Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > The Secluded Torah World

The Secluded Torah World

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Eliyahu Levi Associate Editor at Tzarich Iyun

Torah study in the traditional yeshiva study hall is not occupied with matters that are relevant to everyday life. The detachment from practical living is no chance occurrence, but rather its defining feature, its strength and its charm. The Beis Midrash preserves its isolation from the outside world in order to create a separation between the holy and the secular, and to ensure its qualities of sterility and purity. Occupation with matters that are irrelevant to everyday life supports this purpose. The problems begin when you step outside. A personal journey.

Kislev 5779, November 2018
 

In traditional Jewish society, and certainly in its Charedi variant, Torah study is a supreme value. Perhaps the supreme value. Each day we declare in our prayers that “they”—words of Torah—“are our life and the longevity of our days, and we will meditate upon them day and night.” We allude that even when we are unable to immerse ourselves in intensive Torah study, due to the burden of making a livelihood and other earthly involvements, the business of Torah study remains our “real” life, our true calling.

Occupation with Torah study occupies a place of honor, even of preeminence, among Jewish values: “Torah study is parallel to all of them.” The Lithuanian-Charedi world I grew up thus ensures that the best years of a man’s youth are devoted to the study of Torah. Indeed, the natural path of the yeshiva student involves devoting his entire life, from childhood to old age, to intricate analysis of the Talmudic debates of Abaye and Rava.

But when a man sets sails from the confines of the traditional Beis Midrash, the way back is not an easy one. This I learned the hard way, from my own personal experience. A a quick look around confirms that I am no exception to the rule—though I readily concede that the rule has exceptions

I myself began my path on the conventional track of Torah study: cheider (elementary school where initiation into the world of Torah begins), yeshiva ketana (the Israeli version of a yeshiva high school, in which 100% of study time is devoted to Talmudic studies), and yeshiva gedola. I even reached the status of a veteran alte bochur.

At a certain stage I realized that it would do not harm to find myself a trade, so that I could honorably provide for my family. As a grandson of Rabbi Gedalia Nadel, a unique figure of the Charedi world of old who was adamant in combining Torah study with making a living, this insight more natural to me than to many of my peers. But even then, it never occurred to me to neglect my Torah study. I sought out a “clean and easy craft,” as the Talmudic Sages counsel, which would allow me to combine the necessity of making a living with my principal interest of studying Mishnah and Gemara.

But when a man sets sails from the confines of the traditional Beis Midrash, the way back is not an easy one. This I learned the hard way, from personal experience. A quick look around confirms that I am no exception to the rule—though I readily concede that it has exceptions. My own journey, which is the foundation of this article, taught me that leaving the study hall, whatever the reason, places a person’s continued participation therein in grave jeopardy. This phenomenon, and the reasons for it, are the subject I want to present and discuss.

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The Talmudic Sages instructed us to refrain from making distinctions between different areas of Torah occupation. One who says that “this adage is good, but this one is not good” is considered to be “devaluing the Torah.” While it may exist on a formal level, this Talmudic instruction is certainly not practiced in the yeshiva world. The yeshiva study hall, the Beis Midrash, deals with a very narrow selection of Torah subjects, and studies them with a very specific method of Torah study—the Brisk method of lomdus. I respect and cherish this way of learning, on which I was raised. Yet we must concede that the system, with its advantages, exhausts itself for most students after some time. While still deeply devoted to Torah study, by my third year in yeshiva I felt I had (perhaps prematurely) reached the end of the path. Having acquired the Brisk toolkit of Talmudic analysis, it seemed pointless to continue the endless casuistic analysis of concepts such as sfek sfeika and petach patu’ach, or the application of hekdesh and ownership in the case of takfo cohen. I continued to enjoy the yeshiva-style back-and-forth and in-depth analysis of abstract definitions, but a strong gut feeling informed me that I had gotten all I could from them.

