Torah and General Wisdom in the Teachings of the Gra

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein


This week’s shiurim are sponsored by Ruchy Yudkowsky
in memory of Yehuda Yudkowsky z"l



In honor of our new daughter Talia Jacquelyn Schanler.
We have benefited from much Torah taught from the VBM and Har Etzion

and hope our daughter will also be able to do so, when she grows up!








            Thus far we have followed various positions on a critical issue: Should a person set his eyes on his existence in this world, in which he is supposed to realize his desires? Or should he set his hopes on the world after death, where he will finally merit – if his deeds permit this – redemption from the chains of physical existence? There is one more position that should be considered. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ztz"l, was one of the most prominent heirs to the tradition of the Volozhin in the previous generation. He himself did not study in Volozhin, but his family tradition implanted within him the spirit of the institution, where his grandfather R. Chayyim of Brisk served as the Netziv's deputy in the yeshiva's educational administration.[1]


            Rabbi Soloveitchik's essay, "Halakhic Man," describes the ideal Torah scholar. The character is based on the model that the author saw in his ancestors, and on the teachings of the Gra and R. Chayyim of Volozhin. In order to explain the world of the halakhic man, Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts him to another religious type – "homo religiosus," religious man. Homo religiosus strives to escape the chains of this world, and prefers spiritual existence to earthly life. From this perspective, we might have said that he accords with the classical Mitnaged approach, only that he differs from this outlook in one essential matter. Homo religiosus strives to connect himself to the supernal worlds while he is still living. He does not reconcile himself to a passive and narrow life, with his hopes resting on the world after death. On the contrary, he invests great effort to rid himself of the shadow of death that is connected to material existence already now and to commune with the Shekhina. He may try to achieve this by way of an ascetic lifestyle, but there are other ways as well.


            Rabbi Soloveitchik's inspiration for his description of homo religiosus does not draw from the Mitnaged world. On the contrary, it is precisely the mystical teachings of the Old Admor of Chabad, R. Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, that play a central role. The mystic of Chabad is the model for homo religiosus.


            Our primary interest, however, is Rabbi Soloveitchik's understanding of the halakhic man, whom he describes as follows:


The only difference between homo religiosus and halakhic man is a change of courses – they travel in opposite directions. Homo religiosus starts out in this world and ends up in supernal realms;[2] halakhic man starts out in supernal realms and ends up in this world. Homo religiosus, dissatisfied, disappointed, and unhappy, craves to rise up from the vale of tears, from concrete reality, and aspires to climb to the mountain of the Lord. He attempts to extricate himself from the narrow straits of empirical existence and emerge into the wide spaces of a pure and pristine transcendental existence. Halakhic man, on the contrary, longs to bring transcendence down into this valley of the shadow of death – i.e., into our world – and transform it into a land of the living. Basically, homo religiosus is a romantic who chafes against concrete reality and tries to flee to distant worlds that will restore his spirits with their purity and pristine clarity. Halakhic man, however, takes up his position in this world and does not move from it. He wishes to purify this world, not to escape from it. "Flight goes before a fall" (Sota 8:6). Halakhic man is characterized by a powerful stiff-neckedness and stubbornness. He fights against life's evil and struggles relentlessly with the wicked kingdom and with all the hosts of iniquity in the cosmos. His goal is not flight to another world that is wholly good, but rather bringing down that eternal world into the midst of our world. (Halakhic Man, pp. 40-41[3])


            The issue of pessimism versus optimism is connected to the differences in perspectives between homo religiosus and halakhic man:


The mystic sees the existence of the world as a type of "affront," heaven forbid, to God's glory; the cosmos, as it were, impinges upon the infinity of the Creator. (p. 49)


Therefore, mystical doctrine contemplates existence from a pessimistic perspective… It senses and empathizes with the anguish of the Shekhina, of the Divine Presence, and longs to rise up together with her from the narrow straits of reality and to the most high God "who is exalted, lofty, and separate, all alone and not manifest in any other being." (p. 50)


            In contrast, halakhic man –


does not chafe against existence; rather he reads with simplicity and innocence that is typical of him, the verse in Genesis, "And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31), and accepts its verdict. He does not wish to free himself from the world, and he knows nothing about the idea of the Shekhinta be-galuta, of the Divine Presence in exile, if taken to mean that the Divine Presence is held captive in the tresses of the cosmos and the chains of reality. He is completely suffused with an unqualified ontological optimism and is totally immersed in the cosmos. On the contrary, as he sees it, the task of man is to bring down the Divine Presence to the lower world, to this vale of tears. The mystery of tzimtzum should not precipitate metaphysical anguish but rather gladness and joy… The creation of the world does not inflict any "blemish" upon the idea of divinity, does not infringe upon infinity; on the contrary, it is the will of God that His Shekhina, His Divine Presence, should contract and limit itself within the realm of empirical reality. (pp. 51-52)


