Thursday, June 30, 2016

What is the Highest Form of Human Endeavor?

A friend sent me a mission statement from his children's yeshiva day school, which opened with "The Yeshiva continually emphasizes that the highest form of human endeavor is the study of Torah." My friend had a question for me: Is this indeed true? Does classical Judaism maintain that the highest form of human endeavor is the study of Torah?

I find this claim intriguing. I'm fairly sure that whoever penned it presumed that he was saying something perfectly normative, traditional, and even unequivocal. However, while there certainly are figures in our history who would agree with this statement (such as R. Chaim of Volozhin), there are many more who would not, especially amongst Chazal.

Now, many people would immediately assume that Chazal certainly held that Torah study is the highest form of human endeavor. Chazal said that Talmud Torah k'negged kulam! However, as discussed in two posts on this topic, Talmud Torah k'negged kulam just doesn't mean that. First of all, the corresponding text in the Tosefta lists the cardinal sins of adultery, murder, and idolatry, and then says, "and lashon hara k'neged kulam," so the phrase k'neged kulam is clearly an exaggeration.  Second, Chazal also say that Shabbos, Bris Milah, living in Eretz Yisrael, Tzitzis, and Gemilas Chasadim are k'negged kulam. Thus, the phrase Talmud Torah k'negged kulam does not mean that it is the highest form of human endeavor.

More relevant to our discussion is the dispute in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) about which is greater, study or practice. This dispute was resolved with the conclusion that study is greater. That would seem to indeed demonstrate that the highest form of human endeavor is the study of Torah.

And yet, as with so many other things, matters become more complicated when you look into it carefully. The Talmud's conclusion is not merely that study is greater. It's that study is greater because it leads to practice.

There are two very important ramifications of this statement. One is that the sort of study being discussed is the sort that leads to practice. That is not necessarily the kind of Torah study that takes place in yeshivos. For more on this, see the excellent and very important article by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Hersh Fried, "Is There a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living? And If So, How Can We Connect Them? A Focus on Middos" (link).

The second important ramification is that if study is greater because it leads to practice, then this effectively means that practice is greater! Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his excellent study of this topic, notes that many authorities interpret the Gemara to mean that study is "greater" only in the sense that it takes precedence; you have to study the Torah in order to know how to practice it: 
"One could thus suggest, as indeed many have, that the assembly's preference for study is meant only in a chronological sense; it is to be propaedeutic to practice. To be sure, it is indispensable to practice and therefore has to come first, but it serves only as a means to achieve another end, namely, practice, which remains axiologically superior." (Torah Lishmah, p. 141)
(It is true that Rambam held that study is indeed the highest form of human endeavor. However, the type of study that Rambam had in mind was that of philosophy, not Gemara. As the Vilna Gaon points out, Rambam was deeply affected by Greco-Islamic thought. In the role that he attributed to philosophical contemplation, Rambam represents an unusual departure from both those who preceded him and those who followed him.)

The notion that Torah study is the highest form of human endeavor is based on mystical thought, and it was created by R. Chaim of Volozhin as a response to Hassidism. Hassidism innovated new relative importance to spiritual experiences vis-a-vis Torah study, and did not require halachic expertise for spiritual leadership. R. Chaim of Volozhin responded by creating a new role for Torah study, in which it took on mystical significance beyond anything ever proposed by Chazal. (See my post Torah Lishmah and Reformations of Tradition.) Here are the words of two Rishonim who represent the normative, classical Jewish position on this topic:
“ ‘It is not the study that is the main point, but rather the practice’ – That is to say, the goal of a person’s knowledge and toil in Torah is not that he should study much Torah. The goal is nothing other than that it should bring him to practice. And that is what is written, ‘And you should study them and guard them to fulfill them’ – it comes to teach that the purpose of study is for nothing other than practice.” (Rabbeinu Bechaye Commentary to Avos 1:17; see there at length) 
“It is not the study that is the main point, but rather it is a man’s good deeds that pull and bring him into the next world.” (R. Shimshon of Shantz, Comment to Sifri Acharei 9:9)
Let us also consider what message we wish to send to children. Should we be "continually emphasizing" to our children that studying Torah is more important than anything else? What about being a good person - perhaps that is more important than anything else? When R. Chaim of Volozhin wrote his open letter to launch the Volozhin yeshivah, he wanted to show that learning Torah is more important than anything else, and he approvingly quoted the Kabbalist R. Chaim Vital as saying that a person who can but fails to learn Torah forfeits his share in the World-to-Come, even if he has good deeds (Lamm, Torah LiShmah, p. 139). While this does not necessarily imply that somebody who does learn Torah earns a share in the World-to-Come even if he lacks good deeds, the message that comes through is certainly that it's more important to be a Torah scholar than to be a good person. Should that be the message that we broadcast?

