Why and How We Study Mahshava
In the fall of 2011, I was asked to teach a two-semester course in mahshava to all first year semikha students in Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). 1 Previously, the curriculum for ordination at RIETS focused on Talmud and halakha, and included practical rabbinic courses as well. However, the yeshiva recognized the need for rabbis to study mahshava. 2
A number of weeks into the course, one of the students innocently asked me why we were learning mahshava, and I realized that I probably should have begun the course with an introduction addressing this query (in subsequent years I did exactly that). When considering this question, I began to realize that the answer would very much affect the content of the shiur, as well as its methodology (derekh ha-limmud). To appreciate why, let us consider the following source, which could be used as the basis for the study of mahshava:
Yitzhak b. Pinhas says, “Anyone who knows Midrash but does not know halakha has not tasted the taste of wisdom. Anyone who knows halakha but does not know Midrash has not tasted the taste of fear of sin.”
He said, “Anyone who knows Midrash but does not know halakha is like an unarmed warrior. Anyone who knows halakha but not Midrash is like an armed weakling. Anyone who has both is like an armed warrior.” 3
This source, like many others, informs us that Midrash, or aggada teaches fear of sin, 4 while halakha teaches wisdom. In this metaphor, we see that aggada builds strength of character. It transforms a weakling into a driven warrior eager to fight his enemy. However, he remains inept—a warrior without a sword. Thus, he lacks the ability to fight his enemy. Halakha, notes R. Avraham Yitzchok Bloch, is precise, like a sharp sword 5; it informs a person of how and when to use the spiritual strength inspired by aggada. 6
If the goal of mahshava is to instill fear of heaven, then certain topics would be more relevant than others. In Hilkhot Malakhim, Rambam makes this point when addressing the sequence of the coming of the messiah:
Neither the sequence of these events (the unfolding of the messianic process) nor their precise details are among the fundamental principles of the faith. One should not occupy himself at length with the aggadot and midrashim that deal with these and similar matters, nor should he deem them of prime importance, for they bring one to neither the awe nor the love [of God]. 7
Thus, according to Rambam, emphasis should be placed on principles of faith and matters that promote love and fear of God. Likewise, R. Dessler writes that there is no point in studying aggadot if a person is left unaffected by the study. 8
For Rambam the stakes are very high. Rambam writes that the study of mahshava (our word, not his) plays an important role in the fulfillment of five major mitzvot. Specifically, in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, Rambam cites the five mitzvot which require us to possess fundamental knowledge of God. 9 These five mitzvot are:
- Anokhi, “I am Hashem, your God who took you out of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2), which demands of us that we know that He exists.
- Lo yihyeh, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod. 20:3), which requires us not to consider the thought that there is another divinity aside from God.
- Shema yisrael, “Hear, Yisrael, Hashem is our God, Hashem is one” (Deut. 6:4), which calls on us to unify Him, to know of His oneness.
- Ahavat Hashem, “And you shall love Hashem, your God” (Deut. 6:5), the mitzvah to love Him.
- Yirat Hashem, “Fear Hashem, your God” (Deut. 6:13), the obligation to fear Him.
The goal of studying mahshava in order to fulfill the above mitzvot will not merely affect the topics studied, but will play a role in the derekh ha-limud. In particular, it distinguishes the approach of someone studying mahshava in the beit midrash versus the academy. 10
To better appreciate this, let us briefly compare the differences between Torah, and especially mahshava, as studied in the academy versus Torah as studied in the beit midrash. Thus far, we have considered sources emphasizing that the purpose of studying aggada is to inspire fear of heaven (yirat shamayim). This is undoubtedly not the goal of the academic scholarship on aggada. Of course, we are not discussing the motivation of particular academicians. It is certainly the case that many academicians personally choose academic Jewish studies because they hope it will promote fear of heaven, and many are successful in this regard. Likewise, there are individuals who pursue physics because they seek closeness to the Creator. However, that is not the objective of the discipline, and this reality will very much affect the discipline’s methodology. Along these lines, R. Jeremy Wieder deftly summarizes the difference between the goal of the study of Talmud in the academy versus the beit midrash:
Putting aside the question of what might stimulate the academician’s interest in the text in the first place, the academician is typically interested in the text either as a body of literature worthy of study as such, or for its value as a primary source that sheds light on the history or sociology of the context from which the text emerged—the Babylonian Jewish community of the middle of the first millennium CE. The student in the Bet Midrash, however, is generally interested in the text as a foundation for normative halakhic practice and moral instruction; the text is not only the vestige of a bygone era or primary source for the history of the Classical period, but one very much relevant to day-to-day life. 11
More importantly, I would add, is that the difference lies in the ultimate goal. For the student of the beit midrash, the goal is to discover the ultimate truth. The Talmud, which is the word of God, is a repository of that truth. That is not to say that the Talmud is the direct word of God and contains no human contribution—the precise nature of this connection is complex and beyond the scope of this article. However, whatever approach one takes to the question of the evolution of the Talmud, all traditional religious thinkers approach the Talmud as the word of God, and study of the Talmud as a means of encountering and hopefully absorbing some of that ultimate truth. The same can be said, more or less, when studying the works of all of the Hakhmei ha-Mesorah. 12Thus, while the student of the beit midrash is fully aware that he may misunderstand the sources and fail to arrive at the truth, he has no doubt that that the truth can be discovered within the source that he is studying.
