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Torah, Experience and Morality in the Thought of R. Chayyim of Volozhin

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



By Rav Elyakim Krumbein







            At this stage let us look ahead and consider the developments and changes that took place in the generations following the Gra regarding some of the values which we encountered in the Gra's teachings and conduct.


            We already saw that R. Chayyim of Volozhin describes his master as one of the great kabbalists, though not of the classical variety. His complex personality – with respect to the world of esoteric lore – gave rise to novel spiritual and educational emphases. The Gra's statements and conduct clearly demonstrate an appreciation of human toil, intellectual exertion, and moral purification and sanctification. Of course, the Gra did not create these values; we are familiar with them from the earliest times. The novelty lies in the fact that they were sounded by one of the greatest, if not the greatest kabbalist of his day, together with the argument that they are preferable to the adoption of esoteric means in order to reach experiential communion and supernatural revelations. The argument put forward by the father of the Mitnaged approach was not only that revelations are less important than Torah study and moral perfection, but also that studying Torah for its own sake and in holiness will by itself lead to that lofty spiritual experience.[1]


            These ideas influenced R. Chayyim when he came to formulate detailed guidelines for conduct in his book Nefesh Ha-chayyim.[2]




            The conclusions that R. Chayyim drew from these ways of the Gra are given a place of honor in his book, Nefesh Ha-chayyim, and they greatly influenced the development of its ideas. Three streams come together in the book: the kabbalistic, the intellectual and the moral. From the kabbalistic perspective, the book is fully saturated with the worldview of the esoteric lore; it describes a universe built of infinite levels of spiritual worlds, in which the mundane reality familiar to us is the lowermost component of that universe. The intellectual dimension appears in the fourth part of the book, where the discussion focuses upon Torah study and Torah for its own sake. There R. Chayyim explains the superiority of Torah study in its intellectual sense and its placement at the top of the scale of values. These dimensions notwithstanding, it is the moral component that holds the entire structure together, and in the end it dominates all the other values. R. Chayyim's son, R. Yitzchak, who wrote the introduction to Nefesh Ha-chayyim, cites in the name of his father the clear moral goal which is the soul of the work:


Perhaps I will merit from heaven that my words in these pages will be accepted, so that they will plant the fear of God, and Torah, and pure service in the hearts of the righteous-hearted who seek the ways of God.


            Time after time, the moral principle – accepting the yoke of God's kingdom in love and awe – reveals itself as the central focus. In the first part of the book, where R. Chayyim unfolds the kabbalistic outlook mentioned above, he uses it to demonstrate the heavy responsibility falling upon each individual. Despite the lowliness of our world in the grand cosmic plan, man's service has a critical impact on the entire structure of the worlds, on their vitality, and on the plentitude of sanctity that streams through them, for better or for worse. R. Chayyim draws a practical-moral conclusion from this view of the world according to the esoteric lore. It is man's duty to be exacting in his actions and observe the mitzvot, for in this way he maintains the spiritual worlds. The goal is not the search for mystical communion, but rather perfection in the observance of the Torah and its commandments, in action, in speech and in thought.


            Also in the fourth part of the book, which deals with Torah study, R. Chayyim of Volozhin directs demands at the student, which are moral in their essence. On the one hand, the Torah student must sometimes restrain his yearnings for the spiritual experience of drawing near to God. He must devote his primary efforts to understanding the words of the Torah in their rational sense, rather than set himself experiential goals that are liable to impair the quality of his understanding. On the other hand, R. Chayyim demands that a person not content himself with the rational side of study, with all its intellectual pleasure and satisfaction, for the student is forbidden to forget whose Torah he is studying. Accordingly, true fear of heaven is a condition for the act of study, and this fear must be cultivated before one approaches Torah study. That is to say, even when R. Chayyim bestows Torah study with consummate priority in the scale of values, the foundation of his outlook is the idea that Torah study is the highest expression of Divine service, an idea that the student must internalize.