Right now, my community is reeling in shock over the news that an outstanding local Torah scholar turned out to be a serial predator. But you don't have to turn to such an unusual case to be disturbed about teaching that it's more important to be a Torah scholar than to be a good person. A friend of mine, who taught in a yeshivah for many years, recently mentioned to me that he knows of several yeshivah rebbeim who have deeply problematic personalities, causing great harm to students, and he observed that their behavior would not be tolerated in any job other than yeshivah rebbe. There is not necessarily any correlation between being a Torah scholar and being a good person; our community errs not only in assuming that the former is also the latter, but also in emphasizing the former over the latter. There are far too many cases of people who receive respect for their Torah scholarship but who are severely lacking in the integrity and middos department. We need to be stressing to students that more important than Torah scholarship is that you are a person of integrity and good middos.

If Chazal and classical Judaism do not maintain that the highest form of human endeavor is Torah study, then what is the highest form of human endeavor? The answer is that there isn't one. Traditional Judaism does not specify a particular form of human endeavor as being the greatest. God requires different people to do different things at different times. Keeping Shabbos, serving in the Beis HaMikdash, making a bride and groom happy, escorting the dead, learning Torah, supporting your family, building up the Land of Israel and its economy, giving tzedakah, etc., etc., all have their time and place. There is no one thing that is more important than anything else. To quote the end of Koheles: סוֹף דָּבָר הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר כִּי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם. "Fear God, and observe His commandments, for this is the entirety of man."


  1. This is a fascinating post given the recent controversial piece Donniel Hartman just e-published on putting pursuit of God to pursuit of decent behaviour.
    One should also consider how many descriptions of Moshiach times describe us as sitting around all day doing nothing but learning Torah.

  2. ...Tosefta lists the cardinal sins of adultery, murder, and idolatry, and then says, "and lashon hara k'neged kulam," so the phrase k'neged kulam is clearly an exaggeration.

    It's not an exaggeration, it is meant that lashon hara can lead to all of the above.

    1. Even if that were the unequivocal meaning, you would still be recognising that lashon hara is only "so very terrible" because the murder, adultery and idolatry it causes are bad. In other words, lashon hara which doesn't lead to these things (i.e. most lashon hara) isn't as bad.

      This is actually just another way of expressing R' Slifkin's claim. Chazal didn't exaggerate pointlessly. They exaggerated for the same reason anybody does. To emphasise the importance of something which would otherwise receive less attention than it requires.

  3. Spot on as usual Rav Slifkin! I would add just a couple of points:

    1) Another important source is the Netziv's intro to Sefer Bereshit where he explains that another name for the Sefer is Sefer HaYashar because that's what the Avos were known as - not as tradition or talmedei chachamim, but their essence and greatness were defined by their Hashems.

    2) The Gemara discusses why Second Temple was destroyed even though the level of Torah study was so high -- b/c they did not recite Birchat HaTorah. I think it is the Ran who says that this is because they viewed Torah study as some form of intellectual exercise; if you appreciate Torah as the blueprint for living an ethical, honest and moral life and maximizing the Tzelem Elokim in you, then you make Birchat HaTorah.

  4. A couple of autocorrects in my post above - "tradition" should say "tzadikim" and "Hashems" should say "yashrus"

    1. Your auto-correct is clearly a polytheist

  5. Or how about Pirkei Avot - The world stands on 3 pillars - Torah, Avodah, and Gemillut Chassadim." 3, not 1.

    On the other hand, while the Chareidi world gives disproportionate value to learning Torah, even beyond what Chazal intended, our world does not give it enough emphasis. Perhaps in a misguided effort to not be associated with them, perhaps because other things that are important take up a lot of time and energy, but what proportion of our children choose to take even a year off just to learn Torah?

    Saying that it's the highest human endeavor is an exaggeration, but so is saying that what one learns in school is sufficient.

    It is difficult to find a balance. Which is fine, it should be.

  6. My highest human endeavor is to help Jews.

    For example:

    1. ... humanity, starting with the Jews.

      Again, from Rav Shimon Shkop:
      The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

      In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am [not] for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine, for the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts .

