Shiur #20: Perspective on the "Horizon"

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


I. Where was Rav Soloveitchik in our Study?


In this shiur, we shall conclude the topic, even though, as the Rabbis put it, "More than what we have learned is written here." Before we begin to sum things up, I feel that there is a debt to be paid.


The teachings of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z"l, have hardly been mentioned at all in these shiurim, despite the fact that Torah study and the spiritual world that accompanies it are central in his outlook. We could have analyzed and explained Rav Soloveitchik's viewpoint, just as we clarified the ideas of Rav Kook, but we chose to devote our full attention to the approach of Rav Kook and like-minded thinkers. I would like to share with you two of the considerations behind this decision.


First of all, Rav Soloveitchik's positions on the issues at hand are, to a great extent, already well-known and understood by the learned community at large. Rav Soloveitchik was his own chief interpreter in his marvelously structured essays and lectures, and these also attracted considerable scholarly attention. On the other hand, Rav Kook's teachings about Torah and its study – in comparison to other topics – are still relatively less well-known, and understanding them involves a synthetic approach to individual passages. In these shiurim we tried to allow Rav Kook's teachings to "speak" in a meaningful manner to the modern Torah student. I hope that we have achieved a measure of success, though it is only you, the readers, who can confirm this (see below on this point).


A second consideration that dictated our giving priority to Rav Kook is connected to the inner logic of the series. Rav Chayim of Volozhin dominated the first half of the series; and that first half ended with a question - was there any continuity to his teachings in later periods? The two thinkers, Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, were essentially products of Volozhin. Rav Kook grew up and flowered there as a talmid chakham, and Rav Soloveitchik is a scion of the family dynasty that headed the institution. But to what degree did they continue the thought of Rav Chayim? My decision to focus on Rav Kook reflects my view that Rav Kook's thought is closer to the original approach of the Nefesh ha-Chayim than is that of Rav Soloveitchik. Both were exceedingly original thinkers, who adapted the Torah and its thought to the spirit of their times. But when we analyze Rav Soloveitchik's essay Halakhic Man, we find striking new emphases that indicate a new and modern conceptual approach. These include human creativity, seeing the world as a goal in itself that does not draw its value from some higher spiritual existence, and explaining Torah study using the categories of scientific inquiry. Rav Kook, in contrast, tried to renew and deepen the thought of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, believing that it could illuminate and empower the soul of modern man.[1]


While it is true that Rav Soloveitchik constructed a new conceptual framework of his own creation, he also spoke and wrote about the experience of Torah study in terms that constitute an interesting basis for comparison to the teachings of Rav Kook. We have already stated in the past that learning similar ideas in different "languages" serves as an important tool for understanding and internalization. In this spirit we’ll devote a few lines here to an examination of Rav Soloveitchik's teachings in his book, Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari, z"l (vol. II, pp. 1-16).


II. Torah Study as Service of the Heart


This shiur of Rav Soloveitchik deals with the blessings recited over the Torah. Do these blessings, which use the formula, "who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us," fall into the category of blessings recited over commandments (birkot ha-mitzva)? We have already seen Rav Kook's halakhic-philosophical theory, that more than an ordinary birkat ha-mitzva, the blessings recited over the Torah relate to the goodness in the Torah in general. This goodness goes beyond the act of learning. Rav Soloveitchik also proves that the blessings over the Torah have a dimension that goes beyond the usual status of birkat ha-mitzva. This additional role involves emphasizing the special quality of the Torah which otherwise we would never have imagined – Torah as service of the heart.


This argument is exceedingly interesting. The halakhic and philosophical literature reserve the term "service of the heart" for prayer. What this means is that there can be no prayer without proper concentration of the heart: "Any prayer uttered without concentration is not prayer" (Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilla 4:15). But with respect to study, which is entirely a cognitive act, is there room to speak of inner concentration of the heart? Rav Soloveitchik bases his argument on the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot, where we find a halakhic comparison between Torah study and prayer:


The Sifrei states: "And to worship Him" – this is prayer. And they also said: "And to worship Him" – this is [Torah] study… And they said (Midrash Tannaim from Midrash ha-Gadol on Re'eh): Serve Him with His Torah, serve Him in His Temple – that is to say, to go there to pray therein…. (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment no. 5)


            What is the inner world of Torah study, by virtue of which it rises to the status of "service of the heart"? Rav Soloveitchik notes three points (pp. 7-9).


1)             Torah study involves acceptance of the yoke of heaven – "the most splendid demonstration of submission to God and His Torah."


2)            Prayer is man's petitioning of God for his needs. The Rambam uses the verse, "Arise, cry out in the night" (Eikha 2:19) to describe the act of study. That verse, however, continues: "Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord; lift up your hands towards Him for the life of your young children." From here we see that Torah study comprises "a silent and comprehensive petition, through which a person casts his burden on God."


3)            Based on the statement of Resh Lakish, that the verse "In the night His song shall be with me" (Tehillim 42:9) relates to the Torah, it may be concluded that Torah study is regarded as the recitation of song before God. Is there any greater praise than a person plumbing the depths of the Torah's thinking?