            We are witness here to a glorification of man's earthly role in this world, the world of empirical reality. What we have here is that same optimistic spirit that was planted by R. Chayyim of Volozhin in the consciousness of the Mitnagdim, in the wake of the teachings of the Gra. This approach to life is so firmly implanted in Rabbi Soloveitchik that he attributes the pessimistic approach to life to non-Mitnaged circles, and especially to Chassidut Chabad. The pessimistic Mitnaged tradition, criticized by Zalman Epstein who described it in terms of dryness and depression, exists not at all in Rabbi Soloveitchik's consciousness, as if it were completely erased from the Lithuanian tradition. In this sense, "Halakhic Man" represents the victory of the Volozhin upheaval.


            We must not, however, content ourselves with this simplistic assessment. We must also note the gap between Rabbi Soloveitchik's essay and "Nefesh Ha-chayyim." Rabbi Soloveitchik (unlike the students of Volozhin themselves) does not ignore "Nefesh Ha-chayyim." He cites the gist of his outlook as it is presented in the first section of the book – that is to say, that man creates supernal worlds:


All of transcendental existence is subjugated to him. "Know what is above you." All of existence that is above our lowly world is from you. It exists by virtue of man and in his merit. Know that what is above – is from you!


            But in contrast to the "Nefesh Ha-chayyim," the idea of building supernal worlds is not the basis for the primary discussion in "Halakhic Man." The aforementioned principle is no more than additional support for the really important principle: that God's primary desire is in this world, because it is there that Halakha becomes actualized. Based on this, Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that not only are our short and material lives the essence of creation, but all the other elements of reality were built as a consequence, thus proving how mighty and powerful man is. But man's spiritual activity is not supposed to be conducted in connection with the supernal worlds. Man's primary purpose in this world is to establish the presence of the Shekhina in the simple life with which we are familiar. This is achieved through the mind of the Torah student who translates halakhic concepts into reality. The translation itself is based on an understanding of the Torah and its practical application, and through it man gives expression to his creative capacity, rather than through constant awareness of the heavenly repairs stemming from his actions.


            The kabbalistic outlook, which sees the importance of man's service in the fact that it repairs the spiritual universe, is not to be found here. Religious experience also changed in the years separating between "Nefesh Ha-chayyim" and "Halakhic Man." For the two elements that constitute the experience of Divine service in "Nefesh Ha-chayyim" – the responsibility stemming from deep religious morality, and the devekut that joins man to the spiritual sefirot – are replaced by the fascinating experience of creation and novelty. Halakhic man is commanded to actualize his potential, to realize his self.[4] He is close in spirit to the Volozhin student in the later period of the yeshiva. The difference between them is that Rabbi Soloveitchik's halakhic man does not relate to homo religiosus with scorn. On the contrary, he is capable of looking with empathy upon his experience as well, and of understanding the agitation in his soul. This agitation finds rest, when halakhic man brings homo religiosus' yearnings under the wings of halakhic creation.




From what we have just seen, we may conclude that even though the Gra's teachings symbolize the validity, the preservation and the fortification of ancient tradition, it also planted the seeds of change, and even of upheaval, that reached full expression in the generations that followed. This brings us directly to another chapter in the legacy of the Gra and his disciples – the Gra's attitude to general (non-Torah) studies. Here too we may raise a fascinating question: Does the Gra's position mark a spiritual turning point in that it encouraged openness to general education and culture and their assimilation into Jewish society?


Our starting point is an incident reported by R. Baruch of Shklov. R. Baruch was a Torah scholar and a dayyan, in addition to being very learned in the sciences. He acquired his broad education on his own out of personal interest. He published translations of books of general knowledge in order to disseminate that knowledge among the Jews of his time. For several months he even resided in Berlin, where he met with a group of maskilim – the leader of the group Moses Mendelssohn, and other members, such as Naftali Hertz Wiesel and David Friedlander – whose influence began to be felt on the Jewish scene. R. Baruch apparently met with this group before the eruption of harsh polemics surrounding their activities, in the course of which the leading Rabbis of Germany and Bohemia attacked the growing Haskala movement. R. Baruch saw the maskilim as normative Jews who sought the good of their people, and he accepted their guidance and counseling in continuing in his path.