  7. just replace "study" with "living" in the mission statement
    joel rich

    1. Speaking of mission statements, here is mine, an already quoted bit of R' Shimon Shkop's introduction, suitable for printing, framing, and hanging in your school or study:

  8. Translating the Meshekh Chokhmah (Devarim 28:61):

    Therefore they said, “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world.” (Yerushalmi ch. “Hayah Qorei”) Because then [before birth] too he was a seikhel nivdal who grasped his Creator, may He be blessed. (Qorban Aharon, introduction) Similarly if he teaches others then his learning has a purpose, which is to preserve the species on a spiritual level. Therefore also, the one who learns but not for the sake of teaching they thus said, “it would have been pleasanter for him not to have been created.”

    If one's highest accomplishment is learning, there is no reason to ever leave the proverbial angel who teaches the soul Torah before birth. Why switch to an inferior education?

    And this whole attitude about learning is allegedly based on R Chaim Volozhiner, founder of the Yeshiva Movement. The current yeshiva movement tries to see itself as a continuation of the Lithuanian one, and will write all contrary evidence out of history. They also only learn the 4th sha'ar of Nefesh haChaim, and miss out on the majority of the book which talks about the loftiness of physical performance of mitzvos and of prayer. And so, they also miss this statement from his son, R' Yitzchaq Volozhiner, in the intro to Nefesh haChaim:

    He would routinely rebuke me because he was that I do not share in the pain of others. This is what he would constantly tell me: that the entire person was not created for himself, but to be of assistance to others, whatever he finds to be in his ability to do.

    And as one in the original Lithuanian Yeshiva Movement, this Other-Focus continued through to the 20th century. As in the opening words of the introduction to Shaarei Yosher:

    Blessed shall be the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, that our greatest desire should be provide benefit to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were).

    Note: I didn't find that quote from the Yerushalmi where the Meshekh Chokhmah cited it. But I did find it at Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b.

  9. See Yehezkiel, perek 18, for definition of a Tzaddik. Very clear and simple.

  10. When my family made Aliyah, my 7th grade son attended a "moderate" Haredi heder in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

    After a few weeks, he perceptively told me, "Ta, they've made the Torah Hashem", i.e., the Torah has been substituted for G-d.

    Given that the Torah was created by HaShem, they have put a creation before the Creator. This is - truth be told - a form of idolatry.

  11. So why is the halacha that one is exempt from doing a mitzvah when one is learning if someone else can do it?

    1. Avraham: Don't collect the golden eggs when it gets in the way of feeding the goose that lays them.

      In any case, the Yerushalmi severely limits that statement. See the Meshekh Chokhmah Devarim 28:61 inside. I have a series of blog posts that cover the MC:

      From my translation (taken from the 3rd post):
      With this what I wrote in my novellae on [tractate] Kesuvos can be understood that which we find in the Yerushalmi Berakhos [1:2, vilna 8a]: Does not Rabbi Shimon bar Yochaiagree that we would stop [learning Torah] to make a sukkah or to set up a lulav? [Does not Rashbi agree that one must study in order to do, and not to study not in order to do, for someone who studies not in order to do is better off not having been born?] In [tractate] Sukkah [25a], Rashi [“sheluchei mitzvah“] explains that those who are going someplace to learn Torah are exempt from sukkah and lulav. I explained there that the gemara is speaking of [travelling to] serve a talmid chakham. (see there)

      According to this, the reasoning is astounding: If it were about learning Torah, isn’t that something he could do before being born? Thus it is only to do. Therefore for the preparation for a mitzvah, such as the building of a sukkah, we also interrupt word of Torah. But to teach, even the preparation for [teaching], is dearer than fulfilling a mitzvah. For the mitzvah of teaching Torah is greater because one can only do the mitzvah via someone else.

  12. The Ran (on Qiddushin, Rif 14a) concludes that of course if one must stand for a sage, one must stand for a "ba'al ma'asim" (a master of [good] deeds?). After all, the whole value of wisdom is that it leads to action. Furthermore, the Tur (YD 244) rules that even those far wiser than him must stand in honor of someone who is a chassid uba'al ma'asim (pious and a master of [good deeds]). These positions are cited as cited as halakhah by the Arukh haShulchan (se'if 244:14).

  13. An interesting related article by Yehudah Mirsky:

    A. Rosenberg

  14. R'Slifkin,

    Please note the following passages:

    1) As the child must satisfy its hunger day by day, so must the grown man busy himself with the Torah each hour (Yerushalmi, Berakhot ch. 9)
    2) R'Yosef said: Torah study is greater than the rescue of human life
    Rav said: Torah study is greater than building the Beis HaMikdash (Megillah 19b)
    3) Torah study is of more value than the offering of daily sacrifice (Eruvin 63b)
    4) R. Meir said: when one studies Torah for its own sake the creation of the entire world is worthwhile for him alone, and he brings joy to God (Pirkei Avot 6:1)
    5) A single day devoted to the Torah outweighs 1,000 sacrifices (Shabbat 30a)
    6) Regarding studying Torah and marrying – one should first study Torah and then marry (Kiddushin 29b)

    The list goes on and on. It seems to be that according to classical Judaism and Chazal, the study of Torah is of incredible importance, more so than other commandments.

