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Determining Objectives in Religious Growth: Spiritual Specialization or Spiritual Breadth

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler



In charting a course for spiritual growth, a person can choose to follow one of two general paths. On the one hand, a person can assume a more general approach to his or her spiritual existence, trying to encompass the full range of values and to strike some kind of balance between them. Alternatively, one can seek to focus narrowly but intensively upon a particular area.


            The question of the extent to which one should follow the former or the latter path is a problem which confronts all of us. Indeed, it is a universal religious issue; nevertheless, given the nature of Halakha and its dual normative and axiological thrusts, this issue has a very specific Jewish dimension. The attempt to develop a variety of approaches with respect to this question (and not necessarily a single, uniform solution) constitutes a challenge both to us as individuals and to our spiritual community as a whole.


            Of course, in trying to envision the religious life, the point of departure for a Jew needs to be the framework of Halakha. That framework is one which, on the one hand, is very comprehensive; it runs the gamut of all aspects of human existence, addressing itself in its totality to the whole community. Yet, at the same time, it is a system which does allow, indeed does insist upon, a certain measure of specialization.



There are certain areas of Halakha, certain mitzvot, which are assigned to particular groups of people and limited only to them. An outstanding example is the area of avoda ba-Mikdash (Temple service). Firstly, there is the familiar distinction between those who are not only permitted, but upon whom it is incumbent to perform the avoda, and zarim (outsiders), who are absolutely prohibited from engaging in any such activity, upon threat of severe punishment. Within the context of Mikdash, we encounter not only the division between Kohanim, Levi’im and Yisraelim, but even beyond that, a certain measure of specialization within those groups themselves, particularly with regard to Levi’im. The gemara states:


Rabbi Yehoshua wanted to assist R. Yochanan ben Gudgada in shutting the doors [of the Temple]. And he was told to withdraw: For you are among those engaged in song, and not those to whom the care of the gates is assigned. (Arakhin 11a)


This is formulated by the Rambam in more general terms:


Just as Levi’im are proscribed from engaging in the labor of the Kohanim, likewise Kohanim are proscribed from engaging in the labor of the Levi’im, as it is written: “Both you and they” (Bemidbar 18:3). Similarly, Levi’im proper are forewarned that one should not engage in the labor of his fellow, that the singer should not assist the gatekeeper, nor the gatekeeper the singer, as it is written: “Each person to his work and his labor” (ibid. 4:49). If a Levi performs the labor of a Kohen, or if one Levi assists another with regard to work which is not his, they are then liable to death at the hands of the Divine Court. (Hilkhot Kelei Ha-Mikdash 3:10-11)


Here we have a very clear example of institutionalized specialization in Halakha.



In other areas, too, we find recognition of division of labor— not within such formal, clearly defined, institutional terms, but within a more pliant context. By this I mean the rule of “Ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva:” a person who is engaged in performing one mitzva is then absolved from another. This concept can be interpreted in two ways, one of which is more directly relevant to our immediate topic.


            The Rishonim dispute how broad the scope of this rule is, focusing particularly upon one specific question. We say that a person who is performing one mitzva need not concern himself concomitantly about another. For instance, a person who is engaged in taking care of an aveida, a lost object which he has found, need not give money to a pauper who then knocks upon his door, inasmuch as he is already engaged in some other facet of avodat Hashem (divine service) by fulfilling another mitzva. Does this rule apply even in circumstances under which it is possible for a person to perform both mitzvot (efshar lekayyem sheneihem)? Or is it limited to situations in which a person would have to desist from the first mitzva in order to perform the second?


            The Ba’alei Ha-tosafot in various places (e.g. Sukka 25a s.v. Shluchei) are generally of the opinion that the rule of “Ha-osek bemitzva patur min ha-mitzva” applies only if it is impossible to perform both mitzvot (ee efshar lekayyem sheneihem). If it is possible to perform both, why not? Tosafot not only ask this question on the basis of simple logic, but raise a seeming absurdity. If we do not accept this limitation, why should we not then say that a person who is wearing tzitzit or tefillin or has a mezuza on his door is exempt from giving tzedaka (charity) in all cases? We have never heard of this being the case.


            However, this position is disputed by one of the Ba’alei Hatosafot, R. Yitzchak of Vienna, in his work Or Zaru’a (II:299), and even more emphatically by his son, R. Chayim Or Zaru’a (Responsa, #183). The Or Zaru’a clearly says that even if it is possible to fulfill both mitzvot, nevertheless the principle of “Haosek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” applies. The Ran (Sukka, 11a [Alfasi]) likewise adopts this opinion and, addressing Tosafot’s question, points out that the gemara does not say “ha-mekayyem mitzva patur min ha-mitzva,” but rather “ha-osek be-mitzva”—it does not exempt a person who is passively fulfilling a mitzva (such as mezuza, tzitzit or tefillin), but rather one who is actively engaged in a mitzva. In the latter case, regardless of whether or not that mitzva physically prevents him from fulfilling other mitzvot, the esek itself—the involvement, engagement and commitment— absolves him from engaging in other mitzvot.