In 5538 (1778), R. Baruch visited the Gra, from whom he drew encouragement and direction. This is what R. Baruch writes in the introduction to his translation of Euclid:


I heard from his holy mouth that in accordance with what a person lacks in general knowledge, he will be lacking a hundredfold in Torah knowledge, for Torah and general wisdom are closely joined together… And he commanded me to translate into our holy language what is possible from general knowledge, in order to remove the stolen property from their mouths, and so that wisdom will increase among our people Israel,… and the tongue of the nations will be removed who bellow at us, Where is your wisdom, and the name of heaven is desecrated… Therefore my heart has filled with the desire to sanctify God's name and do the will of the righteous one, our master, the pious one, to translate whatever possible into our holy language….


            The credibility of this report is supported by the fact that it was published in 5540 (1780) when the Gra was still alive. It implies that the Vilna Gaon supported occupation with general knowledge and even encouraged the author to translate works of general knowledge into Hebrew. R. Baruch started his project even before he consulted with the Gra, but he emphasizes here that he is fulfilling the Gra's desire and command, and the tone implies that this added weight and importance to his mission. This report arouses interest and even astonishment. We are all familiar with the Gra's absolute and non-stop dedication to Torah study. What underlies the Gra's attitude toward general studies, to the point that he thinks that there is room to dedicate time and effort to them at the expense of Torah study?


            I wish first to present the understanding of the noted scholar, Emanuel Etkes.[5] According to him, the Gra's esteem for general studies is explicit in what he said to R. Baruch Shick: Anyone who is lacking in general knowledge "will be lacking a hundredfold in Torah knowledge." General knowledge is necessary for the proper understanding of the Torah. According to this, the benefit of general knowledge is not essential, but merely instrumental. In addition, Etkes cites a letter from R. Chayyim of Volozhin's nephew, R. Avraham Simcha of Amtzislav, in which it is reported that the Gra had said to his son, Avraham "that he yearns for the translation of [works of general] knowledge from other languages into Hebrew, and for the translation of the Latin version of Josephus so that we can understand what was meant by our Rabbis, of blessed memory, in the Talmud and in the Midrashim…." Once again what is emphasized here is the benefit that may be derived from a translation of foreign sources for the understanding of the Oral Law. From this it may be concluded that when the Gra encouraged translations, and in general when he engaged in the study of general knowledge, he was primarily driven by the help that this would provide him in understanding the words of Chazal.


            We shall see that the proper understanding of the Gra's position regarding general studies was the subject of great debate in the coming generations. But before we examine these interpretations and their significance, let us try to understand what follows from the primary sources, and thus gain perspective regarding the position of Etkes.


Let us first go back to the report of R. Baruch of Shklov. In addition to the help that it offers in understanding the words of Chazal, he also adds another reason for spreading general knowledge among the Jews: "to remove the stolen property from the mouths" of the nations. The underlying assumption here is that the sciences are in fact a Jewish asset from ancient times, only that owing to the tribulations of exile these sciences were forgotten, and then taken over by the nations of the world. Today, argues R. Baruch, the nations mock us, saying: "Where is your wisdom." If we once again study all this knowledge that had become lost to us, we will remove "the stolen property from their mouths," and the name of heaven will thereby be sanctified.


R. Baruch seems to attribute this motivation to the Gra himself, but Etkes casts doubt about the matter. Was the desire "to restore the crown to its former state" which burned so strongly in R. Baruch's heart attributed to the Gra without justification?


Attention should be paid to a certain expression that R. Baruch cites in the name of the Gaon, which on the face of it also testifies to a more profound esteem on his part for the sciences. The Gaon is cited as saying that the Torah and general wisdom are "closely joined together." What does he mean by "close joining"? Is he merely referring to a utilitarian connection, or to something more?


