Ask people with some knowledge of the Vilna Gaon to name any of his students. He had hundreds of them, many of whom were highly influential Torah leaders in their own right. A well-informed person might be able to name three. Typical ‘yeshiva’ students will probably stop at one. That single student, however, is not famous for being a student of the Gaon, but as the founder of the modern yeshiva movement. His name is Rav Chaim Volozhin (he had no last name but is known by the name of the town where he was from – Volozhin).
Prior to him, there were plenty of phenomenal Torah scholars - the Gaon being the greatest. Typically, however, the average adolescent boy was apprenticed to some trade at an early age (usually around 13) and spent the rest of his life struggling to make a living and raise a family as a faithful, devout, but simple Jew. Advanced study was out of the question for all but a few. A student of Rav Chaim described the situation before Rav Chaim started his yeshiva as ‘chaos reigned in the Jewish world. Nobody knew what a yeshiva was and nobody had heard about Torah study in public. Torah, Mishna and holy books were accessible to elected and very rich people only. Even in town synagogues a complete set of the six Mishna and Gemara books were lacking. There was no demand for them, they were not in use’.
Rav Chaim started the Volozhin Yeshiva, which he called Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) in 1803. It grew from a dozen students at its outset to over 100 at his death in 1821. It attracted the most promising young men from all over the Poland/Lithuania region and developed them into Torah leaders of the next generation. More importantly, it set the standard for hundreds of future institutions that were modeled after it. To this day, the yeshiva remains the primary mode of teaching advanced Torah in the Orthodox world.
The name Etz Chaim had clear implications. Aside from including the name of its founder, it also referred back to a verse in Proverbs (3:18), ‘It is a Tree of Life (Etz Chaim) to those who grasp it, and those who support it are fortunate’. This verse has classically been interpreted as a reference to the Torah. This was how Rav Chaim perceived his institution – as a Tree of Life, for that is precisely how he saw the role of the Torah study in Judaism. He considered intense Torah study to be the essence of Jewish life.
His major work, Nefesh Hachaim (Soul of Life) emphasizes this point. It was written as a response to the Hassidic focus on the emotional and the spiritual as opposed to the intellectual. It masterfully combines Talmudic and Midrashic sayings with deep mystical insight culled mostly from the Zohar, into a complete picture of God, the human soul, prayer, the yetzer hara, and Torah study, among other things. The work is deep and complex and not easily accessible. In the course of the many topics it covers we find the following (4:13): ‘It is through involvement in the holy Torah that God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled, which was only so that Yisrael would be involved in the Torah…’
This is not some isolated statement that Rav Chaim made out of the blue. Nefesh Hachaim contains four sections, only the fourth of which dealing with Torah study. This fourth section is extremely detailed and complex, with a considerable number of sources quoted and interpreted. Rav Chaim goes to great ends to explain what the essence of Torah study is and why it is so important. This is not just a pep talk to try to inspire people of his generation to put more time into study, or even to encourage the students of his yeshiva to strive harder in their studies. This is a profound examination of what Torah study really is and what it means to study it properly. To some degree, it has become a blueprint for the overall goals of the yeshiva system today.
What is this blueprint? To answer this question we will once again use the ‘who, what, where, when, why, how’ framework. As far as the ‘why’, the primary goal of Torah learning, according to Rav Chaim, is not to gain a sense of oneness with God. Nor is it to be seen as a method to purify the mind from non-spiritual thoughts. Rav Chaim stressed what Torah learning wasn’t in order to distinguish his approach from the increasingly popular Hassidic system in which the purpose of Torah study was for precisely those things. He was trying to bring it back to what it was originally – a largely intellectual endeavor to understand all aspects of Torah in all their depth and breadth. Oneness with God, he explained, was a wonderful side benefit of Torah study, but it wasn’t the essence. Purifying of the thoughts was a necessary preparatory step for Torah study, and absolutely essential if one truly wants to delve to its depths, but it was a condition and not the goal.
As far as the ‘what’, Torah study is exactly what it sounds like. It means studying all aspects of the Torah as it has developed through the millennia. This means Chumash, Tanakh, Mishna, Talmud, Midrash, Halacha, commentary, mysticism, philosophy, and whatever else may come along. One should not study one area to the exclusion of the others, but there is no question that the Talmud is widely considered a domain that includes all the rest. Hence the focus in Volozhin and almost every other subsequent yeshiva has been Talmud study. While this concentration on Talmud has had its share of criticism, it remains a remarkably effective way of sustaining a level of diligence and interest that frequently defies explanation. By any definition of the term, it’s challenging.