Probably the simplest way of understanding this dispute is to assume that the issue at stake is a very basic one of defining the fundamental concept of “Ha-osek be-mitzva patur min hamitzva.” According to Tosafot, it may very well be that the term patur (exempt) as applied to the osek (one engaged in a mitzva) is a misnomer. It is not that he is somehow exempt, but simply that he is told pragmatically: If you are confronted by a choice between two mitzvot and have already begun fulfilling one mitzva, then you should not—and, in the opinion of many, may not— leave the first mitzva in order to attend to the second. This is not because you have been personally exempted from the second mitzva; it is simply because, even assuming that the duties of both devolve upon you as an individual, practically speaking you cannot fulfill both. The Halakha has established priorities and has stated that the mitzva which comes first is that which you should fulfill.


            Of course, the question may then be asked: If this is all that the Halakha says, then what has it taught us? Why should one have assumed that he should leave the mitzva he has already started and go on to another? There are two possible answers. The Ra’ah (Sukka 25a) suggests that even if there is a qualitative difference between the mitzvot, namely, the second one which confronts you is somehow qualitatively weightier than the first, nevertheless, you should not move on. Alternatively, perhaps the chiddush (novelty) here is that the matter is not left to one’s discretion, but rather one is positively told not to leave the first in order to fulfill the second.


            Be that as it may, in all likelihood we do not have according to Tosafot a kind of personal exemption, whereby a person is told: This mitzva is for you, that mitzva is for others. One is simply afforded some kind of practical guidance as to how to establish priorities when confronted by two conflicting duties.


            However, if one accepts the opinion of the Ran and Or Zaru’a—that even if it is possible to fulfill both, one does not need to tax himself to the utmost in order to fulfill both mitzvot—then clearly we are confronted here by a kind of personal exemption, whereby a person who is doing mitzva A is simply exempt from mitzva B. This opens up the possibility of division of labor with respect to mitzvot—not a formal, institutional division, whereby Reuven is told on an ongoing basis, “You are a Kohen, you do this,” and Shimon is told, “You are a Levi, you do that;” but rather, within a more flexible context, a given individual may under certain circumstances be personally exempt from a certain mitzva, that mitzva then to be left as an opportunity for others.



There is some question as to the scope of this rule. Surely, if we take only the particular example from the gemara which was mentioned before—a person who happens to be dealing with a lost object at a particular time—the implications, while conceptually significant, are practically not very meaningful. But it is entirely conceivable that the concept may have a much broader application. The gemara in Sukka (26a), for instance, quotes a baraita in the name of R. Chanina ben Akavia, who says that those who are engaged in writing or selling Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot are “patur mi-kol ha-mitzvot she-baTorah”—a person who owns a sefarim store or is a sofer stam (scribe) is exempt from all the mitzvot in the Torah!


            This has a very radical ring to it, and it is quite possible that it is indeed a da’at yachid (a unique, individual opinion). The Rambam does not quote this ruling. R. Ya’akov of Karlin (Mishkenot Ya’akov, siman 54) suggests that inasmuch as the principle of “Ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” appears in the gemara in many contexts, but this particular baraita is quoted only once and in the name of an individual, there is a Tannaitic dispute only with regard to this ruling. Other Tannaim accepted the general principle of “Ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva,” but within a much more limited context, whereas R. Chanina ben Akavia came and said that people who are engaged in a certain field as their general activity are then exempt from the whole range of mitzvot generally.


            Lest there be any misunderstanding, when I speak of being exempt from mitzvot, I mean only mitzvot aseh (positive commandments); the question of issurim (prohibitions) is a totally separate one. One who is engaged in a mitzva is not permitted to transgress prohibitions; he is merely exempt from actively fulfilling other positive commandments.


            If one does accept R. Chanina ben Akavia’s formulation, then we can certainly reach a situation within which something quite analogous to the formal, institutional division between Kohanim and Levi’im can apply to a broader range of people. People who devote themselves to a particular mitzva—which then becomes the focus of their spiritual and religious existence, the vehicle through which they relate to God as normative beings and the field through which they can experience their sense of calling— consequently become exempt from all other mitzvot in the Torah, from the realization of other values and the performance of other norms.



We find elsewhere a simile which Rav Paltoi Gaon quotes in the name of Chazal. I neither know where this saying appears in the writings of Chazal, nor have I been able to find someone who did know. But Rav Paltoi quotes it, and he is a reliable witness. The problem he dealt with is a very narrow one, but the simile, I think, is very significant. The question arises: If a person is in the middle of praying and, for one reason or another, hears someone saying Kedusha or Kaddish, does he in any way have to take note of it? One certainly cannot respond in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei; there is a problem of hefsek (interruption). But perhaps he should at least listen and fulfill the mitzva of responding via the principle of shome’a ke-oneh (one who hears is as one who responds).


