Remarks Made to RIETS Rabbinic Alumni, a.k.a. "Surrendering to the Almighty", a.k.a. "Talmud Torah and Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim"[1]

by, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l

...however, before I am going to do that I have to discharge another duty and believe me, I do it with sadness in my heart. You know me; I have never criticized anybody, I've never attacked anybody, and I have never set myself up as the judge and arbiter to approve or disapprove statements made by some people. However, today, let me say it in Hebrew, "כלו כל הקיצין"[2], and I feel it is my duty to make the following statement, and I am very sad that I have to do it. But somehow, I have no choice in the matter; there is no alternative. What I am going to say, I want you to understand, is my credo about Torah and the way Torah should be taught and Torah should be studied.

I have been a Rosh Yeshiva, a teacher of Talmud all my life, at least the major part of my adult life. I have taught many, many people - I don't know how many, but many people - and when I do teach, time comes to a stop for me. I don't look at the timepiece, the clock, or at my wristwatch. I just teach.

It is a very, I don't know, for me teaching has a tremendous, a very strange impact upon me. I simply feel when I do teach Torah, I feel the breath of eternity on my face. Even now when I am old, of course, certainly not young, teaching Torah, shiurim, teaching Torah, relieves me of the fear of death, and of all the blues, depressive moments, which elderly people go through. When I do teach, I feel rejuvenated, and as if I were twenty-five or thirty years old. If not for the study and teaching of Torah, I would have lost my sanity in the year of triple aveilus in '67.[3] I was on the verge of mental collapse and breakdown. I did not. I emerged victorious, and this is due to one thing only - to, I would say, my mad dedication to Torah. I am not trying to brag or to boast; I am telling you the truth. I was hit that year and the following years; I felt somehow, because of teaching Torah, that I was not alone, that I had somebody, that somebody was invisible but I felt His presence, to confide, there was somebody on whose shoulder I could cry, and there was somebody from whom I could almost demand words of solace and comfort.

People don't know, again, and please take the proper spirit, I'm not bragging, they don't know what my schedule is. They know I say shiurim here. Alright, fine, I say three times a week in Yeshiva; even though the shiurim are an hour and a half, it never happens that I should get through the shiur in an hour and a half - so two hours, sometimes three hours, sometimes more than three hours. It is very strange. The boys who sit in my class are very young, perhaps one quarter of my age, one third of my age, but they come out exhausted, I come out refreshed. That is shiur. Then I come in to Boston, so every Friday morning from half past eight, for three hours until half past eleven, I study with my son-in-law. Saturday, believe me that I can't afford to take a nap on Saturday morning; I haven't taken a nap on Saturday morning for the last, I would say twenty years perhaps, because I study with my grandchildren. I study with Moshe three hours at least, and I study with Mayer two and a half hours. The same is Sunday, and the same is Monday. I simply, I have no time sometimes, just to sit down and to relax, simply.

The study of Torah has had such a great cathartic impact upon me, as you understand it, is rooted in the wondrous experience I always have when I open up the Gemara. Somehow, when I do open up the Gemara, either alone or when I am in company, and I do teach others, I have the impression - don't call it hallucination, it is not a hallucination - I have the impression as if I heard, I would say, soft footsteps of somebody invisible, who comes in and sits down with me, sometimes looking over my shoulder. It is simply, the idea is not a mystical idea, it is the Gemara, the mishna in Avos, the Gemara in Berachos say, "אפילו אחד יושב ועוסק בתורה שכינה שרויה"[4] and we all believe that the nosein haTorah, the One who gave us the Torah, has never deserted the Torah, and He simply walks, He accompanies the Torah, wherever the Torah has a, let's say, a rendezvous, an appointment, a date with somebody, He is there.

Therefore, the study of Torah has never been for me a dry formal intellectual performance act, no matter how important a role the intellect plays in limud haTorah. You know very well that I place very much a great deal of emphasis upon the intellectual understanding and analysis of the halacha; you know that this is actually what my grandfather zichrono l'vracha actually introduced, and you know and I can tell you - and I told you so many times, and I will say it again - our methodology, our analysis, and our manner of conceptualizing, and inferring, and classifying, and defining things, halachic matters, does not lag behind the most modern philosophical analyses, I happen to know something about it. We are far ahead of it; the tools, the logical tools, the epistemological instruments which we employ in order to analyze a sugya in, let us say, חזקת הבתים, in הערל,or in Shabbos, or in Bava Kama, it doesn't matter, are the most modern - they are very impressive (a great share in that has my grandfather.) Anyway, we avail ourselves of the most modern methods of understanding, of constructing, of inferring, of classifying, defining, and so forth and so on. So there is no doubt that the intellect plays a tremendous role in limud haTorah.

