Rabbi Shimon Shkop’s Imitatio Dei and the Value of Fun
Of the lesser-known teachers of RIETS’ past, Rabbi Shimon Shkop (1860-1939) definitely ranks near the top of the list. That isn’t to say that Rabbi Shimon Shkop is less-known. Far from it, as a close colleague of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (the “Chofetz Chaim”) and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the two preeminent authorities of pre-war Europe, his name is oft-mentioned in the circles of Talmudic analytics. His position as the head of the Telze Yeshiva allowed him to craft a curriculum that combined the complex Talmudic approach of Brisk and the “simple” approach of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin at Volozhin, to create the “Telze approach”, producing many Torah greats, including Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman. He headed a very successful yeshiva in Grodno called “Shaar HaTorah”, where the famous Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz taught. The very different worlds of Telze and Yeshiva University colliding in Rabbi Shimon Shkop is nothing less than shocking, more so today than before.
It doesn’t help that many of his students tried to erase the history of his time at YU. In a Jubilee volume published by his Shaar HaTorah students after Rabbi Shkop returned from America to Grodno to continue as head the yeshiva there, the publication provides a description of Rabbi Shkop’s accomplishments, including his time in America in 1928-1929. Conspicuously missing from this is any mention of his time teaching at Yeshiva University. Instead, they write (my translation):[i]
“In the year 5689  when the material situation of the yeshiva was extremely stricken, and the yeshiva’s income had shriveled, our rabbi took his wandering staff and wandered to America to save the yeshiva from its tangle of debt and to set the yeshiva on its proper basis. This traveling during his old age was literally self-sacrifice (mesirat nefesh), but our master shlita cast in his life despite that, for this was regarding the life and survival of the yeshiva. The appearance of our rabbi shlita in America had an enormous impact, and everywhere he went they came and greeted him with great reverence and admiration. His many and scattered students, in the hundreds, flocked to him and made their great love and appreciation known to their rabbi. While still 5689 (1929), he returned to Grodno to the joy of his students…
This is yet more evidence that even in a rabbi’s lifetime can his history be rewritten by people from his circle, in order to “protect” the reputation of their greats.
RIETS, for its part, was extremely respectful and cognizant of Rabbi Shkop’s standing. As R. Aaron Rakeffet in Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy, describes how Revel wrote a press release describing the importance of Rabbi Shkop’s appointment:
The coming of the Gaon, Rabbi Shimon Shkop to the Yeshiva is not only a matter of great importance to the Yeshiva… but it is an important event for all American Jewry. He will, with the help of God, aid in planting the seeds of Torah in this land, just as he propagated the study of Torah in our old home.[ii]
The students themselves revered Rabbi Shkop. R. Rakeffet continues:
In the December 30, 1928, issue of the student publication, Hedenu, a student described his emotions and thoughts when Rabbi Shkop entered to lecture:
“Reb Shimon” is walking slowly. An electric current seems to pass through those assembled, and all eyes focus upon Rabbi Shkop. One thought seems to be uppermost in everyone’s mind: this elderly man–who possesses keen eyes that move quickly, and a gentle smile on a delicate face that is surrounded by a clean, white beard–is “Reb Shimon.” This is the same “Reb Shimon” of Telshe, Maltsh, Bryensk, and Grodno–whose deeds and accomplishments in each of these stations in his life, have gained for him the respect and love of all.[iii]
Although the Yeshiva University website describes his stay as Rosh Yeshiva as lasting a full year,[iv] in reality his stay was short-lived, lasting only from March of 1929 to August of that year. And although the Yeshiva University website states that the reason why he left was due to the urging of the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski despite his misgivings, this seems to be inaccurate as well. There, whoever wrote the description, describes his leaving Yeshiva in such a manner:
Although he wanted to remain, the leading rabbis of Europe, led by the Chofetz Chaim zt”l and Rabbi Chaim Ozer zt”l, felt it imperative for him to return to Grodna and to his yeshiva there. Rabbi Shkop answered their call, albeit with some misgivings.
