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SIDIC Periodical VIII - 1975/1
Aspects of Jewish and Christian Prayer (Pages 14 - 20)

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The joy of the torah
David Hartman


« The study of Torah was a central element of the synagogue worship... The humblest Jew was afforded an opporzunity not only to listen and to learn but to study the Torah on his own as part of his daily worship » (Abraham Millgram).

This essay * does not claim to represent the only joy of the Torah that is available within Jewish experience. It will, however, reflect the thinking of an individual who lives within a tradition, who is committed to the halakhah, is concerned about the present experience of Judaism, and is deeply involved as a teacher in perpetuating the Jewish tradition.

There are many traditions of Torah study, and it may be helpful to understand from within which framework I speak. My approach in this essay will be existential and philosophic. My own thinking has been nurtured by the halakhic rather than the mystic tradition, by the tradition of Maimonides where philosophy emerges from masters of the halakhah. In addition, my own thinking was molded for many years by the eminent halakhic scholar, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik.

First let me indicate how I will consider the terms joy and Torah. There are, of course, many aspects of the experience of joy; in this essay I shall consider three elements alone: the sense of dignity and of adequacy; the sense of completeness in action; the sense of self-expansion.

The sense of dignity and of adequacy. From a subjective viewpoint, joy may be felt when a human being realizes that he is an adequate person capable of creativity and development, in some way able to control or master his own spiritual or intellectual growth. Awareness of one's adequacy may also emerge from the joy a human being experiences when he senses full acceptance by another. Joy is often a response when one feels that he is not a means for another person's development or a stage in another's growth but, rather, that there is a complete meeting of individuals. The sense of adequacy emerges from my awareness that another person moves to meet me and responds to me; it makes me feel that I am an accepted person, worthy of relating to another human being. Self-acceptance must not be found, however, in the other person's image of me; it must grow from a realistic understanding of myself with all of my faults and virtues. In this sense of adequacy and acceptance there is an experience of joy.

The sense of completeness in action. Joy can manifest itself not only in terms of one's self-recognition, but also in terms of the way one acts. Joy is present in actions which are complete unto themselves, which do not have a manipulative purpose, which are not within a means/ends nexus. An element of joy is present when a person feels the completion, the fullness of action. I need not seek any purpose for the act beyond the intrinsic importance of the act itself.

The sense of expansion. The sense of relating to others is also a dimension of the experience of joy. One feels an outgoing of the self, and awareness that one's ego is no longer self-enclosed or trapped within itself. There is a feeling that one can share, that one is loved and is capable of love, capable of moving out. This joy is what one would call a self-expansion, the sense in which the other becomes part of one's consciousness and in which community becomes part of one's individuality.

When discussing Torah, we must distinguish between two quite different elements. First, there is the element of mitzvah, Torah as commandment, as law. When we speak of the joy of the Torah, we then mean the joy of the mitzvah, of the commandment.

Torah is also a body of material with which one is intellectually engaged, which one studies and learns. In the yeshivah and bet ha-midrash (house of study) one may find people studying with joy, singing while they are learning. One sees their bodies swaying, so that one might imagine that they are praying. There is a sense of the total being engaged in the intellectual process. I have had the rare privilege of studying with a master in whose teaching one sensed the total engagement of the process of intellectual curiosity grappling with Talmud, with the entire halakhic (legal) and aggadic (homiletic) corpus of Jewish thought.

Thus, when one speaks of the joy of Torah, one has to distinguish between the joy of the mitzvah, the commandment, and the joy of lirnmud Torah, of learning.


Torah begins not with Sinai, but with Creation. From a theological perspective, there are two fundamental moments in Jewish spiritual experience: there is the Word that emanates from Creation, and the Word that emanates from Sinai. From a Maimonidean perspective, these two moments reflect two different theological models. The first is a moment of full self-expression — olam hesed yibbaneh — the world emerges from the overflow of God's creative power. In Creation, in the Word that established being, we have divine speech which is divine self-expression. Here, divine speech is a monologue after the pattern of the artist who expresses himself in the creative experience. Whether the artist's speech is understood, whether his work is appreciated,does not affect the creative impetus of the artist; he creates out of self-sufficiency, because of an overflow within himself. Creation, then, is an emanation of the divine overflow, resulting in being.

