SHIUR 21: ACT AND INTENTION IN "NEFESH HA-CHAYYIM"

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

Thus far we have seen that "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," after describing at length a challenging program of purification and spiritual uplifting, goes back and warns about the spiritual danger lurking in that very same program. A person who occupies himself with matters of supreme theological importance is liable to fall into the snare of arrogance and haughtiness, and thus corrupt his character to the point that he is regarded as an abomination before God.

 

 Rabbi Chayyim does not stop here. Up until now one might have understood that Rabbi Chayyim truly and unreservedly advocates the centrality and superiority of the spiritual service that he describes, only that at the same time he is concerned about a certain damage that is liable to stem from this. The next quotation is taken from the beginning of the second of the chapters found between the third and fourth sections of the book:

 

And it can also cause a person to become arrogant of heart because he serves Him with purity of heart, so that he should look down, God forbid, if he sees someone serving God without purity of thought, and observing everything written in God's Torah without cleaving to Him. And all the more so when he sees a person occupied with God's Torah and he understands that his study is not for its own sake, he will very much scorn him, God forbid. And this is a criminal offense, may God save us. For truly the entire matter of purity of heart in God's service is a mitzva, but not indispensable… For whoever observes God's commandments as we have been commanded in the Written and Oral Laws, even without cleaving to Him, is also called a servant of God, and He is loved by Him.

 

Without mentioning them by name, Rabbi Chayyim enters here into the thick of the disagreement between him and the Hassidim regarding the place of intention in serving God. Returning to the controversy precisely at this point in the book can be seen as a brilliant tactical move. For after all that he wrote in the previous sections, the Hassidim could not argue that he is someone who doesn't know what cleaving to God is, or that he does not appreciate it. In this sense, the contrast between Rabbi Chayyim and an ideologue like Rabbi Pinchas of Polotsk stands out even more. Rabbi Pinchas completely rejected the credibility of spiritual experience, which the Hassidim raised to the top of their agenda, and he urged his readers to stay away from such experience and focus on Talmud study. Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, in contrast, knows from the inside what the Hassidim are talking about. He is fluent in all those realms in which their thoughts wander, and he himself shows the way and opens the gates for the student, in order to help him reach those heights. Nevertheless, one should not exaggerate the importance of cleaving, as it is only a mitzva, but not indispensable.

 

This statement in itself is still vague to a certain extent. When we say that purity of intention is not indispensable, so that the mitzva can be fulfilled without it, it is possible to understand that the intention is merely embellishment, and nothing else, and that the most important element in a mitzva is the action itself. On the other hand, it is possible that the Torah really wants and expects us to serve God with a pure heart and mind, but when it comes to the minimum formal requirements, it is ready to compromise, and therefore it does not require that one repeat a commandment that was fulfilled without the proper intention. According to the second option, someone who performs only the practical aspects of the mitzva,while abandoning the inner core, though he fulfills his obligation, does not actually meet the Torah's expectations. What, then, is Rabbi Chayyim's position on the matter?

 

Is one permitted to Learn Torah not for its own Sake?

 

Rabbi Chayyim focuses in this context on the matter of Torah study. As we know, many of the Hassidim were dismissive of Torah scholars who revered intellectual achievement at the expense of devotion and piety. Rabbi Chayyim writes about this as follows:

 

And similarly a person who occupies himself with God's Torah even not for its own sake – though he has surely not yet reached a truly high level, one should certainly not scorn him even in his heart. On the contrary, every man in Israel is even obligated to treat him with respect. As it is written: "In her left hand are riches and honor" (Mishlei 3:16). And the Sages expounded: "To those who go wrong (i.e., "left") with it."  

 

Based on the words of the Zohar, Rabbi Chayyim further asserts:

 

Even if a person occupies himself with God's Torah not for its own sake, but out of some personal interest, provided that his objective is not to antagonize others… the Holy One, blessed be He, sets him a proper reward, as he deserves riches and honor and peace in this world. He is also not judged in this world for that thought and the self-interest that he had. And all the more so if he does not act out of some personal interest, even though his intention is not specifically for its own sake, that is, for the sake of the Torah, as I will explain below in section 4, chapter 3, in the name of the Rosh, but rather his primary occupation in Torah is undefined, which is deemed as if it were for its own sake. His occupation with Torah is exceedingly precious in God's eyes, more so than any other mitzva performed for its own sake with pure and holy thought as is proper.

