According to the well-known anecdote, Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l, the renowned Rosh Yeshiva of Kaminetz, once entered a kitchen and noticed a bird’s gizzard on the table. Upon seeing it he immediately exclaimed: “So this is the holy kurkevan, the gizzard mentioned so many times in the Talmudic sugyos!” The anecdote is more than a cute story; it gives us a profound insight into the world of our own Torah students, disciples of R’ Baruch Ber who live and breathe Torah study.
The anecdote concretizes the famous principle expressed by the Midrash: “[God] looked in the Torah and created the world.” According to the accepted interpretation of the “yeshiva world,” the Midrash means to characterize reality as a manifestation of the Torah, rather than the Torah as a guide to the world. Based on this conception, only somebody steeped in Torah – and specifically in the yeshiva orientation of Torah study – lives in the true, real world of Torah concepts. When forced to do so, he looks out the window of the beis midrash and begrudgingly imposes these categories on a physical world that can only provide an approximation of the pristine Truth. God’s will is thus translated into a physical world, while its pure form is retained in the study hall.
only somebody steeped in Torah – and specifically in the yeshiva orientation of Torah study – lives in the true, real world of Torah concepts
In Rav Baruch Ber’s mindset, the “real gizzard” isn’t the piece of meat lying on the counter, but rather an item mentioned in the Mishnah, discussed in the Gemara, and ruled on in the halachic codes. This avian organ is but a physical object that merited the honor of embodying the Torah principles communicated in these sugyos.
This perspective on the relationship between Torah and the physical world has its equivalent in other wisdom literature, l’havdil. Plato also saw the world as a manifestation of independent concepts and ideals. Accordingly, a “horse” is not in fact the four-legged, tailed creature that often carries a rider. The physical horse is but a functional representation of the “ideal horse,” an abstract concept that doesn’t exist in the flesh in any defined place and time.
Reality, according to Plato, is never perfect. One horse has a cracked hoof; the other a long lip; the third is somehow discolored or disfigured, while the fourth is lazy. The ideal horse does not exist in physical form; its presence is restricted to the world of concepts. The deficient reality is thus a dimmed reflection of the world of ideas as we conceive of it in our thoughts. The “ideal horse” of the conceptual world has no need for physical organisms occupying our physical world; their claim of the title “horse” draws from their approximate representation of the abstract reality, while the claim of the abstract version draws from reality itself.
Our gizzard story demonstrates a worldview reflecting a similarly theoretical framework. Like Plato, the Torah thinker can also argue in favor of distinguishing between a physical object and its conceptual, “true” ideal; he can even assign independent significance to the world of ideas.
The conceptual gizzard is thus not a meaningless product of human imagination, but rather the subject of a section in Shulchan Aruch. It is part of the Divine word, a hidden delight, “black fire upon white fire” that preceded the physical world we occupy. Human beings were fortunate to be entrusted with it over the angels. The true gizzard is that appears in the Torah. To allow its manifestation the physical world of humankind, birds were created with an organ that represents the true gizzard. Thus a spiritual essence became embodied in material form, allowing us to embody the Torah in our lowly existence. In the study hall, we transcend this lowly representation and engage the true reality.
Don’t Confuse Ends with Means
Latent in the yeshiva approach to reality is a reversal of our everyday understanding of means and ends.
Simple human understanding identifies the physical world as a predicate, while the law (natural or man-made) offers normative guidance for successfully navigating it. In the case of the Torah, we are even guided as to how to live a good and elevated life, and to be in relationship with Hashem – something we (and at the very least most of us) would be unable to achieve without the the Torah. Torah instruction allows us to live within a given reality, to choose good and refrain from evil, and react to the ever-changing circumstances inherent to the human condition. Life precedes law; law applies to life.
Yet the Midrash mentioned above, whereby “[God] looked in the Torah and created the world,” hints at a view that reverses this intuitive understanding. Based on the prevalent yeshiva understanding of the Midrash, earthly situations are only a means (a heichi timtza in yeshiva parlance) for implementing the Divine will. The apple we eat exists for the blessing one will say upon eating it; the “real purpose” of the Exodus – our redemption from Egypt – was not to redeem us from the Egyptian house of bondage, but to create an opportunity for the mitzvos of matza and Korban Pesach. And in our case: if the chicken would not have a gizzard, how could we learn about and observe its halachos?
The apple we eat exists for the blessing one will say upon eating it; the “real purpose” of the Exodus – our redemption from Egypt – was not to redeem us from the Egyptian house of bondage, but to create an opportunity for the mitzvos of matza and Korban Pesach.