There is, however, another form of speech which is not modelled after the artist; this is speech in terms of communication, in which the essential element is not self-expression, but being understood. The essential feature of this speech is to make oneself comprehensible, and the audience's ability to understand is essential to the moment of speech. This speech emerges only after listening, and is a response to hearing. I must first listen and only then does the communicated word emerge, because only after listening is my speech addressed to the one who addresses me. This is the type of speech that creates the Covenant. Ontological speech, cosmological speech, does not issue forth in the Covenant; covenantal speech is the Word that is addressed to man hoping that he will understand. The divine speech of Sinai followed the divine listening to the suffering of the people in Egypt. The Exodus from Egypt reflects the divine « hearing », the divine choice to be engaged in the people's suffering. Only after the listening is there a response in divine speech, in terms of guidance, in the Word that creates the covenantal moment.

Jewish tradition understands the divine speech of Sinai as the words of a teacher. In describing God's activity at Sinai in relation to the passage which says: «I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt», Rashi refers to the Mekhilta which says: « In Egypt I was experienced as ish milhamah, as a man of war; on Sinai I am zaqen maleh rahamim, a teacher filled with mercy. But do not think that there are two Gods: the Lord who was experienced in the liberation struggle from Egypt is the same Lord who speaks to you now. There I was experienced as ish milhamah; here I am experienced as a teacher. But I am one God ».

The great expression that the tradition uses to describe God is ha-melammed Torah le'amo Yisrael — he who teaches Torah to his people Israel. The teaching and transmitting of Torah by man was viewed as an act of imitatio Dei, an imitation of God who is the teacher par excellence. This sense of God as teacher, which the tradition felt to be revealed in the moment of Sinai, gives birth to a profound sense of self-acceptance by man, to man's feeling that he is accepted by God. The moment of the law-giving at Sinai is the moment when the divine creative artist becomes the divine teacher — and, equally, the moment at which omnipotent God learns to live with limited man.

Let me explain what I mean. In the Torah one finds a divine dream about man. In the beginning, God is very excited: na'aseh adam (let us make man) — and then divine disappointment sets in. The divine dream is that of creating man in the image of God, but God finds out that man does not turn out as anticipated. The joy that he had expected to derive from that which he had made is often replaced by disappointment and frustration. At first God does not know how to come to terms with this, and there is divine rage against his creation for not meeting his expectations. But then man, in his imperfect humanity, in his weakness, is accepted by God who gives him the Torah. Halakhah, the law, emerges from the divine aspiration meeting the human reality.

Halakhah is not to be understood as reflecting some Platonic model of perfection, but rather as a mirror of divine aspiration, divine concern, the divine ideal as it comes to terms with limited man. In this sense one can understand why the desert was chosen to be the scene for the giving of the Torah. The desert exposes man in all his limitations and frailties; it projects man in his elemental hungers, in his base reality. God could say: « I will take you out of Egypt, and you are going to be a holy people »; but, after three days in the desert without food or water, the people say: « What use is this to us? We might as well go back to Egypt! » The desert reveals man in his utter physicality; it strips away all romanticization as to his nature. It is in the desert, in the tension between man and God, that the Law emerges, expressing the divine acceptance of human limitations.

There is an interesting midrash which reflects this. When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the angels reproach the Lord of the universe for wanting to give such a beautiful, precious thing as Torah to man. God does not answer the angels, but tells Moses that if he wants the Torah he has to win in this heavenly debate. And Moses says: « I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Have you been in Egypt, you angels? Have you been slaves? You shall not have any other gods. Do you angels live among nations where paganism is a real threat? Your theological environment projects absolutely no dangers. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Do you work that you require a Sabbath? You shall not take God's name in vain. Honor your father and mother. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Is there envy and jealousy in your midst? Do you possess these terrible passions that you have to be warned against? » The angels then turn to God and admit that the Torah indeed belongs with man!

This midrash finds expression in many aspects of halakhah, for « the Torah speaks in the language of men », and its statutes relate to the evil instincts of human beings. In other words, Torah is not a heavenly law, but is formulated as a response to the nature of man. It is an attempt to educate and guide men who struggle among themselves, who succumb to passions, who experience evil instincts. The Torah is not a reflection of divine self-sufficiency, but of how God is prepared to meet men in terms of their nature. The Torah is not always « spiritual » or « beautiful »; it does not deal with ideal situations, but with imperfect man.

Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed reflects the author's understanding of God's acceptance of man with all his imperfection. This is how Maimonides understands the Temple sacrifices, for example. Animal sacrifice was the nature of the worship to which man was accustomed and God was prepared to begin at that point and slowly lead man from stage to stage. Maimonides asks: Why does not God change the nature of man? Why does not God make man good? And he continues: If God would perfect man then there would be no need for Torah and no need for prophets. On the contrary, we see that God is prepared to be patient in terms of man's development, and because of that there is a law and there are prophets. The law, to Maimonides, reflects the divine patience, the patience of an educator.

I myself love those parts of the Bible which often seem strange to other people. There is the story of the soldier away at war, far from home, who finds a woman among the conquered peoples. The Bible asks what he is supposed to do when he meets that woman. Everyone generally gets embarrassed about the answer, but I find it deliciously spiritual. Now this story is about a man away from family and friends, who has been engaged in fighting and killing; and when one is engaged in such activities it is natural to expect that passions are released. Therefore the law in the Torah says that when one finds a woman among the captives, one can take her —but one must wait until one can take her home. This is a great law. It shows that the law does not desert man when he is in the jungle, but is prepared to accompany him there and then try, in some way, to discover how the circumstances of the jungle can be mitigated. The Torah is not a law for a perfect society, it is an attempt to meet real men in their concrete situations and in the agonizing conflicts that they face.

People who have tried drugs and mysticism sometimes come to Jerusalem and seek to study Talmud; they think it is really going to « turn them on ». As is customary, they start with the study of Mishnah, and the first mishnah which they study is often one that tells of two people who are holding on to a tallit (shawl), each claiming possession and saying that it belongs entirely to him. This is a very interesting mishnah; it could have been written quite differently. I could describe a situation in which there were two shawls, and each person found his own; or I might say that two people found a tallit, and that each said that the other might have it. But this mishnah speaks, rather, of one tallit; it deals with the scarcity principle which is often found in life. It would be nice if we lived in an ideal world, and not in one where scarcity generates conflicting claims — but we don't. Now this is often the first mishnah studied when a halakhic Jew begins his spiritual training. It reflects the reality of life: How does one deal with conflicting claims in the real world where we encounter scarcity and limitations? The law, halakhah, reflects this detailed involvement in the concrete struggle of man to « light a candle in a sewer ».

Once we learn to view the halakhah as divine acceptance of man's limitations and share this philosophical orientation of Judaism, then when we engage in the study of the talmudic details about someone's ox which gores another, or someone who lights a fire that destroys other people's property — we participate in the theological experience of the divine acceptance of the world in which men live. The law teaches that God is prepared to meet man in the world with which he has to struggle. Man is not asked to abandon that struggle; but in the midst of it he can reach out to God.

I love the biblical episode in which God promises manna to the people. He tells them that they will have enough food each day for their needs, and that they should not store it away, but should trust God each day. And what happens? The people gather the manna, and at night they put the left overs away for the morrow! On Friday God lets the people take a double portion of manna and tells them this is so they will have enough. But immediately after God sends a double amount of manna' on Friday, the people go out on the Sabbath to gather more! This is what I see as the reality with which God has to deal. He may dream « You shall be to me a holy nation and a kingdom of priests », but he has to come to terms with people who, because they are slaves and hungry, are afraid to trust him.

The law emerges out of these two theological motifs: that of God the teacher, and that of God's acceptance of imperfect man. From the dialectical relationship between God and man comes the law which reflects the divine presence in the world.

On a human model, love of Torah in terms of mitzvah emerges when man accepts God because he IS God, and not because he is a good administrator whom one should placate or supplicate in order to get things. In other words, love of mitzvah is the experience of God's love — You have loved us with a great love. And how do we experience your love? By reading and studying the laws of the Torah, the halakhah. We feel God's love because halakhah reflects his acceptance of us. So, too, we manifest our love to God by accepting the mitzvah for its own sake, by not manipulating it to obtain something else.

