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Shiur #23: Reason and Critiscim in the Service of God

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

We have reached the last shiur in this series. This is the time to make good on a debt that we owe from an earlier occasion. After having traced the various stages of the controversy between Chassidim and Mitnagdim over the course of the years, we wish to return to a particular aspect of the disagreement, which is connected to the personality of the Vilna Gaon himself.


The Gra and Kabbala


As may be recalled, the attitude toward Kabbala played a role in the propaganda of both sides to the controversy. On the Chassidic side, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi used this issue, especially the question of the respective sides' assessment of the teachings of the Ari, as a point of argument in favor of the Chassidim. I wish to bring once again the main points of his argument,[1] and I ask you to note that things that we have learned in the interim are likely to deepen our understanding of his words.


Looking back, the Chassidic position on the matter fits in with one of the pictures that we recently saw: the Chassidim's holding fast to the flag of piety and going to the extreme in all matters relating to holiness. In line with this approach, which stood out in the movement's image, both inwardly and outwardly, it is not surprising that the Chassidim demanded absolute faith in the Ari and his kabbalistic teachings. In their view, there is nothing in the Ari's teachings that he did not receive from the prophet Eliyahu, and therefore there is no room whatsoever for doubts or reservations about any particular element. Rabbi Shneur Zalman argues that the Gra does not accept this assumption, and therefore he allows himself to pass the Ari's teachings under his critical review, and even to reject some of them.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman attributes the Gra's critical approach to another assumption of his: "The texts became corrupted," that is to say, the Ari's disciples copied his writings, and sometimes this second-hand transmission of his words is inaccurate, so that clarifying the truth demands judgment and discretion. Rabbi Shneur Zalman himself seems to reject this aspect of the Gra's approach as well, but it is not clear why. If a person who is searching for the truth questions the authenticity of the transmission of the Ari's disciples, is this likely to undermine his piety? The spirit of Rabbi Shneur's words suggests that indeed it will. The Chassidim cultivated a passionate faith in the Ari's Kabbala as a true and sacred tradition, and this faith could not be reconciled, spiritually or emotionally, with rational criticism, whatever its foundations and causes.


We do not know the sources of Rabbi Shneuer Zalman's information, on the basis of which he consolidated his picture of the Gra's position regarding the Ari's Kabbala. However, a clearly Mitnagdi source confirms in great measure what he says. The Vilna Gaon wrote a commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta (part of the Zohar), and his disciple Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin added an introduction. In this introduction, Rabbi Chayyim describes the place of Kabbala in his master's life and teachings. Among other things, he mentions that the Gra said about the Ari that "twice he merited a revelation of Eliyahu [the Prophet], of blessed memory." It may be understood from this that the Ari's teachings are the product of his own comprehension; even though Eliyahu revealed himself to the Ari, he did this only twice.[2] With respect to the writings of the Ari, as well, it is clear from there that the Gra attached importance primarily to the tradition of Rabbi Chayyim Vital, but he argued that one cannot rely on the writings of the rest of his disciples. The Gra also emphasized the need to clarify and emend the texts, removing "the corruptions of the copyists," so that they can be reconciled with their sources in the Zohar.[3]


However, the superficial correspondence between Rabbi Shneur Zalman's letter and Rabbi Chayyim's report is in fact misleading. A careful study of Rabbi Chayyim's full testimony proves that there may be agreement on certain details, but the tone and climate of the two accounts are absolutely different from each other.


Rabbi Shneuer Zalman's statements create the impression that the Gra does not relate to the Ari and his teachings with the proper awe. It is hard to escape the impression that Rabbi Shneur Zalman himself sees things this way, though he refrains from saying so explicitly. According to the Admor from Lyadi, the Gra certainly held the Ari in high regard, but at the same time he put himself above him and above his disciples in a judgmental stance. An aura of philosophical coldness[4] emanates from the manner in which Rabbi Shneur Zalman describes the Gra's investigations into Kabbala, which stands in stark contrast to the passionate belief espoused by the Chassidim.


Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin spoke out against all of this. He mentions the fact that many accuse the Gra of scorn for the Ari, and even for the Zohar in general. His main goal is to refute this image. In the passage below he illustrates how much the Gra really admired the Ari:


My eyes saw the glory of the sanctity of the Ari, z"l, in the eyes of our great Master, for whenever I spoke to him about him, his whole body shook, and he said: "What shall we say about the holy one of God, the man of God, holy and awesome as he is. From the time that he merited a revelation of Eliyahu, z"l, twice, his comprehension grew higher and higher. Our master also examined his holy writings a great deal so as to make them accord with the sources in the holy Zohar and the Tikkunim, and he removed them from the obscurity caused by copyists' errors… (Introduction to the Gra's commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta)


Evaluation of the critical stance


Rabbi Chayyim mentions in the same breath the physical shock that the Gra would experience because of his great admiration for the Ari as a mystic, and the textual criticism that he employed to emend the wording of his writings. As opposed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman's instinct, this critical effort is entirely consistent with the admiration. Out of love for the matter under consideration, the Gra dedicated his legendary diligence to emending and correcting the textual difficulties. He exerted himself in the same way as he did when he emended the readings of the kabbalistic sources in the Zohar itself:


It is unbelievable how many efforts did this man make, the greatest among giants, until he illuminated the entire matter, clear and true… His pure heart did not rest until he weighed it on the scales of his reason, his holy reason, several hundred times, and with enormous effort, he neither ate nor drank… And especially the impeccable readings which he provided for the holy Zohar, Ra'aya Mehemna, and the Tikkunim; he added and subtracted, and moved [words] from one line to the next, from one page to the next, and even to several pages on. His many, tremendous efforts are not to be believed or to be imagined. He would weigh and count their letters, until his eyes were illuminated from heaven to establish a new, beautiful, clear and awesome reading… Nevertheless, he did not dare to decide in favor of his version, until he went back and engaged in enormous effort, inquiring, investigating, and searching thoroughly throughout the Zohar… in order to verify that it is indeed enlightening, and reconciles many other places… Only when this was found to be true, was he sure that Divine wisdom was within him, to make God's ordinances true, righteous altogether… (ibid.)


While Rabbi Shneur Zalman recoiled from the very idea of mixing human reasoning with esoteric matters ("to investigate the Divine with the human mind"), Rabbi Chayim refers to the Gra's reason as "holy reason." It was only by virtue of his reason that he merited to uncover the correct explanations and readings in kabbalistic literature, through the use of the critical method of comparing readings and searching for errors and substitutions in scribal copies. The truth did not fall for him from heaven, but only through "awesome" exertion and enormous personal effort.[5]


According to Rabbi Chayyim, the Vilna Gaon admired the Ari no less than did Rabbi Shneur Zalman, but his appreciation was founded on Mitnagdi values, which were not accepted by Rabbi Shneur Zalman. After all, in the eyes of the Chassidim, the greatness of the Ari's teachings was grounded on the fact that he heard it all from the prophet Eliyahu; but the Gra's tradition viewed the revelation of Eliyahu, which the Ari experienced "twice," as a means that prepared the Ari for his personal standing and raised his level of comprehension "higher and higher." The Ari uncovered profound truths by way of his "awesome" personal comprehension, and not by joining himself to a conduit for bringing down messages from the heavenly worlds.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman writes from a well-known Chassidic position, which sees man's "I" as threatening to separate and distance himself from the sacred. The "I" is part of a system of illusions that make up reality, and it should disappear through true contemplation of God. Then it will clear room for a direct relationship with God, when the Divine reality will exclusively fill man's consciousness just as it fills the entire universe. The Gra's experience, on the other hand, was diametrically opposite, and therefore it could not be comprehended by Rabbi Shneur Zalman.


This becomes even sharper when we consider the Gra's attitude toward the Magiddim – angels – who came to him in order to reveal the Torah's secrets to him. Rabbi Chayyim writes that the Gra could easily have learned Torah from them, just as other great Kabbalists had done before him, such as Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Ramchal. However, the Vilna Gaon refused all such advances, and insisted that he acquire his Torah knowledge exclusively through his own personal, intellectual exertion. What is important here for our purposes is the Gra's motive. What brought the Gra to prefer rational study over heavenly absorption of the words of the Torah? It is interesting that Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin answers this question from the realm of the religious experience:


For I heard from his holy mouth that a number of Maggidim from heaven often came to his door in their earnest request, wishing to teach him the secrets of the Torah without any effort, but he paid them no attention whatsoever. One of the Maggidim persistently pleaded with him, but nevertheless he ignored his grand appearance. He replied (to the Maggid): I do not want my comprehension of God's Torah to be through any intermediary whatsoever; my eyes are raised only to Him. That which He wishes to reveal to me and to give me as my part in His Torah for the efforts that I made with all my strength, He will give me wisdom, from His mouth will come understanding and knowledge, for He will give me an understanding heart, and He will make my kidneys like two springs, and I will know that I have found favor in His eyes. I want only what is in His mouth; but I have no desire for knowledge attained through angels, Maggidim and ministers of the Torah for which I did not toil. (ibid.)