This latter approach sees no inherent value in the physical world. Law is in fact the the predicate, the ultimate end, and the world is but a means; its sole purpose is to serve as a platform for observing the Torah. A simple Jew on the street will in all likelihood explain that the goal of Torah is to elevate human existence by guiding us to a moral, proper, and exalted life. But the counterintuitive approach of the yeshiva (and Plato) suggests the opposite: The purpose of Torah is not to correct or uplift a flawed human life. Instead, the entire physical creation, encapsulating the world as well as human existence, is organized for the sole purpose of manifesting the Torah. The ultimate aim is not earthly life, no matter how exalted. The Torah must be studied, observed, and actualized; all the rest is but a means to this end.
Adjusting our understanding of means and ends also changes our attitude to the study and observance of Torah. Our intuitive assumption concerning Torah study is that objective of learning is proper observance of the studied laws. There is little gain in delving deeply into halachos that deal with rare or impossible situations, except for the application of insights gleaned from such study to real-life situations. Indeed, Chazal state in equivocal terms that Torah study is a means to practice, concluding a discussion of the matter with the affirmation that “Study is greater [than practice] for it leads to practice.” The statement is cryptic, and involves a deeper insight into how Torah should be studied; but suffice for our purposes to note that the explicit purpose of study is to reach practical application. The possibility of practical realiztion might not be a precondition for Torah study, but at the very least we can say that Talmud Torah, properly executed, should inform observance (if only on a theoretical level).
The possibility of practical realiztion might not be a precondition for Torah study, but at the very least we can say that Talmud Torah, properly executed, should inform observance (if only on a theoretical level)
But many of those steeped in intense Torah study, disciples of R’ Baruch Ber’s vision and mindset, see things quite differently. For them, the relationship between observance and Torah study is inverted. The earthly reality is never seen as an end in itself, even in the sense of observing Torah laws. The true goal is the abstract Torah ideal, which exists as an independent truth irrespective of the necessarily imperfect implementation it receives in our ugly reality.
Torah study is in fact far more valuable than fulfilling the commandments, for the study of Torah allows unmediated contact with the idea itself, in its utmost purity and exaltedness, unsullied by physical form – an idea expounded on by the Rav Chaim of Volozhin in his Nefesh Hachaim. We need earthly reality insofar as it provides a language and tools for understanding the Torah and its implementation. But the more we can disconnect study from the limitations of physical reality, the more we can cling to the “purity” of Torah concepts, which is the ultimate goal.
This is perhaps the backdrop for the methodology and style of yeshiva study today, by which the student’s resources are primarily invested in studying Torah topics of limited practical expression. Yeshiva study celebrates deep analysis of abstract definitions, while shying away from engagement in all things practical, even in the theoretical setting of the study hall. This, according to the midrashic worldview, realizes the true Torah ideal, an ideal that precedes physical creation both chronologically and conceptually.
Strange as it may seem, this very approach leads students to a sense of “bittul Torah” (wasting time that can be spent in Torah study) when an entire study seder is “wasted” to light Chanuka candles. After all, the time invested in returning home and lighting candles could have been used to study another Tosafos or Rashba. The preference of Torah study over practical implementation leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that it would be preferable to forgo the obligation to light in favor of intellectual engagement in legal disputes concerning the festival – such as whether one who has only two candles on the third night of Chanuka should light both or only one – a conundrum hardly likely to confront us or anyone we know this year or next. Indeed, some argue that it is better for married students to have their wives light Chanuka candles on their behalf, an indisputable fulfillment of the basic mitzvah (“ner ish u’beiso”), while they continue their learning as usual.
Strange as it may seem, this very approach leads students to a sense of “bittul Torah” (wasting time that can be spent in Torah study) when an entire study seder is “wasted” to light Chanuka candles.
So what is the ultimate fate of the real, earthly gizzard? After finding the physical gizzard in the kitchen and matching it to the ideal “halachic gizzard,” does it fuse with and inform the student’s life and outlook, or is it but a fleeting episode, so that the Talmudic gizzard remains an independent abstraction? I will claim below that if we force complete detachment of the Torah ideal from its earthly reality, we run the risk of losing basic tools required for the study of Torah itself. Moreover, the radical disconnect from physical experience can lead to a great diminishing of the Torah’s relevance to our lives.
Stop Rummaging Around in the Dark
As all those who have either been to yeshiva or have children in yeshiva know, our youth routinely study the Mishnah orders of Nashim and Nezikin. This can lead to situations bordering on the bizarre. It is common, for instance, to find a serious yeshiva students, individuals who live and breathe only Torah, fiercely ironing out intimate details of human, even female anatomy. These students would never consider such a topic acceptable for conversation in everyday speech. Yeshiva staff, such as the Mashgiach (responsible for the students’ spiritual growth), would never raise such unseemly issues in their sermons and discourses. By contrast, in the course of Torah study, students will not hesitate to discuss even the most intimate of topics. To an outsider, this phenomenon seems entirely absurd, while to an insider it appears totally natural.
