On the Love of Torah and the Redemption of This Generation’s Soul

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by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

The following is a translation by David Derovan of a portion of a Hebrew article by Rav Soloveitchik which was published in Divrei Hashkafah, W.Z.O. Department for Torah Education and Culture for the Diaspora: Jerusalem 1992, pp. 241-258. The article first appeared in Hebrew in HaDo’ar, New York, 1 Sivan 5720, 1960. (Words in parenthesis were added by the translator.) Subtitles and explanatory notes appear in indented paragraphs.

A First Word

Halacha has two faces (like the two sides of a coin): It begins with the awareness of an idea and ends with the experience of reality. It has the loftiness of the boldest dialectic. It opens with “גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect,” an intellectual leap of vigorous strength with much self-confidence by a free person of mighty heart and brain. It closes with “קטנות המוחין – smallness of intellect,” the innocent adherence of a confused baby clinging to his mother, who is overwhelmed by an emotional storm, grasping, hoping, pleading, with no faith in self, without self-awareness and without arrogance born of delusion, which we call a free persona.

The phrases “גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect” and ” קטנות המוחין – smallness of intellect” come from Kabbalah where they are used to imply heightened spiritual consciousness and lesser spiritual consciousness, respectively. The implication is that “גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect” is the higher level. Here, Rav Soloveitchik turns them on their head and uses “גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect” to describe a lower level of achievement.

“גדלות המוחין – Greatness of Intellect”

The path (traveled) by a “בעל תורה – Torah scholar” starts with study. When a Talmid Chakham is occupied with his cognitive activity, his stature (“שיעור קומה “) continually grows.

The phrase, “שיעור קומה ” translated as stature, also comes from Kabbalah. It is used to associate the ten Sefirot with different parts of the body. Rav Soloveitchik uses the phrase to represent one’s spiritual stature, which increases with knowledge of Torah.

Freedom of knowledge and will are primary concepts for him. Independent knowledge, without external source, is the foundation of his life. “לא בשמים היא – Torah is not in heaven,” paraphrasing the Bible, is what Rabbi Yehoshua quoted at the Bat Kol when it decided in favor of Rabbi Eliezer in the case of Akhna’i’s oven (Bava Metzi’a 59b). A person, who diligently (passes through) the doors of Torah, finds his essence and his independence, building his world all by himself, without outside help. He is an architect, determining the size of the building, its form and how it will look. The Creator, Giver of the Torah, has granted him wondrous authority.

“Do not read `חרות – engraved,’ rather read ` חירות – freedom.’ For there is no free person except for he who is occupied with learning Torah. And whoever occupies himself with learning Torah rises, as it says, `from Matanah (literally, gift) to Nachali’el, and from Nachali’el to Bamot (literally, high places).’ (Avot 6:2; the verse is from Bamidbar 21:19)”

Rav Soloveitchik sees the basis of Torah scholarship – of being a Talmid Chakham is the confidence to be creative, to express one’s own interpretations and opinions, to be the architect of his own intellect. This self-assurance and independence divides the men from the boys, so to speak.

The world of a Talmid Chakham, built with his own strengths, does not fall into the categories of the sensual, the imaginary or the emotional. It is stripped of even the least tinge of those experiences. Cutting logic, which does not answer to magical fantasy; exacting thought, which is removed from the capriciousness and inexactitude of youth; deep understanding, which is not equated with any particular external value or desire, characterize the image of the activity of halachic awareness. The objective, sharply critical mind, the sweep of vision and the all-encompassing (knowledge) are the foundations of the occupation with the words of Torah.

As a Semicha student in Rav Soloveitchik’s Shi’ur at Yeshiva University, in the early 70’s, I heard the following story concerning the Rav (Rav Soloveitchik):

As sometimes occurred in Shi’ur, someone asked the Rav a question that required some extensive thought. While the Rav sat silently, pondering the problem, the students sat quietly waiting for the Rav to continue. Suddenly, one of the fellows in the back of the room spoke up, “Here, Rebbe, he has something to say concerning this question.”

As he spoke, he passed forward a copy of a commentary, which it turned out no one, including the Rav, had ever heard of before. The Rav read a bit out loud, expressed his approval of what he read and used the information as the basis for answering the question and continued the lesson.