It appeared to me that the mental acrobatics involved in lomdus were sterile and led nowhere. They could perhaps be justified in the first stages of intellectual development, as necessary tools for developing powers of thinking and critiquing, but beyond this point they became needless at best and a distortion of healthy and lucid thinking at worst

My lack of satisfaction from yeshiva-style Talmudic studies did not derive solely from the sense of having exhausted the subject. The main point that bothered me was a seemingly inherent lack of purpose in yeshiva oriented Talmudic discourse. It appeared to me that the mental acrobatics involved in lomdus were sterile and led nowhere. They could perhaps be justified in the first stages of intellectual development, as necessary tools for developing powers of thinking and critiquing, but beyond this point they became needless at best and a distortion of healthy and lucid thinking at worst. Since I believed I possessed the tools that yeshiva study provides, I concluded it would be pointless to continue my everyday dealings with hypotheticals that barely (if at all) touch human life as actually lived.

In those days, the very idea of leaving (physically) the yeshiva study hall did not occur to me, and academic studies were far beyond my horizons. The questions that bothered my peers and I were entirely limited to an internal-yeshiva semantic field: Are the arguments of Rosh Yeshivah so-and-so distorted, or did he perhaps disclose a hitherto undiscovered depth? Should we opt for the Brisk method of analytical definitions independent of philosophical understanding, or perhaps that of Rabbi Shimon Shkop who presented a more humanistic analysis? But above all, I was concerned about the question of purpose: Why deal with questions that are not relevant in any way, shape or form outside the Beis Midrash? This question was my starting point in searching for different paths in Torah study.

I began my journey with the intellectual legacy of my grandfather Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel, which places an emphasis on understanding and discerning the biblical root of halacha. From there I became acquainted with Rabbi Leib Mintzburg and his special method of Biblical interpretation, and other similar figures who challenged, to varying degrees, mainstream yeshiva thought. Of course, all this took place within the framework of the typical corpus of a Lithuanian yeshiva.

Over the years I continued to make my cautious way forward, trying again and again to formulate and reformulate the “correct” approach to Torah study. I searched for Torah study as a “way of life,” a study directed toward the practical purposes of daily living, with an emphasis on understanding the reasons behind the mitzvos

I thus began to systematically read books of Jewish thought and philosophy such as Maharal and Ramchal, as well as mussar literature, the Guide to the Perplexed, the Kuzari, Or Hashem, the writings of the Ramban, and even commentaries of the Ralbag. Alongside the beloved Gemara I studied midrash, Kabbalah, and Chassidus. Later, I also discovered books that were distant from the yeshiva canon: the books of Rav Kook and Rabbi Soloveitchik. I even found a book on the learning methodology of Rabbi Breuer. But without question, my greatest discovery of all was the Bible. For the first time in my life I began to study the Torah in depth. I read it in solitude, alone in my room, in far-off corners of empty shuls. At the same time, I invested time and effort in acquiring a broad knowledge of primary sources. I increased my rate of study (unusual for the yeshiva experience), sometimes alone and sometimes with a chavrusa, and covered as many tractates as possible. In short, I almost entirely abandoned the traditional form of yeshiva study, trying my hand instead at the sections of the Torah corpus that the mainstream yeshiva approach generally neglects.

Over the years I continued to make my cautious way forward, trying again and again to formulate and reformulate the “correct” approach to Torah study. I searched for Torah study as a “way of life,” a study directed toward the practical purposes of daily living, with an emphasis on understanding the reasons behind the mitzvos. I tried to tie the Oral Torah to its origins in Scripture, and to explore the world of the Talmudic Sages from this perspective.

When I look back today at these first attempts, which also included writing long articles that endeavored to explain the system, some fiery speeches before gatherings of youthful friends, and innumerable disputes with zealous yeshiva students, I discover a panorama of fundamentalist ideas with a messianic hue, sparks of reformist thought, and lots of adolescent pretense. I suppose mine was a yeshiva version of classic youthful intellectual searching, or in other words a naïve picture of raw, unpolished thinking lacking refinement and general knowledge.

