Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF RAV SOLOVEITCHIK
by Rav Ronnie Ziegler
LECTURE #12: Intellect and Experience
In lecture #10, we explored Rav Soloveitchik's emphasis on inwardness
- the experiential aspect of Judaism. However, two other indispensable
elements of religious life must also be considered: knowledge and action.
Only through the combination of these three aspects - thought, feeling
and action - is one's religiosity complete. In fact, the Rav believes that
one's religious experience itself is lacking if it is not based on knowledge
of the Halakha, and it must certainly be accompanied by - or better yet,
stem from - observance of the Halakha. Therefore, this week we will discuss
Torah study as both a prerequisite for the religious experience and as
an experience in its own right, and next week we will turn our attention
to the need for action to accompany thought and feeling.
THE EFFECT OF KNOWLEDGE UPON EXPERIENCE
In Rav Soloveitchik's view of Judaism, which has its roots not only
in Mitnagged theology but in the views of Chazal (the Talmudic sages) as
well, talmud Torah (Torah study) is a central, or perhaps THE central,
component of our religiosity. Far more than being a guide to practical
observance of Jewish law, talmud Torah allows us to penetrate God's infinite
will and thus informs every aspect of our relationship to Him. Rav Lichtenstein
sums up the Rav's approach as follows:
"Torah study gives the Jew insight - as direct and profound as
man is privileged to attain - into the revealed will of his Creator. Through
the study of Halakha - the immanent expression of God's transcendent rational
will - man's knowledge of God gains depth and scope. Further, religious
study is a stimulus to the total spiritual personality. Faith can be neither
profound nor enduring unless the intellect is fully and actively engaged
in the quest for God." ("R. Joseph Soloveitchik," in S.
Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century [NY, 1963],
In light of this, we can understand Rav Soloveitchik's insistence that
one's sense of inwardness in mitzvot be based not on "cheap sentimentality
or ceremonialism," but rather on serious familiarity with halakhic
sources. "...[W]ithout knowledge of Torah, the Jew cannot attain the
proper religious experience, nor can he fully understand the beauty and
splendor of avodat Hashem (divine service)" (Divrei Hashkafa, p. 76).
Recall also the Rav's claim that the laws of Halakha are the basic data
of Judaism, out of which any understanding of Judaism must be derived.
Rav Soloveitchik believed that the demand for a strong intellectual
component in one's avodat Hashem, while true at all times, is especially
relevant in our generation:
"With keen sensitivity to the malaise of commitment affecting contemporary
Jewry, the Rav concluded that religious engagement of the intellect is
essential to the cure... [T]he Rav deemed our time propitious for the intellectual
'The young American generation ... is not totally engrossed in the pragmatic,
utilitarian outlook ... To the degree that average people in our society
attain higher levels of knowledge and general intelligence, we cannot imbue
them with a Jewish standpoint that relies primarily on sentiment and ceremony.'
(Divrei Hashkafa, p. 78)
If R. Kook witnessed the alienation of Jews from traditional religious
commitment and decided that his generation needed exposure to a comprehensive
Jewish philosophy deriving from the sources of Kabbala, the Rav offered
a simpler, more startling solution: renew the covenant with the exoteric
sources that confront directly our concrete experience." (Rav S. Carmy,
"Of Eagle's Flight and Snail's Pace," Tradition 29:1 ,
Talmud Torah is so central to the Rav's view of Judaism that he interprets
many seemingly unrelated mitzvot as actually being fulfillments of talmud
Torah. For example, he perceives sippur yetziat Mitzrayim (recounting the
exodus) on Pesach night as being fulfilled through Torah study. We do not
merely narrate a story; rather, we recount the exodus by means of exegesis
of biblical verses (midrash), recitation of set laws (mishna), and analysis
and conceptualization of halakha (gemara). Similarly, he sees the recitation
of Pesukei De-zimra (the psalms introducing the morning prayer) as an act
of talmud Torah - understanding our position vis-a-vis God, thereby allowing
us to petition Him. In fact, according to Rav Soloveitchik, all prayer
must contain a cognitive element; the word tefilla is derived from the
root PLL, denoting thought, judgment, discrimination. (See references below.)
[Tefilla, prayer, is to be distinguished from tze'aka, outcry: "While
tefilla is a meditative-reflective act, tze'aka is immediate and compulsive"
("Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah," p. 68). We will devote several
shiurim to the subject of prayer.]
