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Shiur #19: Ideological Disagreement Without A Social Struggle

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of
Lillian Grossman z”l – Devorah Leah bas Shlomo Halevi
by Larry and Maureen Eisenberg



Dedicated le-zekher nishmot Amelia Ray and Morris Ray
on the occasion of their eighth yahrtzeits
by their children Patti Ray and Allen Ray


The Significance of the Weakening of the Storm


We began to trace the fading away of the hostile fight against Chassidism and its replacement with an atmosphere of reconciliation, listening, and even mutual influence. Of course, this change was of great significance, as it is only natural that many of the actions, statements and gestures of those who are engaged in a dispute are influenced by the very existence of that controversy. Controversy can, on the one hand, lead to moderation, based on a fear of attacks and accusations from the opposing side. On the other hand, the need to make a statement and take a stand against one's opponent can also give rise to far-reaching and exceptional measures, that are meant to make it clear to the world that there will be no show of cowardice or retreat in the wake of external criticism, that the fortifications will actually get stronger, and that there will be no shying away from actions that may appear to be provocative.


I wish to bring an example of the second type. The Baal Shem Tov was not accustomed to eat or sleep in the sukka on Shemini Atzeret, even though the day is classified as one of uncertain status and possibly the seventh day of Sukkot (outside Eretz Israel). This stands in contrast to the ruling that emerges from the Gemara and the Shulchan Arukh. In practice, many of the Chassidim followed the Besht in this matter. The Chassidim were even accustomed, against common practice, to conduct Hakafot on Shemini Atzeret, and not only on the next day, Simchat Torah. This was in keeping with the assumption that the status of Shemini Atzeret is certain, and that it is not treated as possibly the seventh day of Sukkot.


The Vilna Gaon strongly protested against such conduct and demanded that the Halakha be observed in its plain sense: Eating all of the meals and sleeping in the Sukka on Shemini Atzeret. However, Rabbi Avraham Danzig, author of the Chayyei Adam and a relative of the Gra's through marriage, relates that the need to take a strong stand on this issue brought the Gra, to our surprise, to go beyond the letter of the law:


The general population is lenient about this matter and do not eat all day in the sukka… and on the eighth night even some of those who are punctilious in the observance of the commandments do not sleep there at all. But our master, the Gaon, the pious, Rabbi Eliyahu, was very stringent about the need to sleep in the sukka on the night [of Shemini Atzeret] and also to eat there during the day, in accordance with the plain sense of the Gemara… Once it was exceedingly cold on the eighth night, and [the Gra] said that while on the other nights one would have been exempt from [sleeping in] the sukka, nevertheless, in order to teach the Halakha to his disciples, he commanded that they should dress themselves warmly and sleep in the sukka. (Chayyei Adam, II-III, Hilkhot Shabbat u-Moadim, 153)


We saw earlier that the Gra rejected in principle the attempt to fulfill the mitzva of sukka when the weather conditions would make sitting in the sukka uncomfortable. However, it was precisely on Shemini Atzeret that the Gra saw fit to deviate from this position, due to the necessity to take a strong stand against those breaching the fence of Halakha. Had the Gra not felt the need to make this public statement, he would have been free to remain faithful to his principles in their purest form.


In light of the above, it stands to reason that a reduction in the polemical pressure would have made it possible for each side to solidify its position in a cleaner fashion. In this spirit, we will continue our review of the developments that took place over the course of time.


We left off in the previous shiur with Rabbi Avraham Bornstein of Sochatshov, after having examined his independent scholarly approach. Let us now go back to him, and focus on additional aspects of his teachings and work that are important for our purposes.


Admoraim Who Were Major Torah Scholars


Rabbi Avraham, author of the Avnei Nezer, was a Torah genius on the order of the greatest scholars in the Mitnagdim camp. The very appearance of a Torah personality of his stature can, of course, be interpreted as an ideological acceptance on the part of the Chassidim of the Mitnagdim's value of high level Torah study. However, he was not the only such scholar, nor was he the first. Among the Chassidic masters, we find Rabbis, halakhic decisors, and theoretical innovators of the highest stature already in the early days of the movement. Defining the term "Torah authority" (Gadol be-Torah) is a complicated matter, and assigning a particular Chassidic master to this category is an even more complex issue in light of the sensitivities that were generated over the course of the controversy. I would like to focus here on such figures who authored halakhic works, so that their classification as Torah authorities in the classical sense is not subject to debate.