 

Rabbi Chayyim alludes here to the definition of "Torah for its own sake," which he will later develop in the fourth section[1] of his book. He distinguishes here between three levels of Torah study not for its own sake. The most serious is when a person studies Torah for a negative reason – "to antagonize" – to cause quarrels and increase dissension. In fact, this is the only level that one is obligated to refrain from. The two other levels – undefined study that is not accompanied by any particular intention, and study undertaken for some ulterior interest – Rabbi Chayyim pronounces fit. The Sages said about them: "A person should always occupy himself with Torah study, even not for its own sake." Rabbi Chayyim asserts that Torah study is at a higher level than observance of the commandments, to the extent that even Torah study not for its own sake is preferable to observance of the commandments at the highest level of intention, that is, for their own sake.

 

Not only with respect to Torah study, but even with respect to the other commandments, Rabbi Chayyim maintains that the act itself is the essence, while the intention is merely a supplement:

 

… For our Sages have already taught us that the essence is performance of the mitzva at its proper time, with all its details and minutiae, a statute not to be transgressed. You should join the purity of good thought to the action, and then you shall go in safety, and this and that will endure in your hands. And they taught an explicit Mishna: "Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, even his wisdom is enduring." (end of chap. 8)

 

The uniqueness of Rabbi Chayyim's approach can be understood against the background of the view of the Vilna Gaon on the matter of "for its own sake." As opposed to Rabbi Chayyim's forgiving attitude, the Gra saw the phenomenon of egotistical "not for its own sake" study as a sign of real moral degeneration. In Even Shelomo, which collects the Gra's primary moral positions,[2] it is stated:

 

For the righteous, even eating and other bodily matters are holy, as they do everything for the sake of Heaven. But there are people who engage in Torah study and the performance of good deeds only to boast about it. They are residents of Gehinnom, from the erev rav.

When the evil inclination incites a person to study Torah for his own pleasure or for a rabbinical position, and he is unable to stand up against it, at that time it is better that he study Mussar books until the evil inclination leaves him, and then he should study Torah. (Even Shelomo, p. 80)[3]

 

One who studies Torah for some selfish objective is a real sinner, worthy of Gehinnom, and the fact that he studies Torah does not compensate or atone for that. If he cannot overcome his evil inclination on this matter, it is preferable to take a temporary break from his study. It is clear that if the Gra recommends refraining from Torah study, the situation must be very serious. In his eyes the Torah is pure and noble, and it is absolutely forbidden to approach it without first cleansing his will of all alien interests. In the eyes of his outstanding disciple, however, it is precisely the loftiness of Torah that innoculates it from injury, and its holiness is maintained despite the person's inability to renounce petty utilitarianism. Chazal already established that "words of Torah do not contract ritual impurity," and in this spirit it may be suggested that the Torah does not suffer harm even if the student's moral perfection is lacking. Persistence in actual Torah study is much better than success in eradicating bad intentions.

 

Intention that causes practical harm to the mitzva

 

Rabbi Chayyim adopts an even more extreme position regarding the relative marginality of good intention. In his opinion, while faulty intention does not cause harm to the mitzva, it is precisely the effort to reach proper intention that is liable to harm it, from a practical perspective. He argues that the evil inclination can fool a person who is striving for sanctification, for that person is liable to value the spiritual influence of the religious experience to such an extent that he allows it to take hold of his time and energy, until in the end he will come to perform the commandment only after its proscribed time has already passed. This, notes Rabbi Chayyim, is the source of the phenomenon that we already encountered – delays in prayer. The problem in his view is not only the lateness; the approach that conditions the value of the mitzva on purity of intention must necessarily lead to violations of various types:

 

Even if it does not cause you to stumble by passing the proscribed time, it will direct your heart to purity to the point that you will not have the time to be precise about performing the mitzva in a proper manner with all its details, and to take care not to violate explicit laws in the Talmud and the words of our great Rabbis. Let your evil inclination not promise you that it cannot be that excessive preoccupation in purity of thought will cause you to neglect performing the details of the act. For you should know that as long as your heart is drawn to the position that says that the essence of man's Torah is that any mitzva or study that is not clean of all chaff like fine flour, should not be seen or found, it bribes you with this and blinds your eyes, to the point that you cannot be careful about all the details of the actions and the laws and that you will violate, God forbid, and not feel them at all. (end of chapter 4)