THE EXPERIENCE OF KNOWLEDGE
While he intellectualizes certain experiential mitzvot, Rav Soloveitchik
also experientializes the intellectual mitzva par excellence, namely talmud
Torah. In other words, he repeatedly presents talmud Torah not merely as
a cognitive endeavor but also as a powerful experience. At first glance,
this may seem somewhat strange: the intellect is characterized by cold,
dispassionate analysis, precision and detachment, while emotion is characterized
by warmth, fervor and involvement. However, this seeming contradiction
dissipates when we realize that, for the Rav, pursuit of knowledge is a
passionate and consuming quest, especially when the knowledge is that of
Torah and ultimately of God. [Regarding the experience of knowledge in
general, see lecture #14 on catharsis of the intellect.]
Although one must approach Torah study with the utmost seriousness and
intellectual rigor, the attainment of Torah knowledge becomes a vibrant,
engaging and invigorating experience which reaches into the depths of the
"When a person delves into God's Torah and reveals its inner light
and splendor ... and enjoys the pleasure of creativity and innovation,
he merits communion with the Giver of the Torah. The ideal of clinging
to God is realized by means of the coupling of the intellect with the Divine
Idea which is embodied in rules, laws and traditions... However, halakhic
knowing does not remain sealed off in the realm of the intellect. It bursts
forth into one's existential consciousness and merges with it... The idea
turns into an impassioning and arousing experience; knowledge into a divine
fire; strict and exacting halakhic discipline turns into a passionate love
burning with a holy flame. Myriads of black letters, into which have been
gathered reams of laws, explanations, questions, problems, concepts and
measures, descend from the cold and placid intellect, which calmly rests
on its subtle abstractions and its systematic frameworks, to the heart
full of trembling, fear and yearning, and turn into sparks of the flame
of a great experience which sweeps man to his Creator." ("Al
Ahavat Ha-Torah," pp. 410-411)
LOVE OF GOD
The fusion of intellection and passion has a venerable history in Judaism
(although the Rav puts his own individual stamp on it). For example, the
Rambam wrote that love of God depends on knowledge of Him:
"One only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows Him.
According to the knowledge will be the love - if much [knowledge], much
[love]; if little, little." (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:6)
In other words, to know Him is to love Him. Given such a seemingly intellectual
and abstract conception of love, the following description may come as
somewhat of a surprise:
"And what is the love which is befitting? It is to love the Eternal
with a great and exceeding love, so strong that one's soul shall be knit
up with the love of God, and one should be continually enraptured by it,
like a lovesick individual whose mind is at no time free from his passion
for a particular wom, the thought of her filling his heart at all times,
whether he be sitting down or rising up, eating or drinking. Even more
intense should be the love of God in the hearts of those who love Him...
The entire Song of Songs is indeed an allegory descriptive of this love."
(Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3)
This passage serves as a source of great inspiration to Rav Soloveitchik,
and he dwells on it at length in his magnum opus on the religious experience,
Rav Soloveitchik often stresses the importance of love of Torah, and
depicts Torah study as a form of passionate clinging to God. As we saw
in "Torah and Humility," man bonds with God intellectually through
studying Torah, and man strengthens his emotional connection to God via
a mutual object of love - the Torah. Thus, the Rav frequently describes
Torah study as an encounter with God - even a form of revelation. Much
of his scholarship regarding keriat ha-Torah (public reading of the Torah)
revolves around this premise. For example, he champions the practice of
Maharam of Rothenberg to stand during Torah reading, since this is a re-enactment
of the revelation at Sinai (where the Jews stood to receive the Torah).
In revelation, there are two components: the contents (i.e. the actual
message, namely the Halakha) and the experience. Both aspects are crucial,
and the Rav finds it necessary to stress each. Against those who accuse
the Briskers of cold intellectualism, the Rav expounds the vital experiential
aspect of talmud Torah; against those (like Buber) who focus only on the
experience of encounter while ignoring the contents of the revelation,
he insists on the indispensability and centrality of the study and practice
of the law.
