Torah Study in the Modern World
Adapted by Dr. Aviad Hacohen
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Torah study is the central focus of life at yeshiva. Despite this, or because of it, its pursuit raises many questions among students. Though we believe that “God’s covenant was sealed by means of the Oral Law” (Tanchuma Bereishit 58), many students inquire openly (together with others who sense the problem but keep it to themselves, or repress it) as to the value of its study. “There are so many serious problems in the world – problems of faith, of morality, of human suffering, the fate of Am Yisrael; can we really devote our whole day to the questions such as whether the principle of ha-peh she-asar (‘the mouth which prohibits is the mouth which permits’) falls under the category of migo (a halakhic principle of deduction) or whether it represents a special category of law of its own?”
There are those who seek answers to such questions. They read books, listen intently to speeches by rabbis and roshei yeshiva, and look for answers. Sometimes, during moments of frankness, a person finds himself reaching the conclusion that the subjects being studied at yeshiva no longer “speak to him,” or “go over his head.” Such a situation creates frustration and pangs of conscience.
There is a well-known saying of the Ba’al Shem Tov regarding the verse (Tehillim 118), “Open for me the gates of righteousness, I shall enter them, I shall praise God. This is the gateway to God; the righteous shall enter it.” The tzaddikim feel that they stand before locked gates, and therefore pray, “Open for me the gates of righteousness.” They are answered by the continuation of the verse, “This is the gateway to God; the righteous shall enter it” – in other words, this feeling, that you are standing outside the gates (and yearning to enter), is itself the gateway to God. It is natural to have doubts. Anyone who never has such doubts is either living off of empty slogans, or is the product of an education that lacks questioning and critical thought.
Indeed, for the person who knows how and wants to ask, only questioning will bring him to the correct path. He has to try to understand and to bring himself close to the Torah by means of those very doubts. R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev might have said, “Master of the Universe: Rabbi Akiva Eiger and the Vilna Ga’on loved the Torah to the depths of their being, but what is surprising about that? In our community, there are dozens of people in their 20’s who have no answer as to what is so special about an ‘ox which gores a cow’ and who nevertheless spend much time and effort studying these topics!”
R. Zerachia HaLevi, the Ba’al HaMa’or, who wrote his commentary on the Rif at the young age of 19, was unique. R. Bezalel HaKohen of Vilna started his book of responsa, Reishit Bikkurim, with a collection of glosses which he wrote on the work of the great sage of the generation, the Mishkenot Ya’akov. In his work, he asks the latter’s forgiveness for the temerity of what he wrote at the age of 18. These were unique personalities of their generation. However, we are neither the Ba’al HaMa’or nor R. Bezalel HaKohen. Can we really provide answers to such serious questions using the tools we have accumulated in twenty years?
Let me add that R. Chaim Vital once asked his teacher, the Ari HaKadosh: “How can you tell me that my spiritual state is elevated? The lowliest person from an earlier generation would be such a righteous person that I could never even reach his ankles!” The Ari answered him: “Know that spiritual greatness as pertaining to a person’s deeds is measured only according to his epoch and his generation. A very small deed that is performed in a generation such as this is comparable to many great mitzvot performed in earlier generations. In our times the kelipa (‘shell,’ a kabalistic term referring to the materialistic, worldly covering which hides the spark of holiness) is immeasurably strong, and this was not the case in previous generations.”
“According to his epoch and his generation.” The Ari HaKadosh emphasized that everything is measured according to the era in which it takes place. If in our times there are young people who invest all their energies in Torah study even though they don’t have all the answers, that in itself is a great phenomenon!
The Talmud Yerushalmi, at the beginning of Masekhet Ta’anit (1:1, page 64a) states: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: If someone should ask you ‘Where is your God?,’ say to him ‘In the great town in Rome.’“
“In the great town in Rome” – no more, no less. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explained: Sometimes a person declines spiritually to the point where he is able only to ask “Where is God?” He can no longer find Him. Our sages teach this person, “Do you think you will find God somewhere else? No matter what place you are in – that’s where you will find Him.” That lowest level, represented by the “great town in Rome,” that is where you will find God – if that is your starting point.