            The Ge’onim generally assumed that one does not need to take note of other prayers being recited. Rav Paltoi explains that, notwithstanding the fact that a person has ignored Kaddish and Kedusha, nevertheless:


There is no transgression involved in this. Thus have Chazal said: When Rav Dimi came [from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia], he said, “It is as if you had two servants who have been assigned separate tasks by their master—each engages in his own labor and takes no heed of his fellow’s labor.” (Otzar Ha-ge’onim, Berakhot 21a, p. 54)


            Here we have the principle of division of spiritual labor or, if you will, spiritual specialization, fully formulated and clearly articulated. It is applied, to be sure, within a narrow context: the question of whether one should pause for ten or twenty seconds during Shemoneh Esrei to hear Kedusha or Kaddish. But the possible implications of the simile can be very wide-ranging.




So far, I have spoken about possible specialization as not only permitted, but mandated by Halakha, where what is at issue is one’s personal duty—the mitzvot which are incumbent upon a particular individual. We generally regard mitzvot as applying fundamentally to most everyone. Not everyone is in a situation to fulfill all mitzvot; for example, a person who has no home is exempt from the mitzvot of mezuza and ma’akeh (fencing one’s roof). But were his personal circumstances to change, he would then be obligated in the mitzva—unless he happens to be in a situation where the concept of osek be-mitzva comes up.


            However, one can deal with the problem of specialization at a second level, where the point of departure is not one’s individual duty. At this level, the focus of our attention is not the norm as it applies to the individual, but rather a desired result we wish to attain. This kind of division of labor arises in a celebrated example cited in a baraita in Yevamot:


R. Eliezer says: If a person is not engaged in procreation, it is as though he is guilty of murder, for it is written, “A person who spills human blood through the instrumentality of man, he in turn is to be punished by death” (Bereishit 9:6), and then it is written, “And you shall be fruitful and multiply” (ibid. 9:7).


R. Ya’akov says: It is as if such a person has taken the divine image and diminished it, for it is written, “In the divine image He created man” (ibid. 9:6), and thereafter it is written, “And you shall be fruitful and multiply,” [the implication being that procreation is part of enlarging and enhancing that “human face divine”].


Ben Azzai says: It is as if he has committed murder and has diminished the divine image. . .


They said to [Ben Azzai]: There are people who can expound well on various issues and also perform well [i.e., they practice what they preach]. Others lack the tools in order to expound properly, but nevertheless succeed in implementing what they believe. But you preach so beautifully, yet do not act in accordance with your own prescriptions!


Ben Azzai replied: What can I do? My soul yearns for Torah, and the world can be sustained through others. (Yevamot 63b)


            The question which confronts Ben Azzai is a dual one. First, in terms of his normative duty, is not the mitzva of procreation a mitzva like all others, incumbent upon each and every person? How is it that Ben Azzai is not performing this mitzva? The second issue, quite apart from his duty as an individual, is: What are the social and political implications of desisting from the mitzva of procreation?


            Indeed, Chazal cite two separate texts which deal with this mitzva. One is the verse in Bereishit (9:7), “And you shall be fruitful and multiply,” which is a mandate imposed upon the individual, and the other is a verse in Yeshayahu (45:18): “Lo tohu bera’ah, lashevet yetzarah”—The world was not created by God in order to be a vacuous wilderness, but He molded it in order to be inhabited and cultivated. Whereas the first verse speaks of an individual’s duty, the second speaks of some desideratum, goal or public need—the shape of society and of the world.


            Ben Azzai, being confronted by the question of procreation, needs to deal with the issue on two separate levels. First, what about his personal mitzva—isn’t he obligated in procreation, just as in eating matza? Secondly, what about that world which was created in order to be inhabited and developed? In his response, he addresses himself to each issue separately. With regard to the first, he answers, “What can I do? My soul yearns for Torah.” For some reason—I do not wish to enter here into halakhic analysis as to whether this can be regarded as ample exemption—this becomes for him a personal exemption. Then the second question is: Fine, you want to learn all the time, you will be innovative in Torah, you will write books, you will teach, but meanwhile the world will become desolate? Here he answers: Do not worry about the world; there are others who will take up the slack. While Ben Azzai is sitting in the beit midrash learning Torah, others will see to it that the world does not return to wilderness.


            Thus, in confronting the question of specialization, we need to deal with two separate dimensions of the issue: one, in terms of a person’s individual duty and religious growth; another, in terms of trying to satisfy certain public, social, national or universal needs. As long as we are dealing with the specifically normative element, the obligation in mitzvot, we are, by and large, dealing with the first element, one’s individual duty. But to the extent that we move from defined duty to the realization of values, then the question of attaining certain general goals becomes more pressing. At the axiological (as opposed to the normative) level, in terms of values and not just formal duties, the question of specialization becomes much more demanding and complex.