However, R. Revel’s invitation to Rabbi Shkop to stay the next year was met with adamant refusal and a clear rationale for it, indicating that Rabbi Shkop never planned to stay longer than he had to:
When I arrived here [Miami beach], I was given your telegram in which you requested that I continue in the Yeshiva. It surprises me that you still ask that I do so. Haven’t I already told you many times that I cannot fulfill this request. It is my fondest wish that God should help me return to my Yeshiva in Grodno before Rosh Hashanah…. May the good Lord aid you in selecting the proper man to head the Yeshiva.[v]
Though it’s possible that Rabbi Shkop would have stayed had his colleagues not urged him to return, it seems more obvious that he himself never really wished to stay in America at all, nor did he have “misgivings” for his decision to leave. We see that there may be some rewriting of Rabbi Shkop’s history on the Modern Orthodox side as well, which is definitely an under-described phenomenon.[vi]
Rabbi Shkop’s willingness to teach at YU demonstrates his general openness to breaking away from the mold in the yeshiva world. One of his most famous writings is the book entitled, “Shaarei Yosher”, which contains essays discussing various specific issues in Talmudic law, such as testimony law. His introduction itself, however, is an extremely interesting and innovative reading of famous passages in the Torah and Talmud to prove his understanding of man’s role in the world.
His thesis, in short, is that man’s purpose is solely to improve the lot of the many. While the idea of aiding the community certainly exists as a Jewish value, the denial of the inherent value of personal worship of God is certainly at odds with the amount of today’s Orthodox focus on the individual’s performance of the commandments. To prove his surprising thesis, he must place preeminence on sources that were not valued as such before. For example, the Talmud in several places[vii] interprets that the Torah command to “walk in [God’s] ways”[viii] means to imitate God by doing acts of kindness, like He acts. Just as God visited the faint Abraham recovering from circumcision, so too do Jews have an obligation to visit the sick. Many recent authorities have placed great importance on this concept, known in Latin as imitatio dei.[ix]
But for Rabbi Shkop, the import of this passage is even beyond a command to worship God by helping others. He writes that the command of imitatio dei means “that we, the select of what He made, should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.”[x] For Rabbi Shkop, to truly be like God, all our actions must be devoted to others, like His are. Further, he understands the concept of holiness as expressed in Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy, for I, God your God, am holy,” in the same vein. Leviticus Rabbah understands “holiness” as “separateness,” yet Nachmanides[xi] interprets the verse as relating the obligation of the Jewish people to stay away from acts of debauchery and becoming what he calls a “naval be-reshut ha-Torah” – “despicable person with the permission of the Torah.” Rabbi Shkop asks, “According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible. What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy?” His answer, seen in full, is remarkable:
And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but no one else.
Thus, Nachmanides’ category of “naval be-reshut ha-Torah” becomes, to Rabbi Shkop, a person who does things that will never have any good for the community. This is indeed quite innovative. Fundamentally, Rabbi Shkop believes that every action one takes must be for the benefit of others. He continues with a caveat. It is humanly impossible to be exactly like God, because, “His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself,” which humans cannot hope to replicate. Rather, even acts of personal benefit must ultimately allow man to better serve his fellow man, otherwise they are “vanity and ignorable.”
Rabbi Shkop’s conception of the intense Jewish value of caring for the community seems on the face of it to be in line with Modern Orthodox values. Indeed, Rabbi Yitzchak Blau claims that for this same reason, Modern Orthodoxy should generally distance itself from TV and movies.[xii] He writes that “Modern Orthodox Jews pride themselves on their sensitivity to communal needs and on a commitment to benevolence. They sometimes contrast their approach with a Haredi view that tends to prize Torah study above other values.” Therefore, argues Rabbi Blau, if TV can be shown to hinder that commitment to benevolence, it would be a danger to Modern Orthodox values as a whole. Rabbi Blau draws from political scientist and Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s argument for the negative effects of TV on civic engagement in his book, Bowling Alone, which can be summarized as follows: 1) It uses the scarce time that could be spent helping others, 2) It has psychological effects that inhibit social participation, and 3) TV promotes materialistic values which are opposed to social engagement.