            In other contexts as well, R. Chayyim establishes the precedence of accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven over considerations of mystical elation, and thus he expands upon the ideas put forward by the Gra. For example: Is it possible for there to be a contradiction between Halakha and the teachings of Kabbala? The prevailing understanding is that such contradictions do indeed exist. An entire branch of halakhic literature is dedicated to the clarification of the question: Whose opinion do we follow – that of the Sages of the exoteric law or that of the Sages of the esoteric law? The Gra's approach, however, was different. In his introduction to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta, R. Chayyim notes that the Gaon explains various laws in the Shulchan Arukh on the basis of sources in the Zohar. In Keter Rosh – a collection of R. Chayyim's teachings recorded by his disciples – this is taken a step further:


Our master wrote in the name of his master, the Gra, z"l, that nowhere does the Zohar disagree with the Gemara. It is just that people (who think there are such disagreements) misunderstand the meaning of the Gemara or of the Zohar


            According to what is reported here, the Gra's position is that the contradictions between the exoteric and the esoteric laws are imaginary, stemming from a lack of understanding on the part of those studying either the Zohar or the Gemara. This approach is reasonable in light of his unified conception of the Torah. Thus far we have been exposed to this unity in each of the Torahs in and of themselves; here we see that this unity embraces and joins the two together.


            This is all according to the Gra, but in his disciple's writings, the matter is not so simple. According to R. Chayyim, the possibility exists that a consideration of the esoteric law – which aspires to repair the spiritual worlds – will contradict an explicit commandment of the Torah. In order to illustrate this idea, R. Chayyim goes back to the period of the patriarchs, when, according to Chazal, "the patriarchs observed the entire Torah." R. Chayyim explains the nature of this "observance" in accordance with the esoteric law:


It is not that they were commanded and that they acted in this manner because of the strict law… it is only because they understood in the purity of their intellects the awesome rectifications accomplished by each mitzva in the heavenly and terrestrial worlds, and the great blemishes and destruction and ruin, God forbid, that are caused when they are not observed. And similarly Noach sacrificed specifically from clean animals, for he saw and comprehended the heavenly power and root of each animal and beast, which of them is rooted in the side of sanctity, and sacrificed it, and which of them comes from the side of impurity - the "other side" (sitra achara) – and he chose not to offer it before Him, blessed be He, for it would not be pleasing to Him.


            At times, this manner of observing the mitzvot is liable to conflict with the Halakha:


Therefore, when Yaakov our father, peace be upon him, understood that according to the root of his soul, he would cause great rectifications in the heavenly powers and worlds, were he to wed these two sisters, Rachel and Lea, and that the two of them would build the house of Israel, he toiled and worked to acquire them, that they should be married to him. And so too Amram who wed his aunt Yocheved, from whom issued Moshe, Aharon and Miryam. This is also one of the reasons that the Torah was not given to Noach and the holy patriarchs, for had it been given to them, Yaakov would not have been permitted to marry two sisters, nor Amram his aunt, even if they would have understood that it would be fitting for them according to the root of their souls…


            With the giving of the Torah – R. Chayyim continues – there was a change, and from now on decisions like that of Yaakov and Amram were no longer possible. A person is called upon to subjugate his deep and comprehensive understanding and accept the yoke of the mitzva as it is written, despite the fact that according to the best of his understanding, it is precisely a deviation from the path of Halakha that is needed to achieve a "rectifications:


And from the time that Moshe came and brought it down to earth, it is not in heaven. Let the great man with extensive understanding not think himself wise and say, I who see the secret and the reasons of the commandments in the upper powers and worlds, that it is fitting for me according to the root of my soul, or for someone else according to his root, to transgress, God forbid, a certain mitzva, or to override one of the practical details of the act, and do it without omitting even one fine detail of Rabbinic legislation, or to change its time, God forbid… For the holy Torah is above all comprehension. How then is it possible that it be handed over to a person's comprehension, to change their laws and their times based on his understanding and comprehension… And when an individual in Israel observes them in fitting manner, even if he doesn't have intentions, and doesn't even know the reasons and secrets of the mitzvot – despite all this the mitzvot were fulfilled, and the worlds will be repaired through them, and holiness and light will increase in them… For the Creator, blessed be His name, established the nature of the worlds that they should be governed by the actions of man, and every mitzva ascends by itself with its own special impact.