However, talmud Torah is more than intellectual performance. It is a total, all-encompassing and all-embracing involvement - mind and heart, will and feeling, the very center of the human personality. Emotional man, logical man, voluntaristic man - all of them are involved in the study of Torah. Talmud Torah is basically, for me, an ecstatic experience, in which one meets God. And again I want to say that whatever I told you now is not just mysticism or due to my mystical inclinations; it isn't so. The Gemara says so. Chazal have equated talmud Torah with revelation; the great event, drama, of gilui shechina is reenacted, restaged, and relived, every time a Jew opens a Gemara. The Talmud in Berachos, while discussing the problem of ba'al keri, the issur Torah of ba'al keri, expressed itself as follows:

דתניא: והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך ... יום אשר עמדת לפני ה' אלקיך בחורב, מה להלן באימה וביראה וברתת ובזיע אף כאן באימה וביראה וברתת ובזיע. - Make them known to thy children and thy children's children ... the day that thou stood before the Lord thy God at Choreiv ...[5]

The Torah did not say "make known the halachos." More than that - make known simply your rendezvous with God, which means they should experience exactly what you did experience, when you stood before thy God in Choreiv. How did the people stand before God in Choreiv? With fear, awe, and with a tremor in their heart; trembling! So must every Jew who engages in talmud Torah stand before God with fear, awe, and tremor. That's why a ba'al keri is assur bedivrei Torah; this is the reason! It is not the tuma, but he is not in the mood to experience the presence of the Almighty, to experience revelation every time he engages in study. So if a Jew cannot experience revelation when he is busy studying, so he is assur betalmud Torah. This is the reason for ba'al keri!

In other words, the study of the Torah is an ecstatic, metaphysical performance, and the study of the Torah is an act of surrender - this is very important. What does a Jew surrender when he studies Torah? That is why Chazal emphasized so many times the importance of humility, the importance of humility, and that the proud person can never be a great scholar, only the humble person. Why is humility necessary? Because the study of Torah means meeting the Almighty, of course, and if a finite being meets the infinite - the Almighty, the Maker of the world - of course this meeting must precipitate a mood of humility, and humility results in surrender.

What do we surrender to the Almighty? We surrender first, two things in my opinion; I'll explain. We surrender to the Almighty the every-day logic, or what I call the mercantile logic, or the logic of the businessman, or the logic of the utilitarian person; and we embrace another logic - miSinai. And secondly, we also surrender the everyday will, which is very utilitarian, very superficial, and we embrace another will - the will miSinai. And this is not, as I told you before, it's not just drush, homiletics. The Rambam, when he explains kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim in krias shema, and he explains the gemara, "למה קדמה פרשת שמע לפרשת והיה אם שמוע? שיקבל עליו עול מלכות שמים תחילה"[6], so the Rambam enumerates the elements of ol malchus Shamayim; it is ahavaso - love of God - yiraso - fear of God - v'talmudo - and Talmud Torah, "ותלמודו שהוא העיקר הגדול שהכל תלוי בו"[7] Talmud Torah is an act; talmud Torah means קבלת עול מלכות שמים. And that's the reason why talmud Torah, I mean, one must not study the Torah unless he says the birchas haTorah; this is the reason for Kaddish DeRabbanan - because talmud Torah constitutes an act of surrender, of קבלת עול מלכות שמים, of accepting the harness of mitzvos.

It is interesting that Chazal always said עול מלכות שמים. Why not קבלת מלכות שמים? Why עול מלכות שמים? What is the answer? The answer is because קבלת מלכות שמים means when malchus Shamayim is convenient, cooperates with man, when man has the impression as if malchus Shamayim is out to promote his everyday business, malchus Shamayim is good, is acceptable, even from a purely pragmatic viewpoint or purely utilitarian viewpoint. That is why Chazal have always inserted the word ol - harness. Harness means regardless of the fact that קבלת מלכות שמים is sometimes very uncomfortable, and requires of man sacrificial action, and is a heavy yoke, it is a yoke, but still the kabbala must take place.

Let me now just enumerate the aspect of קבלת עול מלכות שמים which is identical with talmud Torah. What does קבלת עול מלכות שמים require of the lomeid haTorah, of the person who studies Torah? First, we must pursue the truth, and nothing else but the truth. However, the truth in talmud Torah can be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking and Torah understanding. The truth is attained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed on from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the chochmei hamasora. It is ridiculous to say, "I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn't know, the Ketzos didn't know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge. I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah that is completely new." It is ridiculous. One has to join the ranks of the chochmei hamasora - Chazal, Rishonim, gedolei Acharonim. One must not try to rationalize from without, the chukei haTorah and must not judge the chukim u'mishpatim in terms of a secular system of values. Such an attempt - be it historicism, be it psychologism, be it utilitarianism - undermines the very foundations of Torah umasora, and leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism, no matter how good the intentions are of the person who suggests it.

