Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I Love My Kids' School!

My kids attend a school with the overly-complicated name of Beit Sefer Mamlachti-Dati Charedi-Leumi Ahavat Yisrael. One of my boys brought home his mid-year certificate last week. It was in a folder that was illustrated with photos from the school, and had a Torah teaching on the back. I was really taken aback by it. This teaching, which is from Rav Mendel of Kotzk, went totally against everything that I was always taught in the (charedi) yeshivos that I attended:
"Limdu Heitev" (Yeshayah 1:17) - "Learn to do good" says Rashi. We do not find anywhere in the Torah that man is commanded to be a lamdan and expert in all fields of the Torah. For the goal of learning Torah is not to be a lamdan, but rather a good person; to do good and to be good to others.
In the yeshivos that I attended, I was taught relentlessly that man is indeed commanded to be a lamdan. In fact, I was taught that not only is man commanded to be a lamdan, but this is his overriding goal in life. It was drilled into me, again and again and again, that anyone who does not become a lamdan, and who does not spend most of his waking hours learning Gemara, has essentially failed in his time on earth. It's not just that "being a good person" took second place; I don't think that in all my years in yeshivah gedolah, I ever once heard that mentioned.

The yeshivos that I attended followed the philosophy that originated with Rav Chaim of Volozhin. The approach of Rav Mendel of Kotzk, on the other hand, is from much earlier. In my post Learning Torah: Rationalism vs. Mysticism, I explained that this approach regarding learning Torah was the normative view of the rationalist Rishonim, whereas Rav Chaim of Volozhin's approach, while it originated with him, was made possible via the groundwork laid by the mystical school of thought.

In the past, I have suffered some frustrations with my childrens' school teaching non-rationalist approaches to certain topics. I am so happy that the school presents Rav Mendel's statement regarding the purpose of learning Torah!

66 comments:

  1. I am proud to say that my kids go to the same school.

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    1. What pronunciation do the kids use in that school? Do they say tav or sav?

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  2. There is a big problem with the rationalist approach. If you explain to students that the whole purpose of learning is only to be a good person, they'll only learn enough to be a good person. If they are taught that learning Torah somehow changes the spiritual fabric of the cosmos, gives one superpowers in other metaphysical dimensions, and keeps the universe from dissapearing, they won't stop learning.

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    1. There is a big problem with the all-or-nothing approach. If you assume that being a good person means that you will stop learning then you will choose whichever one you feel is more important. If you feel that your Torah learning will somehow change the spiritual fabric of the cosmos, do you think that God will be interested in changing the spiritual cosmos for the Torah learning of a not-good person?

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    2. So what's wrong with most people learning only enough to be good people? According to Midrash Kohelet only one man in 1000 is cut out to make a career of full-time learning, and that elite will be self-motivated to not stop learning.

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    3. Really? At which point can a person be said to be 'good' with no further need for improvement? Of course someone who learns Torah to refine their character will always have their work cut out for them. If you think the idea of becoming an intergalactic superman is a better foundation for learning, uh, more power to you, but i disagree.

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    4. In the real world, people are more attracted to the idea of being an intergalactic superman than being a good person. That's why the mystic approach won over the rational approach.

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    5. You may be confusing 'the real world' with 'inside my head', but okay. Agree to disagree.

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    6. Most people can't connect with the idea that learning hilchos lulav makes one a better person. But they can connect with the idea that learning about shaking a lulav changes the metaphysical structure of the cosmos.

      Personally, I see the mitzvos the way Rabbi Slifkin sees things, rationally. But most people don't see Torah this way. That's why the mystical approach is more popular. It works for most people.

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    7. How much is enough? Obviously this depends on the individual (and, in fact, the Chafetz Chaim rules that saying that a person learns three hours per day is either praise or lashon hara depending on his personal circumstances). The same is true of being a good person. Someone who goes into hi tech to make piles of money when he could have been a Tora teacher may not be considered to be a particularly good person.

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    8. Yes, but for instance, internalizing the lesson of achdus the arba minim come to teach, may go even further in affecting the cosmos since you can practice that every day. :)

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    9. JD

      Perhaps another reason why the rationalist approach doesn't appeal to people is because it seems strange that a Mitzvah, say Arba Minim, which is meant to establish unity (assuming you're correct), only applies on a few days during the year. Shouldn't we internalize unity everyday? The mystical approach doesn't have a problem because the benefits of it only work during a certain time of the year.