            R. Chayyim's last words are reminiscent of what we saw by the Gaon – "there is no need for intentions and unifications." The repair in the spiritual worlds is effected primarily by the mitzva act itself, even when it is performed with absolute unawareness of the intentions buried within it. You might ask: According to this, does the study of Kabbala turn into something superfluous? R. Chayyim answers this question as follows:


He whom God, blessed be His name, merited to comprehend the hidden aspects of our holy Torah which were left to us by the Sages of the Talmud, like Rabban Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues and his disciples… its only purpose is to contemplate, each person in accordance with his intellect and understanding, the point to which all the particulars of his actions, his words, his thoughts and all his matters, reach in the upper and lower worlds and powers. This should stir him to do and to observe every mitzva and all matters of his service of his Creator, blessed be His name, with utmost precision, with dread, with fear, with intense love, with holiness and with purity of heart. In this way he will cause greater rectifications in the worlds, than if he would observe the mitzva without the holiness and purity of the intention. However, the essence of every mitzva, which is indispensable for its fulfillment, lies in the details of the act itself.


            The practical consequence of studying Kabbala is greater arousal, practical precision and intensification of the intentions of the heart. These additions do indeed upgrade the level of the rectification. Once again, there is no hint in his words that secret information is necessary in order to perform "the intentions and the unifications" which are part of kabbalistic practice.[3]




            Thus far we have seen that R. Chayyim assigns to the fulfillment of mitzvot and the study of Torah, in their manifest sense, the power to bring about the spiritual rectification of the world. This is especially so when the service of God is performed with maximum care concerning the details of the law and with purity of heart. In this, he follows in his master's footsteps, who did not occupy himself with "intentions and unifications." Only that we are left with a question. With respect to the Gaon, we saw that accepting the yoke of the heavenly kingdom and cleaving to "the things through which the Torah is acquired," yielded enormous spiritual attainments on the personal level, in the sense of "meriting many things." The Gra experienced in a real way the fruits of his service and study, and achieved in his own way the same levels of sanctity that kabbalists would attain by way of "unifications." He lived and breathed supernal spirituality on a constant basis. Does R. Chayyim believe that personal-experiential elation is promised to anyone who serves his Creator in sanctity? Moreover, is this promise included in his educational platform, or is this beatitude reserved for the spiritual elite, like the Gra?


            The answer to this question seems to be the subject of dispute. I wish to present my own personal position, without ignoring the conflicting view.


            In at least one place in Nefesh Ha-chayyim, the author openly encourages the reader to experience actual spiritual inspiration from above. In part 1, chapter 6, he writes:


When a person does the will of his Maker, blessed be His name, and fulfills with some organ or faculty within him one of God's mitzvot, the rectification impacts upon that heavenly world or power that receives it, rectifying it, elevating it, or increasing its light and sanctity... And from there the sanctity and vitality extends also to that faculty of the person with which he fulfilled the command of his Creator that is aligned with it.


            At this point there is a stricture (hagaha, an expanded note), in which the author discusses the sanctification of a person by way of the "encompassing light" that extends toward him when he performs a mitzva. R. Chayyim finds a talmudic source for this idea: "Whoever sanctifies himself below becomes sanctified from above" (Yoma 39a); and in the continuation he adduces support from the Zohar. However, he clarifies that this "encompassing light" is not only a transcendental reality, but rather a living phenomenon that impacts upon man:[4]


And through this sanctity and encompassing light, he cleaves as it were to Him, blessed be His name, even during his lifetime. This is what the verse says: "But you that did cleave to the Lord, your God," even while "you are alive every one of you this day." This encompassing light helps him complete the mitzva, and through this completion, he becomes stronger and raises his head. About this, the Sages, of blessed memory, said: "He who comes to purify himself is given assistance." It also draws and pulls his heart to acquire several more mitzvot, since he is now actually sitting in the Garden of Eden, sheltered in the shadow of the wings of sanctity under the protection of the Most High. There is no room there for the evil yetzer to control him, to cause him to go astray or to remove him from occupation in the mitzvot. This is what they said: "One mitzva leads to another mitzva." And if he pays attention at the time that he performs a mitzva, he will understand and feel in his soul that he is now surrounded by and clothed in sanctity, and that a steadfast spirit is renewed within him. This is what the verse says: "And my judgments, which if a man do, he shall live in them" – in them, i.e., in them literally, for he is then surrounded by the sanctity of the mitzva and enclosed by the air of the Garden of Eden.