What makes this such a serious question is the fact that in the axiological dimension, we encounter some of the central, crucial areas of our religious and spiritual existence. As Jews, we are responsive to a whole range of obligations and prohibitions; at the same time, we are also responsive to more general aims, to the need to realize certain values.


The world stands on three things: on Torah, on avoda (service or worship, narrowly defined as the Temple service, more broadly defined to include prayer) and on gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). (Avot 1:2)


            The common denominator of these three pillars of human existence is the fact that they are not clearly defined; they have no sharply limited parameters. The parameters exist perhaps at some minimal normative level. There is a certain modicum of talmud Torah incumbent upon each person daily, and a minimum of prayer, whether biblically or rabbinically mandated. Surely, the mitzva of chesed also must exist within each person’s life, whether it derives from, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as the Rambam would have it (Hilkhot Avel 14:1), or from, “You shall walk in His ways,” as the gemara in Sota (5a) states.


            But nowhere do we have any clear definition as to how an individual’s spiritual existence is to be divided amongst these. According to the gemara (Menachot 99a), a person fulfills the mitzva of Torah study even if he only says Keriat Shema in the morning and at night. The Vilna Gaon (Mishnayot Shenot Eliyahu, Pe’a 1:1) pushes this to its logical extreme and asks: Why specifically Keriat Shema? One word of Torah by morning and one word by night would suffice to fulfill the mitzva of talmud Torah! On the other hand, we have the directive to study boundlessly— “Ve-hagita bo yomam va-laila, You shall meditate upon it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8).


            Similarly, with regard to the avoda of prayer, the gemara (Berakhot 34a) records a critique both of those who pray briefly and those who pray at length. The gemara then responds: Who is briefer than Moshe? He prayed a five-word prayer for his sister’s recovery (Bemidbar 12:13). And who is lengthier than Moshe? He prayed for forty consecutive days for God to forgive the people after the sin of the Golden Calf. Here again, very dramatically portrayed, is the range of tefilla (prayer).


            The same is true of gemilut chasadim. As is self-evident, if one wishes, he can spend virtually all of his time helping the sick, mourners, orphans and widows. Yet perhaps there is a limit to how much time a person should spend visiting the sick and helping others.


            We have here, with respect to the very pillars of our spiritual existence, an open-ended area and no clear definition of how extensively or how intensively a person is to engage in them. This opens up the possibility, on the one hand, of trying somehow to touch all bases, or, on the other hand, of dedicating and devoting oneself to one area as the matrix and focus of one’s avodat Hashem. That being the case, once we have moved beyond that level of avodat Hashem which is directly and immediately incumbent upon us, we are then confronted by the question of priorities and objectives, and must decide how to divide our labors and attention.



The question of whether to strive for the achievement of a kind of Renaissance ideal, the “man for all seasons,” or to try to master a given area intensively—not only in theory, but in practice— confronts us at both a public and a private level. Perhaps part of what makes the choice sometimes difficult is the fact that the public and the private interests very often diverge.


            If you want to regard this issue from a purely personal perspective, whereby the spiritual interest of the individual alone is to be our guide, then I suppose that our intuitive response—at least, my own—is towards the Renaissance ideal, whereby a person is not limited to working in one particular area, but is a complete oved Hashem (servant of God)—“In all your ways, know Him.” A person is thereby enriched; there is a fructifying reciprocation between various aspects of his spiritual existence. He does not live as a fragmented being. He is not only able, as Matthew Arnold said of Sophocles, “to see life steadily and see it whole,” but to live it steadily and live it whole.


            On the other hand, if we regard the public interest, then surely there is a great deal to be said for specialization. If a person is very much at home in a given area, then when a problem comes up within his particular area, he is able to cope with it in a way that a person who has a more general perspective and a broader field of vision cannot. The specialist obviously can do much better from a public standpoint than can the generalist. Therefore, we are often confronted by the question of the extent to which we want to emphasize the public or the private element.


            This is not to say that the public interest always militates for specialization, and the private one for a broader vision. Surely, on the one hand, the public interest too requires that people who deal with central and basic issues have a somewhat broader horizon and more general perspective. Public issues dealing with our civil existence must not simply be left to technocrats, who narrowly master a small area but lack the ability to relate it properly and sensitively to other areas. This consideration has been at the heart of the British tradition, whereby civil servants have been specialists, but those who make the more general decisions on the cabinet level have had broader training. The familiar comment, “War is too important to be left to generals,” is likewise important in many other areas of public life.