In discussing Torah study as a form of devekut (cleaving to God), we
must take pains to distinguish the Rav's conception from that developed
by certain branches of Chassidut. According to the latter approach, namely,
learning Torah FOR THE SAKE OF attaining devekut, Torah study is to be
viewed as a means to attaining some form of ecstatic experience. The method
is not one of intellectual rigor, and the actual contents of the learning
are of secondary importance.
For the Rav, a staunch advocate of the ideology of Torah lishmah (Torah
study for its own sake), one must adopt a method of strict intellectualism
and innovative analysis in Torah study. Torah is not to be approached with
less "sweep of creative thought, analytic acuteness, subtle abstraction
and systemic consistency" ("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," p. 205)
than any other field of intellectual endeavor. The experiential aspect
is a by-product of learning and not the reason to learn.
A MULTIFACETED EXPERIENCE
Apart from devekut, the experiential aspect of Torah study takes on
many other expressions, some of which we will briefly enumerate:
a) the uplifting and majestic experience of cognition and creativity
("Al Ahavat Ha-Torah," pp. 409-410);
b) relating to Torah as a living personality, about whom one is fascinated
and to whom one is committed ("Remarks at a Siyyum," pp. 182-183;
"Ma Dodekh Mi-dod," pp. 70-75);
c) the experience of a living tradition, of communion and dialogue with
previous generations of the Massora ("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham,"
d) purification and sanctification of one's personality.
"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." ("Torah and Humility")
Based on the famous aggada depicting a baby being taught Torah in the
womb (Nidda 30b), according to which Torah remains latent in one's personality
and is rediscovered through study, the Rav states that talmud Torah helps
man find his inner self and thereby redeems him ("Redemption, Prayer,
Talmud Torah," p. 69). In fact, the public reading of the Torah on
Monday, Thursday and Shabbat was instituted primarily for this purpose
(Shiurim Le-zekher, vol. 2, pp. 205-7; vol. 1, pp. 164-168, 175-178).
According to Rav Soloveitchik, there are additional dimensions to talmud
Torah - for example, Torah as a means of perceiving the world and not just
as a source of norms. We will deal with these in later shiurim, especially
those on Halakhic Man and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham."
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
1. Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim: Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari z"l, vol.
2, pp. 152-163; "The Nine Aspects of the Haggada," in Shiurei
Harav, ed. J. Epstein (Hoboken: Ktav, 1994), esp. pp. 35-37; see also Shiurim
Le-zekher, vol. 1, pp. 2-3, note 4.
2. Pesukei De-zimra: Shiurim Le-zekher, vol. 2, pp. 17-34.
3. The Experience of Torah Study:
A. "Al Ahavat Ha-Torah U-ge'ulat Nefesh Ha-dor," in Be-sod
Ha-yachid Ve-hayachad, ed. P. Peli (Jerusalem: Orot, 1976), pp. 403-432;
reprinted in slightly abridged form in Divrei Hashkafa (Jerusalem: WZO,
1992), pp. 241-258.
B. "On the Love of Torah: Impromptu Remarks at a Siyyum,"
prepared by M. Kasdan, in Shiurei Harav, pp. 181-186.
C. "Ma Dodekh Mi-dod," in Divrei Hagut Ve-ha'arakha (Jerusalem:
WZO, 1982), pp. 57-98.
D. "Torah and Humility" (lecture #11 in this series).
E. "Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah," Tradition 17:2 (Spring
1978), pp. 55-72.
Of course, this is also an important theme throughout "Halakhic
Man" and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham."
4. Rambam's Concept of Love of God: Shemoneh Perakim, chapter 5; Sefer
Ha-mitzvot, aseh 3; Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:1-2; Hilkhot Teshuva chapter
10; Guide of the Perplexed III:51.
5. Love of Torah: see reference 3 above, essays a-d.
6. Keriat Ha-Torah as Revelation: Shiurim Le-zekher, vol. 2, pp. 210-213.
On keriat ha-Torah in general, see the three relevant essays in Shiurim
Le-zekher (vol. 1, pp. 135-156 and 157-178; vol. 2, pp. 197-213).
7. Devekut: "Al Ahavat Ha-Torah," pp. 411-417; "U-vikkashtem
Mi-sham," chapters 11ff.; "Torah and Humility."
This shiur is provided courtesy of the Virtual
Beit Midrash, the premier source of online courses on Torah
and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all backgrounds.
Make Jewish learning
part of your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 All rights reserved to Yeshivat
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433