We are not able to “skip” generations. A person must be honest with himself. A grain of honesty and truth is worth more than anything else – not only in God’s eyes, but also in terms of what it achieves. We may not allow ourselves to whitewash the truth. Today we are faced with big questions, and we have to pray that, during the course of our lives, we shall be worthy of having them answered fully. The main thing, as Rabbi Nachman said, is to start from wherever you are.
Let me say a few words about the value of Torah study in terms of the sublime nature of Torah. On the verse, “And they shall take a contribution for Me” (Shemot 25:1), the Midrash explains (Shemot Rabba 33):
Is there such a thing as an object whose owner is sold together with it? God said to Israel: I sold you My Torah; I was sold, as it were, together with it, as it is written – “and they shall take a contribution to Me” – they will take Me.
This may be compared to a king who had an only daughter. Another king came and took her as his wife. Then the latter wanted to return to his country, taking his new wife with him. The father said to him: The daughter, whom I gave to you, is the only one I have. I cannot part from her. I also cannot tell you, “Do not take her,” for she is your wife. So please do me the following kindness: every place that you go, make one chamber for me so that I can stay with you, for I cannot be separated from my daughter.
In the same way, God said to Israel: I have given you the Torah. I cannot part from it. I also cannot tell you, “Do not take it.” So wherever you go, make Me a house so that I may dwell in it, as it is written – “And they shall make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.”
Yet the study of Torah is not simple. The Midrash (Tanchuma Bereishit 58:3) describes the Oral Law as being characterized by “darkness.” The covenant was sealed by means of the Oral Law, which is difficult to study and to understand, involves much effort and pain. The Midrash Tanchuma further teaches that at Sinai, God had to force the nation to accept the Oral Torah by threatening them with destruction – even though regarding the Written Law they had declared “na’aseh ve-nishma” (“We shall do and we shall hear,” indicating unconditional acceptance) – since the Oral Law is full of minute and demanding details which are “as strong as death and whose jealousy is as hard as she’ol” (Shir Ha-shirim 8:6).
From time to time, attempts were made to respond in various ways to the types of questions mentioned above. Mussar, study of emuna, mysticism, and Chassidism – none of these has succeeded in answering the questions fully.
Quoting Chazal, R. Chaim of Volozhin states in his Nefesh HaChaim that fear of Heaven is necessary, and may be compared to a measure of chumtun (a preservative) preserving a bundle of wheat. The measure of chumtun keeps the wheat from becoming rotten. He adds: “All this is true of a ‘measure’ of chumtun, but if all your produce is chumtun – [i.e., if you deal only with issues relating to fear of Heaven] – then you actually have nothing in your hands.”
Fear of Heaven assists in the learning of Torah, but it is not a substitute for it. Historically, both on a “micro” and on a “macro” scale, it has been proven that without intensive Torah study, nothing else has any permanence. Any community, which did not include Torah study – involvement in the disputes of Abaye and Rava – did not last.
I’ll be quite honest with you. Rav Lichtenstein wrote a wonderful article entitled, “The Ideology of Hesder.” When I first thought of the hesder idea, many years ago – long before it became a reality – I didn’t think of any of the points which Rav Lichtenstein raises in his article. A single thought directed me in the realization of my idea: If the Religious Zionist community, living in the modern world, didn’t have an elite of Torah scholars, it would deteriorate religiously. Without the disputes of Abaye and Rava, without Gemara, there is no Judaism – nothing can remain of Judaism. Look at all the attempts that have been made in this direction over the course of our history. Look at all the study halls. You’ll discover that only a place which studied and continues to study Gemara survives and endures. Enter any synagogue and see that a regular Gemara shiur lasts twenty or thirty years, while other shiurim last a year or two, no more.
