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Intellect and Experience

Rav Reuven Ziegler
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In lecture #11, 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.


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], p. 290)

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 quest:

'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 [1994], pp. 26-27)

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.]


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 human personality:

"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)


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, "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham."


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.


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," pp. 230-233);

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."



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."



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