      By the way, does anyone have an answer to that question on the rationalist approach?

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    10. MK, Internalization means the lesson doesn't fade once the holiday is over.

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    11. See Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim http://www.teachittome.com/seforim2/seforim/the_guide_for_the_perplexed.pdf chapter on the reason for the mitzvos. He goes through all of the types of mitzvos and gives very simple rational reasons for them. He says, "I believe that the four species are a symbolical expression of our rejoicing that the Israelites changed the wilderness," no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, or of water to drink" (Num. xx. 5), with a country full of fruit-trees and rivers. In order to remember this we take the fruit which is the most pleasant of the fruit of the land, branches which smell best, most beautiful leaves, and also the best of herbs, i.e., the willows of the brook. These four kinds have also those three purposes : First, they were plentiful in those days in Palestine, so that every one could easily get them. Secondly, they have a good appearance, they are green; some of them, viz., the citron and the myrtle, are also excellent as regards their smell, the branches of the palm-tree and the willow having neither good nor bad smell. Thirdly, they keep fresh and green for seven days, which is not the case with peaches, pomegranates, asparagus, nuts, and the like." Makes sense to me, and I connect with it. But most people don't connect with it. Most people need to believe there must be some bigger reason for it.

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    12. Betzalel
      That is the purpose for the Mitzvah. But that's not mutually exclusive with there being benefits to the Mitzvah. For example, the mystical school views charity as an act of kindness - that doesn't mean there are no benefits to it. Talmud Torah is an act of understanding G-d's Word - that doesn't mean there are no benefits to it.

      JD
      But does everyone really internalize it from those few days? It seems more likely that people would internalize it if it was done every day of the year - or at least for a lot more than 7 days.

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    13. MK, of course not everyone really internalizes it! That's up to the individual. It CAN be internalized every day, for instance by being decent or even flat-out nice on a daily basis to every Jew regardless of spiritual level, rather than say, rock throwing or name calling. And should a person question why they're being nice to someone low on Torah and maasim tovim, they can think of the arba minim!

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  3. While I agree that fundamentally, the purpose of learning torah is to do good, I still have to take issue with this statement. Vishinantam livanecha - chazal say that the torah (all of it) should be on the tip of your tongue such that you should be able to answer any question without any gimgum. Furthermore, see Rambam hilchos talmud torah for elaboration on the importance of torah study.

    Again, this doesn't take away from the importance of stressing the "limdu heiteiv", but that stress should not come at the expense of factual accuracy, or at the expense of hasmadah in limmud hatorah.

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  4. Here's another citation from the Kotzker (cited in Rav A. Price's משנת אברהם - חיי שרה):

    וכמו שאמרו, אם רואה אדם שיסורים באים עליו יפשפש במעשיו. פשפש ולא מצא יתלה בביטול תורה (ברכות ה). והדקדוש מפורסם באם יש בו ביטול תורה איך קאמר פשפש ולא מצא? אלא, יתלה בביטול תורה, הכוונה, שלא רצה לעסוק במצות ה׳, ובצרכי הציבור מפני שהתירא מביטול תורה, וזה עוון פלילי, כי כל התורה לא באה אלא ללמד לבני אדם להועיל ולהיטב לאחרים ולא להתיראות ולחוש לעצמו בלבד

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    1. That explanation of the Gemara is not rationalist at all.

      Shmooli

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    2. Great quote!

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  5. In his excellent book The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim, Rabbi Michael Rosen describes Peschisha Hasidut (in which he includes Kotzk) as the only non-mystical form of Hasidut. The focus was on personal growth, not kabbalah and there are a number of stories of the rabbis of Peschisha and Kotzk mocking kabblistic prayer or segulot. Indeed, Reb Bunim was nearly placed in herem partly because of the actions of his Hasidim in mocking the segulot of other rebbes.

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  6. Yeah, yeah, time to invoke the Eliashiv Principle: They could say it , we can't.

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  7. Where is this rashi? I didn't see it when looking at the pasuk in Yeshayahu.