Who? Yeshiva study has classically been the domain of Jewish males. They are all required to immerse themselves in Torah study, though in practice only small percentage do so on a serious level. The 21st century has seen what are widely believed to be the highest numbers of yeshiva students ever, with tens of thousands engaged in some form of full time study. Why it has been restricted to males is a matter of Jewish role models, scriptural interpretation, rabbinic law, and assumptions about the human mind. In recent years, women have gotten in on the act, with women’s yeshivas dotting the landscape in Jerusalem and other places. They tend to be every bit as rigorous as their male counterparts, but with emphasis on practical applications concerning women’s issues in Halacha.
Where? Torah study could be done anywhere – in the home, on the bus or train, in the office, in the synagogue, etc. Classically, a special room is designated for intense Torah study, known as a Beit Midrash (study hall). Sometimes these halls double as a synagogue, but frequently they are dedicated just for study alone. They are generally on the austere side, with fancy decorations being reserved for ornate synagogues. They tend to be loaded with books – large books filled with Hebrew writing of all sorts covering the pages. These are the codes of Talmud and Halacha and the associated commentaries. They have a daunting look to them, like they are impenetrable to all but a few cognoscenti. Recent years have seen the invasion of the computer into the Beit Midrash, with entire libraries found on a single disk or card. In all probability, all serious yeshivas and their students will soon find tiny computers complementing their massive libraries.
When? Torah study is required at all times. It takes precedence even over making a living, though on a practical level this is rarely advisable. Rav Chaim’s students were unmarried, but he was insistent that they devote every waking moment to intense study for no reason other than to understand and expand Torah knowledge. He even set up the schedule at Volozhin so that Torah was studied in the Beit Midrash around the clock. He saw this as the ultimate fulfillment of the goal of the Torah itself – that Jews give it their all and never allow it to be completely abandoned.
He makes no apologies about this being an elitist stance. He was very aware that most people simply did not have either the intellectual powers or the time necessary to achieve the lofty levels for which he was shooting. Nevertheless, Rav Chaim strongly advocated that those who were unable to reach these levels should strive for whatever level they could reach. Time and energy are always short, but that should be no excuse to dismiss Torah study altogether. Jewish liturgy describes Torah thoughts as nothing less than ‘our life and the length of our days, and upon them we meditate day and night’. It’s a high standard, but it has proven profoundly true for the Jewish people in their endless wanderings throughout the last 2000 years.
How? How does one go about climbing this endless peak that has no shortage of challenges, makes ever-increasing demands, and promises no material reward? The first piece of advice is to just start. There are a million and one avenues available to get going in Torah study. Online opportunities are now dime-a-dozen. Books can be found in over a dozen languages with English and Hebrew selections numbering in the thousands. If you only have ten minutes a day, so get going with ten minutes a day. If you can only fit it in while stuck in morning rush hour, that will be your designated time. The key is to make it happen.
But there is no substitute for quality time in any Torah study program. This means devoting whatever amount of time one is able, completely to Torah study. The cell phone gets turned off, all distractions are somehow eliminated, and concentration is turned on. Even under ideal conditions it won’t be easy to maintain this state. But with practice and dedication, anybody can achieve a certain amount of success. Almost invariably, a teacher of some sort is necessary. These are available in Jewish communities, online, and via the telephone. Torah teachers love nothing more than an eager student, who asks questions, challenges assumptions, and contributes his or her own answers. A student-teacher relationship in Torah study frequently expands into other areas and becomes extremely deep. It could easily last a lifetime.
If one gets good enough, one reaches the point of being able to ‘do it’ on one’s own. This is a truly gratifying achievement, with the rewards coming in the form of awareness that one is actually adding to the ever-growing body of Torah knowledge and understanding. To be able to penetrate through to the depths of a topic, whether it be an understanding of a passage in the Chumash, a difficult section of the Talmud, or a philosophical or mystical idea from Jewish worlds that no longer exist, and to develop that understanding to the point where some new insight emerges, is a kind of Nirvana of Torah study. This is the real ‘why’ of Torah study – sensing a personal connection to God’s Torah by becoming a ‘contributing partner’ in its composition. The feeling of fulfillment is unlike any other. It feeds the soul with a kind of energy and anchors its bearer through the superficiality of the material world. It is truly ‘a tree of life to those who grasp it’.
Food for Thought
Torah study tends to focus on obscure topics that frequently are hopelessly outdated and irrelevant except that they enable the understanding of something from Jewish tradition. Is there any way to update it to fit into modern society and contemporary issues?
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