A few weeks later the same scene was replayed. A question was followed by an extended period of silence as the Rav pondered the problem. Sure enough, the same fellow from the back of the room piped up with the same book and the same information, “here, Rebbe, he has something to say concerning this question.”

Once again, the Rav began to read from the Sefer out loud. After a few lines, he paused to comment, “Good, good! He has the question!”

So, the Rav continued and read the following, which is loosely translated as the following, “I could not answer this question, but later I saw in a dream that…”

“What?” screamed the Rav, he is answering questions on the Gemara with dreams!?! Take this away from me!” Upon saying this, the Rav literally threw the book across the room in the direction of its owner.

The story aptly illustrates the Rav’s point in the paragraph above. Learning Torah requires clear, cold, hard logic and thought!

The faith of a Talmid Chakham is also based at this stage on intellectual greatness. Faith is fed by the truth which is revealed to it. When a person descends to the depths of understanding in “תורת אלקים – the Lord’s Torah,” he reveals its light and splendor. When he enters the innermost part of a halachic idea with all of its complexity, from its roots to its branches, and tastes the pleasure of creativity and innovation (in Halacha), he attains “התיחדות – unity” with the Giver of the Torah. The dream of “דביקות – cleaving to God” is realized by the coupling of the mind with the Divine idea that is embodied in the laws, discussions and traditions.

Rav Soloveitchik sees the culmination of intellectual, logical and thoughtful Torah study in spiritual experience. “התיחדות – the achievement of unity” with God is a Kabbalistic term, while “דביקות – cleaving to God” is the almost synonymous Chassidic concept.

“When a person understands and acquires a particular Halacha, etc., his mind is enwrapped by it, at that time. Indeed, that Halacha is the wisdom and will of the Holy One, blessed be He. Thus, with his mind, he reaches and latches onto the wisdom and will of the Holy One, blessed be He. This is a wondrous unity, unlike any other, the value of which is unattainable elsewhere…”

This is what the Alter Rebbe (Rav Shne’ur Zalman of Liady, ז”ל ) wrote in his book, ליקוטי
אמרים , in which he expresses the basic ideas of Chassidism in their full glory and color.

It is ironic that the Rav quotes from the Tanya by Rav Shne’ur Zalman of Liady to make his point about Torah study. Note as well that the Alter Rebbe describes the discovery of God’s will (רצון ה’ ) in the deepest, clearest understanding of Halacha.

“And he should have `כוונה – intention’ to cling to the Holy One, blessed be He, through his Torah study, meaning to cling with all his might to God’s words, i.e. the Halacha. With this he will cleave to Him Himself, may He be blessed, for He and His will are one, as stated in the Zohar; and every law and Halacha of the holy Torah is His will.”

These are the words of HaRav Chaim of Voloshin, the most outstanding student of the Ga’on of Vilna, in his book, נפש החיים , which reflects the worldview his teacher (the great “מתנגד – opponent” to Chassidism) with all its authority and clarity.

However, halachic awareness does not remain enclosed within the intellectual sphere. It bursts forth into existential consciousness and integrates into it. Personal existence is filled with living, seething meaning; it takes on a new direction and perspective. Coming to rest, standing still within the finite present makes way for powerful, passionate, uninterrupted, insatiable movement toward the infinite (אין סוף ). The great religious experience, which is expressed in emotional complexity, in antithetical spiritual stances, in the revelation of new existential forms, in stormy self-conquest and reaching beyond the self, is born. The children of Torah ( בני’ה של תורה ) long for that which is sublimely exalted, but they also fear it. They seclude themselves in the depths of their oneness out of embarrassment and modesty, yet when it happens they desire to unite with the (ultimate) Other. They are happy with their existence, but they set it aside, abrogating it totally; they laugh at death, but are fearful of it; they rise, they fall and rise again, and so forth and so on. At this stage a marvelous metamorphosis occurs. An idea is transformed into a boiling, stormy test; knowledge becomes the fire of faith (אש דת ); exacting and meticulous halachic discipline becomes the burning desire for the holy fire; ten thousand times tens of thousands black letters, into which were compressed mounds and mounds of laws, explanations, questions, problems, concepts and (intellectual) measures, descend from the cold, tranquil mind, calmed by fine abstractions and structured consistency, to the heart filled with trembling, shaking and quaking, unfolding through the sparking flame of a powerful experience which sweeps the person along to his Creator.