In the early generations of Chassidism, we find such figures among the disciples of the Maggid of Mezeritch, for example, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, author of the "Hafla'a," and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, author of the "Tanya." Even among the disciples of the Besht, we find Rabbi Meir Margoliot, author of "Meir Netivim." However, most of these figures came to Chassidism with the Torah greatness that they had acquired independently of their being Chassidim, for the most part before having been drawn to the new approaches offered by the new movement. Their achievements in Torah constituted sort of a dowry that they brought with them into the marriage. Such Torah authorities served the movement in its struggle, both in the management of its external relations with its opponents and in the addition of an important dimension in the internal fashioning of Chassidism.


In later generations, however, we encounter creative Torah authorities, bursting with innovative Torah ideas and halakhic rulings, who were part of the Chassidic movement from their earliest days. Their halakhic greatness was deeply intertwined in their education toward the service of God. Among them we may include the Admor Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur, author of the "Chiddushei ha-Rim," and Rabbi Chayyim Halberstam of Zanz, author of the "Divrei Chayyim." This group also includes Rabbi Avraham of Sochatshov. He testified that he acquired his approach to Torah learning from his father-in-law, who was none other than Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.[1]


The Contribution of the Admor of Sochatshov


We see then that the Avnei Nezer was not exceptional in that he included his Torah scholarship in his communal leadership, but it seems that several other factors distinguish him, and make him the herald of a turning point in the Chassidic movement. First, let us examine his explicit statements concerning the manner in which one is to study Torah and his view regarding the ways of the ideal Torah student. The words cited below can be seen as a manifest that deviates from the previous Chassidic line, and lays the foundation for the Chassidim's drawing closer to the world of Torah study. Let us read from the introduction to his work on the laws of Shabbat, "Iglei Tal":


As I am speaking, I remember hearing several people erring about the way to study our holy Torah. They said that if one studies Torah and proposes novel interpretations, and enjoys his study, this is not considered Torah study for its own sake as much as one who studies simply, deriving no pleasure from his study, which is just for the sake of the mitzva. But one who studies and enjoys his study mixes his own pleasure into the study.


The position cited by the Avnei Nezer accords with the classical Chassidic approach. The Admorim were terrified by the possibility that Torah study might lead to a decrease in a person's fear of Heaven. In their view, in order for Torah study to be for the sake of Heaven, it must be free of all the normal pleasure and delight that might be experienced when one is engaged in deep study. When the Torah student comes up with a novel idea, he is impressed by his intellectual success, and this pleasure mixes in with his religious intention and damages it.


The reservations expressed by the Mitnagdim concerning this position are easily understood. Someone who studies in this manner watches over himself that he should not be swept away by the pleasure of learning. To what may this be compared? To one who eats a meal and watches over himself that he should not enjoy it, so that his eating should be for the sake of heaven. While it is possible that in the case of eating his mental concentration will not harm the nutritional purpose of the meal,[2] his psychological struggle while he is studying will push aside that which according to the Mitnagdim should be his primary objective: Dedicating all of his powers to proper understanding and precise comprehension.


In any case, even Rabbi Avraham Sochatshov, the Chassidic Admor, rejects the aforementioned position outright:


This is truly a well-known error. On the contrary, this is the essence of the mitzva of Torah study, to be happy and enjoy one's study, so that the words of the Torah should be absorbed in his blood. Since he enjoys the words of the Torah, he cleaves to it… I concede that one who does not study for the sake of the mitzva of study, but only because he takes pleasure in his studies, this is called study not for its own sake…. But one who studies for the sake of the mitzva and enjoys his study, this is study for its own sake, and is entirely holy, because pleasure is also a mitzva.


There is a parallel here to the Chassidic approach in relation to actions involving physical pleasure. The Chassidim emphasized the joy in the worship of God, and for this purpose they recognized eating and drinking as a means to stimulate the appropriate religious mood. Physical joy lives harmoniously with the joy of the heart and mind, and even supports and strengthens it. But when it comes to Torah study, the traditional Chassidic position was different. Here the goal of cleaving to God reigned supreme, and it demanded spiritual concentration to the point of cancelling everything else. Rabbi Avraham of Sochatshov proposes a model of Torah study that is built not only on devotion, but also on joy. The intellectual pleasure reached through understanding, creativity and innovation, is a central value that has the power to plant the Torah in the blood and soul of the student. In Torah study as well there is harmony between the different levels in the personal experience of the student. The service of God in Torah study is strengthened and enriched by the joy of the intellectual achievement.