    Shmooli

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    1. It's Rav Mendel of Kotzk, not Rashi. Rashi is just the bit in quotes.

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    2. When I first read the post, I thought that you were quoting Rav Mendel quoting Rashi. It sounded "too good to be true" so I reread it and realized my mistake. You might want to reword it...

      In any case, any true Lamdan know that we don't hold of this statement of Rav Mendel. He was too busy trying to do good to learn this Sugya properly :).

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  8. Bringing proof to undermine limud hatora from a chasidshe rebbe as to claim that this was the accepted mainstream viewpoint, is akin to proving that chasidus itself was a mainstream view.

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  9. I have the feeling that this "mystical vs rationalist" argument is oversimplified. Although I know very little about Kabbalah, we do know that many people deeply involved in Kabbalah were very much involved in the world, and Eretz Israel in particular. They were not devotees of Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" attitude that has become so popular today among many religious Jews. The Vilna Gaon, a super Kabbalist, advocated aliyah to Eretz Israel and buying land here to develop yishuvim. He got a lot of criticism for this by people who claimed it was a waste of money and "not practical".
    Kabbalists like the Nazir (Rav David Cohen, father of Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen) was very involved in modern Israel. Hasidim like the Admor M'Gur in the pre-war period and who passed away in Jerusalem during the siege of 1948 also advocated buying land in Eretz Israel and was quite friendly with Rav Kook.
    Thus, the question to me is not so much "mysticism vs rationalism" but rather how does the Torah relate to Jews who are NOT full-time Torah studiers, how does the Torah relate to the other necessary roles in a modern society, particularly in Eretz Israel and how does the Torah relate to Jews who are not religiously observant yet whom identify as Jews. The big question for me is "do full-time kollel people believe that a Jew who is not like them has any spiritual value other than merely being a object of Hesed".

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    1. Great post. Like you and Yehuda P., I too think that too much emphasis is being placed on trying to put this (and many other issues, frankly) into one side of the other of a mystical vs. rationalist divide. (I'm also still not so sure that rationalism vs. mysticism is even the proper divide. Maybe something more like (supernatural) minimalism vs. maximalis.)

      Hayyim `Ovadya

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  10. Kind of ironic that the chasid is the rationalist here and the Litvak is the mystic, at least by these definitions.

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    1. The focus of chasidim was to undermine the gravity of limud hatora, but instead focus on mysticism . The haskafa of misnagdim was to fulfill the mitzvah for the sake of the mitzvah of Talmud torah and NOT have any other motivation.To justify "misnagdim"as mystics" is a gross violation of the truth. To illustrate: Lsheim yichud is not said before a mitzvah is done, torah is learnred during nitul, very not attracted by "mofsim". etc... (in this regard I'm speaking to the choir) But for rabbi slifkin to maintain that litvaks are mystical is the biggest joke I ever heard. I've attended many shmuessen, rarely was the emphasis of learning tora about mystical stuff. In spite of the fact that the nefesh hachaim speaks about it. To the contrary, learning for the sake of the latter would be considered shelo lishma!!

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    2. Anything can be perverted into an avoda zara.

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    3. suffice it to say that "the focus of chasidim was to undermine the gravity of limud hatora" amply illustrates that you are either ignorant of, or deliberately choose to ignore, the history of that strain of chassidus that goes from the Yid HaKodesh to Reb Simcha Bunim to Kotzk and Ger, etc. The entire raison d'etre of this "Chassidic counter-revolution" was to establish the primacy of limud haTorah among Chassidic Jews.

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  11. BTW, the verse in Yeshayahu is "Lamdu Heitev", not "Limdu"

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    1. Sorry, it is "limdu", not "lamdu"

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    2. You're right - my mistake. Thanks for the correction. Gotta stop relying on the memory at my age.

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  12. The problem that is so obvious in this conversation is that throughout history there were many Jews and many opinions. One person quotes this gemara another this midrash. These people had fundamental disagreements with each other. Other than most of the mitzvoh of the Torah, which is quite a lot, there is little consensus on anything.