This long paragraph is a phenomenal description of the spiritual experience of both “התיחדות – the achievement of unity” and “דביקות – cleaving to God” that result from learning Torah on the highest level. The Rav recognizes that Torah study is meant to be a spiritual experience that is much greater than any purely intellectual exercise. He also describes the conflicting feelings involved in approaching God and hiding from Him. This is a theme that the Rav comes back to in many of his lectures and writings.

When the Talmid Chakham ascends to this level, he is ready to enter the next stage.

“קטנות המוחין – Smallness of Intellect”

The person who is swept away to His God is no longer the mature adult, strong of mind, in complete control of his emotions. Rather he is a soft baby who is all enthused and excited, who is all pulsating with the delight of childhood and with hidden longings which do not fall into any clearly logical category. The intellectual greatness, which has reached its peak, returns to its roots, to the “קטנות המוחין – smallness of intellect,” to a childlike smallness, where the morning dew and innocent purity have yet to melt away. Instead of a self-sufficient adult, in full control of self, there now appears the child who is totally dominated by others, (a child) whose world only contains integrity and simplicity which gladdens the heart and becalms the soul. This child does not bother to understand the wondrous and mysterious: for him, all of reality is a miracle, a spectacular novelty. He lives his life with God and unites with Him, not through ideas but through childlike, spontaneous fervor (התלהבות ). His faith is simple and perfect, pure as the well-water which bubbles up from a mysterious source. His approach is straightforward, without intellectual arrogance, without “גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect.”

Spontaneous fervor (התלהבות ) is a Chassidic term.

Notice how Rav Soloveitchik now uses the phrase “גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect” in a derogatory sense.

He feels the presence of God with all of his senses, a feeling which makes his conscious soul drunk to the point of manic capriciousness. Just like a bawling child who runs into his loving mother’s arms, the man/child of Torah hastens to his God. And God receives him with love and desire. God loves the infants of the house of study ( תינוקות של בית רבן ) and small children with their innocent feelings and thoughts. The Holy One, blessed be He, has no need for a person until they strip themselves of their wrapping of adult (ego) and arrogance which covers the little child which is hidden somewhere in the small cracks of their personality. It is not permitted to come before the King of all kings dressed as a great know it all. Only when the self-image is lessened, and the intellectual stance is humbled does a person merit receiving the face of the Shekhinah. The child enters the sanctum sanctorum; the adult remains outside; the gates of heaven are closed to him. “Truly, Efra’yim is a dear son to Me, a child to play with; whenever I have spoken of him, to remember him, I still remember him; that is why My insides yearn for him, to be compassionate, I will be compassionate to him, declares God” (Jeremiah 31:19). Only the child is loved by his Father in heaven, only the youth is purified before Him. The thread of grace is not pulled by the self-sufficient adult, (rather) “I fell in love with Israel when he was a child” (Hoshe’a 11:1).

The rushing toward God as a child runs to his mother is the metaphor for the next, higher spiritual stage to can be attained from Torah study. This long paragraph, along with the one that closes the previous section is in my opinion one of the finest descriptions of Torah-based spirituality and mystic experience.

The attachment between teacher and student (רב ותלמיד ), the basis for religious tradition, crystallizes on two planes. On one of them, two knowledgeable and aware adult people meet, discussing and diving to the depths of Torah, using Torah methods to purify and to attend to its principles and exacting concepts. The relationship is technical: The Rav communicates ideas to the Talmid. The communication is formal. The activity is goal-oriented. There is an external concern for the other, either on the part of the teacher or that of the student. A dialogue develops between them. Minds meet. The transference is speculatively ideational, utilizing exacting, cognitive tools, as well as logical and syntactically correct sentences, constructed of words and letters which contain the (message of) tradition.

