Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Simple Jew: Torah & Prayer

I was recently reading a beautiful collection of essays entitled Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. While they stir the soul and are otherwise wonderful, I believe that he underestimates the feeling that the simple Jew had for Torah study. To demonstrate that, here is an excerpt from The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2 by Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff:
    20.03 Learned Drashot and Simple Jews

    Related by the Rav in his annual Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, Yeshiva University, January 18, 1972. (Yiddish).

    I remember as a child that my father would deliver two drashot a year, on Shabbat Teshuva [before Yom KIppur], and Shabbat ha-Gadol [before Pesach]. It would be wonderful if this were also the norm for American rabbis. As a matter of fact, I will let you in on a secret. My grandfather did not even give these two drashot. When Reb Chaim first arrived in Brisk, he gave one drashah on Shabbat ha-Gadol and one drashah on Shabbat Teshuvah. Then he said that these drashot had exhausted him, and he ceased to engage in public preaching.

    My father always gave these two drashot each year. What did the drashot consist of? My father dealt mainly with difficult texts in the Rambam [Maimonides]. He always analyzed complicated and complex rabbinic topics. Yet the shul in Khaslavichy was packed. It was a large, spacious Bet Medrash. It could accommodate over one thousand people, but it was always crowded beyond its capacity. Among the people there were some lomdim [rabbinical scholars] who could follow the intricacies of the drashah. Perhaps there were anywhere between a hundred and a hundred and fifty such scholars. Yet hundreds of non-learned Jews were also present. Many were poor Jews who barely knew how to pray. Peddlers, shoemakers, tailors, and porters were in the huge crowd. You should have seen how their eyes were totally fixed upon my father. You might imagine that my father was telling them a simple story instead of a profound drashah. They seemed to have endless joy from his presentation and the atmosphere in the shul during the drashah. Yet I can guarantee you that most of these Jews did not understand one word of my father's drashah. [emph mine]

    Their participation was not a fulfillment of the command to study Torah. These simple Jews were not on the level of the hundred or hundred and fifty scholars who were also present. The latter fulfilled the precept of Torah study. They engaged in a give-and-take with my father. They questioned and answered and engaged in a dialogue with my father. These participants were true lomdim, and among them were hakhmei Yisrael, outstanding sages. However, while the other thousand listeners did not discharge the precept of Torah study, they certainly fulfilled the charge to be involved with Torah study. There is no greater achievement than to be involved with Torah study while standing for two hours and intently listening to a drashah which one does not comprehend. That is the meaning of the blessing, "La'asok be-divrei Torah" - to be involved with Torah study.

    The truth is that this concept is stated in an open gemara. I do not have to tell you stories: "R. Zera says: The merit of attending a lecture lies in the running. Abaye says: The merit of attending the kallah sessions [public assemblies at which the Oral Tradition was expounded] lies in the crush" [Berakhot 6b]. Rashi explains that "the majority of the participants did not comprehend the lectures or could not properly repeat them afterwards." Yet they were rewarded for enduring the rush and crush engendered by the massive crowds at these public assemblies. They were rewarded for the hard benches on which they had to sit during the lectures. They gained merit because of the crowdedness and uncomfortable conditions they had to endure. This was truly the fulfillment of the precept to be involved with the study of Torah.