The Talmud says that one should desire the commandments and not the reward of the commandments. But God is such an accepting teacher that he is prepared to say: You don't have to accept me; just observe the mitzvah, even for the sake of reward, for crops, for health, for children. I am secure enough because, after all, I am the Creator God, I am self-sufficient; my perfection is not dependent upon my role as a teacher. So I don't mind if you observe my commandments in the hope of reward, for that is how you are going to improve yourselves a bit.

This, then, is the beginning stage of observing the mitzvah; this is the stage called yir'ah (reverence, fear or awe of God) because one anticipates reciprocity. But then one moves from yir'ah, observance for the sake of reward, to the moment of ahavah, of love, of keeping the mitzvah for its own sake, out of love of God.

This joy of Torah is the simhah shel mitzvah. Love and joy become identical experiences when the person reaches the point where he says: I do the mitzvah because it is a mitzvah. I serve God because he IS God, and not for what he is going to give me. This joy combines the sense of adequacy and self-acceptance which emerges from the awareness of acceptance on the part of God and the sense of completeness in action which is expressed in the human response of doing the mitzvah for its own sake.


Let us now turn to the joy of Torah in terms of the body of material to be studied. The tradition of learning, the great thrust in which learning becomes the supreme mitzvah, develops in its sharpest form in rabbinic Judaism. But it grows out of the model of the patient acceptance of the divine teacher of Sinai. The student's engagement in study reflects man's sense of adequacy; the intellectual endeavor expresses the dignity of man. Learning means that the student who listens and experiences the warmth and love of the teacher, feels encouraged to work out the implications of the material which the teacher has given him. Similarly, the divine love of the great Teacher liberates the student to create; and he sees his creation as an expansion of his learning. There is a statement in the Talmud to the effect that all that the student will create in the bet ha-midrash was given by Moses at Sinai.

A beautiful and humorous story in Tractate Menachot reflects this view. Moses comes to the academy of Rabbi Akiba and sits in a back row. He listens to the students arguing points of Torah, and is puzzled, since he is not at all familiar with the material, the issues, the methods of argumentation. After various viewpoints have been explored, Rabbi Akiba hands down a decision — and he bolsters it with the imprimatur of it being part of Moses' Torah given at Sinai.

What does this story indicate? It reflects the awareness that while it is Moses' Torah, it is Akiba who continues the Torah tradition. The secure student is not paralyzed by a frozen Word; he knows that the Word has infinite possibilities and is prepared to expand them. He recognizes that what he understands and transmits is part of the message he has received. This explains the ongoing development of the Torah and the oral tradition, the continuous process in which Israel becomes a co-partner in the creative elaboration of the Word. The Word no longer is a literal Word given at Sinai, but is an open-ended teaching that is continuously developed by students who feel free and intellectually adequate to expand the meaning of the divine speech. The teacher guides, the student responds, and the process of appropriation and expansion becomes part of the tradition. The Word which mediates the divine presence in love becomes integrated with the human response; the teacher's guidance and the student's response become part of the tradition, and the written and oral Torah are seen as one.

The Talmud goes so far as to say that the Covenant consists not only of the written word, but that it is based on the oral word. By this the rabbis wish to stress that the Covenant experience really emerges when Israel, which begins as a listener, responds to the Word that is heard and turns it into a creative word of its own, which can expand and develop. The Covenant grows when Israel feels adequate to continue the implications of the spiritual guidance that began at Sinai. Torah then turns into a derekh, a guide, a pointing of a direction; and an intensification of that direction becomes part of the process of Torah. That is why a traditional yeshivah student makes a berakhah (blessing) over the Torah when he studies the writings of his teacher. A person might spend his whole life working on his teacher's book, and each morning he would recite: « Blessed be God, the giver of the Torah ». He would experience God, the giver of the Torah, through his intellectual engagement in the word that was created by man. This attitude nullifies the idea of prophecy as the sole authentication of the Word. The Word is now interpenetrated by the human response which deepens understanding, and that too becomes Torah; that which a student creates is part of the divine Word. The Torah has not ended; it goes on to eternity.

This is the joy that an adequate person feels in learning. The intellectual struggle to understand the direction that comes out of one's past, the fact that one can understand it, trust one's own mind, and build on it to expand the Word — all these experiences cause one to feel joy in the Torah.


