations, extinguished the vibrant inner light within us and turned the Jew into a man with a brain but no heart…


The quantity of our books and the elaborations of our thoughts exceed thousands of times the quality of the original ideas we generated.


Only among us will you find people like the Rosh, Rabbi Akiva Eiger or the Vilna Gaon. Only among us is it possible to know and study so much, without ever proposing an original thought or fertile idea.


Even the talented among us are like eunuchs, deprived of thought and dull of feeling.


Were we an ignorant nation and were we not a book-reading people, then perhaps we could hope for improvement through a spiritual awakening. But now that we are the people of the book, and most of the Jewish people are writers and authors, without any live ideas or the possibility of such; now that dead letters have killed any spirit of life within us - the talents among us  just wither away, and bring no blessing at all.


And in moments of despair, I do not believe that these dry bones will ever live again.


            In his Volozhin days, Berdichevski undoubtedly experienced the full impact of Torah as an academic quest. But whereas the student body as a whole avidly engaged the intellectual challenge of the Talmud, Berdichevski recoiled from it. In his eyes, it was all impenetrable, heartless and lifeless, a quagmire of dead letters.


            This assessment of the situation is symptomatic of the second stage of the Eastern European Enlightenment. In its initial stage, Haskala criticism of traditional Jewish society was different, perhaps opposite. Jewish culture was perceived as primitive and ignorant, unenlightened and superstitious. An echo of this criticism can be heard in the previously-quoted words of Zalman Epstein, a former student of Volozhin. Epstein was proud that, as he saw it, his yeshiva had distanced itself from "the old Jewish street" that was ruled by ignorance. Volozhin's greatness lay in the fact that it redeemed the Torah from the primitive thinking so highly esteemed by the "old" Jews, who saw it as a sign of the fear of heaven. For us, writes Epstein, the Torah is true wisdom, a "science" that doesn't bring shame upon those who study it and that is no less prestigious than any other scientific discipline. As we have seen, such feelings energized the institution’s atmosphere of concentrated study.


            Berdichevski symbolizes a change: he criticizes the cognitive focus, developed and sophisticated as it may be, because of its detachment from life. It is true that the Jews cannot be blamed for their distance from the fullness of living, for surely the hostile environment declared a normal existence “off limits” to Jews. Berdichevski, however, sensed that the Jews were comfortable with this situation, that they felt themselves at home with their isolation from concrete reality. Cloistered in the four cubits of the study hall, they created a colorless shadow-reality existing solely in the mind. In this way, the Jews turned a tragic situation into a desirable ideal, sentencing themselves to existential exile.


II.         Bialik's Assessment of “the ivory tower”: Ha-Matmid


            In contrast to Berdichevski stands Chaim Nachman Bialik's poem, Ha-Matmid ("The Talmud Student"). Bialik too had been a student at the Volozhin yeshiva, and for several months in 5650-5651 (end of 1890) he even studied Gemara diligently and vigorously. However, his attraction to "life on the outside" and his yearning for general culture caused him to leave.


            Ha-Matmid was written years later. The poem describes a yeshiva student, in hindsight, with appreciation and empathy, and in this sense it serves as a response to the complaints voiced by Berdichevski. But despite the poet's admiration of the student who pores over his books day and night, he does not dispute Berdichevski's assessment that immersion in the sea of the Talmud conflicts with living life itself.


            For example, in the following lines, the poet accompanies the student as he heads for the study hall, and describes the temptations that he encounters along the way:


And then the wind that blows about the garden

Takes up the theme, and gentle is its voice:

"Green is my cradle, child of loveliness,

Take pleasure, ere thy lung withered…"

And left and right of him the flowers and grasses

Speak to him from their dreams, "We too are sleeping."

Even the stars above him take on voices,

And wink: "We sleep although our eyes are open."

The drunken odors of a thousand flowers

Mount to his nostrils, intoxicating him,

A wave of breeze breaks upon his lips,

Broadening of bosom and throat.

The lad then opens his mouth to breathe in,

He bares his breast to receive the wind,

And like a man weary from heaving stones,

His innards begging, pleading for rest

He lifts his strengthless hands as if in prayer:

"O dear wind, take me, carry me from here,

And find a place for me where I may rest;

For here is only weariness and pain…."

