Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF RAV SOLOVEITCHIK
By Rav Ronnie Zeigler
LECTURE #11: Torah and Humility Part 1
based on a lecture by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt"l
[As a prelude to our discussion of catharsis of the intellect and of
the religious experience, and as a continuation of our discussion of catharsis
of the emotions, I am distributing a summary of an address by the Rav.
This lecture was originally delivered in 1971, on the fourth Yahrzeit of
Rebbetzin Tonya Soloveitchik zt"l. It has been adapted by Rav Ezra
Bick. A shorter adaptation of this lecture appears in Shiurei Harav.]
We, the harbingers of Torah Judaism to the non-Torah Jewish community,
are under strict scrutiny from a moral point of view. Precisely because
we place the study of Torah at the center of our existence, the topic of
humility is very relevant, as the explosion of knowledge in the modern
world can and does result in human arrogance.
The WORD plays a unique role in the world-outlook of the Torah. Through
the word, the boundless cosmos was created. Through the word, God revealed
Himself to man in his role as a spiritual being and charged him with a
singular task and assignment. God spoke to Avraham and then to Moshe, and
urged them to establish a covenantal community, and later addressed Himself
to that community and exhorted it to achieve the exalted heights of a "kingdom
of priests and a holy people." First, order was imposed on the cosmos
- this word is the source of truth, unalterability, identical with natural
law. This was the order of Bereishit. When directed to man, the word imposes
another order, not that of necessity and causality, but that of freedom
and human dignity. When addressed to covenantal man, the word is the fountainhead
of kedusha, sanctity. In short, the word creates three orders: necessity,
the cosmic order; freedom, the human order; and kedusha, the covenantal
That the fountainhead of kedusha is the word of God is expressed in
Halakha through the distinction between objects that are "gufan kadosh"
(intrinsic, inherent and substantive holiness) and "tashmishei kedusha"
(peripheral, incidental holiness, defined by the relationship with a sacred
object). [A Torah scroll is gufan kadosh; the Torah covering is tashmishei
kedusha.] The holiness of something which is gufan kadosh is an integral
part of the object, whereas for tashmishei kedusha it is an external part
of its relation, not part and parcel of its existence. The gemara states
that the tefillin straps, no matter how indispensable they are, are only
tashmishei kedusha; however the battim, the boxes in which the sacred texts
are placed, are gufan kadosh. The reason is because "Shin shel tefillin
halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai" (the letter "shin" embossed on
the box is a law given to Moshe at Sinai). We see that the criterion of
gufan kadosh is the presence of the word. The geometric configuration is
somehow the source of kedusha. What this means is that the source of all
kedusha is the Torah, the word of God. Wherever a letter appears, the Torah
appears, and we find inherent sanctity. Where there is no letter, there
is no intrinsic sanctity.
We have a written Torah and an oral Torah. The written Torah has its
kedusha crystallized in the tangible, physical written word. What about
the oral Torah? There the word is not objectified in a scriptical form.
God, in His infinite wisdom, wanted the word to be interwoven in an abstract
thought system, and not in a sign system alone, as in the written Torah.
Can Torah she-be'al peh, the oral Torah, pass on kedusha? How does the
unwritten word hallow, in the sense that Torah she-bikhtav sanctifies tefillin,
mezuza, the Torah parchment, etc.? It would be folly to conclude that Torah
she-be'al peh is inferior in this respect. The answer is that the oral
Torah operates in a more subtle manner, transmitting sanctity through study
and its relation to the mind of the student. Apparently, Torah study, aside
from being an intellectual, educational endeavor, enlightening the student
and providing him with the information needed to observe the law, is a
redemptive cathartic process - it sanctifies the personality. It purges
the mind of unworthy desires and irreverent thoughts, uncouth emotions
and vulgar drives. The parchment of talmud Torah is the human mind, the
human heart and personality. Indeed, a new dimension is added to human
experience through the study of Torah: sanctity.
We have now discovered a new understanding of the term "writing"
- it means not only the physical performance of drawing letters, but also
the process of soul-arousal and heart-sensitizing. A scribe writes the
Torah on parchment; the rebbe, the great teacher, writes the Torah she-be'al
peh on the living mind, on the sensitive human heart. The old halakhic
equation that every Jew is a sefer Torah (scroll) is, in this light, fully
understandable. The living Jew is a sefer Torah of the Torah she-be'al
The gemara (Sota 13b) states: "R. Eliezer HaGadol said: Over twelve
square miles, the area of the camp of Israel (in the desert), a heavenly
voice proclaimed: Moshe, the great scribe of Israel, has died." Although
Moshe did indeed write a sefer Torah, the word "scribe" here
does not refer to the mechanical art of writing. If it did, what would
be the meaning of the adjective "great?" How would this phrase,
"the great scribe of Israel," do justice to the greatness of
Moshe Rabbeinu? Did Moshe have a beautiful handwriting? R. Eliezer the
Great was referring to a different kind of script, to the art of writing
God's living word on the passionate vibrant human heart, and impressing
God's image on the receptive and questing human personality. Moshe was
a scribe in the same way that Sefer Yetzira calls God a scribe: "The
world was created through three things: sofer, sefer, sippur (scribe, book,
and a story)." We have arrived at the equation: writing = creation
= education. The teacher is God's collaborator in ma'aseh bereishit, in
the creation of the world.