            On the other hand, from an individual’s perspective, some measure of specialization is valuable. There is an interesting responsum of one of the early sages of Provence, R. Avraham ben Yitzchak Av Beit Din (the so-called “first Ra’avad” and the fatherin- law of the famous Ra’avad), which has survived in the Orchot Chayim, one of the later Rishonim of Provence:


R. Meshullam ben Ya’akov explained: We have been given 613 mitzvot from Sinai, and all of these would be fulfilled to the letter and never transgressed by those who were particularly pious. As we learned in the gemara in Shabbat (63a): A person who fulfills one mitzva in its totality, with all that attends to it, will never hear ill tidings, as it is written: “A shomer mitzva (a person who keeps or guards a mitzva, with emphasis upon the singular—one mitzva) will not know a bad thing” (Kohelet 8:5).


We also learned in the mishna in Kiddushin (1:10, 39b): One who performs a single mitzva is blessed and enjoys long life. The Yerushalmi (1:9) explains that this mishna applies to a person who has singled out a particular mitzva which he is particularly careful never to transgress, for instance, the mitzva of honoring parents. Therefore, some of the later Amoraim would pride themselves on the fact that they were particularly careful about certain mitzvot. One would say that he would always be careful about tzitzit, tefillin or shalosh se’udot, and one would ask another: “With regard to what was your father particularly careful?” That is, which mitzva did he never transgress?


It is in this vein that [the gemara (Makkot 24a) states that 613 mitzvot were given to Moshe at Sinai, and then] these were reduced by David to eleven and subsequently to six, to three, and to one. [Generally, we understand this to mean that in terms of details, the mitzvot number 613, but the underlying principles, the values from which these branch out, are reduced to a smaller number. He understands differently:] The gemara spoke of a specific dedication and commitment to a smaller number of mitzvot with an intensity that one does not bring to bear upon the range of mitzvot generally. (Orchot Chayim, Hilkhot Rosh Ha-shana, siman 25)


            No mention is made of a public need to have tallit specialists or tefillin specialists, in the same way that in the medical area you want to have heart specialists or endocrinologists. Here, he deals specifically with the individual per se. Clearly, the thrust of this responsum, and of the range of sayings quoted within it, is that a person stands in danger of achieving a kind of uniform mediocrity throughout the whole field of avodat Hashem if he tries to devote himself with equal intensity to each mitzva. Ideally, of course, a person would like to serve God with his whole heart and soul and to bring the full range of his energies, talents and commitment to bear upon every single mitzva. But one is unable to do that. Such an attempt would result in some form of compromise or lukewarm performance, a pareve kind of avodat Hashem, because one would be spread so very thin and have only so much energy to devote to any given mitzva.


            Evidently, these sayings of Chazal held that a person needs to address his religious growth from two perspectives. On the one hand, he certainly needs to attain a basic, fundamental level of mitzva observance, and of zehirut and zerizut (care and alacrity) with regard to all mitzvot. At the levels of both concrete observance and realizing values, there is a need for a minimal level of avodat Hashem with respect to the whole range of our existence. At the same time, it is important that there be some sort of upward thrust, an aspiration beyond that of ordinary day-to-day avoda. At least in one area, we must attain a measure of dedication and intensity which adds a qualitative dimension to our avodat Hashem. All of this is relevant quite before we reach any kind of public consideration.



This question is analogous to the problem of a more general vs. a more specialized approach to education. Surely, from a public standpoint, the more specialized the person to whom you address a particular question, the better off you are. If you happen to have a question which deals specifically with Tibetan history 1500 years ago, you have a Tibetan specialist; if you want to know something about French prosody in the sixteenth century, you have a specialist for that too. However, from the individual’s standpoint, this issue assumes a totally different character. As we know all too well, it is a question which has become increasingly pressing as the explosion of information has become an ever more dominant factor, and the attempt to master the full range, at a significant level, becomes increasingly impossible in virtually all areas of knowledge.


            Only a century ago, it was deemed possible for a person to be genuinely a master of many sciences. A person would undertake to write, as Richelieu did, the history of France in its entirety, or undertake, as Trevelyan did not so long ago, to write a complete history of England; today, ambitions are more modest. The celebrated remark which Browning inserted into the mouth of his grammarian (“A Grammarian’s Funeral”), “Grant I have mastered learning’s crabbed text, / Still there’s the comment,” hangs very heavily on anyone engaged in any area of scholarship.


            Inasmuch as the ability to realize the Renaissance ideal becomes more and more a remote and cherished dream, it becomes increasingly difficult in the educational sphere to choose between an encompassing, sweeping knowledge and the intensive mastery of a narrow area—to the point where, in a reductio ad absurdum, someone once said, “Specialization is a process whereby people know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.”