This relates to a second distinction that differentiates the approach of the student of the beit midrash. Again, R. Wieder articulates:
The academician does not necessarily regard the text with reverence. It is not different in its inherent value from any other text from any particular period. The academician does not (again, necessarily) have reverence for the Sages of the Talmud—either as people or as moral guides for his or her life. The traditional student however, regards the text as sacred, and the Sages are major figures in terms of the masorah—the chain of Jewish tradition going back to Sinai. While one can acknowledge that the Sages were human in every sense of the word, the student of the Bet Midrash holds these individuals in the highest of esteem and is reluctant, if not completely unwilling, to cast aspersions upon them or attribute ulterior motivations to their rulings.
Another distinction between the traditional approach and the standard academic model is one of focus. In general, the student of the beit midrash will seek to understand the meaning of a text from within that text. His concern is not what historical or sociological factors might have led Rambam to his particular conclusion (unless they are mentioned in the text). That is not to say that there is no value in investigating these factors. However, this is not his focus since his goal in studying mahshava is to strengthen his relationship with the Almighty—to love Him and fear Him and know Him.
Admittedly the goals of the study of mahshava are more complex than those outlined above. Moreover, there is certainly room for multiple legitimate methodologies as can be seen from the many approaches taken by our greatest thinkers throughout the ages. However, I believe that these basic assumptions are shared by all of our sages who pursued the study of mahshava, from those who sought to understand God through philosophy and considered the wisdom of the nations, to those who focused on mysticism and rejected such sources. Whatever approach one chooses, from a religious perspective it remains imperative that one remain cognizant of the study’s ultimate goals. Doing this will not just affect what one learns and how one learns, but the results of the learning.
Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank is a Maggid Shiur at Yeshiva University where he teaches college and semikha students Talmud, Halakha, and Jewish Philosophy. He also serves as rabbi at the Yeshiva Community Shul (Shenk Shul) in Washington Heights.
- For lack of better alternatives, we use the term mahshava, sometimes called Mahshevet Yisrael, to refer to Jewish thought. What is meant by mahshava? For purposes of this article we define mahshava as all non-Halakhic portions of the oral Torah (torah she-be’al peh). Certainly this includes aggada, but what else? Some argue that it includes philosophy; others vehemently disagree. Likewise, some contend for the inclusion of kabbala, and, of course, others differ. ↩
- Interestingly, several decades earlier, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik advocated mandating the study of philosophy for rabbinical students. See Nathaniel Helfgot (ed.), Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ktav Publishing House, 2005), 100-101. It took some time for others to realize the prescience of his view. ↩
- Avot de-Rebi Nattan, ch. 29. ↩
- The term “Midrash” can have multiple implications. Usually, the word refers to the hermeneutical interpretation of Scripture, which can be either Halakhic (as in Midrashei Halakha) or Aggadic (as in Midrashei Aggada). Sometimes, though, the term is used as a synonym for aggada. In the above source, where it is being contrasted with halakha, it likely refers to moral or ethical teachings. ↩
- Shiurei Da’at p. 142. ↩
- Many sources stress the value of aggada in terms of inspiring fear of heaven. For an analysis of many of these texts see R. Tzadok, Sihat Malakhei ha-Shareit, 8. ↩
- Hilkhot Malakhim 12:22. ↩
- Mikhtav mei-Eliyahu vol 4, p. 353. ↩
- Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:16. ↩
- We are not referring to the literal beit midrash, rather to someone who studies mahshava as part of a religious obligation, to love God and fear Him and know Him. ↩
- Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, “Academic Talmud in the Bet Midrash,”The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, available at https://www.jewishideas.org/articles/academic-talmud-bet-midrash. ↩
- The meaning and significance of this term is beyond the scope of the current article. For our purposes consider R. Michael Rosensweig’s formulation in “Mesorah as Halachic Source and Sensibility,” Jewish Action (Summer 2011): The oral tradition… though equally of Divine origin and authority, was entrusted to Moshe Rabbeinu and by extension to his successors, the chachmei ha-mesorah of each subsequent generation, as a received oral tradition consisting of principles, details, and values. The mesorah was intended to be conveyed by means of a distinctively human process consisting of painstaking transmission of data and halachic methodology, as well as the rigorous analysis and application of that tradition. ↩