Kedusha is generated only by closeness to God. Who is holy? Whoever
is touched by the Holy One, by God's hand. But, the question arises, how
can man exist in the proximity of God? The gemara (Ketubot 111b) asks,
"Is it possible for man to cleave to the Holy Presence? Is it not
a 'fire devouring fire?'" The gemara answers that we should associate
with talmidei chakhamim, with Torah scholars. How can one feel the hand
of God resting on one's shoulder, feel the breath of eternity on his face?
- through the Torah! Halakha does not favor mystical union, in which one's
identity is negated. How can one get close to God and yet preserve the
full sense of personality, of encounter? The answer is through knowledge,
the study of Torah.
How does the study of Torah unite man with God, the human being with
his Maker? How can it bring together finitude and infinity, temporal transience
and eternity? The Rambam develops the idea of "achdut ha-maskil ve-hamuskal"
(the unity of knower and known, the subject and the object of knowledge).
This is found not only in the Moreh Nevuchim, but in the Yad Ha-chazaka
as well (Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah, and, by implication, in Hilkhot Teshuva).
The Sefer HaTanya writes about this doctrine of the Rambam that "all
the sages of the Kabbala have agreed with him." I will not go into
the philosophical explanation of this principle now, but we may immediately
draw one conclusion. If the knower and the object known are merged into
one, then two knowers whose minds are concentrated on the same object are
also united. If a=c, and b=c, then a=b. People with common thoughts cannot
long remain strangers, indifferent to each other. Wherever there is unity
of thought, purpose and commitment, there is also personalistic unity.
The Rambam (Commentary to Avot) concludes that the highest form of friendship
is the unity of knowledge - "chaver le-dei'a." In a like manner,
when man becomes completely absorbed in God's thought, in His revealed
WORD, then he is indeed united with God; there is friendship between man
and God. The Tanya writes, "When a man understands with his intellect,
and comprehends and digests the infinite and inscrutable will of the Almighty,
there is the most marvelous union between God and man." The link between
man and God is thought. God is the originator of thought; man embraces
it. This is the great bond uniting man and God, finitude with infinity.
But now there is a dilemma. Knowledge, all knowledge, is essentially
esoteric; it is not equally available to all. What about the dull people,
the sluggish people, the intellectually slow; are they to be denied the
companionship of God? Religion cannot be esoteric. The experience of God,
to hear His whisper, is a basic elementary right of every human being.
Without religion there is no salvation, without faith there is no redemption,
and everyone is entitled to salvation. But if the link between God and
man is the intellectual Torah gesture, how can the experience of God's
companionship be achieved by all?
There is another doctrine of unity - achdut ha-ohev ve-ha-ahuv (the
unity of the lover and the beloved). To love means to share an identity,
a common destiny. Now if the lover and the beloved are united, then two
persons who are in love with a third party are also united. The love between
a husband and wife is strengthened and deepened with the birth of a child.
In fact, love in common is a stronger bond than thought in common; the
link of hearts is stronger than that of minds. On the verse, "He shall
cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh" (Bereishit 2:24),
Rashi explains that the "one flesh," the unity, is realized by
the creation of a child. The love of the couple, originally an erotic,
selfish drive, changes into a more spiritual, exalted love through a shared
creation, a common goal. Unqualified love of a child unites the parents,
brings them closer to each other. Their love becomes more truthful, more
intimate and sincere. Two people, father and mother, are welded together
into one. All their concerns and aspirations are concentrated on a new
center, which becomes the emotional bond linking both of them; indeed,
it becomes the existential focus of their lives, about which everything
revolves. Depressed by the absence of love from her husband, Leah responds
to the birth of her first child by saying, "Now, my husband will love
me." She hopes that a missing element in her relationship will be
filled by the little baby.
God loves His word, crystallized in the Torah, as though it were His
daughter. In Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs), the Torah is called the darling
child with which God plays daily. "I shall be for Him a disciple,
and I shall be an amusement every day, playing before Him all the time"
(Mishlei 8:30). Man too can embrace Torah. Mishlei (2:3) calls Torah the
mother of man - "Call understanding your mother" (Mishlei 2:3).
We find the expression "baneha shel Torah" (children of Torah),
which does not refer only to scholars. The relationship between us and
Torah is that between a child and his mother. We identify with Torah, we
cherish her, we are committed to her, like a little child who identifies
with his mother and cannot distinguish between his own identity and hers.
In this way, a bond is created between God and man: not only man who studies,
but all those who love Torah and feel awed by her.
The Bach explains that the blessing we recite in the morning, "la'asok
be-divrei Torah" (to engage in the words of the Torah), is more embracing
than "lilmod Torah" (to learn Torah). The berakha, recited by
all, including the great scholar, is not for the esoteric intellectual
experience of Torah, but rather for the exoteric love of Torah and for
the kedusha that results. The entire Jewish community is a Torah community,
and hence a holy one, including both the aristocrat of mind and spirit,
and the simple anonymous individual. "Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha
kehillat Yaakov." The Torah is the inheritance of the entire community
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