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  13. This whole discussion reminds me of an aphorism that I heard from Rav Gifter in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter. When Dovid Hamelech is about to pass away he said to Shlomo: "וחזקת והיית לאיש", upon which Rav Yisrael commented "[Dovid did] not [instruct Shlomo to be] a gaon, not a tzaddik and not a philospher, be a MENTCH!!! But to become a real mentch, one must be a gaon and a tzaddik and a philosopher." The great emphasis placed on being a lamdan has always gone hand in hand with the perfection of the personality; this can plainly be seen when reading about the lives of the great scholars of previous generations (the book My Uncle the Netziv stands out in my mind, especially considering that he was an opponent of the mussar movement). If there is such a drive towards being a lamdan which is divorced from becoming a better person, it is a MODERN perversion, and certainly cannot be attributed to Rav Chaim Volozhiner.

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  14. In all your years in the yeshiva you were never taught the importance of being a good person? Are you sure? This is hard to imagine. My experience was different.

    Imagine a department of mathematics destributing a brochure with a saying to the effect that being a mathematician is not what's important, the main thing is know to count right? I don't know anything about the school, but I wouldn't want to send my children to a place that believes in עם-הארצות לכתחילה.

    The school

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    1. Let's extend your analogy to high school math. At the end of high school, we want everyone to have a good working knowledge of algebra, and if they have a bit of trigonometry and calculus, all the better. We don't try to teach differential equations or real analysis, because those fields only speak to people who are deeply interested in mathematics. We are trying to hit singles and doubles, so to say, rather than home runs. From a policy perspective, I would rather have lots of singles and doubles, rather than some home runs and a bunch of strikeouts. The current yeshiva model looks to create gedolim, so they swing for the fences, and as long as they get some number of gedolim out of it, the dropouts and burnouts are a cost of doing business. On the elementary and middle school level, limiting the number of burnouts and dropouts is more important than trying to create the next great lamdan.

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  15. I don't think it's such a rationalist vs. mystic divide as some of the commenters are making it out to be--The Ba'al HaTanya would be placed in the mystical school of thought, but he writes in the first page of Torah Ohr (a book of discourses on Bereshis and Shmos) that is a person rectifies his actions, he purifies his mind and heart 1000x more than if he would engage only in Torah and prayer: אם מתקן את מעשיו...נעשה לבו ומוחו זכים אלף פעמים ככה.
    The Rebbe used to quote this statement very often, in emphasizing the importance of outreach.

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  16. R' Chaim's Rebbe the Vilna Gaon said the purpose of life is to fix one's middos (even Shelaimah 1:1) - opening sentence.

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  17. Rav Soloveitchik said that even the phrase "talmid torah cn'eged culam" doesn't mean that Torah is better but that it leads to doing and doing is ikur. (from the book The Rav Thinking Aloud)

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    1. The Rav in Halachic Man is very clear that Torah is the single highest ideal..

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  18. It's enough to be just a good person-- that's a typical claim of chilonim. Gentile can also be a good person. A good-person-Jew without Torah is a good goy.

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  19. Is there any reliable source that the Kotzker ever said this? Or do we not ask for evidence if we like the quote?

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    1. The same is true for stories.

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  20. It's an ancient debate as to the relative priority of (torah) study or (mitzvoth) deeds. The stated concensus opinion in the Talmud gave priority to study that leads to deeds. Then there is the statement by the illustrious Amora, Rav, who stated that mitzvoth were only given to refine the person. The opinion stated in the name of R' Chaim of Volozhin which gave priority to 'limud lishma', (study fo its own sake), i.e., academic Talmud, was opposed by not only Hasidic figures but even more so by Mussar figures. One such figure was the Chofetz Chaim (R' Yisroel Meir Hakohen-Poupko) who was quoted by his relative as having said, "Someone who claims knowledge of torah but doesn't excel in midos, this (shul) table has a higher status" (it, too, holds sefarim, but has no detrimental midos). On another occasion he responded to someone who claimed to have mastered Shas, "but what has Shas taught you?".