It is common, for instance, to find a serious yeshiva students, individuals who live and breathe only Torah, fiercely ironing out intimate details of human, even female anatomy. These students would never consider such a topic acceptable for conversation in everyday speech. […] The ability to do act in this seemingly peculiar way is rooted in a capacity for abstract thinking
The ability to do act in this seemingly peculiar way is rooted in a capacity for abstract thinking. The student has no earthly conception of what he is discussing. Truly and honestly, his discourse is limited to a pure abstraction, allowing him to mention terms whose use outside the beis midrash would lead to great embarrassment. But let us now imagine the same student, after a few years of yeshiva study, preparing for his wedding. To all appearances, it seems as though the student has never heard of any the concepts associated with marriage. Though he has referred countless times to acts of marital intimacy, his years of study have not taught him a single thing about the tangible world, and years of studying the intricacies of Seder Nashim have not prepared him in the slightest for the real-life encounters of marriage.
All of his learning has taken place on a purely theoretical level, while the connection between Talmudic concepts and real life remains foreign and alien. When the time comes for him to marry, he will establish his family entirely independent of anything these intricacies may have taught him.
Note too that even in this article I am referencing dealing in this article with a world of ideals. The an “ideal yeshiva student” – a young man whose world is one of pure holiness, one that does not extend beyond the walls of the beis medrash. In reality, most yeshiva students embody this ideal only partially. But nevertheless, this an ideal that the yeshiva community deeply upholds. And unlike the “perfect horse,” I personally have known more than a few true representations of the yeshiva ideal. On many levels they are fortunate indeed. Ashrei chelkam.
The problem, however, is that abstract thinking is not limited to learning hours. While learning, one can justify the detached analysis on the grounds that it allows for a clean discussion of the subject. “Study is greater [than practice] for it leads to practice,” and the greatness of study demands a certain detachment from the practical element of its application. The student can thus approach the given issue with purity and clarity, unsullied by external considerations. But unfortunately, even after the encounter with a flesh and blood gizzard, the connection between study and reality is not necessarily made. The rend between the two worlds, that of the ideal and that of reality, requires a healing of many mental stitches; sometimes even these are not enough.
This predicament arises because the detachment from earthly reality is not presented as a useful tool for betterment of Torah study, but rather ennobled as an ideal in itself. Abstraction of the Torah concepts and their detachment from reality are an inherent goal, not merely a means to achieving a profound understanding of the subject. There is an absolute refusal to subordinate Torah study to our lowly reality; the latter must remain separate from the former, a shadow of the sun rather than its reflection.
The staunch insistence on a complete separation between Torah and the physical world may lead to significant harm to the very Torah world of ideals, which lacks realization.
But rather than advance it, the staunch insistence on a complete separation between Torah and the physical world can cause significant harm to the very Torah world of ideals. In the Torah conception, an “ideal gizzard” that has no correspondence to a physical gizzard is not even an ideal gizzard. The Torah was after all given to us for its implementation, so that a purely ideal gizzard is an independent concept that means nothing. Detachment from reality empties learning of all meaning, since a gizzard disassociated from reality loses its definition. Such a gizzard could be anything, and the casuistry involved in understanding it is not anchored in any reality.
By way of illustration let us offer the following riddle. A well-known debate in the yeshiva world (some attribute it to Rav Shlomo Heiman, a leading student of Rav Baruch Ber) relates to the question of which were greater – the Rishonim (early Torah authorities) or the Acharonim (later Torah authorities)? This of course is a rhetorical question; yeridas hadoros, the principle of declining generations and inherent inferiority of recent generations vis-à-vis their predecessors, decides the question conclusively. But if so, how is it that the Acharonim developed such powerful analytical tools, which are seemingly unparalleled in the works of the Rishonim? Strictly speaking, the principle of declining generations dictates that the Rishonim were greater. How can it be that the less sophisticated methodology of former generations yields better, truer results?
The answer was offered via a parable: A person is in a room and wishes to leave it. He gets up, goes to the door, opens it and walks out. But what if he cannot see and therefore cannot readily find the door? He would get up and try to feel the wall. He would slowly move along the wall, until he feels a bump. Here he will stop and ask: “Is this bump a hook or a doorknob? Does it serve as a decoration or some other purpose?” Analyzing the available data, he would ultimately conclude that it is in fact a handle that can be turned. He will then continue to ask: “Is this a doorknob or a window?” And so on. Throughout the process he develops increasingly sophisticated thought processes, but he nonetheless lacks the simple ability to see reality for what it is. He might be more sophisticated, but he is usually less correct. This is the difference between simple but correct Rishonim and more sophisticated but less accurate Acharonim.
