Vort from the Rav: Mishpatim

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Ex. 21:35

וְכִֽי־יִגּף שׁוֹר־אִישׁ אֶת־שׁוֹר רֵעֵהוּ
And if a man’s bull strikes his friend’s bull.

Martin Heidegger, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, taught ethics and spirituality at the University of Berlin in the early part of the twentieth century. Yet, when Hitler rose to power, he and a large coterie of his peers were among the first to embrace Nazism. The study of ethics alone cannot mold the ethical personality. The study of Torah, on the other hand, does accomplish this.

Gedolei Yisrael represent spirituality, refinement in conduct, sensitivity, sympathy, compassion. Yet their primary focus is upon what is known as lomdus, a formal and abstract discipline in the study of Torah. Strangely, study of the rules of the ox that gores, or the egg that is laid on Yom Tov, somehow enhances the human ethical personality, elevating both the mind and heart. How does such study affect morality?

There is only one answer. Torah is min hashamayim: it is the word of God. Torah ennobles one’s character, redeeming a person from frivolity, vulgarity and cruelty. It elevates him, providing meaning to his life. (Undated Shiur)

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.


  1. I’m not convinced that torah automatically develops the torah personality. Does the Gra says that torah, like water, also cause the weeds to grow….?

    • You pretty much touched on what I believe is the central point in the split between the two movements that inherited the Vilna Gaon’s and R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s legacy. When Rav Chaim says that studying Torah purifies the soul, does he mean inevitably, and if we cannot see a cause-and-effect, rest assured there is a spiritual one. Or does he mean that Torah study is defined by what refines the soul, and a study of the Torah’s information in a manner that is decoupled from an effort to reach such refinement — while possible — simply isn’t “talmud Torah”.

      The Rav here could be saying either. You assume he means “[T]orah automatically develops the [T]orah personality.” Which is consistent with his legacy from R’ Chaim Brisker. However, more consistent with the Rav’s exposure to Chassidic passion in Chaslovich would be to take him to be making a “No True Scotsman” statement — True Torah study ennobles one character, and if you see someone who intellectually knows Torah who isn’t ennobled in this way, well that’s not True Torah study.

      Talmud Torah is inherently subjective, how to internalize its ideas. Trying to just extract information or the joy of reasoning is more objective and academic.

  2. Arnie Lustiger

    I think that the emphasis should be on the adjective… “their primary focus is upon what is known as lomdus…” I think that the Rav is saying that if one’s exclusive focus is on ethics, you end up with a Heidegger. I am not sure that in this brief vort he is arguing against studying mussar (although he does seem to argue against the intensive study of mussar in Halakhic Man).
    The story is told of R’ Saul Lieberman, who was trying to get together a minyan for mincha after one of his lectures at JTS. One of his students remarked that A.J. Heschel was down the hall, and whether he should ask Heschel to join the minyan. R’ Lieberman told the student not to bother: “Heschel is not interested in mincha, he is interested in prayer”.

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