Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 31 October 2011

What Learning Should Be

For the last year or so I've been slowly going through the Michtav MiEliyahu, the great mussar tract of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, z"l.  A few parts are difficult, many are inspirational but at the end of the third volume amongst copies of some letters he wrote are parts that are very frustrating.
As a Chareidi icon, for example, it is no surprise that he decries any attempt at innovation in the religious eductional system in the harshest terms.  I was also slightly taken aback by one of his statements on corporal punishment.  Although I don't agree and am reupulsed by the ntion, I can understand how he would, based on ample statements from Chazal, encourage the beating of students by their rebbeim but his advice to beat even a child that is obedient as a prophylatic measure is simply bizarre.
But ultimately it's his condemnation of any use of modern techniques (modern being the 1940's) in the educating of children, the insistence that the way we did it back in Eastern Europe is the way we must do it today, is what I disagree with most.  Forget computers and the internet, he had a problem with blackboards!
The problem with a tradition-based religion/nationalisty is that sometimes the tradition becomes the religion and replaced the original idea.  Is learning about taking in as much of Torah as possible or is it about going through the motions, swaying in front of a yellowed, crumbling text in a dark room by candlelight?  Is it more important to understand the gemara or to understand how the tune recited while reading it goes?
A more fundamental question: is learning Torah supposed to be enjoyable or approached as one does any field of knowledge?
There is no debate that Jews approach the learning of their sacred materials differently from other religions, that we approach Torah as a body of knowledge different than other fields.  We are not only to learn Torah but to love it and the process of learning it as well.  We see value not just in the knowledge but in people who are steeped in it and even in the books that contain it.  A scientist learns facts to conduct experiments, a Jew learn Torah to complete his neshamah and earn his place in Olam Haba.  Quite different.
As Rav Levi Cooper notes in this article, the idea that there should be joy in the learning of Torah is fundamental to the undertaking.
But there is something deeper to this as well.  Unlike other fields of knowledge where a lack of love for the material precludes an interest in it, Torah demands learning despite a person's passion for the material or lack thereof.  A person might not be excited about Shabbos but still has to observe it.  A person may have a strong hankering for ham but still has to keep kosher.  A person might not care much about what happens to an egg born on Yom Tov but there is still an obligation to know.  And here is where I think the insistent on the traditional method of learning lets people down.
There is, after all, no obligation to make learning difficult ab initio.  If someone is doing well in Talmud and really getting enthusiastic about it, do we change him over to some obscure Aramaic text that he can't possible get into and demand he restrict himself to that?  And if someone benefits from a particular teaching style that might not have di rigeur back in the shtetl, do we tell him to buckle down and get used to flickering candlelight instead of trying to meet his needs?  Is not learning the material more important?
In the end it would seem to me that our responsiblity as Jews is, as Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l notes in his comments on the first mishnah in Avos, to ensure maximum dissemination of Torah knowledge.  If it is done is a way that reaches the most amount of people the goal is achieved.  There is value to some traditions but not if it stands in the way of the most important mitzvah to be performed, that of learning our holy Torah.
According to the Alexander rebbes, only someone who endures hardship to study Torah, toiling and sweating, perhaps barely understanding – only such a person should be lauded as having really studied Torah. Enjoyment when studying Torah could be considered a foreign body that contaminates the purity of the pursuit.

The Alexander Rebbe’s work Yismah Yisrael was published posthumously in Lodz in 1911-1912, but the material was presented publicly over the years, and it is entirely possible that the Avnei Nezer had heard about the position expounded by successive Alexander rebbes.
The Avnei Nezer was not impressed with the Alexander idea, declaring that this position was a “famous mistake” and claiming that the contrary was actually true: Torah study is most valuable when it is a joyful endeavor.
Only when a person takes pleasure in studying do the words of Torah become part of his lifeblood, coursing through his veins and providing him with spiritual nourishment.
To buttress his contention, the Avnei Nezer cited the Zohar, which says that both the Evil Inclination and the Good Inclination grow through happiness.
The Evil Inclination is nourished by unworthy actions; the Good Inclination grows due to the enjoyment of Torah. Thus delighting in Torah study is a positive emotion, for it serves as a growth hormone for the Good Inclination.
The Avnei Nezer did, however, acknowledge a caveat: One who studies only for personal enjoyment – such as monetary gain or intellectual stimulation – and not because Torah is our Divine heritage is indeed learning for the wrong reason. Nevertheless, we are encouraged to fulfill God’s commandments even if we do not do so for the right reasons, in the hope that we will one day fulfill those commandments for the sake of Heaven (B. Pesahim 50b).
In sum, the Avnei Nezer concluded: One who studies both for the sake of Heaven and for any benefit that accrues from Torah study – such learning is for the sake of Heaven, and the person is entirely holy, for even the enjoyment can be considered the fulfillment of a commandment.
Who is correct? Should we ideally take pleasure in Torah study, or is our Torah study purer when it lacks any measure of enjoyment? Perhaps this is a question that need not be answered, and the two contradictory approaches should both be preserved and recalled at appropriate times.
On those days when we relish the encounter with Torah; when we can think of no better pursuit; when we enjoy poring over hallowed tomes and find it difficult to pull ourselves away; when every word seems to speak to our soul – on such days, the Avnei Nezer reminds us that real Torah study is supposed to be enjoyable, and at that time we are “entirely holy,” for the Torah is our lifeblood.
On those days when we regrettably find no joy in Torah; when we grapple with passages from old texts that seemingly have no relevance and no import for our daily lives; when we would prefer to be anywhere else but in front of a book of Torah – on such days the Alexander rebbes remind us that if we overcome the discomfort and study Torah, that Torah is truly pure and lofty.


Adam Zur said...

I don't know how to say this politely. There are better examples of musar books even from that particular school of thought itself.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

There was nothing rude about your statement. It's just that someone recommended it to me so I picked up a copy. Do you have any suggestions as to better books?

Adam Zur said...

In terms of Musar clearly the actual books from the direct disciples of Rebbi Israel Salanter would be best.--(though I admit I cut my teeth on the Chachma and Musar of Simcha Ziv from Kelm.). The best books of the Musar movement come from Isaac Blazer-the collection of letters of Israel salanter and assorted writings from Issac blazer himself--direct disciple of Israel salanter. also there is recently printed book of speeches of Issac blazer along with fascinating letters between him and Naphtali from Amsterdam.and of course the Madgragat HaAdam.
First generation (after Israel Salanter) musar books all tend to be very very good. Second generation ones get to be frum (i don't mean that nicely,)
also i should mention the mashgiach from the Mir--R. Yerucham (disciple of simcha zissel from Kelm). I just could not get what he was about.