We shall leave this question open for the moment, and in the meantime address another source that is relevant to the issue under discussion. We already saw the dramatic passage from R. Israel of Shklov's introduction to his book, "Pe'at Ha-shulchan." It is related there, on the testimony of witnesses, that when the Gra concluded his commentary to Shir Ha-shirim, he invited several members of his inner circle, closed the blinds, lit candles, and thanked God for the privilege that had been granted to him to learn the entire Torah. The Gra then expressed his satisfaction with his lot, for having succeeded in reconciling all his doubts and arriving at certain knowledge of all branches of the Torah. We did not, however, consider another portion of the speech that the Gra delivered on that exciting occasion. Now is the time to make good on that debt:


And he ordered that his room be closed, and the windows were closed during the day, and many candles were lit. When he finished his commentary he lifted up his eyes with intense devekut, with blessing, and with thanksgiving to His great name, that He allowed him to apprehend the light of the entire Torah, both its inner and its outer elements. He said as follows: All the sciences are necessary for our holy Torah, and are included in it, and he knew them all perfectly. And he mentioned them - algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and music, and he praised them greatly. He said then that most of the reasons of the Torah, the mysteries of the songs of the Levites, and the mysteries of Tikkunei Ha-zohar cannot be understood without it. And with it everyone… can resurrect the dead with its secrets that are hidden in the Torah. He explained the nature of all the sciences, and said that he comprehended them all in perfect manner, except for medicine. He knew surgery and related matters, and he had wanted to study pharmacology from the doctors of his time, but his righteous father had forbidden him to do so, so as not to neglect his Torah studies, when he will have to go and save lives with the knowledge that he acquired. So too sorcery, which was known by the Sanhedrin and the Tannaim, and they admonished that it must be studied, as is mentioned in the Gemara… - he knew it, though he lacked certain practical knowledge, because it was in the hands of non-Jews… As for philosophy, he said that he had learned it in perfect manner, but only derived two good things from it… but the rest he had to cast away. Afterwards he said that the entire Torah that had been given at Sinai he knew to perfection.


The Gra, who never in his life wasted a minute, proudly presents his achievements relating to secular knowledge. He speaks about them even before he describes his successes in Torah study. Does it seem likely that all this excitement that is expressed in the context of "eyes lifted up," "intense devekut," and "blessing and thanksgiving to His great name" – attests to a person for whom the study of these sciences has strictly instrumental value? Would such a person derive such pleasure from the fact that "he knew them all in perfect manner"? Without a doubt, the very context in which these words were stated lead to the conclusion that the various branches of human knowledge are important in the eyes of the Gra not only for the benefit that they may provide for Torah study.


A closer examination of his words reinforces this impression. We encounter here – alongside the assertion that general knowledge is "necessary" for the Torah, which could be understood in a utilitarian sense – a more fundamental statement, that brings to mind what R. Baruch of Shklov heard that Torah and general knowledge are "closely joined together." Here it is reported in the name of the Gra, by way of his devoted disciple R. Israel of Shklov, that the sciences "are necessary for our holy Torah, and are included in it." And here, unlike R. Baruch Shick, the reporters are not known to be proponents of haskala, and therefore there is no reason whatsoever to doubt the reliability of the report. This reconfirms what was cited in the introduction to Euclid.


In what sense are the sciences "included" in the Torah? We may get an idea from the Gaon's excitement regarding music. Among other things he writes that it is possible to resurrect the dead with the mysteries of music that lie hidden in the Torah. It is possible that music is exceptional among the sciences in its connection to the Torah, but it is hard to escape the impression that the sciences, like music, are "included" in an organic and essential sense, that goes beyond their utility. Anyone who is familiar with the multi-level structure of the revealed and the esoteric Torah in the Gra's thought, understands what he means when he says that a certain body of knowledge is "included" or "hidden" in the Torah. Even if the matter is not absolutely clear, it is sufficiently clear that that sciences are connected to the Torah in a significant manner. The sciences clarify the Torah, because they complete the picture that the Torah draws, and one who has mastered the Torah without general knowledge – his knowledge and understanding are partial and fragmentary.


We have still not exhausted the implications of the incident described by the author of "Pe'at Ha-shulchan." We shall try to learn more from it in the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] It would seem that R. Chayyim Soloveitchik was not involved in the administrative management of the yeshiva. The Netziv himself assumed responsibility for all aspects of running the yeshiva, from fund raising to distributing the mail, and not just the educational matters. It should be emphasized that a distinction must be made between Rabbi Soloveitchik's grandfather, R. Chayyim, and R. Chayyim of Volozhin, who were of course two different people.

[2] Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the term "atzilut" in the mystical sense, that is to say, the supernal spiritual world that cannot be comprehended by human reason.

[3] Halakhic Man, Philadelphia, 1983.

[4] This emphasis in "Halakhic Man" is very different from the religious morality of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, who assigns a central role to the trait of modesty, as is explained in the introduction to "Nefesh Ha-chayyim."

[5] See E. Etkes, Yachid be-Doro: Ha-Gaon mi-Vilna – Demut ve-Dimui, Jerusalem, 1998, chapter 2, especially p. 60 on.