Why do I tell you this tale of my travails in the study of the beloved Torah that occupied me for so many years? Because since I left yeshiva and joined the earthly world of practical life, I found the knowledge I had acquired wholly inadequate. My attempts to apply Torah knowhow in the harsh reality of the world outside the study hall, to make it relevant and contemporary, came to naught. The many hours of counsel and reflection, the alternative study frameworks in their various forms, the scholarly lectures and their bombastic titles—“Torah and Life: Can They Dwell Together?”; “Meta-Halacha or Dead Halacha?”—all these were simply of no avail. I certainly could no longer return to the old Beis Midrash, in which I no longer found solace. The Torah was left behind, a cherished treasure from which to cull useful sayings and clever quips. Yes, having left the Beis Midrash, returning to it is no light matter.

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Going back in time a century or so, we will discover that a well-known Jew, Chaim Nachman Bialik, whose impressive writings you won’t find in the traditional Beit Midrash, described a similar sense of frustration—a longing for the Beis Midrash that can never be realized. Bialik began his intellectual journey studying with his grandfather in Zhitomir, and later found his way to the great yeshiva of Volozhin. Many years later he became the first national poet of the State of Israel. But despite his great success and deserved fame, Bialik, the renowned heretic, never ceased to rummage through his yeshiva past. And though he was more famous than his peers, in this aspect he was by no means exceptional. Many yeshiva students like Bialik left the Beis Midrash in pain and anguish, feeling that though they wished to return, even as guests—they could not.

I certainly cannot echo such extreme sentiments. The Beis Midrash I left is not dead, and the world outside is no magical spring of glitter and joy. But the basic distinction made by those initial Maskilim remains relevant: the denizens of the Beis Midrash simply do not belong to the world outside

While studying in the yeshiva itself, these talented young men knew well how to describe what bothered them. Bialik’s poems on the yeshiva experience all return to the same theme: the tension between the living, dynamic, lively, and energetic world outside, and the dark, dusty stagnation of the Beis Midrash, in which a lonely and diligent student sings softly over yellowing Gemara folios. I certainly cannot echo such extreme sentiments. The Beis Midrash I left is not dead, and the world outside is no magical spring of glitter and joy. But the basic distinction made by those initial Maskilim remains relevant: the denizens of the Beis Midrash simply do not belong to the world outside.

But why not? Why is this so? Can we not hope for some “ray of light” to connect the yeshiva and its uplifting Torah experience to the outside world? Is there no “path of life” that could pave its way to the doorstep of the yeshiva? As Bialik put it:

And I remember how strong the kernel, how healthy

The seed which is hidden in your sparse plot of land;

How great the blessing it would have brought to us,

If only a single ray of light had warmed it by its warmth…

If only a single willing spirit blew upon you

And cleared “the way of Torah” from which we rebelled,

And paved a path of life into the yeshiva.

In the past I was certain of a positive answer to this question. Of course the Torah can be relevant! It must be relevant! All we need is to “find the right system.” Today, I understand that detachment is the system itself. The seclusion of the yeshiva study hall from the world outside is not some chance happening; it was done deliberately, with full awareness of the consequences. I once thought that the irrelevance of yeshiva study was an unintended consequence of this or that policy and process. But this in fact is the goal itself, the definitive product. Yeshiva study is by definition detached from the real world, for the very goal of the Beis Midrash is to create an alternative reality from that on the outside. The gap cannot be bridged without destroying one of the two worlds.

In the past I was certain of a positive answer to this question. Of course the Torah can be relevant! It must be relevant! All we need is to “find the right system.” Today, I understand that detachment is the system itself…  Yeshiva study is by definition detached from the real world, for the very goal of the Beis Midrash is to create an alternative reality from that on the outside. The gap cannot be bridged without destroying one of the two worlds.

The phenomenon described above—the feeling articulated by Bialik and his friends, the sense that once departed there can be no return to the Beis Midrash—is inherent to the existing model of Torah study. The study hall itself (in its yeshiva form) exists in a parallel world deliberately removed from the sphere of everyday life. Torah study is a means of escape, of detachment from the worldly, everyday existence and immersion in a distant sphere of holiness. The world of Abaye and Rava has nothing to do with the “real world” of the student. This is its great advantage.