But his raised hands bruise against the garden fence,

And remind him he has wandered from the path:

Swift he recalls his vows, recalls his corner,

And turns him from the Tempter's voice, and flees.[1]


            The "temptation" that lies in wait here is not one of the 365 negative commandments in the Torah, but life itself – the grass, the flowers and the wind. The Talmud student overcomes these temptations and hurries off to the study hall, where his friends – his place, his stand and his books - await him:


As if the moments could not move too swiftly

That lie between him and his trusted friend,

He hastens to his place and takes his stand,

And like a pillar stays from morn till night.

Still standing he will eat his mid-day crust,

Still standing he will half out-watch the night.

Granite is yielding clay compared with him –

A Jewish boy unto the Torah vowed.


The youth finds an alternate world in his books, one that forcibly drives away the seductive wink of the real world outside:


"Oi, amar Raba, tanu rabbanan,

Thus Raba speaks, and thus our teachers taught,"

(Backward and forward swaying he repeats

With ceaseless sing-song the undying words);

The dawn, the garden, the enchanted fields,

Are gone, are vanished like a driven cloud,

And earth and all her fullness are forgotten.

Earth and her fullness are here to be found,

A thousand suns blaze in the gloomy corner.

Like vehement coals, his eyes give answering fire

While, lore-impassioned, back and forth he sways.


            Bialik extols the Talmud student's strength of spirit, and especially his sacrifice. Life in the bet midrash indeed demands that he distance himself from the world outside and take shelter under the wings of a different reality. But unlike Berdichevski, this reality enchants the poet with its romance and heroic dimensions.[2]


III.        Rav Kook on the Conflict between Torah and Life


Bialik's images prepare us for an examination of Rav Kook's ideas on the very same issue, which will bring us one step closer to his position on Torah lishmah.


When a Torah scholar stands before the splendor of earthly nature, as does Bialik’s Ha-Matmid, and contradictory forces begin to pull him in different directions – what is the nature of this inner struggle, and what is the proper response? Rav Kook opens the discussion with a famous mishna dealing precisely with this question:


Rabbi Shimon says: He who is walking by the way while reviewing what he has learnt, and interrupts his study and says: "How fine is that tree, how fair is that field!", Scripture regards him as if he were liable for his life. (Avot 3:7)


Rav Kook writes as follows:


Even though the entire world-experience, all thoughts and feelings of the upright of heart - who delight in the pleasantness of God and continuously dwell in his sanctuary - are filled with Divine light and the sanctity of heavenly life, – nevertheless, the wellspring of fundamental light is concealed in the Torah; and a person who reviews as he walks but stops and says: "How fine is that tree, how fair is that field!", Scripture regards him as if he were liable for his life. Even though he is not really liable for his life, if he has already achieved the level of Divine perspective, Scripture regards him as if he were liable for his life. For ultimately the light of life does shine from the entire world, but it is from the Torah that the light of the life of life shines. And one does not forsake intense, primary sanctity, to tend to a sanctity that is weak and derivative. (Orot ha-Torah, chap. 9, sec. 7; my emphases - E.K.)


            According to Rav Kook, fascination with splendor of nature does not clash with the Torah's sanctity in any fundamental way. There is no conflict between the Torah and the world "from which the light of life shines," for the purpose of the Torah is not to retreat from life in the real world and create an environment and atmosphere of its own. This is because at the heart of things, Torah and the world represent different levels of the same continuum. On the contrary, the Torah concentrates within it life itself, for it is the vital source of life – "the life of life," as Rav Kook calls it. The natural amazement with the splendor of creation is a positive and justified emotional response; but the Rabbis held that emotional involvement in the Torah - the fundamental wellspring of life – should be even stronger.




We are finally approaching Rav Kook’s view of Torah lishmah. "The life of life" alludes to a key concept, which is essential to understanding his position. Let us cite, for example, from another passage in Orot ha-Torah (chap. 2, sec. 2):


The essence of studying Torah lishmah – regarding spiritual matters, this is realized in its plain sense. For the nearness of God and the majesty of sanctity are evident in them, and a person becomes elevated through them. Regarding practical matters, it must be understood that they are all branches and garments of the light of Divine righteousness and justice, and that in all the particulars together there is found the Divine soul of a perfect world… And thus the light also penetrates into each and every particular…. Sometimes this reveals itself only in a delicate spark in the chambers of the heart, but nevertheless it raises the soul to a lofty state, through which all of life is refined. This is the meaning of: "Whoever studies Torah lishmah merits many things."[3]


            One thing that is clearly evident is that the same idea – the Torah as the fundamental wellspring of life, "the life of life" – appears here in a different formulation: "the Divine soul of a perfect world." The Torah has a soul, which is part of it. We are familiar with the Torah as guidance, instruction and a source of practical guidelines and values. But Rav Kook says that these dimensions are particular aspects of the essence (“soul”) of the Torah, which is the aim of perfection and advancement of life and the world.