The Gra's experience is completely contrary to what we would have expected according to Chassidic thinking. According to the Vilna Gaon, not only does hearing words of Torah from an angel not connect a person to God, but it creates a barrier between them. The Gra felt that only when he studies by the sweat of his brow is he in direct communication and connection with God Himself. The Gra refused the generous offers of angels, because he wanted to study Torah only from the mouth of God. One can learn Torah effortlessly from the angels, if one so desires, but God himself gives the Torah only to one who is willing to exert himself and toil.


The Mitnagdim in the wake of "Hovot ha-levavot"


This approach, which opposes Maggidim, appears here in Rabbi Chayyim's account in a spiritual-mystical atmosphere. In fact, its roots can be identified in earlier periods of Jewish thought, long before the rise of Kabbala as a major player in the spiritual world of Judaism. A prime example of this is found in the book Hovot ha-Levavot ("Duties of the Heart"), written by Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pekuda in the eleventh century. This classical ethical treatise had a significant impact on the works of non-Chassidic thinkers, e.g., Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avoda of Rabbi Alexander Ziskin of Horodna, Keter Torah of Rabbi Pinchas of Polotozk, and Sefer ha-Middot of the Maggid of Dubnow.


The author of Chovot ha-Levavot presents two types of people who submit to God, who differ from each in terms of their motivation. There is one type of person whose submission is prompted by the Torah, who accepts the yoke of the Torah's commandments and the tradition based on simple faith; and there is another type of person whose submission is prompted by the urging of the mind, that is, as a result of independent, rational contemplation, which leads the person to the conclusion that it is his obligation to serve his Creator.    Rabbeinu Bachya's inclination is to prefer submission prompted by the urging of the mind, and he lists the reasons for his preference. Among other things he writes:


In the service prompted by the Torah alone, the outward manifestations, in the form of good acts of the limbs, are greater than the inner service of the heart. In the service prompted by the mind, what is hidden in the heart is many times as much as what is outwardly observable on the limbs. These are the duties of the heart. (Chovot ha-Levavot, Serving God, chap. 3)


In other words, Rabbeinu Bachya maintains that when a person serves God based on passive acceptance, and follows in the path of the Torah without question or inquiry, his service is external; he observes the commandments in practice, but the inner dimension of thought and of the heart is impaired. On the other hand, if one's service is based on a logical conclusion, rising from contemplation and judgment, his heart plays a dominant role in his work. He identifies with his faith in a deep and genuine manner; Rabbeinu Bachya sees this as a qualitative advantage. This preference for service based on reason underlies the approach taken by Chovot ha-Levavot throughout the book.


In this regard it is instructive to consider the words of Rabbi Shneur Zalman in the introduction to his book, the Tanya. While explaining the background for the writing of the book, the author reviews the various Jewish ethical treatises, and divides them into two groups. There are those that are "based on human reason," while others are "books of fearing God, whose foundations are the holy mountains, the Midrashim of the Sages through whom the spirit of God speaks and His word is on their tongues." The difference between the two types is the size of the community for which it is accessible and useful. By its very nature, a book that is based on human reason is appropriate only for certain people, for the power of the mind varies from person to person. On the other hand, a book that is based on rabbinic sources, builds on man's connection to God, for "the Torah and Holy One, blessed is He, is one, and all six hundred thousand souls of Israel… are all connected to the Torah, and the Torah connects them to the Holy One, blessed is He, as is known from the Zohar." The spiritual connection to God by way of the Torah characterizes all the souls of Israel wherever they are, and therefore such a book has a greater chance of influencing many people. Hovot ha-Levavot is undoubtedly a book of the first type, and therefore in accordance with Rabbi Shneur Zalman's understanding, the connection with God is not the main issue there. In his view, in order to connect to God, another approach is needed, one that is not intellectual, one about which the Hovot ha-Levavot would say that it leads to submission prompted by the Torah. It would appear that Rabbeinu Bachya himself would not agree with Rabbi Shneur Zalman's assessment, and that the Mitnagdi outlook, as stated, accords more fully with Rabbeinu Bachya's approach.


The same line of Mitnagdi thinking can be found at a later stage, in connection with the development of the Lithuanian Mussar movement. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who is better known by the designation "the Saba of Kelm," used as an example King Shelomo's statement: "Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet." Rabbi Simcha Zissel points out that there are many people who without thinking repeat the words of Kohelet like a mantra – all of this world is vanity of vanities, and therefore "the end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep His commandments; for that is the whole duty of man" (Kohelet 12:13). This, however, is merely an imaginary reconstruction of the words of Kohelet. King Shelomo reached his insights through protracted intellectual inquiry, and therefore when he writes his words, he truly believes them based on his investigations and experience. Anyone who repeats the words of King Shelomo merely cites the words of others; he himself does not say them in the way that Shelomo said them, because he merely repeats what he heard without being convinced by them and without identifying with them internally. The solution is to follow in the path of Kohelet, the path of intellectual inquiry:


Therefore, one should take this nit vi a frummer (not in the way of a pious person). Only I myself will investigate this with my reason and with my toil, and in this way it will take deep root in my heart. (Chokhma u-Mussar, II, no. 8, p. 9)


Rabbi Simcha Zissel demands that one act "nit vi a frummer," that is, not like a pious person who accepts everything without asking questions and without investigating the issues, and sees precisely in that the key to his piety. The repudiation of intellectual investigation is not worthy of praise in the world of piety, argues Rabbi Simcha Zissel. Such piety is a sham, for if one has not investigated a matter, it is impossible to truly identify with it.


Thus, we have found here another spiritual difference between the two communities. It is reasonable to surmise that just as the Chassidim glorified the institution of "Tzaddik," around whom the entire life of the community revolved, whose views were accepted without challenge, and towards whom there even developed an approach of self-effacement – so too the Mitnagdim continued along their own path, defining themselves as the opposites of their rivals. Indeed, independent thinking served as a flag in Volozhin and in all the major Yeshivot in eastern Europe.[6]


In recent generations this feature of the Lithuanian world has become somewhat blurred. Roshei Yeshiva have turned into Admorim, and many feel the need to ask "a Torah authority" rather than open a book. This, however, is not the forum to clarify this development.


In conclusion


We have not exhausted the full breadth of the Gra's legacy in this series, but I hope that we have reached our major goals: gaining accessibility to the Gra and his heritage; deepening our understanding of the concepts, characters and events in this story; and explaining the historical and philosophical background of the major actors and their work. The direct study of the sources played an important role in reaching our objectives.


Much has been written about the issues discussed here. What I have brought before you reflects my own understanding and interpretation, and my own selection of what I considered to be the most important issues. Some of the ideas that I presented were (to the best of my knowledge) novel. At times I took a stand on controversial issues.


I recognize that at times my words were imprecise. Especially when I generalized about "the Chassidim" and "the Mitnagdim" – I sometimes sacrificed accuracy in order to maintain momentum and present a coherent picture. In any event, I encourage you to continue to study these fascinating issues. Doing so will lead you to a more precise understanding of the matters under discussion.


Familiarity with the past teaches us that the spiritual issues that occupy us today are not entirely new. The struggles which we face are reminiscent of earlier incarnations of the same issues. Knowing this is enlightening, and may also help us.


When we connect to the Vilna Gaon and his disciples, to their struggles and achievements, we connect also to ourselves, and better understand our history and our present.


Many thanks to all who have written to me and responded to what I wrote. I would be happy to receive more responses, and to hear what these shiurim contributed to you, and what appealed to you more or less. My e-mail address is [email protected].


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] See Shiur no. 14: "The Vilna Gaon in the Eyes of the Chassidim: The Letter of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi," based on Iggerot Ba'al ha-Tanya, no. 56.

[2] It is possible to read Rabbi Chayyim as saying that the revelations were not "twice" (pa'mayim) but "occasional" (p'amim). Either way, Eliyahu is not the ubiquitous and constant source of the Ari's kabbalistic wisdom.

[3] This was already pointed out by Rabbi David Tzvi Hillman, who published Iggerot Ba'al ha-Tanya (see note 1), p. 99.

[4] As may be recalled, Rabbi Shneur Zalman himself used the term "philosophic" in reference to the Gra's approach in this context.

[5] The Gra's disciples testify to the fact that this was also his approach to his many emendations of non-kabbalistic Torah literature, authored by the Tannaim and the Amoraim. His disciple Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov writes (in his introduction to Taklin Chadetin on tractate Shekalim) that the Gra did not rely in this regard on his tremendous brilliance, and that when he thought that a text had to be emended, he toiled over it for several days, "informing the public of his distress," in order to hear the views of others, even those inferior to him. In practice, he did not emend the text "until that emendation improved not less than fifteen or twenty passages of Tannaitic and Amoraic literature." It should be noted that the Gra's emendations of Torah literature are so numerous that these statements cannot be taken understood in their literal sense. A person who lives only once could not possibly spend several days over each one of those emendations and still have time to study other matters. Perhaps the reference is specifically to important or daring emendations.

[6] "Rebellions" carried out by Yeshiva students against their teachers were a common phenomenon in Volozhin and in other places. The unrest often expressed principled disagreement, for example, whether or not to introduce the study of Mussar texts. Attempts on the part of Yeshiva students to "crown" Roshei Yeshiva (e.g., Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Levine or Rabbi Chayyim of Brisk in Volozhin), above and beyond the personal dimensions, involved disputes over the policies of the institution.