The power of the study hall lies in the parallel reality it offers its occupants. The detachment of the yeshiva enables the preservation of a magical world of Divine holiness independent and distinct from the “world outside.” The outside world undergoes shocks and upheavals, wars and crises of spirit, booms and recessions. But the Beis Midrash remains stable, a sealed and isolated Noah’s Ark, impervious to the ravages of the ages. This is why the language of the yeshiva Beis Midrash must be detached. The less relevant the issues being under discussion, the greater the capacity for creating a pure and isolated world of holiness.

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There is no comfort in this analysis of the yeshiva study hall. For a person who raised on the overwhelming idea of learning Torah day and night, the growing distance from Torah study is a visceral kind of pain. The academic world, which often serves as a departure point, is a dead and cold wilderness for those who were once a part of the Beis Midrash. But there is nowhere to return. The childhood Beis Midrash can remain but a distant memory to long and to yearn for—to miss the innocence, the honesty, the stubborn effort, and the deep caring that characterizes yeshiva students searching for the winning argument. Compare all of this to the pale pedantry of academia. But this is a world which will not return.

Having once been a yeshiva student, the yeshiva student cannot become an observer from outside. A former member of the household cannot become an occasional guest, enjoying his “hour of serenity.” Demotion from homeowner to visitant status is just not possible. The home is no longer his. The walls seem somehow different. The language seems strange. Even the content of the conversation is distant. What are they really doing there? Why is it so important? After all, it’s not relevant?

The idea of “batei midrash for working people”—frameworks of Torah study for the working person—preserves the separation between the inner chambers of Torah study and the rest of the world. Entering the “worker’s Beis Midrash” is a form of escapism for those who spend most of their time on the outside. After completing his day’s work, the working Jew who steps into this study hall seeks an “hour of serenity,” finding it in the detachment of Torah study that raises him above the secular experience of daily life and connects him with an elevated purity. Businessmen and simple laborers, clerks and artisans, doctors and lawyers—people who deal with the ostensible “real life”—devote an hour of their precious time to sink into the world of the second century, in which bulls walk the streets and shatter jugs of oil. They experience a kind of “cleansing via disengagement,” entering a world as distant as possible from the secular greyness of everyday life, immersing themselves in a parallel existence of holiness.

But what might be positive and important for “working Jews” does not necessarily work for yeshiva students. Yeshiva graduates, those who left the Beis Midrash after many years of devotion to Torah and total engagement in the endless sea of the study hall, cannot return to pay short daily visits. For those whose total and sole world was the Beis Midrash, leaving for the outside world is a traumatic step that strips the Torah of its exclusivity. After leaving Noah’s Ark going back cannot be the same.

The working Jew, who studies Daf Yomi at his neighborhood shul, is a self-aware momentary guest in the ivory tower of Torah study. He comes in to experience the magic of the moment, but never becomes a citizen. But for the dedicated yeshiva student the Beis Midrash is his actual world, his real world, his only world. His realm is replete with the sizes of the zayis and beitza, with the bent wall of the Sukkah and the black spots on the Esrog. This is what he gets up in the morning for, what most deeply moves him, what he gets worked up about. His departure for the outside world fractures his world and demolishes the tall and crucial partition dividing the secular and the holy. Delving into Talmudic subjects suddenly feels strange: why should he care about this or that subtle distinction? Why is it relevant? The exclusivity of the world of Torah is broken. Its sterility is polluted. It is no longer possible to experience it with innocence and simplicity.

Having once been a yeshiva student, the ex-student cannot become an observer from outside. A member of the household, somebody who knows its intricate workings and finest details, is incapable of becoming an occasional guest. He cannot enjoy the magical moment of a short visit, since for him there is no magic, but rather a reality lost. The home is no longer his. The walls seem somehow different. The language seems strange. Even the content of the conversation is distant. What are they really doing there? Why is it so important? After all, it’s not relevant.

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What can be done with this this insight? I do not know. One conclusion might be is that leaving the Beis Midrash comes with high costs that should be carefully considered. Another might be that we ought to redefine the meaning of Torah study. This article never intended to offer solutions, but only to describe a certain mindset that is shared by many—though not by all—who followed the path I took. My main conclusion is what not to do: It is wrong to make an artificial connection between Torah, as studied is yeshiva today, and everyday life. If we want to preserve the old Beis Midrash we must protect it from life. Its detachment is the secret of its survival.

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