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Torah Lishmah (en) -
Lesson 15

The Ethical Foundation of Torah and Its Study

Rav Elyakim Krumbein
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I. "THe soul of the TOrah" – the idea and its concrete expression

Let us briefly go back to the end of the previous shiur, and then mark the path ahead.

We ended the last shiur with Rav Kook's commentary on birkot ha-Torah, the blessings recited over the Torah. Rav Kook said that while Torah is indeed an object of rational study, this external reality conceals its truer content: the Torah is "the source of life" that embraces all of life. This is evident in the fact that the term "study" ("limmud") is merely one of a variety of concepts appearing in birkot ha-Torah to describe the union of the people of Israel and the Torah. Along with "study," we find "occupation" ("issuk") in Torah, "pleasantness in our mouths," and "its being given to us." Even though in practice it takes up the majority of our time and effort, the cognitive act of Torah study constitutes only one aspect of a multi-faceted relationship.

It is interesting to note that Rav Kook applied this idea in a halakhic context as well (Responsa Orach Mishpat, no. 11). The Ramban maintains that the obligation to recite birkat ha-Torah is by Torah law. Rav Kook argues that according to this position the blessing is fundamentally not a "blessing recited over a mitzva" that relates to a specific act of study. Rather, it refers "to the entirety of the great goodness that God, blessed be He, illuminated our darkness with the light of the Torah." Only at a later stage did Chazal, who established that every mitzva requires a blessing, add to birkat ha-Torah the dimension of "a blessing recited over a mitzva," which requires that it be said prior to learning, just as every other mitzva requires a blessing prior to its performance.[1]

As we have seen, this understanding of the Torah is what makes study lishmah. But the understanding alone, of course, is insufficient. This truth needs to be internalized in the various areas of one's life, and not just in the beit midrash, in order for it to serve as a source of deeper involvement. In a way reminiscent of Nefesh Ha-chayim, we see here that the deep connection to Torah study is generated by assimilating the meaning of the Torah in broader areas of existence. A person whose entire life is illuminated with the light of the Torah, based on a living relationship with its presence as "the Divine soul of the perfect world," can attain this level of lishmah.

However, in order for these words to proceed beyond the level of mere slogans, we must go into further detail: What does Rav Kook mean when he speaks of life in the light of the Torah? How does one live such a life?

From the perspective of Jewish ethics, the task before us is not exceptional. One of the guiding principles running through our ethical literature is that general ideas must be translated into particulars, or else they will have little practical significance. If a lofty idea is not brought down to concrete reality, it will remain detached and it will lack any hold on concrete reality.[2] This is especially critical in the case of the teachings of Rav Kook, whose modes of expression tend to sweeping poetic vision. For him, the term "meaning" is a double-edged sword: It is indeed necessary to ground ideas in concrete reality, but practical and factual details lose their meaning and "dry up," when they are not infused with a great spirit, born of the higher planes of existence. Though Rav Kook concedes these two aspects of “meaning,” his writings give more weight to spiritual flight than to the practical language needed to connect to the real world. For this reason, illustrating his ideas demands special effort. Let us now begin.

II. Torah is the foundation of personal ethics

The "soul of the perfect world," that cosmic force that strives to elevate the universe – where do we find its immediate expression; where does it touch most closely upon the life of the individual? In the realm of personal ethics. We shall first present a general exposition of this principle, and then examine its reflection in Rav Kook's writings.

Man's need to elevate himself and reach a higher spiritual level is not a demand imposed upon him from without, but rather a response to a drive found within him. This drive is rooted in the fact that man is part of the universe, in which is implanted this stream of perpetual elevation – which is nothing but the spirit of the Torah. Life based on the desire to connect in the most practical and detailed manner to this moral-vital force nurtures man's connection to the Torah in an absolutely natural manner. And conversely - distancing oneself from the desire to elevate oneself and achieve moral progress, and viewing goodness and truth as an oppressive burden weighing down upon man, extinguishes the spark of love for Torah and the ability to study it out of joy and emotional involvement. It is the spirit of the Torah that invigorates the laws that a person studies, analyzes and defines, laws that perfect the ways of the world in accordance with the will of God as it is revealed in the Torah. That same spirit of perfection is what animates the deeds of a person who strives to correct his ways. It is impossible to separate between them.

