Shiur #3: Torah-Only and Having a God

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #3: Torah-Only and Having a God


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


When Rabbi Elazar ben Parta and Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon were captured, Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Chanina: "You are fortunate, as you were captured for one offense. Woe is me, as I was captured for five offenses."

Rabbi Chanina said to him: "You are fortunate, as you were captured for five offenses and you will be saved. Woe is me, who was captured for one offense, and I will not be saved. For you engaged in Torah and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion), and I was only involved in Torah alone."

It is as Rav Huna taught. Rav Huna said: "Whoever is only involved in Torah, it is as if he has no God, as it says 'And there where many days in Israel without a true God' (Divrei Ha-yamim II 15:3). What does the verse mean when it says 'without a true God?' That anyone who involves himself only with Torah is compared to someone without a God." (Avoda Zara 17b)


The sharp formulation of Rav Huna demands explanation. While we can easily understand that Torah learning without acts of compassion leaves a person religiously incomplete, that hardly constitutes lacking a God. Why does Rav Huna employ such a harsh and sweeping formulation? Rashi explains that the person lacks a God to protect him, as God will only step in to aid the compassionate. If so, the "Torah-only personality" obviously has a God, but not a God who will provide succor.


Rav Shmuel Edels, the Maharsha, offers a beautiful alternative explanation. He points out that the Divine attributes (see Shemot 34:6-7) are predominantly about compassion. Furthermore, the attempt to emulate God, to the best of our human ability, represents a significant religious ideal. Our Rabbis state on several occasions that human acts of mercy fulfill the mitzva of imitating God (e.g. Sota 14a). Thus, one who eschews acts of kindness has a fundamentally flawed conception of the Divine. A person who truly understands the nature of God would be drawn to emulate His compassion. If so, the "Torah-only personality" is in reality "without a true God."


This argument also finds support from the magnificent closing chapter of Moreh Nevukhim (3:54). There, the Rambam asks what is the true goal of human life. He rejects wealth as a goal, as wealth is a means more than an end. He rejects physical prowess as the goal, because feats of speed and strength are accomplished more effectively by members of the animal kingdom. The Rambam initially asserts that human ethics could not be the goal, as they apply only in an interpersonal context. The true goal must have universal applicability. Therefore, he asserts that intellectual cognition of the Divine truths represents the ultimate purpose of human striving.


Had the Rambam stopped here, it would seem that his vision of the good life was purely intellectual. However, the Rambam continues to say that the person who authentically comprehends the nature of the Divine would also be drawn to emulate God's acts of compassion and justice. Thus, it emerges that only the ethics that do not stem from imitatio Dei remain excluded from the true goal of mankind. For a religious person intending to emulate his Maker, compassionate behavior is an indispensable component of the summum bonum. Apparently, one cannot truly understand God without the accompanying desire to follow in His ethical footsteps.


Some verses in Yirmiyahu beautifully convey the Rambam's vision. The prophet (9:23-24) tells the wise, the strong and the wealthy not to glory in their achievements. For the Rambam, this means that riches, physical might and ethics (here identified with a kind of wisdom) are not the central achievement of mankind. Yirmiyahu continues: "But let a man glory in this, that he understand and know Me, that I am the God who does beneficence, justice and righteousness in the earth." This verse clearly links knowledge of God with knowledge of His ethical actions. A person who fails to make this connection, and does not draw the implications for his or her own actions, has a faulty conception of the Master of the Universe.


The Meiri interprets the gemara somewhat differently, but a similar point emerges. He points out that while many people do not keep various mitzvot, we do not charge that they lack a God. He explains that, from a certain perspective, it is worse for one who is engaged in Torah not to be engaged in chesed, than for a person to be religiously uninvolved altogether. Someone who learns Torah should understand the interpersonal obligations mandated by it. This knowing rejection of the Torah's authority makes the person fall into the category of those "without a God." To rephrase the Meiri in our own words, someone who truly learned and internalized the message of Torah could not possibly be indifferent to the call of chesed.


The continuation of the gemara in Avoda Zara strengthens the point. 


And did [Rabbi Chanina] not engage in acts of benevolence? Did we not learn: Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov taught: "A person should not give money to the purse of charity, unless the person in charge is a sage like Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon?"

[The Gemara answers:] He was very trustworthy but was not actively engaged.

But did we not learn: He (Rabbi Chanina) said to him: "Money for Purim became mixed up with money for charity and I divided it among the poor?"

[The Gemara answers:] He was involved, but not as much as he should have been. 


Rashi offers two interpretations of the money mix up. Rabbi Chanina may have confused money for his own Purim feast with money for the poor, and he gave the entire amount to charity. Alternatively, he used charitable Purim funds for a different charitable cause, and he replenished the Purim fund from his own pocket. According to either interpretation, Rabbi Chanina emerges as a person of honesty, integrity and benevolence. Yet, he still felt that he had performed inadequately in this regard. Apparently, the mere fact that a person engages in some charitable work does not mean that that person has discharged his or her duties in the realm of gemilut chasadim. This story calls for a more serious and ongoing attempt to strike the right balance between the competing claims of Torah and chesed.


This balance need not be attained on a daily, or even yearly, basis. It is reasonable to argue that the yeshiva years will be more dedicated to Torah, while more middle-aged years, when a person has greater financial means and a home with which to host guests, may offer more opportunities for chesed. However, even one's time in yeshiva offers numerous opportunities for acts of compassion within the very walls of the beit medrash. Additionally, the aspiring scholar should view the time in yeshiva as an investment, enabling greater contributions to the community at a later date.


In addition to the above, this gemara clearly rejects the idea that chesed can be accomplished in a metaphysical manner. Some say that everyone who learns Torah engages in an act of compassion, because Torah learning improves the world in some grand cosmic way. If we push such an idea too far, there would be no category of Torah without chesed. Apparently, compassion must be expressed in a naturalistic way, with our own efforts and resources directed towards helping other flesh and blood human beings. May we successfully integrate the great twin religious callings of Torah and chesed.