    The fact is that all Yeshivot and institutions across the spectrum, including KBY, Sha'alvim, Har Etzion, and YU, hold Torah study to be the greatest form of Avodat Hashem.

  15. Not sure how you jumped from "practice" to "good middos" and "integrity". Practice may mean bringing korbanos an other mitzvos in the Torah that may be considered today as too "ritualistic".

  16. A couple of notes:
    Firstly, although this isn't necessarily relevant to the value of Torah as the highest form of human endeavor, it should be noted that in no way was R. Chaim of Volozhin the first one to propose that the highest form of Torah study is that which is done for the purpose of amassing knowledge, as opposed to practice. Firstly, he is citing Rosh, (and the claim that the Rosh was working off an errant girsa and his opinion is not reconcilable with our girsa has been wholly debunked, see the comments to the earlier post). Furthermore, many other Rishonim and Achronim held such an understanding of limmud Torah, including R. Avraham of Montpellier, possibly R. Bachye, Sefer HaChinukh, R. Yosef Hayyun, and R. Yosef al-Ashkar. The Rishonim who do infer from the cited gemara that the purpose of limmud Torah is primarily for the sake of practice are from the same school of thought, (and not rationalists!).
    Interestingly, R. Moshe Almosnino understands that the mishnah in Avot 4:5 is endorsing both approaches to the purpose of limmud Torah, and in regard to R. Chaim's approach he writes: שחשבו רבים מהחכמים ששמו האושר והתכלית האחרון העיון והידיעה ובכלל שלמות השכל העיוני.
    Furthermore, many additional sources in Chazal support the view of the self-contained purpose of limmud Torah:
    רבנן דתמן בשם ר' יצחק דהכא ורבי טוביה בש"ר יצחק לטובתו אדם למד תורה ושוכח שאילו היה אדם למד תורה ולא שכחה היה מתעסק בתורה שתים שלש שנים וחוזר ומתעסק במלאכתו ולא היה משגיח בה לעולם כל ימיו אלא מתוך שאדם למד תורה ושוכחה אינו מזיז ואינו מזיע את עצמו מדברי תורה. (Kohelet Rabba 1:13)
    This one also supports the notion that the highest form of human endeavor is Torah study:
    אמר רבי אלעזר: כל אדם לעמל נברא, שנאמר כי אדם לעמל יולד, איני יודע אם לעמל פה נברא אם לעמל מלאכה נברא, כשהוא אומר כי אכף עליו פיהו - הוי אומר לעמל פה נברא. ועדיין איני יודע אם לעמל תורה אם לעמל שיחה, כשהוא אומר לא ימוש ספר התורה הזה מפיך - הוי אומר לעמל תורה נברא והיינו דאמר רבא: כולהו גופי דרופתקי נינהו, טובי לדזכי דהוי דרופתקי דאורייתא. (Sanhedrin 99b)
    Not to mention the statement in the subsequent discussion that one who maintains that limmud Torah which does not engender practice is worthless is deemed an apikorus:
    אפיקורוס כגון מאן? - אמר רב יוסף: כגון הני דאמרי מאי אהנו לן רבנן? לדידהו קרו, לדידהו תנו. אמר ליה אביי: האי מגלה פנים בתורה נמי הוא, דכתיב אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חקות שמים וארץ לא שמתי.