            Without a doubt, the realization of this fulfillment of "service of the heart" requires awareness, explicit or implicit, of all the inner values mentioned in connection with Torah study.


In this way, Rav Soloveitchik also explains King David's request that the recitation of the psalms be regarded as Torah study.[2] This request is based on the fact that both involve a fulfillment of "service of the heart."


As the shiur continues, Rav Soloveitchik notes the power of Torah, when it is studied in the manner of "service of the heart," to bring about a moral upheaval in the student's personality:


Through Torah study a person acquires not only wisdom and knowledge, but also personal holiness and purity. Crudeness disappears and refinement assumes its place. Superficiality vanishes and profundity of thought replaces it… Man's spiritual force expands and his moral stature stands out. (ibid. pp. 13-16)


            Intentions and emotional values are integrated here into the framework of cognitive study, not as a mere addition of intention, but as an essential change in the study's essence and meaning. Not mere study, but study as service of the heart. Rav Soloveitchik adds to the list of "verbs" relating to the Torah: We accept the yoke of God's kingdom through it, we pray through it and we sing it. Through it we purify and sanctify ourselves, and raise our spiritual level. Rav Soloveitchik formulates his spiritual insights in scholarly-halakhic style, and anyone who carefully examines them will find himself amply rewarded.


III. Road Map – A Reconstruction of theFundamental Course


Let us now sum up. From where did we set out, and where did our path take us?


We already summarized our discussion of the Nefesh ha-Chayim, and therefore in the following synopsis, the focus will be on the second half of the series.


First of all, let us talk about the central issue – the idea of Torah lishmah in its various developments.


In the first shiur, I set an ambitious goal – to look for the key to the Torah's spiritual essence and deeper meaning. I made no attempt to conceal the difficulty of reaching this goal, and I suggested that an examination of the idea of Torah lishmah might prove helpful.


Our initial understanding of "lishmah" as merely a good intention or as a virtue added to Torah study quickly vanished. It became clear that we are dealing with a significant emotional investment, and with Torah study that is accompanied by deep desire and existential identification.


This idea developed in two main stages. Through study of the Nefesh ha-Chayim, we discovered the rich and dialectical existential world that is found in the human soul, beneath the surface of the learning act. This world bestows meaning on study; study is its expression.


The second stage was our advance toward the teachings of Rav Kook. Here we encountered three main developments vis-א-vis the Nefesh Ha-Chayim. First of all, we learned that Torah lishmah is not only a world that is found within the human soul. Man's spiritual intention is an outgrowth of ferment in the real world. It connects with the moral effluence of the universe that was created according to the master plan of the Torah. Torah lishmah is not just a way to learn, but rather a fundamental principle of reality.


Second, we discovered that Torah lishmah is not only a lofty goal for someone engaged in Torah study, but a response to the human quest for the fullness of life. Rav Kook relates to the spiritual distress of modern man and his search for meaning. The opposite extreme of Torah lishmah is a life of alienation and detachment. According to Rav Kook, the search for naturalness and spontaneity on the part of the Haskala writers, such as Bialik and Berdichewski, is to be realized not by casting off the yoke of the Torah, but, on the contrary, by delving more deeply into the Torah's wellsprings.


And finally, from the perspective of its practical expression, Torah lishmah is a way of life, in the sense that it turns the connection to the Torah into something that is not just study, but a multi-faceted encounter. All of life is experienced as an expression of the Torah. We emphasized the moral perspective of this idea that obligates dedication to the ideal of continuous tikkun.



IV. Disagreement About the Relationship Between Intellect and Experience – Summary


Aside from the central issue of Torah lishmah, the question of the relationship between the cognitive act and the human-religious experience occupied us throughout the series. Do they enjoy a harmonious relationship, or one marked by tension?


Rav Chayim Volozhin's attitude on the matter was complex. On the one hand, he advocated a deepening of fear of heaven in general, and in the framework of Torah study in particular. On the other hand, he was concerned that an exaggerated nurturing of experiential Divine service would damage the quality of learning.[3] In contrast, Rav Kook seems to have been absolutely convinced that such a contradiction does not exist, and that the more that a person succeeds in expressing his religious personality – in general and in the framework of Torah study – so will his intellectual faculties flower.


The inescapable conclusion is that these two thinkers disagree with each other, though I haven't found anyone who explicitly points this out. How are we to understand this disagreement? At the time, I "enlisted" modern scholars who noted the mutual relationship between the realms of emotion and intellect, and argued that the "contradiction" between them is imaginary, nothing more than an erroneous thought-convention. But it seems to me that even if we incline to a harmonistic approach, we cannot dismiss Rav Chayim's concerns as a mere mistake. A more serious effort must be made to understand the roots of this disagreement. I believe that several possible avenues of thought suggest themselves.