This ideological revolution left its mark on concrete reality. The Avnei Nezer was a pioneer in the advancement of Torah study on the institutional level in Chassidic circles, for as odd as it may sound, in the strongly Chassidic regions of Eastern Europe there were no yeshivot at all before the First World War. Torah study was carried out on an individual basis, through private teachers, in small groups in local Batei Midrash. The responsibility for religious education, which Halakha places on the head of the family, was indeed left close to the family arena. In these places it was not the accepted practice, as it was according to the Lithuanian ideal, to send a boy away to the yeshiva of some leading Torah scholar. This situation was probably due to the fear of exhibitionism and showing off that may attach themselves to Torah studied in a social framework, which involves competition and achievement. Rabbi Avraham of Sochatshov deviated from this rule and established, for the first time, a real yeshiva for his Chassidim.[3]


This quasi-Mitnagdicapproach to Torah study is reflected in a tradition told by the Chassidim about the Admor of Sochatshov. The story relates to the period in which Rabbi Avraham was still a promising young student in the Bet Midrash of his teacher, the Admor of Kotzk. The Admor then said about the young scholar: "This young man has great power in prayer, but I am afraid that his power in prayer will cause damage to his power of reasoning." This obscure statement puzzled all those who were present. After some time the report reached the ears of Rabbi Avraham, by way of his uncle, who asked him to explain the words of his teacher. Rabbi Avraham said as follows:


I have a watch that is very dear to me, as I use it to set times for prayer and Torah study. One day the watch stopped working, and I did not have the money to pay a watchmaker to fix it. In my distress I prayed before God, crying profusely. And then the watch started once again to work. When I saw that my prayers are heard, I adopted a practice that when I encounter a certain difficulty and lack of understanding in my study, I pray to God from the depth of my heart that He should open my heart to understand his Torah. Indeed, those prayers as well were answered, and I merited enlightenment and understanding of the things with which I had difficulty. And that is what the Admor meant, that prayer is liable to damage the power of reason. Torah must be studied through reason, and not through prayer.[4]


Rabbi Avraham expresses here, already early on, what he understood from his teacher and father-in-law. A separation must be made between the experiential world of prayer and the intellectual occupation with Torah study. Regarding the latter, one must take care to protect it from elements that are foreign to its spirit and character. This message appears not only in the explicit statement of the story, but also in the very use of a watch for the purpose of setting times. The realms are different, and they should be no mixing between them.


In summary, the process through which Torah study began to seize an important place in Chassidic culture as well, meant that in the end the controversy between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim on this point was neutralized. In this way, one of the greatest bones of contention between the two camps became a thing of the past.


The Religious Experience in the Teachings of Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin


Let us move on from here to consider the other side of the fence. The religious experience, one of the foundations of the Chassidic outlook, was treated in an original way in the thought of Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin. Although he assigned this principle a place of honor, he was careful to define its boundaries. The reservations and suspicions of the Mitnagdim concerning this issue were recast in the forms of tension and balance, which came in place of the outright negation that characterized the beginning of the controversy.


In the past we identified the fundamental differences of opinion regarding the role of experience in the service of God. The Chassidim saw it both as an ideal, and as a standard and justification for the religious act. This explains the priority that Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi bestowed upon the mitzva of prayer. In his view, the spiritual uplifting experienced in prayer in itself provides proof for its centrality.


On the other hand, we brought the Mitnagdim's position from the writings of Rabbi Pinchas of Polotsk, the disciple of the Vilna Gaon. He argued that true cleaving to God can only be achieved through Torah study, and that a person's feelings are unimportant and prove nothing. In his opinion, personal experience leads to falseness, and the only way to cleave to God is through the fulfillment of His will as it finds expression in His Torah.


This extreme reaction on the part of the Mitnagdim was sounded in the heat of the debate. The question naturally follows: Would the Mitnagdim have denied the value and credibility of the religious experience in such absolute terms, had they not had to destroy what they saw as excesses of the Chassidim?


Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin's book, Nefesh ha-Chayyim, provides us with an opportunity to try to answer this question, if only by way of conjecture.