Rav Kook expresses this idea in various formulations, the common denominator being the idea that if a person wishes to unite with the spirit of the Torah, he must dedicate himself to repentance and personal ethical perfection:

Paucity of the sweet pleasantness of the Torah is caused by a deficiency in the Jewish nature of the soul, which must be corrected by way of repentance that is directed at this deficiency. Once attention is paid to correcting this deficiency, the supernal light of the holy nature of the soul immediately begins to shine, and the sweetness of the Torah begins to reveal itself. (Orot ha-Torah, 7, 4)

          An innate Jewish trait is the molding of a practical life-style that is suffused with the spirit of lofty ideas. This is inherent in the idea of mitzvot, a concept which traditionally is one of the most unacceptable to and the most challenged by Christian-Western thought. To us, mitzvot are the concrete world’s bridge to the spirit, and the real-life actualization of the divine will. But to the non-Jewish outsider, mitzvot seem soulless rote performances. General culture transposes onto mitzvot  one of its own great maladies – the spiritual desiccation of the real world, the habit of contemplating and talking about great values, which are then quickly forgotten precisely when circumstances cry out for their realization. A student of Torah who, having been exposed to the non-Jewish viewpoint, conducts his personal life with this sense of detachment, is incapable of tasting the sweetness of the Torah, in the practical arena as well as in the study hall. But one who is imbued with the authentic Israelite standpoint, excited by the promise – held out by the Torah - of the elevation of life in all its details, can experience Torah’s sweetness as he engages it cognitively.

III. Repentance and torah

The conceptual proximity between repentance and Torah study at its highest level expresses itself in Orot ha-Torah in a manner that is reminiscent of what we learned in Nefesh ha-Chayim:

The clarity of understanding what is studied will grow in correspondence to the clarity of the repentance prior to study. The intellect rises in accordance with the rising of the will, and it becomes clarified in accordance with the clarity of the will.

Higher repentance, that which is based on great love and clear cognition, raises the entire content of study to a level of fruitfulness and welling forth that is unparalleled in the study of any discipline by itself. (Orot ha-Torah, 6, 2-3)

          Here Rav Kook adopts the guidance given by Rav Chayim of Volozhin – in order to prepare oneself for Torah study, one should first meditate upon repentance and the fear of heaven. One gets the impression that the connection between repentance and Torah study is more comprehensive, and that it is not limited to those moments of preparation for study. We already reached this conclusion from the Nefesh ha-Chayim itself, based, among other things, on the overall structure of the book. Rav Kook, however, proposes his own unique understanding of the matter.

          We have already encountered Rav Kook's view that the fear of heaven is the key to successful Torah study,[3] and the two paragraphs cited above expand on this. They speak of repentance characterized by "clarity" – clarity of the intellect (clear recognition) and clarity of the will – as a significant qualitative contribution to study. In addition, Rav Kook introduces an important emotional dimension: repentance based on love, and even "great love." As for clarity, it seems from here that clarity is a quality that is not subject to compartmentalization. A "clear" person is clear in all areas: in his ethical thinking and in the conduct of his life based on clear judgment and consideration, and devoid of conscious or unconscious self-deception. This clarity also reveals itself in his intellectual studies. On the other hand, a person whose objectives in life are unclear and whose moral values are distorted, who substitutes evil for good and secondary for primary – his way of seeing things is unclear, and this trait will also impair his ability to reach the depth of truth regarding any Torah matter.

          The second idea, repentance based on love, is connected here to unmatched fruitfulness and welling forth. Rav Kook asserts that this creativity comes from a plane that is above the learning act in itself. Once again we come to the essence of the Torah, the vital fountain, the identification with which allows man to take part in the stream of universal ascent. One of the conditions for such identification, argues Rav Kook, is “higher” repentance – repentance based on love. When projected onto the life of the individual, the inclination toward perfection of the world is translated into a desire for personal spiritual perfection.