  17. (cont'd)
    We also find numerous statements in the gemara praising talmidei chakhamim, and requiring one to honor and revere them, (such as the Mishna that a mamzer talmid chakham takes precedence over the Kohen Gadol), something found only by limmud Torah, and not by anyone who has been involved in the performance of other mitzvot. Even without explicit statements that the ultimate purpose of people is to study Torah, (as per the gemara Sanhedrin, see R. Bachye in כד הקמח ענין תורה about this at length, as well as מעלת התורה by R. Avraham for a nearly exhaustive work), one of the gemara’s most prominent themes is the primacy of limmud Torah. It is a mark of ignorance to claim otherwise. It was clearly NOT invented by R. Chaim, and dismissing his work as an invention to counter Chassidut without dealing with any of the sources he cites is a little brazen.
    Just a few other examples:
    אמר רב יוסף: גדול תלמוד תורה יותר מהצלת נפשות. (Megilla 16b)
    אמר לו: כי טוב יום בחצריך מאלף. טוב לי יום אחד שאתה יושב ועוסק בתורה מאלף עולות שעתיד שלמה בנך להקריב לפני על גבי המזבח. (Shabbat 30a)
    כשם ששכר תלמוד תורה גדול מכל המצוות, כך עונש המבטל גדול מכל העבירות
    (cited by R. Yonah שערי תשובה 3:14 and Meiri Avot 2)
    A more appropriate response would be to cite the gemarot that discuss the necessity to combine limmud Torah with midot and chessed, and the evil of one who does not, as well as recognizing that Chazal demand an ever higher level of morality from a talmid chakham (v. Yoma 86a). Such as:
    אלא אמר רבא: כל הבא על אשת איש, אפילו למד תורה, דכתיב בה: יקרה היא מפנינים - מכהן גדול שנכנס לפני ולפנים, היא תצודנו לדינה של גיהנם (Sotah 4b).
    דאמר רב הונא: כל העוסק בתורה בלבד - דומה כמי שאין לו אלוה, (Avoda Zara 17b)
    While we certainly need to be stressing the need to be a good person and a ba'al midot, -especially in today's climate when many chareidi yeshivot seem to ignore this aspect entirely- claiming that limmud Torah is not primary is contrary to a large portion of jewish thought.
    R Stefansky

  18. Some defense for the Rambam can be found from the following Gemara:

    "A Great Thing - this is the workings of the Chariot; a Small thing - this is the legal discourses of Abaye and Rava." (Sukkah, 28a)

    We see that metaphysical speculation/meditation (which very well may overlap with philosophical subject matter) is superior to analyzing halachic legalisms.

  19. All the sources that you cite are no different than the phrase Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam. They are a combination of exaggerations and observing that learning Torah is of foundational importance because it enables you to do the other mitzvos. And you can find similar statements about other mitzvos:

    "Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah" – Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 1:1.
    "Tzedakah is greater than all the sacrifices" – Talmud, Sukkah 49b.

    And, of course, you have the sources that I cited in this post about learning only being greater insofar as it leads to action.

    With regard to your claim about a talmid chacham, see Micha Berger's comments above.

    1. R. Slifkin, I'm assuming that your comment is a response to mine. Firstly, your statement that k'neged kulam is an exaggeration comes from a misunderstanding of the term. It means that the performance of the Torah study is valued as much as the remainder of the mitzvot since it relates to them by facilitating their performance. This usage is consistent with other uses of k'neged kulam, such as tzitzit. Your notion that we find exaggerations about limmud Torah is unfounded. Moreover, k'neged kulam is indeed found by many mitzvot, however the rest of the statements are not, and certainly not with the same regularity or importance as Torah. I don't see how you can honestly dismiss all of it - a large portion of the Gemara - as "exaggeration".
      "All the sources that you cite are no different than the phrase Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam. They are a combination of exaggerations and observing that learning Torah is of foundational importance because it enables you to do the other mitzvos."
      Really? It's nice to throw out a line like that without actually responding to any of the sources. The Gemara in Sanhedrin is quite clear, for one. The fact that the Gemara you cited is in big letters in the post and the multiple sources I cited are here in small letters in the comments doesn't mean they are any less authoritative. But you seem to have already made up your mind before researching it.
      "And you can find similar statements about other mitzvos"
      Nowhere near the the same breadth of statements, or their emphasis.
      "And, of course, you have the sources that I cited in this post about learning only being greater insofar as it leads to action."
      And I brought multiple sources that agree with R. Chaim.

      "With regard to your claim about a talmid chacham, see Micha Berger's comments above"
      Yes. A few rishonim. But not the Gemara. And even they would agree that not all the halachot pertaining to revering a Talmid Chakham apply to a Ba'al Midot as well. Not to mention, again, that the Gemara heaps praise on a Talmid Chakham not found by one who performs other mitzvot.

      R. Stefansky

    2. FWIW, given what R' Chaim taught his son, I would argue that R' Chaim himself doesn't say what you think he does.

      He speaks about the lishmah of learning in contrast to that of mitzvos ma'asiyos (the topic of shaar 1) or tefillah (shaar 2). Not defining lishmah and all the more so his purpose in life. Read the haqdamah -- R Yizchaq discusses the centerpieces in how R' Chaim lived Yiddishkeit at length.

