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 exclaimed: “So this is the holy kurkivan, the gizzard mentioned so many times in the sugyos of the Gemara!”
What is the point of this anecdote? What can it tell us about the world of those who live and breathe Torah study? Most importantly, what can we learn from those dedicated ameili Torah the story aims to characterize?
I believe the anecdote means to concretize the principle expressed by the Midrash, “[God] looked in the Torah and created the world” – at least according to the interpretation it receives in the yeshiva world. This midrash has been a central source for an understanding of the world as a representation of the Torah, rather than the other way around. Based on this conception, a Torah man lives in the “real” world of concepts, those of the Torah in general, and of the yeshiva in particular. Only when forced to does he look out the window of the beis medrash and begrudgingly impose these categories on a physical world. Thus God’s will is translated into a physical world while retaining its pristine nature.
a Torah man lives in the “real” world of concepts, those of the Torah in general, and of the yeshiva in particular. Only when forced to does he look out the window of the beis medrash and begrudgingly impose these categories on a physical world
To Rav Baruch Ber, the “real” gizzard is not a piece of meat 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 the four-legged, tailed creature that carries a rider. The physical horse is but a functional representation of the “ideal” horse, an abstract concept that does not actually exist in the flesh in any defined place.
Reality, according to Plato, is never perfect. One horse has a cracked hoof; the other a long lip; the third can’t do much before noon; the fourth is just lazy. The ideal horse does not actually 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. In other words, for the ideal “horse” of the conceptual world there is no need for all those organisms walking around in our physical world and claiming the title “horse.”
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.
Our gizzard story demonstrates a worldview that emanates from a similarly theoretical framework. L’havdil, the Torah thinker can also argue, like Plato, in favor of distinguishing between a physical object and its conceptual, “true” ideal, and even assign independent significance to the world of ideas. The conceptual gizzard is not a meaningless product of imagination, but rather the subject of a section in Shulchan Aruch. It is part of the word of God, a hidden delight, black fire on white fire that preceded the world. Human beings were fortunate to be entrusted with it over the angels. The “true” gizzard that which appears in the Torah. And yet, to be manifest in the lowly physical world, birds were created with an organ that represents the “true gizzard,” so that the spiritual essence might be embodied in material form.
Don’t Confuse Ends with Means
The revolutionary innovation of the Platonic approach, reflected in its yeshiva version in the story of the gizzard, lies in its reversal of means and ends.
Simple human understanding identifies the physical world as a predicate, while law offers normative guidance for successfully and appropriately navigating that world. In the case of the Torah, the guidance offers even teaches us how to live a good and elevated life, and to be in relationship with Hashem – something we would be unable to achieve without the Torah. Torah instruction allows us to live within a given reality, choose good and refrain from evil, and react properly 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) for implementing the Divine will. The apple we eat exists for the blessing one will say when eating it; the “real” purpose of the Exodus – our redemption from Egypt – was not to redeem us from the 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 would we learn about and observe its halachos?
The apple we eat exists for the blessing one will say when eating it; the “real” purpose of the Exodus – our redemption from Egypt – was not to redeem us from the 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 as such. Law is the predicate and the world is but a means; its sole purpose is to serve as a platform for observing the Torah. A Jew on the street is likely to explain that the goal of Torah is to guide and uplift human existence by guiding one to a moral, proper, and exalted life. The counterintuitive approach proposed by our Midrash (and Plato) suggests the opposite. Torah is not meant to correct flawed human life, but rather all physical creation is organized for the sole purpose of observing the Torah’s commandments. The ultimate aim is not earthly life, no matter how exalted. 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. We generally assume that the objective of Torah study is proper observance of the laws studied. There is thus little gain in delving deeply into halachos that deal with rare or impossible situations. At the very least, this kind of study is less important than knowledge of practical and relevant laws. Indeed, Chazal expressly stated that Torah study is a means to its practice, concluding a discussion of the matter with the affirmation that “Great is study that leads to practice.” True, Torah study includes broad sections that are not applicable today, and we nonetheless recite a blessing when learning these topics; but even when it comes to these areas, the material and process of study are oriented toward reaching a practical ruling. While the possibility of practical implementation is not a precondition for Torah study, Chazal are telling us that Talmud Torah, done properly, should inform observance, even if only theoretically.
Chazal expressly stated that Torah study is a means to its practice, concluding a discussion of the matter with the affirmation that “Great is study that leads to practice.”
Many of those who are steeped in intense Torah study see this differently, through the eyes of the Midrash we quoted. 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 only 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.
Indeed, Torah study is 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. 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 “pure” Torah concepts, which is the goal of all creation. Hence the accepted methods and style of learning in today’s yeshivas, where most resources are intentionally invested in studying Torah topics of limited practical expression. Yeshiva study celebrates deep analysis of abstract definitions. This, according to our midrashic worldview, is the ideal of Torah, which 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 spend in Torah study) when an entire study seder is “wasted” to light Chanuka candles. After all, the time spent to return home and light candles could have been used to study another Tosafos or Rashba. We can readily understand that one who prefers Torah study over practical implementation senses that it might be preferable to forgo the “obligation to light” in favor of discussing the 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 (though this conundrum will likely not 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 the Chanuka candles on their behalf (an undisputable fulfillment of the main mitzvah: “ner ish u’beiso”) while men 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 spend in Torah study) when an entire study seder is “wasted” to light Chanuka candles.
