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The Goal of Torah Study
I recently heard a shiur, from an outstanding, brilliant and widely-learned Rav in the Charedi world whom I greatly respect, about the importance of Torah study. He spoke about how it is a given in Jewish thought that the main purpose of Torah study is not so that we should know halachah - in fact, he said, knowing halachah is so much not the main purpose of Torah study that it's almost as though this is not a purpose at all. Instead, he explained, the main purpose of Torah study is to metaphysically sustain the universe and for our minds to tap into the Divine. He quoted Maharal about how Torah is the energy source of existence, and compared it to how science describes the universe itself as being fundamentally made of energy.
This was consistent with everything that I was taught in yeshivah. In fact, in yeshivah, I was taught that this goal should primarily be specifically accomplished via learning Gemara; more specifically, via the Bavli; more specifically, via certain sections of Nashim and Nezikin; more specifically, by learning b'iyun rather than bekiyus; and more specifically, via a specific derech halimmud.
But, as my studies have increased, it now appears to me that this is similar to so many other topics - it is an approach which began around the time of Maharal, gradually became more and more popular, and eventually became so entrenched in people's minds that they began to read it back into earlier sources and believe that nobody ever thought differently. In this case, the full-fledged treatment given to this idea by Rav Chaim of Volozhin was especially influential; popular belief is that he was simply describing what everyone always thought rather than originating anything.
R. Dr. Yitzchak Twersky, in describing the other extreme - Ibn Kaspi's "putting down" of learning Gemara vis-a-vis studying philosophy and metaphysics - refers to this pattern:
“...This confrontation continues when we find the Maharal of Prague vehemently denouncing those who ridicule the study of Nezikin while revering the study of physics; he repeatedly exposes the fallacy of such argumentation. If we were to look ahead, we could see the Maharal's position as a historical fulcrum: on one hand reacting against the position established by Kaspi and on the other setting the stage for that position usually attributed to the two great contemporaries and antagonists of the beginning of the nineteenth century: R. Hayyim of Volohzin and R. Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the two great ideologues of pure Talmud study which is, in the final analysis, to be perceived as study of God's essence. All Talmud study is useful and perennially relevant; expending time and energy in order to understand even the discarded opinion in a debate or the wrong view in a controversy is unquestionably meritorious, for it is study of the word of God, it is thinking God's thoughts. Study per se is practical and need not seek to anchor itself in an external, self-transcending relevance. All Talmud study is self-validating and its universality should be the ideal for all. This, of course, is the absolute antithesis of Kaspi's restrictive attitude which would make Talmudic knowledge a purely professional concern nurtured by pragmatic or utilitarian criteria...
Chapter 11 of Tiferet Yisrael goes one step further in the reaction against the Kaspi-type position and the vindication of pure Talmud study... In the history of ideas, this may be seen as setting the stage for R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, sha’ar IV chaps. 6, 10.” (R. Isadore Twersky, “Joseph ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual,” pp. 246, 257)
Over the next few days, I will post various sources from the Rishonim which speak about the goal of Torah study - and please feel free to contribute more sources.