Hence, a person who studies Torah “takes” God with him; he develops a connection with Him. Why? I don’t know, but that’s the reality. I know that there are those who want a concrete answer. For their benefit, I shall read a short excerpt from the Tanya (Likutei Amarim, chapter 5):
When any intellect perceives and understands some intellectual subject, the mind grasps that subject and encompasses it, and the subject is grasped and encompassed by, and is clothed within, the intellect that understood and perceived it... When, for example, one understands and comprehends a particular halakha in the Mishna or Gemara, clearly and thoroughly, his intellect grasps and encompasses that halakha, and his intellect is also clothed in it. Now, this halakha is the wisdom and will of God. It so arose in His will that if, for example, Reuven would claim thus and Shimon thus, such and such should be the verdict between them. Even if it never has, nor ever will, come to pass that litigation occur over these arguments and claims, yet, since it arose thus in God’s will and wisdom that if one person would claim this way and the other that way, the verdict be such and such, when one knows and comprehends this verdict as a halakha set forth in the Mishna, Gemara, or codifiers, he then actually comprehends and grasps the will and wisdom of God, whom no thought can grasp, nor [can any thought grasp] His will and wisdom, unless [God’s will and wisdom] clothe themselves in the halakhot set before us.
A similar idea is found in the fourth section of Nefesh HaChaim. Indeed, someone who wants an answer that is based on the sources needs to look no further. Speaking for myself, I feel that the Midrash is sufficient. I don’t need to explain the connection and relationship that is created by Torah study. But for me, that in itself says a lot.
Avodat Hashem requires the use of both our minds and hearts, for a person’s two principal organs are his brain and his heart. The Maharal, commenting on the Mishna in Avot, “May it be Your will that the Beit Ha-Mikdash be rebuilt speedily in our days, and make our portion in Your Torah,” explains that there is a reference here to these two organs. Divine service (Beit Ha-Mikdash) is the “heart,” while Torah is the “brain.”
A person cannot live by his heart alone. How does one serve God with his brain? By studying Torah. The brain is one’s most important organ – one’s intellect. Could we be satisfied with serving God with our hands, with all our limbs – taking a shofar and blowing it with our mouths, holding the arba minim, eating matza – while only the brain would be excluded, and would not be used in our divine service? Someone who doesn’t study Torah is missing a basic component of divine service. Can we relegate our intellect, our brain, to the purposes of career, attaining an academic degree or conducting business, leaving our service of God to the other limbs?
Indeed, Torah study is a precondition for divine service. But there is something else. We need a little ruchni’ut, a spiritual dimension. There are some people who are practical and pragmatic, real “doers,” but their sole concern is for the strict letter of the law: “Tell me what my obligation is and I will fulfill it.” Everything is done properly, but they lack the spiritual dimension. And it is Torah itself which lends that dimension – especially in a world like ours, which is materialistic, pragmatic, and practical.
I was once talking to two academics, both in the field of Jewish philosophy. The first was reminiscent of that part of Jacob’s ladder “whose head reached to the heavens,” while the other reminded me of the “ladder standing on the ground.” What was the difference between them? The difference lay in the fact that the second, in addition to his academic status, was also a talmid chakham who set aside time for regular Gemara study. The Torah serves not only to increase a person’s spirituality, but also to mold his personality in a tangible way, such that his feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Torah study has great importance specifically in our times. Every profession requires education. A farmer these days cannot be satisfied with the knowledge those farmers of the previous generation had. He needs education. When I visited an agricultural plantation several months ago, I became aware of how much needs to be learned in order to know how to grow tomatoes in this day and age. We’re not speaking merely of technical skills. Even a plumber today needs professional training and education.
Divine service in our era will not endure unless its bearers have a Torah education. For this reason women, too, have to study. One cannot stand firm without education. This was not the case in previous generations. I had one grandfather who was a talmid chakham; he was involved in Torah study all his life. My other grandfather was a simple Jew who used to recite Tehillim. Even learning mishnayot was difficult for him. He wasn’t an educated person; all his life he was involved in manual labor. But can a person be a God-fearing Jew today without a Torah education? Today, even to be a simple Jew one has to be a talmid chakham!