            The spiritual experience described here is not especially demanding. It does not require considerable preparation, secret knowledge, or the practice of kabbalistic techniques. It goes without saying that the more that a person purifies his heart, so too this experience will be proportionately more qualitative. But at the basic level it is within the reach of every Torah scholar, or every "potential" Torah scholar, for this is the target audience of Nefesh Ha-chayyim. What is more, this idea also appears at the beginning of Ru'ach Chayyim, the written version of shiurim on Pirkei Avot which R. Chayyim delivered before the ordinary householders of Volozhin.[5] Thus we see that he saw this idea as meaningful for ordinary observant Jews.


            But the question is whether the religious experience of spiritual elation is an essential part of the ideal spiritual platform of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, or is it an idea that arises only occasionally, and in a localized manner? The ultimate aspiration according to R. Chayyim, as it is clarified in part four of the book, is Torah study, and this study is rational in nature. In light of this, does perhaps R. Chayyim avoid conscious development of devekut, in the case of distinguished Torah scholars?


This issue is a matter of dispute among traditional and academic scholars.[6] The background of the debate is R. Chayyim's response to the decline in the status of Torah study in his generation. R. Chayyim argues in his book that in the wake of Chasidut, many young people of his generation were convinced that the experience of devekut is the most important religious goal, and accordingly the value of study is subservient to the level of devekut to which it leads, and not to be judged by the yardstick of intellectual achievement such as profound understanding, acuity, and acquisition of comprehensive knowledge.[7] According to the scholars that adopt the "dissociative" view of Nefesh Ha-Chayyim,[8] R. Chayyim indeed assumes that the two goals – devekut and Torah scholarship – do contradict each other; and he decides in favor of scholarship. R. Chayyim relies on the Zohar to describe the lofty status of one who studies Torah for its own sake, but all of this kabbalistic theory should be understood as an ideological justification, and not as a description of a life that gives the Torah student an existential experience that is removed and exalted relative to mundane existence. It is true that R. Chayyim says that one who occupies himself in Torah study for its own sake does not need to strive for devekut, for he cleaves to the Shekhina through the Torah; but he refers there not to devekut that is felt by the student, but rather devekut "by definition." To briefly summarize (and perhaps oversimplify), this approach argues that with respect to high-level Torah study, spiritual devekut constitutes a hindrance and a distraction, and therefore one should waive it.


The opposing view is represented by scholar Immanuel Etkes. His understanding of the Nefesh Ha-chayyim is different. He notes the complexity in the thought of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, and sees in it "a synthesis between those practices and values that were accepted among the Mitnagedim, and those for which Chasidut fought whose neglect it critiqued."[9] R. Chayyim's position regarding Torah study is also a synthesis of this type. Despite the fact that R. Chayyim opposed the Chassidic conception of study, in practice he relates to the Torah in much the same manner that the Chasidim related to prayer. R. Chayyim offers detailed guidance for the Torah student regarding spiritual intentions prior to and during study. These instructions are meant to bring him to tangible religious elation. "It stands to reason that one who identifies with the ideas proposed by R. Chayyim regarding the meaning of Torah study, and applies the guidelines regarding Torah for its own sake, is wont to experience during the time of his Torah study a profound and especially intense religious experience... This student is liable to feel over the course of his study the solemn emotion of sanctity and elation, and also the elevated spirit associated with the consciousness of a religious mission. All these are wont to join together to form an intensive religious experience, that stands perhaps on the brink of mystical experience, though it is doubtful whether it goes beyond that."[10] In short, there is no dissociation of scholarship from devekut, but rather scholarship that is connected to devekut.


