Command and Torah Study

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ravlichtensteinby R. Gidon Rothstein

Blogging R. Lichtenstein, By His Light, Week 2: Command and Torah Study

In his methodical way, R. Lichtenstein structured his four talks to the American students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Winter 5747 starting from the universal and moving to the particularly Jewish. The two talks whose summaries I’m going to even more briefly discuss here take up two aspects of being Jewish, the centrality of a sense of command and the need to make Torah study central to one’s life.

In each of the essays we saw last time, he started from a verse, as he does for the third (the last, on Torah study, uses ‘aseh Toratekha keva, make your Torah study fixed, which is a Mishnah in Avot, not a verse). For a talk stressing the centrality of commandedness to Jewish experience, he cited “Va-yetzav Hashem E-lokim al Ha-adam, Hashem commanded the man (Bereshit 2:16).

This should surprise us, because he is explicitly discussing “not what is expected of us as humans, but more specifically … as members of Knesset Yisrael,” yet the verse speaks of Hashem’s command to Adam, the first man, a verse Sanhedrin 56b saw as the source of the Noahide laws, binding on all non-Jews! And the conclusion he draws is that “at the center of Jewish existence” lies mitzvah, that a “Jew’s life is defined by being commanded.”

Jewish Assumption of an Originally Universal Responsibility?

To me, it suggests that R. Lichtenstein thought this was originally meant to be a basic human experience that was transferred to Jews with the giving of the Torah (it is, to me, particularly poignant given that one of his children, I think his son R. Moshe Lichtenstein, spoke of his father, after his passing, as having experienced life as a soldier on duty, ready to obey the Commander’s orders).

Commandedness, for R. Lichtenstein, most prominently contrasts with the idea and ideal of self-fulfillment. Even as he recognizes that there can be a noble element to self-fulfillment, he believes that our fundamental purpose or goal should be to respond to what Hashem asks or requires of us, even where that seems not congruent with self-fulfillment.

That is why Chazal ruled that gadol hametzuveh ve-oseh, greater is one who is commanded and fulfills. That explains the odd Jewish locution, “That’s a wonderful thing to do. Go do that, it’s a big command (mitzvah).” “The fact that we talk this way is a reflection of the extent to which in our minds spiritual existence and the sense of responding to a divine demand are intertwined.” (I should add that R. Lichtenstein also often speaks of devar reshut, that which is not specifically commanded—he’s not oblivious to that category, he just believes that we have to be aware of the basic idea of doing that which Hashem demands of us).

This fits well with Avot 2;4, which tells us to nullify our wills before Hashem’s Will. “Even within the realm of avodat Hashem proper, one needs to beware of imposing his own inclinations excessively.” It is possible, in other words, to keep mitzvot and seem a perfectly observant Jew while acting mostly to fulfill one’s own wants and needs. R. Lichtenstein isn’t rejecting the value of this, but he’s saying that’s not what Hashem and the religion is really telling us.

Not Negating Selfhood

On the other hand, he does not mean to go so far as those religious figures (including Martin Luther) who promoted complete self-abnegation, denial of one’s own interests and will. Rather, he is interested in combating the deeply ingrained modern idea that we should be looking only or mostly or centrally to fulfill ourselves, is trying to balance that by saying that we should be striving to identify ourselves with the Divine Will.

He doesn’t say it here, but I think part of what he means is that as we consider ourselves and our role in the world, guiding parts of that should be what we see as what Hashem’s Will wants of us, not only what we want. In a brief comment on career, he asks whether the person looks only for fulfillment, or is responding to some call, a sense of duty (he is in favor of the latter, but not to the extent that the person hates every moment of his or her job—it is a question of seeing oneself honestly and wholly, and asking what it is that Hashem has called that person to do. But that call may not coincide with that which the person might, left to his/her own devices, choose).

Keva as an Amount of Time and an Attitude Towards the Torah Learned

The next and last piece of the discussion builds off of Shammai’s dictum, Avot 1;15, to make our Torah keva, a word whose unpacking will be how R. Lichtenstein reminds his listeners about the Jew’s (not just the rabbi or other Jewish professional) relationship to Torah study.  Rashi’s second interpretation (the first one takes longer to discuss) of keva is that the person set aside a certain amount of time every day. While R. Lichtenstein focuses on the time component, I note that Rashi speaks of time to learn four or five chapters a day. Which means that this version of keva is focused on an amount of time to reach a certain level of accomplishment.

That shows up, for R. Lichtenstein, in how Jews use their free time, in two ways. First, granting that people have various responsibilities (including the need for some leisure time, although he doesn’t address that specifically), how do we spend that free time which we do have? Does a person read the paper, watch television, or sit down to learn? Part of keva is ensuring that there is learning time in every one of one’s days.

Second, “if  a person says he must work twelve hours a day because he has decided that he absolutely must earn several hundred thousand dollars a year [in 1987 dollars],” that already reflects certain priorities, even if that person then uses leftover time for Torah study. It’s only when a person “sets a reasonable level of need and of necessity,” for R. Lichtenstein, that the question of remaining time comes into play.

Keva means making time for Torah, every day.

Making Torah Keva, as in Primary

Rashi’s first interpretation is that keva means primary—regardless of how much actual time one can give to it, it is the focus of the day, the most important part of it. That means, for example, that when a person gets a chance to return to Torah study, it feels like finally getting back to that which really matters.

It also means a sense of responsibility for making Torah fixed in the world in general, not only in one’s life. For R. Lichtenstein, Ezra teaches us the necessity of doing our share to learn ourselves and teach others, in the name of spreading the idea that Torah study is for all Jews, regardless of education or intellectual achievement.

Primacy also affects the attitude to study, in at least three ways. First, that which is primary is also that which we hope to internalize. That means that when we learn a piece of Torah, we should be hoping to make it a permanent part of ourselves—we don’t learn only because the act is important, we learn also because the knowledge is important. If so, it’s not enough to go to a shiur because it’s valuable to go and/or because it will be entertaining, we have to go with the hope and intent to make that which we learn part of our personae from that moment on.

One last aspect of primacy is the depth in which we attempt to understand it. When we ask Hashem—in the bracha just before Keriyat Shema in the morning—to help us understand and discern (le-havin u-lehaskil), that shows our desire, even the laymen and relatively unlearned among us, to go beyond a superficial knowledge. For each of us to our own extent, the primacy of Torah should motivate us to find the deepest understanding we can.

To close, R. Lichtenstein argues that keviut “means making Torah into one’s framework and planning everything else around that (emphasis added)…This is, of course, a large demand, and what is significant and striking about it is that this demand is made of each and every Jew. One cannot allow his social setting to determine for him…It must be clear that, wherever he ends up, Torah is a central value… something which is inherent in his very being.”

Command and Study

These attitudes towards Torah study sit well with his previous comments about commandedness. Along with last week’s chapters, he lays out a picture (only confirmed and reinforced by the other essays in the book) of a life lived in recognition of Hashem, recognition of our obligation to maintain and build Hashem’s world, to infuse all our lives with the service of Hashem, and to do all that with an understanding, first, that we are commanded to do much of this, that it is not a matter of choosing it for its value, it’s a matter of responding to a command, and that central to all of that must be our study of Torah, central in time given it, central in devotion to it, central in the impact it has on who we are, and central in letting it shape the rest of our lives.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. Thank you, Rabbi Rothstein, for these fabulous summaries of the thought of a truly unique Torah personality.

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