            But in addition to this point, the passage states that Torah lishmah is more plainly realized in that part of the Torah which deals with spiritual matters, more so than in practical Halakha. Why is this so, and how is the "soul" of the Torah connected to the issue of Torah lishmah?


            In order to clarify the idea of lishmah as it appears here, we must go back to another assumption that was elaborated earlier in this series. Recall that in order for Torah to be regarded as lishmah, however we define it, it is not enough that we make a declaration regarding the goal or nature of our study. Lishmah is a matter of subjective intention, and therefore we must define the emotional state that should accompany study, and describe what is going on inside the person engaged in study, what he should experience. According to Rav Kook, Torah study is lishmah when the person establishes contact with the "soul" of the Torah. Two types of "contact" are mentioned in this passage. Let us briefly note them here, though of course further expansion and study is required:


1.            Revelation of sanctity. A person engaged in studying Torah lishmah is conscious of the inner objective of the Torah that he is studying (i.e. the perfection of the world), or he senses it intuitively.


2.            Elevation of the person. Cleaving to the soul of the Torah raises a person to a higher moral and spiritual level.


Such contact with the “soul” of the Torah can be clearly envisioned in the “spiritual” or aggadic portions of the Torah. These sections are characterized by their "universality." The values and ideals that are openly dealt with in this part of the Torah are universal principles which are meant to serve as beacons for the advancement of the world, society and the individual. Constant ascent in the moral-ethical sense is the world's breath of life, and its interruption means the cessation of life. A person who is filled with the natural spirit of life – the desideratum of Haskala writers like Berdichevski – can and should feel the same spirit pulsating in the words of the Torah that deal with "spiritual matters." Moreover, the person’s own psyche is aroused when he encounters this “spirit,” his study strengthens his identification with it, and his desire to live by it deepens and becomes clearer. In this way he "rises" and elevates himself in the moral sense of the term. Thus, according to Rav Kook, a person who learns out of fruitful contact with the "soul" of the Torah is learning lishmah.


This is all true regarding the spiritual parts of the Torah, but it would seem that the specific halakhot that describe practical actions lack this broad vision. Rav Kook does not believe, as did Rav Chayim of Volozhin, that focusing on the understanding of any specific law is in itself regarded as Torah lishmah. Instead, he argues that one must apply one's general identification with the values of the Torah even when dealing with each of its particulars. It must be understood, argues Rav Kook, that the grand vision of elevated moral life is embodied in all of the particulars, because it is they that fulfill the vision in practice. Without these practical details, the grand plan has no practical meaning, and it will remain isolated from reality. Therefore, the “taste” of the universal vitality of existence – which is the soul of the Torah – is sensed even in the specific halakhot. When a person is conscious of this spiritual reality, and when it serves as his motivation and purpose for study, the level of lishmah is reached even when learning specific halakhot.


IV.       Intermediate summary


We have seen how Rav Kook's ideas regarding Torah study maintain a dialogue with the positions of others, who like him experienced the intensive yeshiva life in Volozhin. The authors experienced Torah study as an intellectual experience demanding sacrifice and detachment from life in the real world and from universal human existence. Rav Kook, for his part, admires and embraces these natural yearnings for life, but he maintains that these authors did not properly understand the profundity of the Torah experience. It is not a purely intellectual matter, which suppresses the desire for life, but rather the source of life itself; this is in fact the very soul of the Torah. This essence of the Torah is not something that is known through the intellect, but rather it is felt and lived. Its living appearance in the framework of study is what defines that study as Torah lishmah.


This understanding is challenging in several ways, and perhaps the most important question of all is how this lofty idea is realized in practice. I shall relate to this issue to the best of my ability further along the way, but first I wish to examine the underlying principle. Rav Kook's explanation of the blessings recited over the Torah, which we will study in the next shiur, will give us a better grasp of his approach.


(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] Following the translation of Maurice Samuel.

[2] See P. Lachover, Bialik: Chayav ve-Yetzirotav, I (Tel Aviv, 5716), pp. 250-271.

[3] I have cited only part of this passage, with the intention of returning to the passage in its entirety at a later point.