The Ideal Torah Society

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by R. Gil Student

Why do we observe the commandments? In the past, we have discussed what motivates us. I’d like to explore one view on what the mitzvos are intended to accomplish.

I. The Convert’s Summary

The starting point has to be that God does not need our observance. He is perfect without any needs. The mitzvos must be for our benefit. Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (19th cen., Lithuania) wrote a book called Tahalukhos Ha-Aggados to defend the so-called legends of the Talmud against attacks by the destructive second generation of East European Maskilim. In chapter 5, he explains a selection of Talmudic passages, including the story of Hillel’s convert, which he explained similarly but in a different formulation in a November 22, 1869 article in the journal Kevod Ha-Levanon. [1]Recently republished in Yehuda Friedlander ed., Bekivshono Shel Pulmos: Polemics between Lithuanian Rabbis and Maskilim in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 211-216. A prospective convert approached Hillel and asked to convert to Judaism on condition that Hillel teach him Judaism while the convert stands on one foot. Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.”

This summary of Judaism is challenging. The Torah’s laws can be divided roughly into three types: 1) between man and God, 2) between man and man, and 3) between man and himself. How does Hillel’s concise description of only the second type serve to cover all of Judaism? Additionally, Rav Stern points out, many people act kindly to others while violating the other types of commandments.

II. The Mitzvah Society

Rashi and other commentators struggle with this question and Rav Stern offers his own answer. In short, the commandments are intended to create the ideal political society, an other-oriented community. The prospective convert asked Hillel for the center around which the entire Torah revolves; that center is interpersonal commandments (type 2). However, given man’s selfish nature, divine command and enforcement is required. The commandments between man and God (type 1) remind people of the severity of interpersonal commandments (type 2) due to the Commander. Without a divine command, inevitably we would fail to treat each other properly. Even if we can find the few exceptions, the majority of people will revert to selfishness absent fear of God. All of these mitzvos provide a reminder of God’s role in our personal and national lives. These are more important, because fear of God serves as our primary guard against our own nature, therefore the basis of interpersonal mitzvos.

The commandments between man and himself, i.e. to better himself and avoid physical and spiritual danger, teach us what our neighbors need. When we understand ourselves better, we can provide more appropriate help to others.

Hillel’s summary of interpersonal commandments sounds like a Libertarian stance. He seems to be saying, “Leave others alone.” Rav Stern disagrees with this portrayal. The Bible clearly phrases this in positive language: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Hillel softens the language because truly loving another as oneself is impossible. However, the Torah still demands that we help others actively, rather than merely avoiding harming them. We must be happy with the success of others, helping them achieve it and refraining from halting its progress.

III. God’s Tefillin

With this, Rav Stern explains the Gemara (Berakhos 6a) that God wears tefillin on His left arm. Inside this tefillin is written the verse, “Who is like Your people, Israel, one nation in the land” (1 Chronicles 17:32). The Gemara continues that God say, “You made Me a single entity in the world, I will make you a single entity in the world.”

Rav Stern sees in the passage that the mitzvah of tefillin is intended to remind us about God. But that reminder is for our benefit, to compel us to treat each other properly. God’s control over our lives makes us better citizens, better community members, one nation. The tefillin is on God’s left arm because the left arm is secondary to the right, just like the commandments between man and God are secondary (in one sense) to the interpersonal commandments.

IV. Today’s Society

We can question whether this approach seems plausible. If the goal is interpersonal behavior, is all this effort we expend to learn Torah useful? Where is the idea of developing a personal relationship with God? Ultimately, who needs religion if society develops positively without it? Rav Stern emphasizes that most mitzvos are not interpersonal. The commandedness of interpersonal commandments, the guidelines of halakhah, keep us from deviating. We were created as selfish beings for good reasons and need God and religion to overcome that nature. A society cannot function selflessly without God. We need a plethora of mitzvos between man and God and between man and himself to create the Torah society in which we properly observe our interpersonal mitzvos.

Torah learning is intended for practice (Avos 4:5; Tosafos, Sotah 22b sv. le-olam). We remember God constantly, in many different ways throughout the day and the year, to maintain our devotion to His path. Love of God leads to imitation of God’s attributes of mercy and kindness. The Torah begins with God’s chesed of clothing Adam and Chavah and ends with God’s chesed of burying Moshe (Sotah 14a). The message to us should be clear.

On the one hand, chesed without commandedness, without fear and love of God, i.e. so-called Tikkun Olam, quickly runs off the tracks of divinely commanded selflessness — as can be seen by its championing the cause of forbidden relationships. On the other hand, so much of our society has fallen into the traps of materialism. The greed and gluttony of much of contemporary Orthodox society betray a lack of commandedness, a selfishness thinly cloaked in piety, a rampant navlus birshus ha-Torah (moral degeneracy within the technical limits of the Torah).

We need the mussar, the constant reminders of our obligations, because we seem to forget them too quickly. The Torah may seem like it contains too many obligations but in fact we need them now more than ever to avoid the quicksand of materialism in which we struggle.