On the second plane, two children play, enveloped by light and warmth, carried along by the flow of their innocent experience, without need for adult speech and talk. Their communication is not based on syntactically correct and logical give and take, but on the shared rhythm of pulsating hearts. There is no concentrated effort between them and no outwardly oriented activity binds them together. The Rav is not conducting a dialogue with his “Talmid.” Rather he is completely engrossed in a monologue, in the (simultaneously) distinct and different experiences of self. The Talmid, through unintended submissiveness, absorbs the tidbits cast off by his Rav, becoming engrossed in them. The integration of experiences and the sharing of planes of existence burst forth, arising from the teacher’s monologue and the student listening with rapt attention to the music of this wondrous talk. This process of listening begins in the early years of childhood, when the infant does not “see” beyond his own little world. Tradition is experiential; its tools are beyond the boundaries of thought and language.

This “second plane” of experience is parallel to the spiritual experiences described above.

From my flesh, I say, I have seen this. For example, I have learned much and taught much concerning the days of judgment and mercy, Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim. I discussed these issues with my father, my teacher, ז”ל , as well as taught my congregation, my students and my friends from every angle, the halachic, the aggadic and that of religious philosophy. I also wrote numerous articles on this theme. Despite all this, during this season, my eyes see the experiences of my youth that are revealed through the mist of advanced years. Only these (reminiscences), when they reawaken in my memory, return to me my joyousness of spirit and integrity. Only then do I pour out my sad soul before the Almighty God. (Only then) does it seem to me as if the Shekhinah envelopes me with the warm laughter of a preciously dear mother.

When I see my father, my teacher, ז”ל , on Yom Kippur night, with intimate modesty, out of sadness accompanied by a festiveness, sitting and studying the order of the Temple service from the Mishnah Yoma: “They brought him (the High Priest) the ladle and the pan…” (Chapter 5), the musical tune, resonating with hope and sorrow, bursts through and rises from the distant past. I am pulled by strong pangs of yearning to another world, far from my defiled world. Love wells up inside me; a fire is ignited inside me. Only then do I begin to recite with an enthusiasm, which springs from the depths of my existence, the blessing which sanctifies this day, “Forgive our sins on Yom HaKippurim.” When my eyes envision him (my father) or my grandfather, ז”ל , as they stood bent over when they confessed their sins with depressed spirits, totally submissive to their Creator, my own absurd arrogance crumbles; I feel as if unseen hands pours cold, purifying water over my tired soul, scrubbing and cleansing it of its dirt. I only have to take a couple of steps backward into the dim morning of my youth and I find myself standing at my father’s side in the midst of a congregation of Chabad Chassidim immersed in prayer. (Then) I inwardly absorb the faint rustling sound which hovers over the heads of those praying on Rosh HaShanah Eve, the Coronation Night as it’s called by the old Chassidim, when Jews, who are filled with poverty, anger and humiliation, would grant a king’s crown to He who lives forever — just to feel the depth of the idea of kingship. Indeed, the Jewish awareness I have acquired deepens, broadens and embellishes this experience, while granting it an overabundance of meaning and content. However, its existence and strength are drawn from the ” קטנות המוח – smallness of intellect” of an innocent lad, who still hides in the hidden recesses of my soul.

Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi already nailed down this idea when he spoke of the difference between the name, “אלוקים – Lord,” and the ineffable name (the Tetragrammaton, ה’ ). The first “implies logical understanding (lit. comparison),” while the second “is yearned for by souls through the senses of taste and sight.” He also said concerning this idea,

“Whoever comprehends this reason, is willing to offer his soul (מוסר נפש ) out of love for Him and to die for Him; logical understanding will necessitate his seeing His exaltedness, but without the need for personal sacrifice or pain” (Kuzari 4:15).

Even though Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s words are based on a metaphysical awareness and halachic theorizing, his insistence that the attachment to God must exist through the senses of taste and sight is very important for us.

Halacha itself, which begins with the pure mental effort of the “greatness of knowledge,” ends with taste and sight, visions of God, with an experience that contains the seeds of the Holy Spirit (רוח הקודש ). The text stands up and screams, “Taste and see that God is good! – טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי טוֹב ה’ ” (Psalms 34:9). The primary goal is feeling God in a “concrete” way.

The point of the above paragraph cannot be emphasized enough. This is the major and primary conclusion of the Rav’s article. Torah study is just the beginning of a spiritual process that “ends with taste and sight, visions of God, with an experience that contains the seeds of the Holy Spirit.”