 

Prayer without proper intention

 

One of the Rabbi Chayyim's most novel positions is that intention is not necessary even for prayer. Thus far he stressed the act of the mitzva itself as the primary element, as opposed to the accompanying intention, when it came to Torah study and mitzvot in general. There are, however, mitzvot, regarding which it would appear that the essence of the mitzva is precisely the thought and feeling in the heart. Above all, this seems to be the case regarding the mitzva of prayer. Following Chazal, the Rambam defines this commandment as "service of the heart." Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik used to emphasize that in the case of prayer a distinction must be made between the act of prayer and its fulfillment. The act is performed by the person's limbs and body – when he stands in prayer, moves his lips and sounds the words. But even if the person performs all of the required actions in proper manner, the mitzva is only fulfilled by virtue of the intention in his heart, all the external actions being expressions of that intention. The "heart" of the mitzva is its inward performance. Rabbi Chayyim, however, says just the opposite:[4]   

 

Not only in the mitzvot involving an action is the essence the action, but even in the mitzva of prayer which is called service of the heart, as Chazal taught us in the beginning of the first chapter of Ta'anit, from the verse: "And to serve Him with all your hearts." This notwithstanding, the main thing is that a person must frame every word in the text of the prayer distinctly with his lips, as Chazal learned at the beginning of chapter Ein omedim from the verses regarding Channa, as it is written: "Only her lips moved" - from this we learn that he who prays must frame the words distinctly with his lips… For if he merely meditates upon the words of the prayer in his heart, he does not fulfill his obligation regarding prayer at all. And if the prescribed time has not yet passed, he must pray a second time framing each word distinctly with his lips. And if the prescribed time passed, he must recite the next prayer twice, in accordance with the law governing someone who has not prayed at all… But when he prays merely with a voice and with distinctly formulated words, even if he does not join to it proper thoughts and intentions of the heart, though surely it is not at the high and perfect level as it should be, and the prayer cannot rise to the world of "thought" – the world of the soul – as it is lacking the aspect of human thought, nevertheless it is not, God forbid, in vain, and he fulfills his obligation, for in any case he raised and tied his soul to his spirit, and the world of the soul to the world of the spirit. (chapter 5)

 

Thus we see that, according to Rabbi Chayyim, a person who prays without the proper intention fulfills his obligation. Paradoxically, he explains the matter based on the connection between human actions and the supernal worlds. The prevalent view maintains that a person can only connect to the spiritual spheres by way of his thoughts, for only his thoughts are capable of bridging between them and our physical presence. But Rabbi Chayyim suggests that the world of the soul and the world of the spirit are accessible through man's actions and words, even without his thoughts. Thus, the words and the action are the basic content of prayer. A pure thought will indeed improve one's prayer and raise it to a higher place, but this is not part of the fundamental halakhic requirement.

 

This halakhic ruling is not familiar to me from any other source, and it contradicts an explicit ruling of the Shulchan Arukh,[5]which itself stems from talmudic passages that are no less explicit. It is possible that Rabbi Chayyim sees the traditional ruling of the Shulchan Arukh as a rabbinic stringency, while his position regarding the marginal nature of intention relates to the fundamental essence of prayer, on the plane of the basic Torah law.[6] Whatever the case may be, the very position testifies to the extent to which Rabbi Chayyim goes to emphasize the weight of the mitzva act as opposed to the intention.

 

Complex educational challenge

 

The views of Rabbi Chayyim discussed above require of a person that he humbly withdraw from his attempts to reach the experience of cleaving to God, and that he recognize that accepting the yoke of God's kingdom dictates the boundaries of such activity. His words constituted a clear Mitnagdi position, which updates the approach that had prevailed among the Lithuanians at the outbreak of the struggle. This creates a complex religious and educational challenge, which offers a new answer to the old question over which the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim sparred: Is the religious experience credible, or is it merely self-deception?

 

On the one hand, Rabbi Chayyim lays out his detailed and reasoned plan which encourages man to aspire to higher levels of holiness. His teachings assume that man's spiritual senses are reliable, and that his own experience attests to his achievements and elevation, which advance up the ranks as long as he persists in his efforts. However, that same persistence is liable to set a person on a collision course with God's will, and in that situation a shadow is cast on the credibility of the experience. The person must understand that the decisive consideration is practical observance of the Torah and Halakha. His experience turns from authenticity to illusion, at the very point that he becomes distracted from precisely executing what is required by Halakha.