  20. Has no one here ever listened to Carlebach?

    The Rebbe Klonymus Kalman Shapiro of Piaseczno, author of Chovos Hatalmidim and Aish Kodesh, was a rebbe in Poland before the war, and had a yeshiva. He was shot by the Nazis in Trawniki labor camp.
    He used to tell his students the following.
    "Gedenkst shon, di greste zach in di velt ist, zu tun mit emetzin a tova." "Remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor."

  21. According to the Gra (Even Sheleima 2) it would depend on the person. If someone is has naturally good middot there is no contradiction. Learning Torah will make him a better person. However, if he has naturally bad middot it will make him worse. This is why Torah is compared to water. It makes everything grow.
    Thus it would seem that for the naturally good person learning is indeed the highest endeavor, as opposed to goal, which is the result of the endeavor, as it will make him an even better person. However, if he is a naturally bad person he first needs to improve his middot through other means.

    1. While discussing Even Sheleimah, what about the title his students gave to chapter 1? "יבאר כל דרכי שבירותהמדות הרעות בדרך כלל שהוא שורש כל עבודת ה׳ יתברך -- In which is explained all the ways of shattering the bad middos in general, which is the root of all avodas Hashem, may He be blessed".

      As for chapter two, I didn't see it there -- ch. 2 is about anger, physical desire and egotism in particular. Perhaps you mean Even Sheleimah 1:11 ?

      The topic of Torah to the soul: A comparison to rain for the ground; it causes what was planted there to grow, a cure or a poison. Similarly Torah, causes what is in his heart to grow. If what is in his heart is good, his yir’ah will grow; if what’s in his heart is a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” then the bitterness that’s in his head will grow.

      As they wrote “the righteous will walk in it, and sinners will stumble in it” [Hoshea 14:10, as explained by Chazal], and as they wrote “To those on the right the medicine of life is in it, and to those on the left, the poison of death.” [Shabbos 88b]

      Therefore one must cleanse one’s heart every day before study and after it of impure attitudes and middos with a fear of sin and good deeds.

      This [process] is euphemistically called “going to the bathroom”. They were was about this they hinted when they said “Going to the bathroom is greater than all of it.” (Berakhos 8a) And when they said “Whomever spends a long time in the bathroom, it is lofty.” (Ibid 55a) Also when they said, “Get up early and go, in the evening go” (Ibid 62a) they intend to say that in his youth and in his old age he shouldn’t distance himself a great distance from his Creator so that he couldn’t be helped.

      One must inspect which evil middah is strong within him, and after that clean it out. Not like those men of desire who wallow in what they want, and the desire grows greater. It requires a lot of slyness, to be “sly in yir’ah” (Abayei, Ibid 17a) in opposition to the “snake was sly”.

      One who is lazy in weeding out an evil middah, isn’t helped by all the legal fences and protections that he does. For any disease which isn’t cured from within…Even the fence of the Torah which protects and saves will be useless because of his laziness. (c.f. Rava, Sotah 21a; Bei’ur haGra Mishlei 24:31, 25:5)

      In any case, it would seem R' Chaim Volozhiner was not the only one of the Gra's students to believe that the Vilna Gaon placed refinement more central to defining our mission in life than Torah study.

  22. My answer to R. Slifkin’s question “Does classical Judaism maintain that the highest form of human endeavor is the study of Torah?” is to say that there is no such thing as “classical Judaism.” That ideas evolve over time in different communities. The Torah and the commentaries are so vast that you can find sources for everything. Thus Religious Zionists will find sources justifying their positions (which are really political positions) & Neturei Karta will find sources for their positions (which are also political). Every movement looks to the Torah and Chazzal the way a drunk looks at a lamppost – for support, not illumination.

  23. Doesn't Talmud Torah mean TEACHING TORAH?

    1. the torah has been allready given. it means teaching the fulfilment of the torah.

    2. But it DOES NOT mean learning Torah, correct?

      I can see why teaching Torah is k'neged kulam. If nobody teaches, then nobody knows what to do. Teaching is antecedent to learning.

  24. I just read your prior posts on this and was struck by one of the comments (by Hillel Brodsky) pointing out that there is a context to the mishna in Peah. Different from what he says, I would like to point out that the context is the REWARD for different mitzvos - "peiroseihen" in This World vs. "Keren Kayemes" in the Next One. And while honoring parents and kindness have rewards saved until Olam Haba, we then close with Talmud Torah Knegged Kulam, saying that the REWARD for learning (or teaching) Torah is comparable to the REWARD for all of these. It still implies that Torah study is awesome in its precedence and weight, but does not imply that one should absolve himself of other obligations in order to do it. (For example, l'havdil, like all Hollywood movies have taught us, even though one makes more money by going to work, there are times when one should NOT go to work and spend time with family. So here too, while mega-reward awaits those who learn a lot, there are times when one should spend time involved in stuff that "nebich" does not net him such a payoff in Olam Haba. Building relationships, defending the country, feeding one's family, are all things that net less reward in Olam Haba but still need to be done.)