          Why specifically repentance "based on love"? Because in order to reach repentance based on love, a person must wean himself from the feeling that the Torah comes to crush the vigor of human life. This secret had not been revealed to the Haskala authors whose writings we have examined; for them the clash between the Torah and life was a given. Rav Kook agrees that this idea impairs the creativity and the streaming current of study, just as it impairs life itself. But a person who recognizes the truth engages in repentance based on love. He says to himself: "The Torah is not against me – it is for me." All of the demands of Halakha and the Torah's ethics are meant to bring man to his full stature and to realize his unique potential.

IV. Repentance and the faculty of memory

In another passage Rav Kook explains a famous rabbinic statement which explicitly connects the moral level of the Torah student to his cognitive achievements, and especially to the sharpness of his memory:

When a person rises to elevated ideas, and adjusts his ways in accordance with them, in the depths of his spirit, he reaches the root of the Torah, in its highest form, the objective of which is to raise the world to its intended supremacy. And thus whatever he learns of the particulars of the Torah, it is not new to him, but rather like remembering something that he already potentially knows. This is the mystery of "because they are pious, their Torah is preserved" (Berakhot 32b). (Orot ha-Torah, 6, 4)

          On the face of it, it would seem that every new Torah particular that a person learns is new to him, something that he did not previously know. Yet all of these particulars are part of the grand vision that will eventually be realized, but already exists in potentia now.[4] On the other hand, establishing practical life on the foundations of the Torah's morality creates closeness between man and the transcendent "root of the Torah." Since the student's soul is close to the "the root of the Torah," he carries within him the identification with this potential. Hence the new knowledge belongs to the basic structure which is internally “programmed.” It is preserved because it is not entirely new, but rather a refreshing of existing knowledge.

V. THe novelty in Rav Kook's understanding as opposed to the nefesh ha-Chayim

The main point that we have seen here is that fear of heaven (or religious morality) is not only a necessary introduction to Torah study, the two values constituting discrete elements that relate to each other reciprocally. Rather, through the concept of "soul" or "root" of the Torah, Rav Kook shows that personal moral progress and the teachings learned from the Torah are cut from the very same cloth. The Torah is the total experience of life. But this totality does not refer to the cloistering of oneself within the walls of the Bet Midrash and the shutting-out of the rest of the world (as is common today in the Lithuanian "yeshiva world"). What it means is that Torah is the pulse of the entirety of life, and especially the life of Divine service in its broad sense. This idea is further sharpened in the following words of Rav Kook:

… Through the increase of the Torah and the light of its life, man and the entire world become elevated. Without the light of the Torah in all the visions and feelings of God-fearing and of prayer, evil would be able to penetrate into the world, giving off its rot and decay, even though the spiritual impression is great and strong. But to the extent that the Torah connects with it, goodness and the splendor of sanctity will reveal themselves. (Orot ha-Torah, 11, 9)

          Rav Kook knows that it is possible to relate to prayer and religious service independently, apart from the Torah, in the spirit of the words of the Sages: "There are three things upon which the world stands: the Torah, Divine service and acts of loving-kindness." Even from this perspective, which delineates separate realms of the activity of the spirit, one can reach a "great and strong" level. But if we wish to reach a level of sanctity that washes away all the dross and all the evil, we must see all Divine service as illuminated by the light of the Torah, which is an undefeatable, universal force that constantly strives to elevate all of existence.

          As in the past, this idea as well has a precedent in the teachings of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, and an examination of this precedent highlights Rav Kook's contribution to the discussion. In contrast to Rav Kook, Rav Chayim wrote as follows:

And furthermore, that sanctity, and the vitality and light of the mitzvot, which sanctify and invigorate the person who fulfills them, is taken exclusively from the sanctity and light of the holy Torah. For a mitzva in itself has no vitality or sanctity or light whatsoever, but only because of the sanctity of the letters of the Torah written with regard to that mitzva… And the reason for this is also as was explained above, that the mitzvot at their root source are connected to and dependent upon the order of the supernal worlds and forces. (But) the supreme source of the holy Torah is much higher than all the worlds and forces, and it spreads through the inner essences of all of them, and they receive their vitality and sanctity from it. Therefore it provides vitality, sanctity and light to all the mitzvot. (Section 4, chapter 30)