 

In conclusion, humility and acceptance of the kingdom of heaven stand above all other things. Personal religious ethics limit the boundaries of the experience, but nevertheless one must educate and strive towards a rich religious experience, without turning it into an idol. Rabbi Chayyim believes that this goal is possible.

 

A mitnagdi Alternative to "Nefesh ha-Chayyim"

 

Even though this is the approach that emerges from "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," we would veer from the truth were we to ignore the difficulty it involves, and the place to which this difficulty leads.

 

Rabbi Chayyim argues that journeying to the realms of the spirit is good and appropriate, provided that the person meticulously fulfill all of Halakha's requirements. But is such meticulousness simple or easy? Rabbi Chayyim is concerned that clinging to inner feeling will endanger the details of the law – should we remain in that state. But what if we don't remain there? Surely exactitude in the practical observance of Halakha is a complex matter, filled with doubts and uncertainties, both regarding the Halakha itself, and regarding its practical interpretation and application in all possible cases, and regarding the search for the best practice among several options. How many resources does this challenge demand of us, if we truly wish to exhaust it, and not content ourselves with the minimum? Will there be any time and energy left for other things, such as spiritual intention?

 

"Nefesh ha-Chayyim"presents two levels – the practical level, which is the main level and the one expected from every individual, and the additional conceptual-voluntary level, which is the wide expanse where the elite reach greater heights. Truth be said, in other places Rabbi Chayyim expresses himself differently. The very meticulousness about full observance of the practical Torah is already a great challenge. This front in itself already invites the excellence of elite individuals, to exhaust their powers as servants of God.

 

This, for example, is what Rabbi Chayyim said to his disciple, Rabbi Zundel of Salant:

 

… The essence of piety [hassidut] is great zeal in performing the mitzvot, and being meticulous about them, and fulfilling them with utmost caution and exactitude, being precise even about something that is an act of special piety… the definition of piety is to be precise about them to the utmost extreme and about all the fine points imposed by the Rabbis, to be exceedingly careful about all the stringencies, and to abstain from the slightest trace of prohibition.[7]

 

This statement shows that when priority is given to the world of action, it may completely displace attention to pure intentions. A person's dedication to the kingdom of heaven is tested by the quality of his actions in themselves, by the level of his meticulousness, and by his behavior that goes beyond the strict letter of the law. Turning one's attention to these things is "the essence of piety."

 

The basic Mitnagdi tendency found in "Nefesh ha-Chayyim," according to which the world of action is more "essential" than the world of intention, is developed here in a different direction than that proposed in the book. In a later period, this alternative approach was adopted and expanded by one of the greatest Torah scholars of the twentieth century – Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karlitz, the Chazon Ish.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] We will not deal here with this issue in general or with Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin's unique position. This has already been discussed at length, and I too expressed my opinion in several places. See my article, "Torah Lishma," in Be'er Miryam for Shavuot, Tel-Aviv, 5772, p. 144.

[2] Even Shelomo is a collection of the Gra's writings on ethical matters. The compiler, Rabbi Shemuel Maltzan defined his objective: "It will include almost all of the principles of ethics and character improvement, a shield and weapon needed for the war against the evil inclination… I saw fit to divide this book into short essays, each essay containing an important principle regarding ethics and character traits…." Rabbi Shemuel Maltzan was very involved in publishing the Gra's writings. Even Shelomo was published in 5633 (1873).

[3] The first passage is taken from the Gra's commentary to the stories involving Rabba bar bar Chana. The second is taken from the Gra's commentary to Mishlei 25:5.

[4] It may be noted that Rabbi Soloveitchik was a descendant of Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin.

[5] Orach Chayyim 101:1.

[6] Even though most Rishonim maintain that the obligation of prayer is by rabbinic decree, the position of Rabbi Chayyim of Brisk (Hilkhot Tefilla 4:1) is most reasonable, namely, that all agree that prayer is recognized as an halakhic institution by Torah law. This is not the forum in which to expand upon the proofs to this assumption.

[7] Brought in a note to Nefesh ha-Chayyim, ed. Rubin, p. 203.