If this is truly the goal of Torah study, says the Rav, then we have a problem. See what follows:

As said above, religious youth has succeeded in the field of mental effort. The sparks of “גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect” have been caught by him. He has acquired knowledge, explanations and legal decisions. He derives pleasure from nice Shi’urim and exploring the depths of difficult pieces of Gemara. However, the heart is not participating in this activity. He has yet to merit the “קטנות המוחין – smallness of intellect.” For him, the Halacha has yet to become a spiritual reality. The real encounter with the Shekhinah is missing. Using the words of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, I would say, “The logical understanding exists, but the taste and the vision are absent.” I am confident that in time the experiential vision will be realized. However, for the time being we have yet to merit its realization. . . .

Even though Torah study theoretically holds such enormous spiritual potential, Rav Soloveitchik bemoans the spiritual state of the generation of Torah students in the early 1960’s.

After a short section of the original article that was not translated, the Rav adds a very surprising note:

A Mea Culpa

Nevertheless, since the question of responsibility for this situation has been put to me, I will take this opportunity to reveal my heartfelt thoughts. Halacha teaches us to evaluate our behavior, to regret our errors and to confess (our sins). Woe to the person, says the Halacha, who, instead of revealing his own sins, covers them up and tosses the blame on others. Woe to him and woe to his soul, if he has become expert in raking up the deficiencies of others and instead of confessing in the first person, his tongue is proficient is pronouncing the confessional in the third person.

On Yom HaKippurim, even the High Priest would confess his own sins and those of his family before he would confess those of his fellow priests and the rest of the People of Israel. Therefore, if it is demanded of me to point an accusing finger at those responsible for this poverty of soul and spirituality, I cannot pin the responsibility on someone else and confess his sins. The thing I must do is to evaluate my deeds. This kind of evaluation results in being self-critical. This is the responsibility of every Jewish person. Therefore, I declare that I can point out one of those responsible for the present situation, and it is I, myself.

have not fulfilled my obligation as a teacher of the way and of learning ( כמורה דרך והוראה ) among the Jewish people. I have lacked the spiritual strengths that a teacher and Rav require or I lacked the will and did not devote myself totally to my task. At those times when I succeeded, more or less, as an instructor and teacher on the plane of ” גדלות המוחין – greatness of intellect,” my students received much Torah from me and their intellectual stature was strengthened and grew during the years they spent with me, (yet) I did not see much blessing from my efforts on the experiential level. I never managed to live together with them, to attach myself to them and to allow them to feel the warmth of my soul. Apparently, my words (alone) did not light the flame of God (שלהבת י’ה ) in sensitive hearts. I sinned as a teacher of Torah to the heart, which forcefully proceeds to diminish one’s self-image until “קטנות המוח – smallness of intellect” is achieved; I am responsible for my errors.

It is understood that my answer does not set the mind at ease (completely), for I (only) take responsibility for those few students who came to learn Torah and to be inspired by me. Rather, the question is still there in all its force and severity: Who is responsible for the general dullness of hearts which has yet to be removed? At whose door lies the blame for the general lack of spiritual exaltation? In all my life, I never fought someone else’s battles against the “Yetzer” and I never recited the confessional over someone else’s sins. If there are other guilty parties, let them stand up and testify themselves. I refuse to be the prosecutor accusing others. Let each individual personally fulfill the words of the “ברייתא – Baraita” (Eruvin 13b), “It is easier for a person not to have been born, but once he is born let him now evaluate his behavior.”

If I can be allowed one final, personal note: The two years I studied with the Rav were probably the most thrilling, exciting and intellectually rewarding years of my very long education. However, The Rav was correct when he wrote that he failed to inspire us spiritually. It is evident from this article and other articles, lectures and statements by the Rav that what he describes above comes from his own experience. I can only assume that he would be gratified to learn that in many yeshivot, especially in Israel, a concerted effort is being made to inspire the students and guide through the genuine spiritual experience that must be an integral part and goal of Torah study.

About David Derovan

Rabbi David Derovan is a master teacher and 50-year veteran in Jewish education, with expertise in curriculum and materials design.

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