          Rav Chayim continues the "geographical" theme that we have previously noted – the Torah is located at the highest point in the hierarchy of the worlds, and therefore the sanctity of all the mitzvot stems from it alone. In his commentary to Pirkei Avot, we find a precise formulation of this idea, which essentially states that the words of Chazal regarding the "three pillars of the world" are liable to be misleading:

… Accordingly, the Torah is not a third pillar standing by itself, but rather it is all three pillars together, for without it nothing can stand.[5] (Ru'ach Chayim 1:2)

          In Rav Kook, Rav Chayim's ideological statement assumes a vital and existential dimension. The mitzvot flow from the Torah because the Torah wishes to elevate and perfect man and the world, and this is the purpose of the mitzvot. A person having this awareness experiences every mitzva as growth and ascent. The "pleasantness" that rests in the Torah as a whole, reveals itself tangibly in the particulars. Rav Kook wishes to take the mystical teaching of the "vitality" that flows in the worlds and make it a fact of life.

          On second thought (and the final thought for this shiur), it is clear that the more we examine the matter, the more it becomes evident that it is difficult to find ideas in the writings of Rav Kook on this issue that are not rooted in some way in the words of Rav Chayim of Volozhin. In one of his glosses to Nefesh ha-Chayim, Rav Chayim relates to the experiential feeling described above, when he explicates the blessing-formula recited over mitzvot, "who has sanctified us with His commandments":

… From the moment that a person contemplates doing a mitzva, an impression is immediately made above in its heavenly source, and from there he draws upon himself an encompassing light, and supernal holiness rests upon him and surrounds him… it also draws his heart to acquire a few more mitzvot, since he is now sitting in the Garden of Eden, taking shelter in the shadow of the wings of heavenly holiness. There is no way for the evil inclination to rule over him, to incite or to seduce him. This is what they said (Avot 4:2) that one mitzva draws another. If a person pays attention when he performs a mitzva, he will understand and feel in his soul that he is now surrounded and dressed in holiness, and a steadfast spirit has been renewed within him. This is what Scripture says: "These are the commandments that a man must do and live in them" (Vayikra 18:5) – "in them" – literally, in the midst of them, for he is then surrounded with the holiness of the mitzva and encompassed by the air of the Garden of Eden.[6] (Nefesh ha-Chayim, section 1, chapter 1, author's note)

          Rav Chayim was already clearly aware of the experiential force concealed in his teachings, and he instructs us to realize this potential. Rav Kook's novel contribution was to take this "footnote" of the Nefesh ha-Chayim, and turn it into the body of the text. This development stems of course from his own thinking, but also reflects his sensitivity to the needs of his time.

(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] According to this, for example, a person who is in doubt whether or not he recited birkat ha-Torah in the morning, and expects to be called up to the Torah, may rely on that expectation regarding the future to exempt himself now from the obligation to recite birkat ha-Torah, and in the meantime he is permitted to learn Torah without reciting a blessing.

[2] For example, this is Ramchal's central argument in the introduction to his classic work, Mesilat Yesharim.

[3] See his letter to Rav M.Y. Segel, cited in shiur 12.

[4] Rav Kook appears to be using here a kabbalistic principle, according to which the future redeemed world already exists in a potential reality that has not yet been fully materialized. On this, see Y. Cohen, Ma'arag la-Neshama, Tzfat, 5767, pp. 71-75.

[5] In Ru'ach ha-Chayim, which is based on shiurim that Rav Chayim delivered before a more popular audience, he does not go into the depths of mystical theory. Rather, he emphasizes that the Torah defines and in practice rules over the other pillars. For example, prior to the giving of the Torah, lending money at interest was considered an exemplary act of loving-kindness, whereas after the Torah was given, it is defined as a very serious transgression. From here we see that without the Torah it is impossible to maintain the pillars of loving-kindness and service.

[6] Emphasis mine – E.K.

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