Reverence and Joy in Torah Study

More highlights from my current series on Torah study at Yeshivat Har Etzion's Virtual Beit Midrash:

As captured by Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:1-2) and many others, the dialectic between reverence and enjoyment animates the life of the servant of God generally. As we might expect, this tension manifests itself regarding talmud Torah. Berakhot 22a, for instance, emphasizes that “just as the Revelation at Sinai was in reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling, so too here, in every generation, Torah must be studied with a sense of reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling.” This is to be expected: as noted, this tension runs through much of religious experience as broadly conceived. What is noteworthy, though, is the emphasis sources have placed on the importance of enjoyment in the experience of Torah study, even among those thinkers for whom enjoyment does not occupy a central position in their larger religious worldviews.

Many sources underscore the importance of enjoyment in Torah study. Ta’anit 30a cites the verse “God’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart” (Tehillim 19:9) as a proof text for the prohibition against studying Torah on Tisha Be-Av. The ruling against studying on Tisha Be-Av is rooted in the assumption that Torah study provides one with enjoyment. Similarly, Eruvin 54a states

Rabbi Zeira derives it from here: “A person finds enjoyment in giving an apt reply, and how good is a timely word!” (Mishlei 15:23) — when does one find enjoyment? When one gives an apt reply.

Here, enjoyment is associated with finding the answer to a difficult question, an experience to which almost any Torah student can relate. Also underscoring the place of enjoyment in Torah study, Berakhot 63b teaches that each day of talmud Torah is as beloved to its students as the day on which it was given at Sinai.

Deepening the association with enjoyment, the continuation of the sugya in Eruvin (54b) offers a shockingly erotic depiction of the talmud Torah experience:

Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani said: What is that which is written (Mishlei 5:19): “A loving hind and a graceful roe?” Why are matters of Torah compared to a hind?
To tell you that just as a hind’s womb is narrow and it is precious to its lover, so that every time is like the first time; so too, matters of Torah are precious to those who study them each, and every time is like the first time.

Conversely, on Sanhedrin 99b, Reish Lakish compares one who studies Torah periodically to a philanderer. This harsh analogy contrasts with the committed, loving relationship that ideally characterizes Torah and its student.

These romantic depictions of talmud Torah may dovetail with Rabbi’s teaching on Avoda Zara 19a:

When they came to this verse, “But whose desire for God’s Torah (Tehillim 1:2),” Rabbi commented: “One can only learn well that part of the Torah which is one’s heart's desire.”

On the one hand, this may be a pedagogic point, namely that one will only be able to successfully learn that which one is genuinely motivated to master. Indeed, this educational principle, herein endorsed by Chazal, is making a major impact in the landscape of contemporary North American yeshiva day schools, which are increasingly emphasizing the importance of choice. However, it may also indicate that it is important for one to feel passionate about a particular area of Torah study, because this will deepen one’s motivation to study. Rabbi’s proof text includes the word “desire,” which evokes the erotic imagery of Eruvin; Rabbi may allude to the importance of passion in Torah study. According to this reading, he sharpens the point of emotional engagement in Torah: not just studying generally, but finding a particular discipline, topic or text about which one is most excited.

Of course, Birkhot Ha-Torah place a unique emphasis on the enjoyment we aspire to in our studying. We go out of our way to beseech God to “please make sweet the words of Torah in our mouths, and in the mouths of our children.”

Numerous Rishonim and Acharonim also accentuate the role of enjoyment in talmud Torah. Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive 3) stresses that studying is a key method for achieving greater love of God. As we will discuss later in our series, Meiri (Shabbat 118b) and Bach (OC 290) suggest that there is a unique obligation to study Torah on Shabbat as a fulfillment of “delighting on the Sabbath;” both explicitly cite Tehillim 19:9. The Taz (YD 121) strikingly rules that although there is a general principle that “the mitzvot were not given to derive benefit,” this does not apply to Torah study, which specifically was given to us in order to derive benefit.

In his inspiring introduction to Eglei Tal, R. Avraham Bornsztain refers to those who claim that enjoying talmud Torah contravenes the principle of Torah lishmah. R. Bornsztain rejects this position, explaining that Torah was specifically given to be studied joyously. He goes so far as to contend that talmud Torah is similar to eating matza, in the sense that deriving benefit is an essential component of the mitzva. One therefore fulfills one’s obligation in talmud Torah even without intention: the pleasure that one derives from the Torah study makes the action considered one’s own, and even a mitasek (one who performs a mitzva inadvertently) receives credit for having fulfilled the obligation.

At first glance, this emphasis on enjoyment seems to contradict the aforementioned stress on the toil and self-sacrifice involved in Torah study. Suffering and enjoyment, after all, generally do not go hand-in-hand. How are we to resolve this apparent contradiction? Two possible solutions present themselves. First, it is possible that the enjoyment comes only after one has expended considerable toil and effort. While this reading is logically plausible, it does not seem to accord with the sources we have cited, which indicate that the love for Torah is built into the studying experience from the outset. It therefore seems that a second solution is more likely: only one who passionately loves Torah will be willing to sacrifice on its behalf. Seen from this perspective, love and toil are truly two sides of the same coin.

Torah and Freedom

In concluding our discussion of toil, enjoyment and Torah study, let us briefly examine the famous statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “There is none who is free but one who engages in Torah study” (Avot 6:2). In light of the toil demanded of the Torah student and the rigorous demands of a halakhic lifestyle, how is it that the student of Torah is considered free?

Many answers have been offered, and they complement nicely our discussion above. Rav Kook (Orot Ha-emuna), in line with his general view that Torah study enables our deepest individuality to emerge (see our discussion of Torah lishmah in the fifth shiur in this series), offers a powerful reading. Precisely because Torah study is meant not to stifle individual creativity but to enhance it, engagement with Torah is a profoundly liberating experience.

Our earlier discussion (in our fourth shiur) of Rav Soloveitchik’s reading of Torah study as a quasi-Platonic recapturing of one’s deeper identity dovetails nicely with Rav Kook’s approach. If by engaging in talmud Torah one recovers one’s inner self, it is fair to view Torah study as a liberating experience.

In light of our earlier discussion in this shiur, as well as a careful reading of this statement, we may suggest an alternative reading. Note that Birkhot Ha-Torah speak of the directive “to engage in words of Torah” — toiling, as the commentators point out. The blessing is recited not just on the mitzva of Torah study, but upon a more intensive, all-encompassing engagement with the text. Similarly, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, we may suggest, posits that in-depth study is the key to liberation. One who studies without full-fledged intellectual and emotional engagement is likely to find the experience of study stifling; one who is fully engaged in the process, however, will find the experience to be one of renewal and inspiration. The toil of talmud Torah, properly conceived, generates the sublime enjoyment captured in this paradoxical maxim.