We shall not enter here into a detailed discussion of the Nefesh Ha-chayyim in order to decide the matter more conclusively (I have tried to do this elsewhere), but I will state that I stand here with Etkes. The attempt to see R. Chayyim's position as setting up a fundamental opposition between religious experience and scholarship fails, when we consider the entire contents of Nefesh Ha-chayyim, and do not restrict ourselves to just those isolated chapters (as important as they may be) in which "Torah for the sake of Torah," i.e., for the sake of understanding it, is declared to be the definition of Torah lishma. To cite an early precedent, R. Chayyim's definition is akin to the Rambam's teaching about "doing the truth because it is true," and yet this does not prevent the Rambam from attaching describing this spiritual path as "serving out of love". And above all else, the "dissociative" approach does not fit in whatsoever with the Gra's legacy, which R. Chayyim describes in his introduction to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta. The Gra attached great importance and regard to spiritual devekut, and the same is true of his most prominent disciple. Only that they believed that with respect to priorities, a person must first concern himself with what  is most important and essential, namely, practical perfection in Torah and mitzvot. R. Chayyim adds here the requirement that this study must be qualitative by rational standards, and that it must lead to a clear and precise understanding of the material. The second stage, for the elite, is to enhance one's fear of heaven and the purity of one's intentions and heart. This moral perfection – both practical and mental – will automatically bring a person to spiritual heights as well.


A fine example of Etkes's model can be found in the book, Menucha u-Kedusha. Its author, R. Israel Isser of Ponevezh, was in his youth a disciple of R. Chayyim of Volozhin. The book is a spiritual guide filled with the teachings of the Gra and his disciple. One of the central issues in it relates to arousing "the sanctity of the heart" and the love of God through Torah study and mitzvot. The existence of such experiences serves as a measure of a person's spiritual level, and they establish the difference between "living Torah" and "dead Torah," as he calls it. His words give no indication of a contradiction between intensified religious feeling and Torah study, which of course is a central value in this book, as befits a representative of the Lithuanian tradition. It seems to me that this book demonstrates the existence of a Lithuanian Torah scholar, heir to the tradition of Volozhin, who serves God and studies Torah in the classic manner with religious warmth and feeling, and even experiences elation which borders on the mystical experience.


Nevertheless, though we maintain that the view of Rabbi Lamm and does not precisely reflect the truth of Nefesh Ha-chayyim, it does require our close attention. There is no doubt that this "dissociative" position accords with a most important development in the Lithuanian tradition. This approach, which separates Torah study from the cultivation of the emotional service of God, can definitely be found within the context of the Gra's developing legacy and its impact on later generations. We will try to familiarize ourselves with this development in the next shiur. After that we will turn to another aspect of the teachings of the Vilna Gaon.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Tzvi Werblowski, in the last addendum in his book, "Rabbi Yosef Karo, Ba'al Halakha u-Mekubal," already noted the uniqueness of the Gra as a Kabbalist, and his attitude toward revelations and maggidim (my thanks to Dr. Binyamin Braun, for referring me to this source). In my opinion, he went too far in his evaluation that the Gra attached no importance whatsoever to such things, but he is right that the Gra established his own order of priorities in directing man's efforts. We shall further deal with this below.

[2] It should be noted that the book was published after the author's death.

[3] The very question posed by R. Chayyim: "What is the benefit of studying Kabbala?" – give us pause. His words in the introduction to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta leave no room for doubt that this branch of study is an integral part of the Torah and that its study is no less important than the study of any other part. And so too it is stated in his name in Ru'ach Chayyim on Avot 6:1: "The essence of [Torah] study is not to occupy oneself with devekut, but to understand the Torah, the mitzvot and the laws, and to know everything clearly, the general principles and the particulars, and also to understand the mysteries of the marvels of His actions and inquire about His glory" (emphasis mine – E.K.). His last words here undoubtedly refer to the study of Kabbala. In my opinion, therefore, the question should be understood as being directed at the practical benefit growing out of such study. The question can better be understood in light of R. Chayyim's position, previously noted, about the importance of directing Torah study to practical results.

[4] Emphasis mine – E.K.

[5] See Ru'ach Chayyim, introduction to chap. 1, mishna 1.

[6] The following comments will be spelled out fully in a forthcoming article of mine, G-d willing.

[7] See Etkes, "Yachid be-Doro: Ha-Gaon mi-Vilna – Demut ve-Dimui," Jerusalem, 5758, p. 172ff.

[8] These include Rabbi Lamm in his book, Torah Lishma, and Rav Shagar in his book, Be-Torato Yehegeh. Rabbi Lamm coined the phrase "Dissociation Principle" to epitomize what he sees as R. Chayyim's guiding outlook.

[9] Etkes, p. 214.

[10] Etkes, p. 202.