Though Putnam’s conclusions at face value seem mere correlation, rather than causation, of the majority of TV watchers and their social habits, we can accept them for the sake of argument. Assuming his conclusions are correct, the real question is whether Modern Orthodoxy values communal beneficence so much that any value that entertainment and leisure could have must go by the wayside in pursuit of it. In other words, does fun have value in Modern Orthodoxy, and does it overcome the adverse effects described by Putnam? And how much of Rabbi Shkop’s extreme value of community does Modern Orthodoxy possess that would prevent it from ascribing value to leisure and entertainment?
Avi Woolf, in his response to Rabbi Blau, writes:
I believe that what Rav Blau is complaining about is deeper than the issue of TV – whether watched for value or the pure pleasure of it. I believe Rav Blau inadvertently exposed a very serious lacuna in Modern orthodox thought – the complete lack of intrinsic value attributed to leisure in general, and fun and play in particular.[xiii]
Mr. Woolf points to Modern Orthodoxy’s shying away from something so widespread in the Modern Orthodox experience. However, recently many Modern Orthodox writers have indeed written about it.[xiv] Gil Student, in an essay on his TorahMusings blog entitled, “Is Leisure Kosher?”, distinguishes between different kinds of leisure. His first category, derived from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s essay entitled, “A Jewish Ethics of Leisure” (in Faith & Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought) is “constructive leisure,” leisure that expands the personality and spirituality of the person enjoying it. Rabbi Student includes in this category leisure for the sake of exercise, which ensures bodily health as well. His second category is “distractive leisure”, leisure that rests the mind and body so that one can better serve God and prevent burnout. Thus, value is ascribed to fun, and therefore fun is “allowed” within a Modern Orthodox perspective.
This “move” is necessary from an Orthodox perspective. There are many sources in the Jewish tradition calling for the sanctification of one’s daily life. Rabbi Student points to such sources as the Shulhan Arukh OH 231:1 and Hovot ha-Levavot (Avodah, 4), which bolster the position that even neutral actions can be permitted, so long as they have a religious value to them. Rabbi Student summarizes this in what he calls “leisure le-sheim Shamayim, for positive religious purposes.” Rabbi Mayer Schiller[xv] asks similarly, “May a ‘Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation’ be functional Americans?” and adds many more sources to the effect that everything an Orthodox Jew does should be for a religious purpose.[xvi] An interesting Birkei Yosef (231:2) suggests that one declare before he/she performs mundane actions that this is “for the sake of God.” The Arukh ha-Shulhan (231:4) considers physical pursuits “animalistic” if not in the service of the religious lifestyle. The Sefer ha-Hinukh (387) actually categorizes having pleasure for its own sake as a transgression against “do not follow after your heart and after your eyes.” Therefore, so long as leisure and fun are sanctified for a holy, religious purpose, they can be legitimate actions.
I must admit, I find that these approaches attempting to justify the Modern Orthodox lifestyle simply fall short of how leisure is experienced and the motivations for it. My experience in the Modern Orthodox world is that many are simply uninterested in “holiness”, in turning their TV watching into a religious experience. For many young Modern Orthodox Jews, holiness and religiosity don’t really exist outside of prayer, or learning, or other acts of religious Judaism. So many do not see the need to create meaning and purpose in entertainment. As Woolf continues in his response to Rabbi Blau:
A la Rav Blau, Modern Orthodoxy is very much a religion by intellectuals, for intellectuals, with little room for enjoyment or development of other aspects of life such as music, sports and games. There is little place for just “living” outside of the MO “mission”.
Modern Orthodox people want to have space outside of the religious realm, a space that allows for non-religious activities. And the fact is, most people in the world, let alone those in Modern Orthodoxy, are not intellectuals and don’t have any desire to be. Therefore, I think a fairer view of the phenomena of TV, movies, and general entertainment in Modern Orthodoxy, is that Modern Orthodox Jews want some space to “live” outside of Judaism, while remaining firmly within Jewish life and religion. To do this, we must accept Woolf’s next comment:
…We need to stop dividing the world into only “good and “bad” things. There are many phenomena in the world that are simply neutral. Furthermore, oftentimes “bad” things can contain “good” elements and vice versa, as any religious defender of secular Zionism can tell you. A sense of proportion is key.