(reposted from Aug ’18)


1Recently republished in Yehuda Friedlander ed., Bekivshono Shel Pulmos: Polemics between Lithuanian Rabbis and Maskilim in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 211-216.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. In the introduction to Shaarei Yosher Rav Shimon Shkop also took Hillel’s words to the prospective convert at face value. (Or Rabbi Aqiva’s “kelal gadol”, or Ben Azzai’s, or Rav Simlai’s “the Torah begins and ends with chessed”, etc…) For that matter, Rav Yitzchaq Volozhiner attests in the introduction to Nefesh haChaim that his father Rav Chaim would repeatedly tell him, “This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his abilities.” And Rav Chaim Brisker spoke of how a rabbi’s central job was that of providing chessed. Then there’s Rav Yisrael Salanter and the Mussar Movement. In short… I think that Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern’s was typical of a sizable school of Lithuanian thought. But back to Rav Shimon…

    Rav Shimon says little in his introduction about mitzvos bein adam laMaqom to explain what he saw the role of it is in a Judaism that is centered on our interpersonal responsibilities. But he does write:

    והנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל ,אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו, …
    … ברעיון ושאיפת הרוח מתרחבת מצוה, זו גם על כל מפעליו ומעשיו של האדם גם בינו לבין המקום,

    “Behold, when a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community, then anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul, he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy. For through this he can also benefit the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can benefit the many who rely on him….
    “… [W]ith insight and the calling of spirituality, this mitzvah broadens to include everything a person causes or does even between him and the Omnipresent. ”

    (end quote>

    Mitzvos between man & G-d are an essential part of “caring for the goose”. R Shimon says this outright, if only in a single phrase in a paragraph that is otherwise about how one’s own rest and enjoyment can also be holy when they are for the sake of a healthy part of a life consecrated to benefiting others. Prayer is holy the same way someone can make their vacation holy — because it can help you be there for others. Wow!

    How are the mitzos that mediate our relationship to Hashem, all those rituals, part of caring for the goose? For that I can only propose my own extrapolations:

    1- You can’t bring G-d’s good to others without yourself being a conduit connected to the Source. If you are not well cared for, you don’t have what it takes to help them. Thus, “In the case of a sudden reduction of cabin pressure, put your own mask on before helping the person sitting next to you.” Without spiritual grounding, you’re too busy dealing with your own needs to help someone else.

    2- We need to know what the right choice is. We also need to make decisions based on the Maker’s knowledge of how people work, rather than only relying on our instincts about what is helpful. I can’t distinguish between helping others and enabling them in something the two of us only think is beneficial without being attuned to the Divine Will. So, the more I have a relationship with G-d and with His Torah, the more I can actually help rather than be well intended but wrong.

    3- We need to develop the character such that we can make the right choices when in the moment. When being there for someone else conflicts with tiredness, or having to choose who to benefit. Getting beyond ego and ingratitude, laziness. recklessness or stinginess.

    In addition, these last two steps can be inculcated in two different ways.

    A- Educational. This is Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch’s approach to mitzvos. Mitzvos are a means of not only relaying truths that one needs to be a good Jew, but to inculcate those truths on a core level. People learn at a greater depth through metaphors and symbols, especially hands-on objects and practices, compared to just teaching ideas.

    We can adapt this idea to our framing of the Torah’s goals. The notion of truths passed as symbols more naturally speaks to learning values, becoming in tune with what will truly help others in the long run and avoiding helping someone make self-destructive decisions. But you are also working with a symbol system about what it takes to be a fully contributing human being, whose “greatest desire is to be of benefit to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (so to speak)“. Not just knowing what it is G-d wants of me, but doing so in a way that makes that truth a motivator. Something that can overcome desire, laziness, anger or ego.

    B- Practice. Halakhah as a set of mussar exercises to make people more capable of giving, of internalizing the right priorities. Also about internalizing the ideal. But not through ideas, though exercises that have us constantly practicing the right values.

    Each of these modes — education vs practice, is easier to apply to different kinds of mitzvos. Rav Hirsch would write about which mitzvos involve symbols that emphasize the importance of remembering one is a free-willed human being, and not merely an intelligent mammal. Rav Yisrael Salanter would write about those mitzvos that have us exercising perishus, separation from those temptations that lead us down a more crass path.

    I don’t know if Rav Shimon spent much time contemplating Rav Hirsch’s approach. But we know that he consciously tried to follow Rav Yisrael’s path in general, so presumably this would be his approach here too.

    And Rav Yisrael’s approach doesn’t need Hirschian symbology. It could well be that a mitzvah works as a practice in ways we don’t understand. Try it, it works. I found this a weakness in Rav Hirsch’s approach, in that I cannot believe that for centuries or even millennia, from sometime after prophecy or after Chazal until Rav Hirsch’s day, even our greatest rabbonim missed out on the keys to get the primary benefit from their observance of mitzvos.

    Still, Rav Hirsch’s Horeb is an effective way to add meaning to the observance of ritual mitzvos. It can imbue meaning into every detail, such as Hashem’s choice of esrog for the mitzvah. I find it a useful second layer. A second level of meaning beyond the practice approach, that allows one to have kavvanah about aspects of observance rather than taking it on faith that somehow this practice is character- or value-shaping. So why not lean on both?

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