    Y. Aharon

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  21. Today is the Kotzker's yahrzeit

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  22. Rabbi Slifiin,
    So I guess your kids will never learn the intracate details of kodshim or taharos or any of the other more esoteric parts of the torah seeing as they don't really make you into a better person. Its funny that the rambam wrote so much about those areas in the mishna torah.
    Obviously learning torah is supposed to make you into a better and more dignified person, but to say that that is the only purpose is clearly not true. There is value to knowing Gods laws and wisdom in of itself as well. And to really understand them and get to the conceptual underpinings one bust "be a lamdan".
    Additionally, I'm not sure which yeshivos you went to, but in the ones i have been too (including charedi ones) while there was much emphasis put on becoming a lamdan and a masmid, that was not the only focus. In many a mussar shmuez it was passionately emphasized that a person who learns but doesnt have good midos etc., his torah is worth nothing.
    shimmy miller

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    1. Rambam held that every mitzvah serves to either improve one's character, improve society, or teach us important lessons. Kodshim/taharos are no exception.

      By the way, if you're the Shimmy Miller that I was in yeshivah with, then in that yeshivah, I certainly do not recall "many a mussar shmooz" talking about the importance of good middos. At least in the years I was there, every single mussar shmooze was about bitachon and learning Torah.

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    2. I am a different shimmy miller, i'm probably some 15 years younger than you.
      Doesnt the rambam also talk about knowing truth for truths sake? (hilchos teshuva 10).
      העובד מאהבה עוסק בתורה ובמצות והולך בנתיבות החכמה לא מפני דבר בעולם ולא מפני יראת הרעה ולא כדי לירש הטובה אלא עושה האמת מפני שהוא אמת וסוף הטובה לבא בגללה. ומעלה זו היא מעלה גדולה מאד ואין כל חכם זוכה לה. והיא מעלת אברהם אבינו שקראו הקב"ה אוהבו לפי שלא עבד אלא מאהבה והיא המעלה שצונו בה הקב"ה על ידי משה שנאמר ואהבת את ה' אלהיך, ובזמן שיאהוב אדם את ה' אהבה הראויה מיד יעשה כל המצות מאהבה:
      what does he mean when he says "emes"?
      Maybe the yeshiva you went to was an exception. I can tell you that mussar (by which i mean the refining of ones character) is a major focus in many yeshivas.
      shimmy miller

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    3. I'm not sure what you're talking about. Did you ever bother opening up any of reb chaim shmulevit's works? or reb yiuchem zatzal? Large segments of them contain musser regarding bein adam lachaveiro. Again, what is the point in the amoraim spending so much time on intricate halachos? What lesson in life will that teach me?

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    4. and if you're both from the community I think you are then good middos seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

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    5. and once a year a shmooze about Bilaam's ass.

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    6. How can learning intricate Sugot, that are so detailed and non practical help someone become a better person? Are you advocating only learning certain Sugyot that fit with this theory (unless someone is training to become a Dayan)? E.g. why learn intricacies of Baba Kama, Eruvin if not for the Halachic aspect?

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    7. Rabbi Slifkin,
      Just to make things clear, do you hold that all the yeshivos from brisk/mir to YU/gush (and all the yeshivos from the previous generations) in which the vast majority of time is spent on gemara b'iyun are doing the wrong thing? Do you hold that becoming a baaki bikol hatorah kula in debth and bredth should not be a focus of ones life?
      shimmy miller

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    8. J.Dana, I'm surprised you used specifically those two examples. See Bava Kamma 119, "האי מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא, לקיים מילי דנזיקין", indicating that awareness of, and care for, other people's property and persons is not just crucial, but difficult; and Yoma 28, "קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירוב תבשילין", showing that sensitivity to different levels of kedusha and appreciation for them was part of what made Avraham Avraham.

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    9. Rabbi Slifkin,

      Your response is contradictory with your previous statements. You have repeatedly said that the only purpose of learning is to do Mitzvos. Kodshim and Taharos aren't very applicable as Mitzvos today, so they would not be able to "improve one's character, improve society, or teach us important lessons." Therefore, according to you, there should be no point in learning them.

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    10. I read a statement of the Steipler Gaon that Nashim and Nezikin are learned in the Yeshivot principally to sharpen the mind--לחדד את השכל. If a person if not learning in Yeshiva, he should focus on Berachos and Moed, to know what to do in everyday life, as well as Zevachim and Menachos, because "a person who learns the laws of the offerings is as if he brought them".