There is another factor. We are witness to huge progress in all spheres of science – technology, electronics, etc. All of this leaves us with an excess of free time. Thinkers all over the world are concerned with the question of what to do with all this free time. Jobs that once occupied dozens or even hundreds of workers are completed mechanically today within minutes. R. Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, in his commentary on the Gemara in Sanhedrin, said that the sin of the Generation of the Flood arose as a result of their culture of excess, an excess of time and leisure. They didn’t know what to do with all their free time. As the Midrash describes, “They would sow once in forty years,” i.e., they were technologically advanced.
What will happen in another ten years? Even the leisure industry won’t be able to fill all our free time. What will we do with all our time? Is this not the source of all evil? Therefore, in our days, Torah study is a necessity for human existence – to give a person something worthwhile to do.
R. Chaim of Volozhin, in the fourth section of Nefesh HaChaim, recommends that from time to time a person should take a break, to reevaluate his priorities against the criterion of fear of Heaven, and to “place God before him always.” I don’t know whether we are at a level which allows us to grasp the meaning of placing God before ourselves continually. But often it is a good idea to take a break and think about the greatness of Torah, its noble messages, the mighty revolution which it has wrought in the world. From this perspective, it is easier to understand that the “ox which gores a cow” or the principle that “the mouth which prohibited is the mouth which permits” are part of a broader system. A scientist, who deals with detail, with the single atom, with the gene that he has succeeded in isolating, inducts from his small sphere something of the wisdom that underlies the entire universe. He need not necessarily know much in other areas, but knowing as he does the wisdom concealed in the small detail in front of him, he learns to appreciate that this tiny thing is a part of the encompassing entity that is the world.
The same applies in the area of Torah study. The understanding of a single detail does not end with its essence and content. Each detail is part of a way of life, part of a Torah that bears morality and wisdom, kindness and honesty. The greatness of Torah lies in its composition of many small details, the “ox which gores,” the “mouth which prohibits,” “migo,” etc.
Indeed, we need a measure of connection to Torah. The Gemara states (Sanhedrin 99b), “‘He who commits adultery with a woman, with no heart’ (Mishlei 6:32) – this refers to someone who studies Torah occasionally.” What does this mean? A man may become close to a woman in love and affection, to the point where their hearts become intertwined. But a man may also find a woman who just happens to be there, temporarily. That is the meaning of “committing adultery with a woman, with no heart.” He is interested only in momentary pleasure.
Chazal do not refrain from comparing someone who studies Torah without commitment to such a person. Some people learn for the sake of the moment. “Wow – Torah learning is magical; it’s a real intellectual pleasure!” Such a person may be compared to one who “commits adultery with a woman, with no heart.” He has no inner commitment. A person can learn all day and still belong to this category! On the other hand, a person may work hard for a living all day, but the one hour at night which he spends connecting himself with Torah makes him a true devotee of the Torah, an “ish tam yoshev ohalim.”
Let me add that a person can preach to his children endlessly about the importance of Torah learning, but nothing is as effective as the personal example of a parent. Children are more perceptive than we give them credit for. If they see their parent come home and find time for all sorts of things – reading the newspaper, watching TV, etc. – but not for learning, then they understand how seriously he takes his preaching. On the other hand, if a parent doesn’t preach to them, but opens a Gemara or Chumash or Mishna for an hour or two each night after a hard day’s work, this speaks volumes.
The Torah demands truth. The Rebbe of Kotzk once said that for a “little piece of truth” he would be prepared to walk to the end of the earth. “Truth” means something genuine, with no pretenses and no hypocrisy. We, as we are, should not give up. To all the doubts, second thoughts and questions, there is an enormous power for good. We must connect ourselves to Torah, with all our hearts. If we only know how to use the time we have, we shall merit seeing the passion of the beit midrash. The Torah itself can also be compared to a “measure of chumtun” which will preserve everything else. We are assured that it will bring with it, in joy, both fear of Heaven and faith.
(This sicha was delivered in Elul 5756 .)