Now we come to the third aspect of joy —the ontological experience, the sense of expansion of self into community. The moment of Sinai did not take place during the life of Abraham. Torah, halakhah, mitzvah, begin when we have a people, when there is a community. Mitzvah is not the leap of the alone to the Alone; it is a communal spiritual road. Halakhah is not a spiritual guide for an individual, but for an individual who wants to serve God within community. It is the spiritual way for one who wants « we » to be part of his « I ». The halakhah would never claim that there cannot be an individual who spontaneously finds his spiritual way to God. What halakhah does is provide a spiritual direction for an individual who is organically related to community. In other words, mitzvah is not a private but a collective language. Halakhah legislates for the majority, formulates its principles — detailed development, elaboration, specification and codification of mitzvah — for one who seeks a collective spiritual language. The basic category is community; thus form becomes the basis for a shared spirituality. We meet through a shared form; the ritual, the norm, the mitzvah, are tools with which individuals can build a common spiritual life.

Halakhah mediates collective spirituality, and the joy of the Torah is also the joy of tzibbur, of the collective consciousness. Halakhically, where there is tzibbur there is an experience of simhah (joy). Thus, for example, the three great liturgical pilgrim festivals reflect the experience of simhah, whereas Yom Kippur, which symbolizes the individual standing before the Seat of Judgment, does not. Pesah, Shavuot and Succoth are historical experiences of the collective community, and in them the dimension of joy is fundamental.

When I was a congregational rabbi, colleagues would sometimes ask me what to teach their own congregations. To one I said: Teach them how to sing. And to another I said: Teach them how to dance. If you teach people how to be joyful, how to sing and dance, you have created the ground for community. I remember that in my own congregation the most meaningful experience I had as a rabbi was the celebration of Succoth. And I recall that the happiest experiences of my congregants, as human beings and as,- Jews, occurred at the festival of Succoth when they would leave their private homes and enter into the desert booth of the Succah. Everyone would hold hands and sing Shalom haverim. We would sing together in ecstasy for hours, and march in the streets. People forgot about their positions, and suddenly the community was changed — there was a sense of joy. After I left the congregation, they wrote to me and said that they felt the greatest gift they could give me as their teacher was to feel that they would be able to continue singing after I had gone.

This, then, is the joy of Torah as I experienced it — the sense in which 'am Yisrael, the people of Israel, merged together into an organic community. The expression of mitzvah as communal experience is an expression of joy. When I observe the mitzvah, I know that I am part of a total community with a common destiny and a common obligation. The mitzvah is my collective language. When I open a prayer book, the prayers are written in the plural, because it is not « I » as a single individual who is praying, but « we » as a collective community. I need words to be given to me in the prayerbook be-cause prayer is not the private speech of a single person, but of that individual as part of a community. And because this is so, the liturgy also takes on the dimension of the collective in the form of the minyan, the group of ten who pray together, the symbol of community.

Nonetheless, mitzvah does not express solely a collective spirituality; it also serves man as an individual who stands before God. Just as we move from the joy of the individual to the joy of the collective, we can also move from the joy of the collective to the joy of the individual, through the joy of learning. Learning is that which enables man to grow as an individual within the context of the mitzvah; but within the community different individuals develop according to their sensibilities, on the basis of their understanding. Understanding penetrates and loosens up the context of community and makes room for individual spirituality. Thus the joy of the community leads to the joy of learning, and each one, as he learns and understands more, appropriates more and brings his own individual understanding to this collective language.

Learning transforms the collective language into a private language, but it is a private language which emerges out of an understanding of the community and its history. I begin in action, in the performance of mitzvah, as a collectivity; I understand and create as a single individual. So the joy of collectivity merges with the joy of the individual; the dialectical pull of individuality within the community is made possible via learning. The joy of Torah as learning becomes the means by which individual spirituality is experienced within the form and framework of a collective covenant people.

Torah, both as mitzvah and as engagement in a learning process, creates a spiritual life in which joy is derived from the profound sense of adequacy which God the Teacher bestows upon his students. The unity of learning and mitzvah makes it possible for individual self-realization to develop within the matrix of community.

* The essay is adapted from a lecture given at a meeting of the Ecumenical Research Fraternity in Israel, held on December 19, 1973 in Jerusalem.

Dr. Hartman, formerly rabbi of Tifereth Jerusalem congregation in Montreal, Canada, is now lecturing in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


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