Even if we accept a hierarchy in which Torah study is more exalted than earthly existence, forfeiting any relationship with simple manifest reality makes a person miss a fundamental element of his learning. He loses the basic tool provided to him by the Creator: common sense.
And to our point: Even if we accept a hierarchy in which Torah study is more exalted than earthly existence, forfeiting any relationship with simple manifest reality causes a person to miss a fundamental element of his learning. He loses the most basic of tools provided him by the Creator: common sense. Deep logic and exacting analysis cannot replace straightforward reading direct contact with reality. Such casuistry leads to a lack of connection and creates a parallel universe we will never encounter upon leaving the beis midrash. It might be good for the World to Come, or for a world of tohu, of chaos; but in the physical world, where God placed us “to work and preserve it,” it is highly inappropriate. Those who lose their common sense lose not only their connection to reality, but their Torah study also misses the truth and is subsequently deficient.
If after years of study, of amassing deep and sophisticated arguments that apply in all directions, a yeshiva student can still ponder physical reality with a complete lack of understanding – is this is in fact an ear or an eye? – then there can be no end to arguments and no means of conclusively proving anything. If we lose connection to reality, then the very foundation of logical and empirical discourse is abandoned. Examples of this phenomenon abound, prominent examples being the identification of the snail that produces techeiles, of various places and boundaries in Tanach, and of many other matters relating to the physical world.
Detachment from History
We have noted how detaching the subject of Torah study from its corresponding physical reality inverts means and ends and runs the risk of subverting basic common sense. When Torah study becomes a form of scholastic virtuosity, logical and empirical proof too lose their meaning. But beyond all else, I am most concerned about the implications of this system to our place in God’s historical timeline.
When Torah study becomes a form of scholastic virtuosity, logical and empirical proof too lose their meaning.
The spiritual revival we are currently experiencing does not look like the redemption we imagined for two thousand years. It is difficult to dispute this simple fact. Light and darkness cast their alternating influences upon us, and we have been drifting and seeking direction for several generations. In this confused emotional state, we are careful to avoid confronting hard questions about our own path; deficiencies are assigned to others, alongside plights directed to the continued “hidden countenance” of Hashem. “The foolishness of a man twists his way, And his heart frets against the Hashem” (Mishlei 19:3).
Yet even given this introduction, I fail to understand how any excuses are adequate to justify the yeshiva world’s denial of the basic theological significance of the times we live in. Only one who is entirely detached from reality can ignore the events of recent generations. So as not to be seduced by an ideology with which we have many legitimate and bitter disputes, we engage in mental acrobatics. Accordingly, sources and quotations are offered in support of the argument that all which has befallen our people and our land is but another form of exile.
Would such excuses hold water if our learning was anchored to reality? We can certainly bemoan the spiritual emptiness of our generation. It is only proper that we do so. But the right to cry is earned by learning some history and comparing today’s situation to past eras, including the First and Second Temple periods.
We should not be complacent about our generation’s problems, some of which are slowly receding while others are intensifying or taking new Yet even given the challenges, how can one study the book of Yechezkel, then read a newspaper, and not see a connection between the two, stubbornly insisting that we are still in the depths of exile? How can we convince ourselves that “our strength is only in our words [our study and prayers]” until a “great shofar is blown for our freedom and we are gathered from the four corners of the earth,” when we have already been gathered in Eretz Yisrael and maintain our own sovereignty with rifle and mortar? How can we beseech God to “have pity on us in our land of captivity” even as we dwell in our own land as free people?
How can we beseech God to “have pity on us in our land of captivity” even as we dwell in our own land as free people?
The answer to all these questions is that redemption has been internalized as an abstract concept rather than a tangible reality; it is something that exists only in the world of study. In this we are not like Rav Baruch Ber. After all, he was at the very least able to identify the gizzard when he saw it in the kitchen.
In his Halachic Man, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik glorified the Brisk approach to Torah study and admiringly described the yeshiva student who looks at the river and sees a mikveh, identifying the empirical world in terms of halachic categories. And yet, R’ Soloveichik was able to discern what he described as the “Divine knocking” of fate on the doors of human history. As for us: even when redemption – its beginning, its awakening, its knocking, whatever – stands before us and looks us in the eye, we fail to identify it. The ideal redemption is simply unconnected to our earthly reality, and indeed cannot connect to it. We are thus able to continue arguing that the very a phenomenon occurring before our eyes is in fact something else entirely.
The halachos of redemption were not meant to produce pilpul that would to anything preserve a utopian and unfulfilled ideal. Anyone with eyes can see the door and dispose of the inquiries into the unseemly bump stuck in the middle of the wall of exile. It is knocking on our door, insisting we rise from our slumber.