    ~pages 190-191
Now, in contrast to this, here is what Rabbi Heschel wrote. The flaw in Rabbi Heschel's approach lies in his setup, where he too clearly marks a line between the spirit and the mind. I do not think he intended what he wrote in the way it seems. I think he is speaking to the heart, and explaining how Hasidism revived the heart and made everyone feel that they had something to give to God and a way to relate to Him, and hence gave them hope, which is beautiful. The problem here is with the wording; he should have written that it seemed dry, but not that it was dry.
    In addition, there are many phases of Hasidism. It was first an intellectual revolution. To understand the context of its origin we have to study the documents preserved at the beginning of the eighteenth century. There was a tremendous fascination in those days for what we call pilpul, with what may be called sharpness, intellectual wit in the study of the Torah and Talmud. It represented a desire to sublimate feelings into thoughts, to transpose dreams into syllogisms. The sages expressed their grief in formulating keen theoretical difficulties and their joy in finding solutions to a contradiction of a disagreement between Maimonides, who lived in the twelfth century, and Rabbi Shlomo Aderetz, who lied in the thirteenth century. They had to speak to one another, there was no division in time, they were all together. And there were sharp challenges all the time. That was how they sublimated their entire existence. It was sharp but dry as dust, with all other aspects of existence ignored. For example, there were many books published. I myself know of thirty or forty anthologies. What was their favorite topic in those days? Pshetlach. Pshetl is the opposite of pschat, although the word pshetl is derived from pschat. Pschat means the literal simple meaning. Pshetl says the opposite: there is no literal meaning, there is always something behind it. In other words, when I say, "Give me a piece of bread," I don't really mean a piece of bread. I mean to answer a difficult passage in a commentary written in the twelfth century, which is noted by an authority of teh fifteenth century. Pshetl is always an attempt to find the dialectics in the most simple things, and this is what the talmudic scholars used to love.
      And when a preacher came to deliver a sermon, would he speak about daily human problems? No, he spoke of the terrible excitement about the fact that Laban, Jacob's father-in-law, did not treat Jacob well. Why didn't he treat Jacob well? Because he had a serious disagreement with him about an obscure subtle issue in Jewish criminal law. Since Jewish criminal law is very complicated, there are fifty-five possibilities of explaining it, and this is what caused the disagreement. Actually, Laban and Jacob disagreed the same way as did Abbaye and Rava in the third century. But it was dry like dust. Anybody who has gone through such an education would know what it means. What is left is astuteness, acumen. It is always syllogisms on top of syllogisms, a pyramid on top of three other pyramids. You're always walking from one roof to another. You don't just walk straight, you're always jumping, leaping; there's no straight thinking. The Jews loved this Talmudic study, but the soul was not rested. There was very little for the heart. It was always so dry, so remote from existence, without the slightest awareness that there was also an inner life in human problems. There were no human problems, only legal problems.
        Came the Baal Shem and changed the whole thing. He introduced a kind of thinking that is concerned with personal, intimate problems of religion and life. Some of these problems had smaller problems. Hasidism's major revolution was the opposition to what was generally accepted in Judaism- namely, that study is an answer to all problems. Study was considered more important than any other observance, certainly more important than prayer. Prayer was on the decline. It lost its vitality, it was deprived of spontaneity. One of the first tasks the Baal Shem faced was to bring about the resurrection of prayer. When he and his disciples went to a town, they would not just deliver a sermon about observance; they would stand and pray, thus setting an example of how to pray. To this day the Baal Shem remains one of the greatest masters of prayer in Jewish history.
        ~pages 36-37
      Now, here is the problem with this. Heschel's intent is pure. He is a soul which is completely lifted up and transformed by how close he feels to God, and that closeness is associated with the aggada, with all the transcendant beauty in our world, and with the closeness between man and God advocated for by the Hasidic movement. The problem is that the one approach cannot superficially do away with the other. To claim that the other scholars only studied the Law which was "dry like dust" and that they knew only of legal problems, not human problems, is to deeply underestimate them. To them too were those human passions and emotions, but they were private individuals, not demonstrative. Heschel is advocating for a demonstrative, positive approach and he is right to do so. But he should not determine that those who are not demonstrative in that way lack the capacity to feel, or that the Torah did not allow them to feel. The plight of the Jews who were lifted up by Hasidism was not the plight of people who were turned away by the "dry" nature of Torah, but the plight of people who were deeply in love with God and yearned to study Torah, yet did not have the training or the time to do so. These were people who constructed prayers of the aleph-bet because they could not read. Hasidism came to show them how they too had a place in God's world, but never did it replace the role that Torah played- these people desired the Torah, as you can see from the example brought by Rabbi Soloveitchik above. If they could have been learned, they would have been- it was because they were not given the opportunity or the chance, because they were oppressed by the burdens of the world, that they needed the strength and a way to connect to God at their level- and that was what the Ba'al Shem Tov gave them. But not in opposition to Torah; never in opposition to Torah. Only as a means to connecting to God because they so yearned for Him.


      G said...
      This comment has been removed by the author.
      Jeff Wild said...

      There is no greater achievement than to be involved with Torah study while standing for two hours and intently listening to a drashah which one does not comprehend. That is the meaning of the blessing, "La'asok be-divrei Torah" - to be involved with Torah study.

      Thanks for this -- it helps put into words how I often feel while listening to Rav Rosensweig's shiurim and helps clarify why I can find it meaningful even when I miss so much.

      Russian student said...

      Chana,thank you for this ,too. I,like Jeff may not understand much Hebrew/Judaica,but it helps to read your blog,articles in The Observer and work with teachers @ Stern who really are very helpful. I do consider myself a Simple Jew,but plan to shine in Judaica in a few years with God's help.
      Thank you for being non-judgemental and writing this.

      Anonymous said...

      The important point imho, which may be missed in reading this piece, is the need on an ongoing basis to continually aspire to greater understanding (at whatever level we are capable of). While there is certainly merit in just showing up when a T"C is in town for shiur, imvho it is mistake to desire to go right to the "highest shiur" if the ROI on your time would be better elsewhere.

      Joel Rich (who aspires to be worthy of the appelation "a pashute yid")

      Aaron said...

      Will you write a new story before school starts next week? You'll be soooooo busy with school then.

      Anonymous said...

      Way to destroy the myth that "before Hasidism, the oppressed masses lived without any religious experience whatsoever, until the Baal Shem Tov came along and told them they were allowed to be spiritual after all"

      no one said...

      There is a tremendous holiness in the Talmud Bavli.
      But the Ari says it has power to make people better or worse.
      This perhaps explains this question that I ask myself so often.
      If Talmud is so holy then why are orthodox ....(fill in the blank)?
      I think the Ari saw this and understood the problem.