There is a solution which attempts to cope with this problem, an approach less familiar to those with a European or Israeli education, but more familiar to those of us who have an American education (although, unfortunately, it is also being eroded in America). This is the ideal of the “liberal education,” enunciated in its most celebrated and cogent form in Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, but of course the product of a long history within the Western world. The basic notion attendant upon a liberal education is the sense that there is a certain basic level of familiarity and knowledge a person needs to attain with regard to a wide range of areas and disciplines. Subsequently, however, one moves on to a more specialized approach.


            If we want to single out the major components of this approach, I think that there are three elements to keep in mind. The first is the assumption that a person needs to relate to a wide range of disciplines. This is to be distinguished clearly from assuming that one is going to try to encompass the whole of human knowledge; that is an ideal which has long gone by the boards. At the beginning of this century, Thomas Wolfe, ravaged with the hunger for knowledge, entered Harvard’s Widener Library, which at that time held only a million volumes, and began to read from the first with the hope that he would finish the whole million. Today, surely, we do not think of anything remotely approaching that kind of aim.


            But what we do have in mind is the notion that there should be exposure to a range of disciplines, or—addressing the formulation of this problem in C. P. Snow’s celebrated book, The Two Cultures—to a range of cultures. Even from the perspective of a person who is committed to the concept of a liberal education, it is not critical whether one has studied both chemistry and physics, or whether one is versed in both French and Russian history. What is important is that a person, at some point and at a meaningful level, should come face to face with a scientific discipline, understand the scientific mentality and approach and, on the other hand, that a person at some point should be exposed to the historical sensibility, the sense of history and historical perspective. This is the first assumption: that a person should be exposed to the range of cultures at a meaningful level.


            The second assumption is that, at some point, a person should then zero in on one area and develop the skills and the passion for dealing with that particular area in greater depth. The third assumption posits that one’s area of specialization should be dictated by both individual inclinations and the public interest.


            I think that if we want to approach the question of spiritual specialization, of determining objectives in one’s religious growth, we need to think in somewhat analogous terms. Judging matters from the perspective of one’s individual interest, there is much to be said for a “liberal” approach to avodat Hashem, meaning that there should be a significant involvement in and exposure to all major areas—Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim; and this quite apart from that with regard to which we do not have very much choice, namely, the specific mitzvotmatza, tzitzit, etc.—which we are obligated to perform.


            Additionally, as the Rav Av Beit Din indicated, we must recognize the need, both from a public and a private standpoint, for some degree of more intensive commitment to a particular area. In determining or finding that area, one should factor in both one’s individual inclination and the public need.



Surely, if one were to adopt a degree of specialization which would preclude other major areas of avodat Hashem, focusing intensively and exhaustively upon a single area, this would be false to the cardinal message of Judaism, which addresses itself to the whole person and demands, “In all your ways, know Him.”


            For example, important as Torah is, Chazal nevertheless note clearly that it is inconceivable that a person should regard the totality of his avodat Hashem as being realized through Torah alone. The gemara (Shabbat 11a) informs us that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his friends, whose “Torah was their trade,” would not interrupt their learning for tefilla (i.e. to pray Shemoneh Esrei). The gemara then asks: I understand why he would not interrupt for tefilla, since tefilla is only rabbinically mandated; but would he interrupt for Keriat Shema, which is a Biblical commandment? The Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:2) answers that R. Shimon bar Yochai would not interrupt even for Keriat Shema. It then asks in amazement: How is this possible? Does not R. Shimon bar Yochai subscribe to the principle that Torah must be learned al menat la’asot, in order to be performed? After all, we have learnt that if a person’s involvement in learning is devoid of any normative commitment, but is merely stimulated by intellectual curiosity, then better that he had been stillborn! The Yerushalmi offers a technical answer, but the formulation of the question is of interest to us.


            There is another very telling gemara relating to the link between Torah and gemilut chasadim, two of the three pillars mentioned earlier:


R. Elazar ben Parta and R. Chanina ben Teradion were caught [by the Romans. They understood that, if they had been jailed, apparently it was a divine punishment.]


R. Elazar ben Parta said to R. Chanina ben Teradion: Fortunate are you, that you have only one sin and I have five.


R. Chanina responded: You are fortunate, for notwithstanding the fact that you have five transgressions, you shall attain salvation; I have been caught because of only one thing, but I shall not be saved. You have engaged both in Torah and in chesed, while I have devoted myself to Torah exclusively. [The gemara comments:] As R. Huna said, A person who engages in nothing but Torah, it is as if he has no God; as it is written, “And many days passed for Israel without a true God” (II Divrei Ha-yamim 15:3). [Apparently, they believed in God, but not a true God. Their avodat Hashem was not true.] This refers to one who engages in nothing but Torah; it is as if he does not have a God. (Avoda Zara 17b)


            The gemara teaches us that where avodat Hashem is partial, totally oblivious to whole areas of human existence and whole spheres of Torah values, then it is not only partial—it is false. If you have only half, you do not have even that half.


