The Broad Torah: Of Pictures on Walls and in Hearts

  • by: Nathaniel Helfgot

Originally published in Ten Da’at 8:1, 1995. Appears here with permission.
The scene: A classroom full of eager young high school boys learning Torah. A glance at the walls reveals pictures of numerous Rashei Yeshiva of the past and present. In front of the class stands an energetic Rebbi encouraging his students to learn and aspire to become B’nei Torah and Lamdanim. One day, he hints, “one of you may become a Talmid Hakham or even a Gadol.”
This idyllic picture is in many settings a reality, lovingly nurtured and sustained. In other settings in our educational world, it acts as a goal for teachers and schools to aspire to. The scene warms the heart and makes us feel pride and joy as we savor its powerful message of Mesorah and commitment to Torah values.
And yet…this very scene and its idealization raises some serious questions as to the goals of Torah Hinukh in the Yeshiva day – and high school system, especially as it relates to the Hinukh of boys. These questions touch on the very goals and aspirations towards which we direct our students. Intertwined with this are the role models we, as educators, consciously and subconsciously present to our students.
Over the years, many of us have acquiesced, wittingly or unwittingly, to narrowing the multi-varied and rich texture of the world of role models of Torah and Hesed. In line with the powerfully engaging and regnant Lithuanian tradition of “Lomdus”, a tradition on which I was raised by my Rebbeim and which profoundly nurtures me to this day, we have often neglected to do full justice to other models of Jewish life and contribution. Today one gets an intangible sense of exclusive focus on the great intellect in Shas and Poskim, of the Lamdan and the Rosh Yeshiva as the ultimate role models for our elite. A corollary of this approach has been the almost exclusive concentration on expertise and creativity in “lomdus” as the measure of greatness. Excellence in areas of Tanakh, Mahshava, Tefillah and Kaballah are mentioned incidentally, if at all. Role-models past and present who were standard bearers in these fields of Torah, but not Gefat[i], are hardly ever held up for adulation and imitation.
Moreover, people who were paragons of Hesed, or Yirat Shamayim, or of community involvement, rarely make it to the pantheon of pictures lining the day school classroom. It is rare to walk into a school and see pictures of Ibn Ezra, Hasdai Crescas, R. Yonah Ibn Janah, Rav Hayim Heller, Prof. Nehama Leibowitz or R. Zev Yaavetz hanging on the walls. It is even more rare to see pictures of communal rabbis, activists and baalei hesed such as R. Leo Jung, Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky, Mr. Irving Bunim, Rebbetzin Kafih and Mr. Uri Lopiansky.
These people, and many others, represent the wealth and breadth of Torah learning and activism that we need to highlight. Our student body is diverse and, as we all know, not every talented young man can or should find his niche as an aspiring Rosh Yeshiva. Many of the best and brightest young men could contribute mightily to the world of learning Tanakh, Mahshava, Hasidut etc., and yet they were never educated to consider that these possibilities were open to them. Should the life-choices of our elite be limited to Lomdus and Psak on the one hand, or business and the professions on the other? We should be able to present and develop alternative roles within the world of Torah. Our community needs not only knowledgeable and creative Lomdim but “bekeeim” and “Gedolim” in Tanakh and Mahshva who will teach and make their mark in these disciplines, and contribute, thereby, to Torah in its broadest sense. Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch ZT”L, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, once noted in a published letter, the disastrous results that had occurred because the Torah community in Eastern Europe abandoned the fields of Tanakh and Jewish History to the Maskilim. Are we repeating some of the same mistakes?
It is, of course, crucial that every student continue to have extensive exposure to Gemara-centric learning. Gemara and halakhah are the life force and spinal cord of our existence as Torah Jews. Mori veRabi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has often noted that the first communication from God to man in chapter 2 of Bereishit, the portrait of majestic or dignified man (in the categories of Rav ZT”L), begins with the words “vayetzav HaShem Elokim al ha-adam.” This biblical axiom, which goes to the heart of the relationship between man and God writ large, is doubly true with regard to the Jewish people. As avadei HaShem our basic stance before the Creator is one of commanded beings–of Metzuvim. As Rav Lichtenstein has written, “The encounter with God as commander lies in the heart of Jewish existence; to the extent that it is realized through Talmud Torah, the legal corpus, as developed in the Oral tradition, is a prime vehicle for this encounter.[ii]”