We could understand this disagreement by adopting a factual-realistic approach. Thinkers react to what they see and to the prevalent attitudes in their own times and places. Rav Chayim was a witness to the abandonment of the value of intellectual study on the part of the Chasidim who viewed it as competing with religious communion. This picture of basic conflict was a given: it was dictated by the Chasidic ideology, and Rav Chayim responded by expressing his position in accordance with these terms of debate. Rav Chayim's position on man's emotional abilities was influenced by the spiritual phenomena that he saw and the arguments that he heard voiced around him. Over the years the polemics with the Chasidic movement abated. By the time of Rav Kook, profound Torah study enjoyed renewed prestige even in Chassidic circles. The possibility of building a spiritual persona that combines intellectual achievement with spiritual-existential goals was recognized. The new circumstances helped Rav Kook bring to expression an approach which coincided with his personal intuition.


Without entirely rejecting this factual approach, it seems to me that we must see the disagreement between Rav Chayim and Rav Kook as a matter of principle. In my opinion, the possibility of a living combination of intellect and spirit depends on how we perceive the human soul. These two realms – intellect and experience – where are they found and what stands at the center of each one? According to one approach, man's ordinary, mundane functioning is rational, and it is his intellect that guides him in his natural life; whereas the world of the sacred is above reason and above nature. If so, experiencing the world of spirit necessitates that man transcend himself, rise above the logic dictated by the laws of nature, and aspire to "communion" with heavenly worlds.


This sort of dualistic understanding that sharply distinguishes between natural, this-worldly human existence and man's ideal goal in the world of spirit is very prevalent in the writings of the Vilna Gaon. One may presume that from there it passed on to his disciple, Rav Chayim of Volozhin. The first parts of the Nefesh ha-Chayim, which guide a person on the paths of spiritual service, are filled with awareness of its supernatural roots in the kabbalistic sefirot. Such dualism invites a feeling of tension between the intellect and spiritual experience. Here is the place to mention once again the famous words of Rav Chayim:


And to immerse his thought and intellect in the material aspects of [the words of the Torah]… which are the laws themselves, or the discussion in the Gemara, and the rules of the laws of miggo regarding the deceptive arguments that a deceiver could have put forward. It is almost impossible that then too he should enjoy perfect communion [with God]. (Nefesh ha-Chayim, part 4, chap. 2)


Presumably, the problem is not merely a practical one, but rather it reflects an inescapable reality. "Perfect communion" stands in utter opposition to the "material matters" that the laws of the Torah deal with. If you truly wish to deal with these laws, you must make room for the "dissociation principle" that distances the student from spiritual over-involvement.


Bu comparison, Rav Kook authors a conceptual revolution: the lofty and elevated spiritual world is accessible to the ordinary individual. One’s natural, inner feelings are connected to that world, and this means that the spiritual world is found within oneself. Rav Kook was therefore able to argue, as we saw in the previous shiur, that simple human love and the love of God are the same phenomenon, with respect to both their conceptual foundation and their emotional reality. From here comes Rav Kook's desire to turn the abundance of mystical vitality that maintains the worlds into a fact of life found within the field of human experience.[4]


Rav Kook adopted a unifying psychological approach that brings to mind the position of the general scholars mentioned previously. But unlike them, Rav Kook maintains this position despite his belief that the human soul is a projection of transcendental reality. Spiritual grandeur and human spontaneity blend into a harmonious, organic whole, which makes possible the natural combination of experience and intellect.


V. Thanks and Au Revoir


I wish to express my gratitude and appreciation to all who have participated in this series of shiurim.


In truth, I say good-bye to you with many questions. First and foremost – questions about the meaning of what we have learned for you, the readers. To what extent were expectations that I raised rewarded? Did anything change for you, with respect to your understanding or experience; was there any movement in the way you regard the Torah, or the manner in which you study, live, or serve God? Among the things that we have learned, was there anything you found especially important or meaningful? What is the main point that you will be taking away with you? I would also be interested in knowing what among the things we learned you found difficult or far-fetched, unrealistic or groundless. Regarding all these matters, I would be more than happy to hear from you at the address: [email protected](don't forget to include a subject line). Beli neder, I will try to respond to all communications.


Once again, thanks and best wishes.


Elyakim Krumbein



[1] This also depends on the question how we understand the view of Rav Chayim of Volozhin. According to Rabbi Norman Lamm’s understanding that Torah study lishmah is primarily intellectual, and "spiritual" intentions have at most a secondary background role, it is more possible to appreciate Rav Soloveitchik's thought as a continuation of this tradition. In my opinion, however, intellectual exclusivity characterized Volozhin in the days of the Netziv, but this was a deviation from the vision of the yeshiva's original founder. From this perspective, Rav Kook's teachings try to restore and refresh the relevance of the original approach.

[2] See Midrash Shochar Tov, Tehillim 1.

[3] Let us remember that Rav Chayim proposed that a person should dedicate only five minutes (!) a day to meditation upon the importance and meaning of Torah study (see Nefesh ha-Chayim, part IV, chaps. 7-9; Ru'ach Chayim [Rav Chayim's commentary on Pirkei Avot as recorded by a disciple], 1:1).

[4] See shiur no. 15.