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  23. Im not sure which Yeshivas you went to, but I will tell you first hand in the chashuv yeshivas, Middos are drilled constantly. I was once talking to a certain Rosh Yeshiva and commented to him how well the bachurim behaved and how friendly they were. He said we teach them that "middos is just as much a part of the torah as everything else" (And trust me this place was yeshivish).

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  24. RT-
    I once heard that Rav Chaim Shmulevitz praised IDF soldiers and this raised a few eyebrows. I think we are seeing a generational change from the time Rav Chaim was around. His generation saw the Holocaust, the loss of Russian Jewry to Soviet Communism and the massive struggle to get the state of Israel off the ground.. Yes, there were bitter ideological fights between the anti-religious and religious sectors as well as between the Right and Left in Israel, but there was still a feeling of Jewish peoplehood and "in spite of everything, we are all in this together". In addition, at that time, families often had Haredim, Religious ZIonists and non-religious brothers and sisters and parents living together and all getting together for the Pesach Seder and Rosh Hashanah and interacting with each other, even if it lead to arguments.
    Now, ironically because of the success of the state, people are taking it for granted and families a dividing apart on religious ideological lines frequently with minimal contact between religious and non-religious relatives. There is less interaction, less dialogue among family members and less and less identification with Jews outside the Haredi community. Instead of seeing IDF soldiers within their family, even if they felt it would have been better if they had remained in yeshivah, they still saw the sacrifices and efforts their soldier-relatives made. Now, for many Haredim, the soldier is simply an alien, and vaguely the uniformed representative of the ideological opponent.
    All this leads to a decreasing personal respect for those Jews outside the fold and increasing emphasis on classifying everyone on an abstract religious/ideological level

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    1. I agree and I believe the true Lithuanian legacy is slowly disappearing .

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  25. Yeshivish & LitvishFebruary 12, 2015 at 3:04 PM

    If the Rambam really held that learning Torah is only to improve ones character and society etc, how does one explain the Rambam who writes in Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:4 that if one is learning and another mitzvah comes your way eg: visiting the sick (my example) if the mitzvah can be done by someone else one must not interrupt his studies for the mitzvah. How do you reconcile that Rambam with your view. Surely should one not run to do that mitzvah to improve society....?
    But on a broader topic I am quite surprised you send your kids to that school. I am sure they learn secular studies a few hours every day
    As you are someone who claims to follow the views of the rationalist rishonim eg the Rambam are you not aware of the Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:3 that a child should be taught Torah the whole day and some of the night...
    Are you a real follower of the rationalist Rishonim or do you follow your own brand of Judaism, what you are most comfortable with, and when it coincides with a Rishon you pin it all on him?
    Because if you follow Rambam you should take out your kids and put him in a charedi school where they learn Torah whole day.
    The truth hurts

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    1. I don't see how your reasoning contradicts Rabbi Slifkin at all.

      If you are a doctor learning Torah, someone is dying, and a Gentile doctor can save the person's life by himself, then there is no gain in you stopping learning Torah in order to save the person's life instead of the Gentile doctor. But there is a loss in you doing this, as both you and the Gentile doctor are not learning Torah.

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  26. The study of torah is not a matter of a single focus and objective. It entails both a quest for knowledge and a desire to improve oneself. The Rambam advocates both but places different emphasis in different parts of his Mishne Torah. Giving torah study a single focal point is therefore seen as a distortion.

    As to the proper study subjects when young, the inclusion of secular material that can aid the student's torah studies can't be dismissed. Mathematics is certainly helpful, as is a basic knowledge of language structure, nature, and history. Unfortunately, such subjects are forbidden in Israeli Hareidi schoos and are severely curtailed in corresponding US yeshivot. The Rambam was very familiar with contemporary secular studies, particularly philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. It is not clear to me when such studies started, but they presumably occurred before he became famous as a Talmudist. It is claimed that he attended a university type school when the family lived in North Africa.

    Y. Aharon

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  27. How does learning Torah make you a good person? If the goal is to be a good person, learn ethics! Torah/Talmud teaches many things that might make you not-such-a-good person: slavery, death penalty, second class status of women, discrimination against non-Jews, etc. If you are a fan of rational thought, then I'd say that this is not a rational reason for learning Torah. The more rational approach is what you were taught in yeshiva: to become a lamdan.

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