Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin by Norman Lamm by Professor Yoseph Udelson
Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin by Norman Lamm

Volume 3 , Issue 1


The extensive accomplishments of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (1749‑1821), one of the most influential and creative leaders of modern Jewish history, have remained largely unknown in the English‑speaking world. In this translation and revision of the original 1972 Hebrew edition of this work, Norman Lamm provides a thorough, well documented exposition of this seminal figure in the intellectual and institutional history of Lithuanian Jewry and its contemporary heirs.

According to Lamm, Rabbi Hayyim, the most prominent disciple and heir of the Vilna Gaon, recognized that at the beginning of the nineteenth century the mitnagdic tradition among Lithuanian Jewry faced two serious challenges to its survival. In the first place, the severe economic hardships facing Lithuanian Jewry had created a serious decline in Torah scholarship. In the second place, despite intense mitnagdic opposition, the Chasidic movement had become successfully established among a large segment of the observant population and had received profound theoretical justification for its innovative practices in the influential work, Likkutei Amarim (also known as Tanya, its opening word) by the founder of Chabad Chasidism, Rabbi Shneour Zalman. R. Hayyim devoted his life's work to responding successfully to these twin challenges.

To counteract the prevailing paucity of learning among Lithuanian Jewry, in 1802, R. Hayyim announced the establishment of the Yeshiva of Volozhin. His Volozhiner Yeshiva introduced important innovations in the principles of Torah education, organization, curriculum, and recruitment. The new institution, completely supervised by its founder, was to serve as the model for the Lithuanian yeshiva movement that flourished throughout the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and that has been, in this century, so successfully transplanted in Israel, America and Western Europe. Fundamental to the entire design of the Volozhiner Yeshiva and its many heirs is the centrality of the study of Torah lishmah.

According to R. Hayyim, what fundamentally differentiated mitnagdic from Chasidic theory and practice was their contrasting conceptions of Torah study and halakha. Unlike the Vilna Gaon and many other mitnagdic leaders, R. Hayyim acquiesced to the authenticity of Chasidism within the Torah community and accepted its sons into his yeshiva. Still, he was seriously apprehensive because of what he perceived to be antinomian tendencies within Chasidism, particularly in its attitudes toward Torah study and normative halakha. Indeed, although more restrained than some Chasidic leaders, R. Schneour Zalman, employing the conceptual framework of Lurianic Kabbalah, had nonetheless developed a powerful theoretical justification for exactly those tendencies that so worried R. Hayyim. And it was to provide the mitnagdic view with its own theoretical basis that R. Hayyim composed his classic work, the Nefesh ha‑Hayyim.

According to Lamm, R. Schneour Zalman, in his interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah, provides theoretical justification for three fundamental Chasidic doctrines: (a) the emphasis on the subjective intention and ecstatic unitive experience of devekut connected with the performance of mitzvot as opposed to their mere objective fulfillment; (b) the assessment of all mitzvot as essentially equivalent in value, and (c) the great emphasis placed on practice over study for contemporary generations. R. Hayyim, utilizing the same Lurianic conceptual framework, proposes counter arguments to each of these propositions. According to his Nefesh ha‑Hayyim, Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that the mitnagdic insistence on the halakhically punctilious objective performance of mitzvot regardless of prior subjective intention elicits precisely the cosmic consequences Chasidism claims for devekut while avoiding the antimonian dangers inherent in it. Similarly, he asserts that according to a proper understanding of Kabbalah, the mitzvot are indeed hierarchically ordered and that at the apex of this hierarchy for all generations following the Sinaitic revelation is Torah study, not practice. Thus, whereas the Chasidic interpretation emphasizes devekut, ecstatic union with the Divine, as the primary Torah duty, R. Hayyim focuses instead on Torah study lishmah.

After exploring at length the Nefesh ha‑Hayyim's conception of Torah lishmah, which was introduced into the curriculum of the Volozhiner yeshiva and spread throughout the entire Lithuanian yeshiva movement, Lamm concludes that it constituted a much more radical conceptual innovation than any introduced by Chasidic leaders such as R. Schneour Zalman. For while Chasidism treats Torah lishmah within the two traditional categories, --- the functional, which leads to practice, and the devotional, which leads to the love and fear of G‑d necessary for devekut ?--- R. Hayyim subsumes these two traditional notions of lishmah within a new inclusive category, the cognitive. Thus, according to R. Hayyim's mitnagdic view, Torah study lishmah must be thoroughly and elusively intellective, an endeavor undertaken solely for the purpose of comprehending Torah without regard for the functional or experiential consequences. However, it is important to realize that the purpose of this radical innovation was precisely to conserve the great emphasis on Torah study for its own sake as a cognitive endeavor which had typified rabbinic scholarship, both in the Talmudic period (by Rabbi Akiva and his disciples) and in medieval times (by Maimonides and his adherents).

Thus, Lamm discusses in great depth this dispute over the relative preference accorded Torah study versus practice as expounded respectively by R. Hayyim and R. Schneour Zalman, and illustrates specifically how their dispute, while couched in terms of their rival interpretations of Lurianic Kabbalah, actually constitutes a continuation of precisely the same dispute that can be found in Talmudic and medieval sources. This millennia‑long dispute over precisely the same issue, although in each era utilizing a new vocabulary for its conceptualization, strongly suggests that typically in rabbinic Judaism, innovation in form is employed in order to conserve content.

In his discussion of R. Hayyim's responses to the two grave challenges facing nineteenth century Lithuanian Jewry, Lamm also eliminates several persistent historical myths. Among the most important are the often repeated myth that R. Hayyim was merely continuing the views and program of the Vilna Gaon. As Lamm fully documents, the truth is the very reverse: it was because of his own insight and originality that R. Hayyim initiated the establishment of the innovative Volozhiner Yeshiva; that the attitude he adopts toward Chasidism was quite different from that of the Gaon, and that his interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah and of Torah lishmah were theoretical innovations that had few precedents.

It is unfortunate that Lamm has not considered the effect of the even greater antinomian threat posed to rabbinic Judaism by the growing reformist Haskalah movement arising in Western and Central Europe, for surely R. Hayyim was as well aware of the dangers posed by this ideology as were Chasidic leaders such as R. Schneour Zalman and Rabbi Nahman of Breslov. Very possibly, R. Hayyim's willingness to ?normalize? Chasidism within rabbinic Judaism and the extraordinary emphases he placed on Torah study lishmah and on punctiliousness in the performance of mitzvot were at least in apart his responses to the potent threat emerging from this deliberately antinomian movement. Furthermore, the sociological implications of the mitnagdic emphasis on Torah lishmah as an ideal meant only for an elite as opposed to the Chasidic emphasis on practice intended for the masses should have been more fruitfully explored by Lamm. Finally, it should be noticed that R. Hayyim's interpretation of the Lurianic Kabbalah actually implies the elimination of its study, as it, too, constitutes a distraction from Torah study lishmah; that this was deliberate can be inferred from the act that R. Hayyim did, indeed, exclude Kabbalah from the Volozhiner Yeshiva's curriculum.

These caveats aside, Lamm's carefully researched, closely reasoned study of R. Hayyim of Volozhin constitutes a major contribution to the history of modern Jewish thought and provides the English‑speaking public with access to the ideological and institutional innovations and achievements of a figure who still exercises profound influence in the contemporary Jewish world. Attentive study of Torah Lishmah will, therefore, amply reward its every reader.

Joseph Udelson is Professor of History at Tennessee State University.

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