            Likewise, Chazal say with regard to a person who engages in avoda but is oblivious to Torah, “Lo am ha-aretz chassid, An ignoramous cannot be pious” (Avot 2:5). With the best of intentions and the purest of hearts, nevertheless, there are certain levels of avodat Hashem which simply are not attainable if they are not grounded in commitment to Torah, knowledge of Torah and study of Torah. Similarly, if a person engages in gemilut chasadim but is oblivious to Torah and avoda, he reaches a kind of secular ethic, at best a kind of moralized religion, devoid not only of a sense of the numinous, transcendental presence of God, but devoid also of a sense of what it means to relate to Him at a profound, passionate, experiential level.


            If we are to strive for avodat Hashem in its totality, we need to realize that what is demanded of us in determining our objectives is the realization that not only the world at large—the macrocosm— stands on the tripod of Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim. We need to realize that individual existence too, in order to be true, genuine avodat Hashem, needs to be based on the fusion and the fructifying interaction of Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim.



At a second level, there is room, perhaps even need, for some measure of specialization. One’s area of specialization can be chosen based on the awareness of public need—obviously, a single community does not need ten endocrinologists while it does not have a single heart specialist—and also, to some extent, with an eye to personal inclinations.


            Although the Halakha prescribes a certain regimen, it nevertheless leaves enormous range for individual perspectives and priorities. Within the same world of mitzva observance according to the Shulchan Arukh, there is room for a range of religious postures, such as Mitnagdut and Chassidut, which differ widely in emphasis, spiritual content and a variety of other issues.


            Indeed, we find within Chazal themselves differences of spiritual perspective. The gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 18a) recounts that while Rabba dealt in Torah, Abbaye dealt in Torah and gemilut chasadim. The gemara also tells us:


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would go to comfort mourners only at the home of a person who had died childless, based on the verse (Yirmiyahu 22:10): “Cry for him who goes, for he will no longer return to see the land of his birth.” (Mo’ed Katan 27b)


Rabbi Yehoshua understood this verse as a reference to one who has left behind no progeny. Another gemara records:


Rava noticed that Rav Hamnuna took a long time in his prayers. [Rava] said: He leaves [Torah, which is] eternal life, and spends his time engaging in temporal life. (Shabbat 10a)


Apparently, Rava understood that Rav Hamnuna’s prayer was lengthy because of the element of bakasha, in which we petition God for our mundane needs. Rava was critical of this; he believed one should pray more briefly and get on with the business of talmud Torah. The gemara continues,


But Rav Hamnuna felt that Torah has its time, and prayer has its time.


Clearly, Rava and Rav Hamnuna present two different perspectives with respect to the optimal division between Torah and tefilla.



While allowing for a certain division of labor, there are several elements we need to bear in mind. Firstly, if a person accepts the notion of division and decides to focus upon a particular area, this must not be done out of a sense that other areas of avodat Hashem are insignificant. Nor must it give rise to the notion that those who devote themselves to other areas are second- class ovdei Hashem. Rather, one’s decision to specialize in a particular area must proceed from a recognition that all areas are important, but since I cannot practically devote myself to all of them in equal proportions, I therefore choose to focus upon only some. This is not to say that there cannot be a hierarchy within the world of avodat Hashem. However, a hierarchy need not deny the significance of other areas within which one is unable or unwilling to specialize.


            Secondly, a person must understand that even if he specializes in a given area, nevertheless, the sense of a liberal avodat Hashem, whereby there is some involvement at a significant level in other areas, is central to the religious life as Judaism has understood it.


            Regarding R. Chanina ben Teradion, the above-quoted gemara continues:


What do you mean? Did R. Chanina ben Teradion indeed divest himself completely of any interest in gemilut chasadim? But we learned: R. Eliezer ben Ya’akov says that a person should not give money to charity unless he knows that the trustee is as honest as R. Chanina ben Teradion. [Thus, we see that he was a trustee of public property. Then the gemara suggests:] Perhaps he was a trustee but was not actively engaged. [The gemara answers: No,] we learned that R. Chanina ben Teradion said that one time he had money designated for the Purim feast, and he inadvertently gave it to the poor to be used for other purposes. [The gemara answers:] Of course he was actively engaged in gemilut chasadim, but not at the level which was requisite for a person of his stature (ke-de-ba’i lei lo avad). (Avoda Zara 17b)


            If one thinks of the range of avodat Hashem—running the gamut of Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim—then one is to think not of a rudimentary level of engagement, but rather of a significant involvement, “as is requisite.”



Now, of course, that multiple involvement can for practical purposes change from one period to another. A person cannot devote himself to all aspects of avodat Hashem, simultaneously, with equal vigor. Sometimes it is entirely conceivable that whole periods of his life may be devoted primarily to one aspect, to the neglect of others.