Below I will outline the steps of this approach, which is common today in the world of Torah. I will argue that a logical next step might result in complete detachment from earthly reality, which could harm Torah study itself. What is the ultimate fate of the real, earthly gizzard? After we have found the physical gizzard in the kitchen and matched it to the ideal halachic gizzard, does it fuse with and inform the student’s life and outlook or was it a fleeting episode, such that the Talmudic gizzard remains an independent abstraction? 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, or, moreover, a complete disconnection from physical experience an unfortunate diminishing of the Torah’s relevance.
Stop Rummaging Around in the Dark
Our youth routinely study Nashim and Nezikin, at times leading to situations that can only be described as bizarre. It is very common, for instance, to find a lively discussion among serious yeshiva students, individuals who live and breathe only Torah, fiercely ironing out intimate details of human, even female anatomy. These students would of course never consider these to be acceptable topics for conversation in everyday speech. Yeshiva staff, such as the Mashgiach (responsible for the students’ spiritual growth) would not raise such issues in his Mussar schmooze (sermon), even out of entirely pure motives. By contrast, in the course of learning, the students will not hesitate to discuss even the most intimate terms. To an outsider, this phenomenon seems entirely bizarre.
It is very common, for instance, to find a lively discussion among serious yeshiva students, individuals who live and breathe only Torah, fiercely ironing out intimate details of human, even female anatomy. These students would of course never consider these to be acceptable topics 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 conception of what he is really discussing. Truly and honestly, he is discussing in purely abstract terms matters which in any other situation would embarrass him terribly. But let us imagine our student, after a few years of study, preparing for his wedding. To all appearances, the student seems to have never heard about any of the concepts associated with marriage. His years of study have not taught him anything about the tangible world. Years of studying the intricacies of Seder Nashim have not led to any awareness of their consequences for something he may encounter in the real world. The learning has all been on a purely theoretical level; any encounter between these 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 laws may have taught him.
It is worthy of note that I, too, am dealing in this article with a world of ideals. The young man I am describing is not necessarily an actual person. He is rather an “ideal yeshiva bachur” – 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 active ideal that the community upholds. And unlike the “perfect” horse, I personally have known more than a few. And on many levels they are fortunate indeed. Ashrei chelkam.
The problem, however, is that the 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. The student can 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 tear between the two worlds, that of the ideal and that of reality, requires many stitches; sometimes even these are not enough.
This predicament occurs 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 as a shadow from the sun.
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.
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. An “ideal” gizzard that does not correspond to a physical gizzard is not even an ideal gizzard. It is instead 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 or Acharonim? This of course is a rhetorical question, since yeridas hadoros, the principle of declining generations and inherent inferiority of recent generation vis-à-vis their predecessors, is typically taken for granted. If so, Rav Heiman asked, how is it that the Acharonim developed amazing analytical tools that are seemingly unparalleled in the works of the Rishonim? Strictly speaking, the principle of declining generations seems to dictate that the Rishonim were greater. How then is it possible that ideas that seem less sophisticated – those of former generations – are in fact more correct and true?
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 thus cannot readily find the door? He might get up and try to feel the wall. He will slowly move along the wall, until he feels a bump. Here he will stop and ask: “Is this a hook or a doorknob? Is it for decoration or some other purpose?” Analyzing the available data, he might conclude that it is in fact a handle which can be utilized. But now he will once again 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.
We return now to our discussion. 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. Deep logic and exacting analysis cannot replace straightforward reading of reality and direct contact with the same. Such casuistry leads to a lack of connection and creates a parallel universe we will not encounter when we leave the beis midrash. It might be good for the World to Come, or a world of tohu, of chaos; but in the physical world, where God placed Man “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 many years of study, and having amassed proofs and pointers in all directions, one can still ask whether this is truly an ear or an eye, then there can be no end to arguments and no way to conclusively prove anything. If we lose connection to reality, then the very foundation of logical and empirical discourse is abandoned. Examples of this phenomenon can be seen concerning concrete issues such as identifying the snail that produces techeiles, identification of various places and boundaries in Tanach, and many other such matters.
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 on our place in God’s historical timeline.
When Torah study becomes a form of scholastic virtuosity, logical and empirical proof too lose their meaning.
We know that the spiritual revival we are currently experiencing does not look like the redemption we imagined for two thousand years. 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, and plights to Hashem’s “hiding His countenance.” Indeed, we may very well be acting out the verse, “The foolishness of a man twists his way, And his heart frets against the Lord” (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. Thus, 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 that 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 form. But, even so, how can one study the book of Yechezkel and 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 be 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?
… redemption has been internalized as an abstract concept rather than a tangible reality… 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 answer to all these 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. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, in his Halachic Man, glorified the Brisker approach 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 “Divine knockings” 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 unable 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 but 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 that we rise from our slumber.