These areas by their nature and their significance should properly take the lion’s share of our time and energy. Moreover, no serious study of other areas of Torah is really possible without solid grounding in the methodology and experience of learning Gefat. This is a reason why young women who are educated in other areas of Torah and Jewish Studies should also be exposed to intensive study of Torah sheBeal Peh. This is certainly true if they would like to engage in the study of these areas intensively. For example, one cannot fully understand the Parshanut of basic Rishonim such as Rashi and Ramban on Parashat Mishpatim or do work in the history of Medieval Ashkenaz without being able to handle halakhic texts.
In centrist circles in particular, there is also a need to develop serious young Talmidei Hakhamim who will be the poskim of the future. The need for halakhic experts and dayanim who are at the same time sensitive and open to the modern world, Zionist in orientation and articulate and sophisticated spokesmen for Torah, is sorely felt. The training and emergence of such leaders requires, first and foremost, focus on the Yam haTalmud. Primacy, though, should not be confused with exclusivity. In the education of these persons it is crucial that they also be exposed to other areas of Torah studies at the highest level, as well as to serious study of general culture.
As a community we dream of producing Talmidei Hakhamim who are masters in all areas of Torah. Often, however, this becomes an extremely difficult proposition to accomplish. Gedolim of this type are hard to “develop” or “produce”; they tend to emerge out of the their own unique circumstances and talents as well as a result of certain historical cross-currents that they are exposed to. How many Rambams, Rambans, Rav Kooks or Rav Soloveitchiks—models of total dominance in all Miktzo’ot haTorah—can there be in a generation?
There were, and continue to be, however, other models who sought to specialize and develop their talents in specific areas of Torah. Ibn Ezra and Ibn Janah did not write Hidushei Torah on Rov and Hazakah, while Reb Shimon Shkop and R. Boruch Ber did not write treatises on Hebrew grammar or poetic forms in Tehillim. Hasdai Crescas and Rav Yehuda Halevi did not bequeath us teshuvot on Treifot and Ribit, while the Shakh and Rav Hayim Ozer did not write Piyutim or philosophical works reconciling classical philosophy or modern psychology with traditional Judaism. Many avenues were open to our best and brightest, and we are all richer for the contributions that different people with different talents and predilections have made to the tapestry of Torah.
To my mind, this issues has gained even greater force with the large numbers of students who are spending time learning Torah intensively in Israel after high school. This phenomenon has had extremely positive effects in our community and has helped to raise its level of observance and Torah study in an appreciable fashion. Unfortunately, however, too many of the Yeshivot for boys (with some notable exceptions) inculcate the message of a monochromatic model of Jewish learning and living. The Tanakh and Mahshava departments are often weak or non-existent. And where these subjects are taught, they are often presented in an unsystematic and superficial manner. In addition, the more subtle messages conveyed in Sihot and via other avenues tend to highlight one model of Jewish learning to the exclusion of all others. While understandable, this phenomenon has the downside of restraining the growth of the “broad Torah” Rav Kook and Rav Hutner often spoke about.
Outside the world of learning, beyond lip service and occasional programs, our students need both theoretical and real life exposure to the role -models of Hesed and community work. These are people deserving our respect and emulation, not simply “baalei-batim.” Ninety-nine percent of Yeshiva High school boys probably know that one must stand out of respect when a Talmid Hakham or elderly person enters a room. How many know that the same Gemara records that Shmuel would rise before “Anshei Maaseh” (Kiddushin 33b)?![iii]And that is precisely the problem! Would that our students would aspire to follow in the paths of a Reb Aryeh Levin or a Dr. Joseph Kaminetsky. Would that those who were talented and gifted could find their niche in the work of Tzorchei Tzibuur.
The rich and varied role-models of learning, Avodah and Hesed must also line our classrooms and our consciousness. Otherwise we are failing in our task to educate each and every child in our schools to his or her potential, as well as depriving Klal Yisrael of wonderful prospects of Torah creativity. Monolithic presentations of ideal Jewish lifestyles are ill-advised, not reflective of the historical truth, and are a constriction of that all-encompassing and richly textured world of Torah, its students and practitioners.

[i]Hebrew acronym for Gemara, Perush Rashi and Tosefot

[ii] “Study” in Contemporary Religious Thought (eds. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes Flohr) New York, 1987, p.933.
[iii]See the fascinating discussion of this passage in Otzar haGeonim, Kiddushin 33b, Helek haTeshuvot