Movies and entertainment allow a varied perspective from the general Jewish-religious one. There can be much good there, as it can help a person see from a perspective they would never have seen otherwise in their inevitably limited social circle. While there should be recognition to the thinking Jew about the problems pop-culture can present to the religious life, there must also be recognition of what good it contains. Rabbis and teachers should accept the fact that this kind of connection to secular culture will not be going away in the Modern Orthodox community, that this is a consequence of living in both worlds, and emphasize the good aspects. It just has to be of a “proportional” sort, as Woolf exhorts, and one should not go overboard with permissiveness, recognizing what things are allowed and not allowed at homes and at large. If Rav Shkop requires a communal value to any action, we can certainly find it in entertainment, even if it is not absolute.
There is even an advantage to being well-versed in pop-culture inherent in the Torah itself. It may be that the Torah depends on it. At the turn of the century, Bible academics began to argue that the Torah’s creation myth and flood myth were different versions of other Ancient Near East myths, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Some of the more serious responses from Orthodox Jewish academics, such as Cassutto, were to argue that the Torah is indeed making reference to those ANE myths. But, it was only in order to parody and smartly clash with them in such a way that the readers of the Torah, familiar with those myths, would understand the real fight the Torah ideology represented contrary to their previous myths. This theory relies on the expectation that the Torah’s audience would be people very familiar with what was basically “pop-culture”, or the myths and tales of their times. The way to understand the Torah was through that lens. Leaders today, especially, should make use of pop-culture’s hold on Modern Orthodoxy as a key to reach youths and adults alike. Some of my best teachers did this, and many of those tie-ins were the most memorable teachings for me.
In summary, Rabbi Shkop sees man’s religious role as being like God, ultimate givers to humanity and to our community in particular. Rabbi Blau thinks that TV and movies inhibit this special Modern Orthodox value. However, I don’t think they need conflict with this ideal. Though there are many good reasons for leisure in general as part of religious life, Modern Orthodox life simply includes those who enjoy TV and don’t look for the values in doing so. And that is alright. Not everyone is an intellectual, and not everyone cares enough to be. Sometimes, it gives us a better way to interact with the world and with Torah. All in all, a sense of proportion is key, and Orthodox seriousness about every action must be balanced with the values of entertainment as part of it. Rabbi Hershel Schachter records[xvii] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s comments in a eulogy for Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes on the strange Talmudic statement, in Avodah Zara 3b, that God spends a quarter of His day “playing with the Leviathan.” Rabbi Soloveitchik stated that, in emulating God, we, too, should not take ourselves so seriously all the time. Let us suggest that an extension of this is that even watching a movie can be an imitation of the divine.
Aryeh Sklar is a student at Bernard Revel School for Jewish Studies, studying Jewish Philosophy
[ii] Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy, (JPS 1972), 119
[iii] Ibid., 120
[v] Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy, (JPS 1972),, 120
[vi] For some description of how this was done to the Rav as well in terms of ideological history, see Lawrence Kaplan’s “Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy,” Judaism 48 (1999): 290-311
[vii] Shabbat 133, Sotah 14
[viii] Deuteronomy 28:9
[xi] On Leviticus 19:2
[xii] “Modern Orthodox Arguments Against television,” Tradition 44, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 53–71.
[xiii] Avi Woolf, “Does Modern Orthodoxy Not Believe in Fun?”, September 2011, http://www.torahmusings.com/2011/09/does-modern-orthodoxy-not-believe-in-fun/
[xiv] I thank Rabbi Uri Cohen for his helpful sources.
[xv] Rabbi Mayer Schiller, “Fun and Relaxation Reexamined,” Jewish Action, Spring 1991
[xvi] He adds in addition to the Shulhan Arukh above, the Tur (OH 231), both of which are quoting Rabbeinu Yonah’s comment on Avot 2:12.
[xvii] Nefesh HaRav, p. 69, and also see Rabbi Daniel Feldman’s “Does God Have a Sense of Humor?” https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/05/2013/does-god-have-a-sense-of-humor/. I have also seen this in the notes of my grandfather, Rabbi Herbert Bomzer z”l, who attended the Rav’s shiurim for an extensive period of time.