  25. A case can be made that one of the main reasons for our treatment of Chazal as super-natural beings, rather than simply great people, is precisely because they appear to have invented the idea of the importance of learning Torah Lishma (including every story and medicine in Shas and every statement ever made by a Talmid Chacham etc.) despite the complete absence of any indications as to the value of this type of learning in Chumash/Torah Sh’Bichtav. And no, ושננתם and והגית are not sources for everyone to learn all kinds of things that we now call Torah Lishma. If we didn’t give Chazal the super-human treatment, many of us would come to the conclusion that Chazal emphasized what was important to them in much the same way that Charedi Gedolim today emphasize full-time learning and make all kinds of statements that most of us, including many in the Yeshiva world, ignore. Same goes for the right-wing DL Yeshiva world regarding Eretz Yisrael, although at least the importance of living in EY is all over Tanach.

    How else would we get people to take seriously a diktat to turn something which doesn’t appear in Torach Sh’Bichtav into the ‘Highest form of Human Endeavor’, at the expense of pulling their weight in society financially, militarily etc?

    Chazal may have been justified in what they turned into such a high priority, but I think it’s reasonable to ask how they arrived at this, whether we haven’t taken them a little too seriously. In any event, the fact that there are no sources in Chumash for this is something that needs to be noted.

  26. אי הגשמה, חמורה מאי הידיעה

  27. Natan: do you mean to claim that Reb Chaim of Volozhin consciously created something new as a means of countering the Chassidim? I find that, to put it mildly, hard to accept.

    1. In R Chaim Volozhin's day and for a generation or teo beyond, R Eliyahu of Vilna was not "merely" known as "the Vilna Gaon"; he was "haGaon, haChassid haAmiti". I do not know when they stopped paying attention to his piety beyond his ability to learn, but it was not R Chaim Volozhiner's problem.

      Remember also that the split between Yeshiva and Mussar didn't happen yet. The book as written by R Zundel Salanter's Rebbe, in other words, 2 generations up im Rav Yisrael Salamter's chain of mesorah. Nefesh haChaim can and is read by Mussarists (to the exten Mussar has an "is") very differently than the Yeshiva world does. Starting with not limiting themselves to just sha'ar 4.

      R Chaim Volozhiner's words to his son is a diredt precedent to the Alter of Kelm's workdview in which nosei be'ol im chaveiro (sharing your frind's burden) is cemtral to life's purpose.

      Rav Chaim didn't do the inventing, it is an agenda-driven rereading of his position. An articfact of Pulmus haMussar (the Yeshiva Movent's rejection of Mussar, 1880s or so until about WWI), perhaps.

    2. So you're saying that it wasn't really Reb Chaim who even was the cause of the change?

    3. Yes. it is pretty pbvious to anyone who rakes the first two sections seriously that R Chaim Volozhiner speaks of the power of mitzvos of action as fundamental amd esse tial when that's his topic, amd similarly prayer when discussing prayer. Three of the sections are each about different leg of a findamental triad - action, speech amd thought. To say he ends up centralizimg one over the others is a skewed read of the book. For that matter, the "chapters" between sectioms 3 & 4 are about vanquishing the evil inclination, not the study of halakhah as the end all.

      Add to that what he actually tells his son is the purpose of life. I mean, how are we even discussing this when the alleged primary source himself directly answers the question! "To be of assistance to others."

      And R Chaim's rebbe, the Gra, says that life is about refining middos. He himself produced the mussar movement as much as the yeshiva movement...

      The whole premise doesn't stand.

  28. I am not a scholar. On a practical, experiential level, I believe that the role of Jews in the is to make people conscious of God's presence in the world through the Torah and the doing the mitzvot therein contained. Learning Torah is to enable us to do mitzvot.Doing mitzvot correctly enables us to experience the world as Hashem wants us to. Using our free choice to do God's will enables to connect to him/her and bring his presence into the entire world.
    Thus, learning enables us to better do his will. But the ultimate goal is doing the deeds he wants us to do.
    And, each with the gifts that God gave him.