            In the previously-mentioned responsum of R. Chayim Or Zaru’a (#183), he makes a fairly radical statement. In general, there is a question as to whether the concept of “Ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva” applies to the study of Torah. Assuming that it does, he cites the gemara (Sukka 26a) that says that when R. Chisda and Rabba bar R. Hunna were en route to learn Torah from their teacher, they regarded themselves as being exempt from the mitzva of sukka. Even though it may have taken them several weeks to get there, they nevertheless applied the principle of “Ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva.” Similarly, R. Chayim Or Zaru’a says, students are exempt from mitzvot the entire period they are “in their teacher’s house.” To translate this into contemporary terms: During the entire period of a student’s sojourn in yeshiva or kollel, he is exempt from all other mitzvot!


            Surely, this is a radical statement; but putting aside its practical implications, it should not be regarded as being at loggerheads with the position I suggested before. When they are “in their teacher’s house,” the students should indeed devote themselves— in the radical sense of R. Chayim Or Zaru’a—exclusively to Torah, to the point that they are exempt from other mitzvot. If we wish to moderate this position, we nevertheless may say that during a certain period of their lives, they need to concentrate upon talmud Torah, possibly to the neglect of certain other areas, such as gemilut chasadim.


            However, from an educational and ultimately from a moral and spiritual point of view, it is critical that the focus upon the particular area of Torah be done not out of the sense that other areas are unimportant. Rather, it must proceed from a sense that during a particular phase of life, a person needs to focus upon one thing, and other equally important elements need to wait their turn. However, within the total configuration of one’s spiritual universe, and therefore within the range of one’s spiritual activity as viewed across the space of a lifetime, one must realize the need for the integration and fusion of various elements.



Ben Azzai, who never married due to his intense commitment to Torah, is a radical example, and an example singled out as being feasible or desirable only for a very few. But the ability to postpone marriage in order to learn Torah appears in the Rambam as the accepted ruling (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:5). Of course, this kind of approach is merely that—an approach. It does not enable us to do that which, in my experience, students so desire, namely, to formulate in clearly defined terms exactly what and how much to do in this area or that.


            There is a very telling remark in the Rosh with regard to the ruling that a person may postpone marriage in order to learn (Kiddushin 29b). The Rosh says (Kiddushin 1:42): “It is not defined how long [a person may postpone marriage], and I do not know.” Obviously, it cannot be postponed over the span of a lifetime—that is only for a rare individual such as Ben Azzai. So for how long? Should one wait the way the Mirrer yeshiva bachurim used to, until they were close to forty? Or until the mishna’s recommended age of eighteen? Or somewhere in the middle? This kind of dilemma—which is, as the Rosh says, undefined— confronts us as individuals and as a community.


            I do not believe we should be looking for a single, clear solution, which can be applied uniformly across the board. Uniformity in this case is neither attainable nor desirable. The mix of Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim is one which is to be individually conceived and perceived, in one proportion for one individual and in a different proportion for another.


            There is a marvelous essay in F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies entitled, “My Station and Its Duties.” Bradley speaks there of the fact that a person’s historical situation is one which has a direct bearing upon his ethical duty. One cannot speak of ethical duty simply in terms of abstractions, certainly not if one is dealing with the question of priorities or the relationship between different values. There are times when one need is urgent and another less pressing, and situations when the reverse is true.


            In summary, I do not think we should be looking for a single solution, but I feel we do need to adopt an approach which maintains an awareness of the need for the richness of a full spiritual life, while also being aware of the need for intensity in some aspect of avodat Hashem. Then we must grapple as best as we can with the question of how to determine—with an eye toward both our own needs and general needs—the proper mixture between the various components within a given situation.


            Within the context of his spiritual existence, a person faces fundamentally two tasks. One is to mold himself as an individual, to “prepare himself within the anteroom, so that he can then enter the inner chamber” (Avot 4:17). Second, a person is given the task of trying, to some extent and within the limits of his ability, to move, to prod, to change the historical scene within which he finds himself. He should try to see to it that the world he leaves behind be a little bit better, just a bit closer to the fulfillment of the great spiritual and historical vision of the messianic era than it was when he entered it.


            In trying to determine the course of one’s spiritual growth, a person needs to bear in mind the objectives relevant to it, with an eye to the fusion of those two elements: to grow personally, while contributing generally. In that way, he or she must strive for the interaction of Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim, while trying at the same time to grow and contribute on a personal level.


(Based on a transcript by Eli D. Clark.

This sicha was originally delivered at Yeshiva University's Gruss Center in Israel in 1984.  It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)   


The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.  It can be ordered from here:

, full_html, In charting a course for spiritual growth, a person can choose to follow one of two general paths. On the one hand, a person can assume a more general approach to his or her spiritual existence, trying to encompass the full range of values and to strike some kind of balance between them. Alternatively, one can seek to focus narrowly but intensively upon a particular area.

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