We shall examine one example from the first section of the book (chapter 6). Rabbi Chayyim develops a kabbalistic picture of the system of spiritual worlds, which are the essence and foundation of cosmic reality. According to him, every commandment that we fulfill in this world, connects to an elevated root in one of these worlds. Thus, the performance of that mitzva results in the repair of that root, the raising of its rank, or the magnification of its power and "light" which flows in it and from it. This spiritual reality also influences the person who performs the mitzva; his connection to this higher level of reality raises him spiritually as well.


The interesting question is whether the person himself who performs the mitzva can feel and experience this spiritual change. Rabbi Chayyim says as follows:


That which [the Sages] instituted in the formula of the blessings recited over mitzvot: "Who has sanctified us with His commandments," and similarly: "And You have sanctified us with your commandments" – for from the moment that a person thinks of performing a mitzva, an impression is immediately made above in its supernal root, and he brings down upon himself an encompassing light and heavenly sanctity rests upon and surrounds him. It is explicitly stated: "You shall sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy" (Vayikra 11:44), and the Sages say: Whoever sanctifies himself from below will be sanctified from above. That is to say, sanctity will come down upon him from above from its supernal root… And through this sanctity and encompassing light, he cleaves, as it were, to God, already during his lifetime. This is what the verse means when it states: "But you that did cleave to the Lord your God" – even during your lifetime – "are alive every one of you this day" (Devarim 4:4).


Of course, the idea that a person who performs a mitzva becomes elevated spiritually is not new or original. What is fascinating in the words of Rabbi Chayyim is his use of visual, or almost visual, images that illustrate for the reader exactly how this transformation occurs. We are not talking here about character and personality improvement, or about inner spiritual progress that is acquired through great toil and the establishment of habits over the course of time.[5] The performance of a mitzva connects a person to heavenly sanctity described here as "light," and this sanctity descends and "encompasses" the person. This is the essence of the concept of sanctity, about which the Torah speaks in the verse, "And you shall be holy." The abstract concept acquires here concrete form.


It is clear that the mere reading of these words stirs up the imagination and the emotions in the direction of identifying this process as a personal experience. And, in fact, Rabbi Chayyim continues to develop this point. He leaves no doubt that the person should feel the sanctification in a very real and concrete manner:


And this encompassing light will help him complete the mitzva, and with its completion, the light will become even stronger. About this it says: "When one comes to purify himself, they help him." It also draws to his heart the power to do another few mitzvot, since he is now sitting in the Garden of Eden, literally, under the shadow of the wings of sanctityin the secret place of the Almighty… This is what they said: One mitzva leads to another mitzva.


The connection to the upper world by means of the mitzva is "sitting in the Garden of Eden, literally," and the spiritual pleasantness draws the person to additional achievements in the performance of the mitzvot. One should not ignore the concrete nature of the term "literally," which frequently appears in the writings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman. This account reaches its explicit climax in the following words, which themselves provide practical spiritual guidance:


And when he sets his heart to it when he is performing a mitzva, he will understand and feel in his soul that he is now surrounded and dressed in holiness, and that a steadfast spirit is renewed within him. This is what the verse states: "These are the commandments, which if a man do, he shall live in them" (see Vayikra 18:5) – in them, in their midst, literally, for he will be surrounded then by the holiness of the mitzva and encompassed by the air of the Garden of Eden.


"In their midst, literally" - the person is called to awaken his consciousness to the sanctification process, and thus to derive its full benefit.


This was an important idea for Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, and he repeats it in several other places. It is clear from here that he sees a real and positive value in the holiness experienced by man. In his opinion, one is able, without great effort, to reach a feeling of spiritual uplifting, which is not the fruit of his imagination, but rather a reflection of a true reality that is connected to the upper worlds. Such a determination voiced by the greatest Mitnaged of his generation is no small matter. Along with his encouragement of this value, however, it is important to Rabbi Chayyim to set limits to it. That will be the subject of the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] There is no reason to doubt this testimony, as surprising as it may be, for the Kotzker Rebbe did not leave behind any written works.

[2] Regarding this issue, see Rabbi Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh, III, p. 339 ("kirva de-mikhla").

[3] See Aharon Wertheim, Hilkhot va-Halakhot be-Hassidut, pp. 46-48, and notes there.

[4] This story was published by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, in his Sippurei Chassidim, parashat Bechukotai.

[5] While Rabbi Chayyim firmly believed in long-term educational processes, and he spells them out in his book, here he focuses on the immediate consequences of the individual mitzva act.