  29. התכלית המגיע מתלמוד תורה הוא יראת שמים (שו"ת הרמב"ם מהדורת בלאו סימן שכג

    כל העוסק בתורה כאילו הקריב עולה ומנחה וחטאת ואשם. ואמרו תלמידי חכמים העוסקים בהלכות עבודה מעלה עליהן הכתוב כאילו נבנה מקדש בימיהן. ולפיכך ראוי לאדם לעסוק בעניני הקרבנות ולהתעמק בהן, ואל יאמר שהם דברים שאין להם צורך היום כדרך שאומרים הברה בני אדם (רמב"ם פיהמש"נ סוף מנחות

    בשלשה כתרים נכתרו ישראל, כתר תורה וכתר כהונה וכתר מלכות (הלכות תלמוד תורה ג:א

    ממזר תלמיד חכם קודם לכהן גדול עם הארץ (תלמוד תורה ג:ב

    עון גדול הוא לבזות את החכמים או לשנוא אותן לא חרבה ירושלים עד שביזו בה תלמידי חכמים... וכן זה שאמרה תורה אם בחקותי תמאסו מלמדי חקותי תמאסו, וכל המבזה את החכמים אין לו חלק לעולם הבא (הלכות תלמוד תורה ו:יא

    ואל יהא אצלו תכלית הלימוד אלא ידיעתו בלבד, וכן אין תכלית האמת אלא לדעת שהוא אמת והמצוה אמת ולכן תכלית קיומם (פרק חלק)

    וכל העוסק בה לא ליראה ולא לקבל שכר אלא מפני אהבת אדון כל הארץ שציוה בה הרי זה עוסק בה לשמה (הלכות תשובה י:א

    הרי התורה סתם הוא הדיון בטומאה וטהרה וידיעת משפטיהן, וכך אמרו עוד בטומאות וטהרות הן הן גופי תורה ומדוע לא והן סולם לרוח הקודש כמו שאמרן טהרה מביאה לידי קדושה וכו' (הקדמת טהרות

    1. Well, I think that put's paid to it. Come on you rationalist crowd, how are you going to get out of these quotes then? If I may translate a little for the hard of hebrew, 'One who learns Torah intensively is as if he brought a variety of sacitifices' 'The only purpose of learning Torah one should consider is the knowledge of it alone, just as the only purpose of truth is to know it is true'. 'Anyone who deeply learns Torah, not through fear or for reward but rather for the love of the master of the universe, this is what is meant by learning Torah lishma.' 'Learning about tuma and tahara is the ladder to ruach hakodesh'.

      I would point out that these sources are about the supreme value of deep involvement in learning Torah. Not teaching. Not for the sake of keeping mitzvos. And for anyone who missed it, these are all from Rambam.

      Thank you, Give me a break.

    2. Why not include some quotes from Moreh Nevuchim, wherein we learn that for the Rambam, Torah includes a lot more than just TaNaCH. The Rambam held that the entire purpose of existence is to know God as completely as possible. To him, this means learning natural philosophy, as well as the words of TaNaCH. If you're going to quote one aspect, you should have the intellectual honesty to quote the other. To the Rambam, understanding physics is not just as important, but is actually a prerequisite to understanding Torah!

  30. R. Slifkin,
    To be honest, I'm a bit surprised you decided to advance a tradition-based argument for the non-primacy of limmud Torah, as opposed to a rational-naturalistic one. It is hard to accept, in purely naturalistic terms, that study in and of itself is the highest form of human endeavor. And although the party line might be otherwise, practically, Chazal have never had the last word in matters of hashkafa.
    You could have also pointed out that the Torah itself emphasizes the performance of mitzvot more than the study of Torah, as noted by Lion of Israel. (Even though we find its importance emphasized other places in Tanakh such as Tehillim).

    R Stefansky

  31. I'd have to agree with Ezra - Every movement looks to the Torah and Chazzal the way a drunk looks at a lamppost – for support, not illumination.

    From a purely experiential, practical perspective, I'd say it is hard to argue that learning Torah for Torah's sake is the highest form of Human Endeavour. Just like I find the whole argument about whether everything is in the Torah and whether Chazal knew everything etc a bit childish. Just take a quick look at history - at innovation, inventions and general progress. How many medical advances or other technological advances that have improved our lives, allowed us to live healthier and longer, to communicate with people all over the world resulted from talmidei chachomim based on their Torah studies? To my unscholarly eyes, it looks like we need to take a new look at what the purpose of Torah is, why Hashem gave it to us and what He wants us to take out of it. And that is probably more important than trying to identify the next microscopic insect infesting our lettuce leaves.


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