Second, we must not yield - I mean emotionally, it is very important - we must not feel inferior, develop or experience an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm - usually it is a transient and passing charm - of modern political or ideological slogans. I say not only not to compromise - certainly not to compromise - but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex. And it should never occur to me that it is important if we would cooperate, just a little bit, with the modern trend or with the secular, modern philosophy. In my opinion, Yahadus does not have to apologize, neither to the modern woman nor to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism. There is no need for apology. We should have pride in our masora, in our heritage. And of course, certainly, it goes without saying, one must not try to compromise with those cultural trends, and one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient values of a neurotic society, that is what our society is.

Third: קבלת עול מלכות שמים - which is an identical act with that of talmud Torah - requires of us to revere and to love and to admire the words of the chochmei hamasora, be they Tanna'im, be they Amora'im, be they Rishonim, I don't care. This is our prime duty. They are the final authorities. An irresponsible statement about Chazal borders - I don't like to use the word, but according to Maimonides it is - on the heretic, because the Rambam says about Tzedukim, the Rambam says who is a Tzeduki? The Rambam in perek gimel of Hilchos Teshuva, halacha cheis, "וכן הכופר בפרושה והוא תורה שבעל פה והמכחיש מגידיה כגון צדוק ובייתוס"[8]. It is very strange; I wanted to discuss it with my father zichrono leveracha. If he says that whoever denies the truthfulness or the authenticity of Torah SheBe'al Peh is a Tzeduki, why did he add והמכחיש מגידיה - "Whoever denies the authority of the scholars of the masora"? So apparently, the Rambam says that under the category of kofrim baTorah are classified not only those who deny, that for instance, nisuch hamayim is required or arava she'ba'Mikdash is required, or they deny the Torah SheBe'al Peh; there is no doubt about it, but moreover, even those who admit the truthfulness of the Torah SheBe'al Peh but they are critical of chachmei Chazal as personalities, who find fault in chachmei Chazal, fault in their character Rachmana litzlan, or in their behavior, in their conduct, say that chochmei Chazal were prejudiced, which actually has no impact upon the halacha - nevertheless, he is to be considered as a kofer. "וכן הכופר בפרושה והוא תורה שבעל פה והמכחיש מגידיה" - what does it mean "והמכחיש מגידיה"? He denies the perfection and the truthfulness of chachmei Chazal - not of the Torah, again, but of the chachmei Chazal as personalities, as real personae, as far as their character is concerned, their philosophy is concerned, their outlook on the world is concerned.

And let me add something, this is very important. Not only the halachos, but also the chazakos which chachmei Chazal have introduced are indestructible. We must not tamper, not only with the halachos, but even with the chazokos, for the chazokos which Chazal spoke of rest not upon transient psychological behavioral patterns, but upon permanent ontological principles rooted in the very depth of the human personality, in the metaphysical human personality, which is as changeless as the heavens above.

Let us take for instance, let's take an example, the chazaka, for instance, that's what I was told about. The chazaka "טב למיתב טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו" [9] has absolutely nothing to do with the social and political status of the woman in antiquity. The chazaka is based not upon sociological factors, but upon a verse in Bereishis, "הרבה ארבה עצבונך והרנך בעצב תלדי בנים ואל אישך תשוקתך והוא ימשל בך - I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shall bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."[10] It is a metaphysical curse rooted in the feminine personality; she suffers incomparably more that the male while in solitude. Solitude to the male is not as terrible an experience, as horrifying an experience, as solitude to a woman. And this will never change, כימי השמים על הארץ, it will never change, because this is not a psychological fact; it is an existential fact. It is not due to the inferior status of the woman, but is due to the difference, the basic distinction, between the female personality and the male personality. Loneliness frightens the woman, and an old spinster's life is much more miserable and tragic than the life of an old bachelor. This was true in antiquity; it is still true, and it will be true a thousand years from now. So to say that טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו was due, or is due, to the inferior political or social status of the woman is simply misinterpreting the chazoka of טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו. And no legislation can alleviate the pain of a single woman; no legislation can change this role. She was burdened with that by the Almighty after she violated the first law.

And, let me ask you a question. Ribbono shel Olam - God Almighty - if you should start modifying and reassessing the chazokos upon which a multitude of halachos rest, you will destroy Yahadus! So instead of philosophizing, let us rather light a match and set fire to the Beis Yisrael; we will get rid of all problems!

And I also was told that it was recommended that the method of אפקעינהו רבנן לקידושין מיניה [11] be reintroduced. If this recommendation will be accepted, I hope it will not be accepted, however if this recommendation will be accepted, then there will be no need for a get. No need for a get. "האשה נקנית...בכסף בשטר ובביאה...וקונה את עצמה בגט ובמיתת הבעל"[12] we will be able to cross out this mishna, this halacha; every rabbi will suspend the kiddushin. If such a privilege exists, why should this privilege be monopolized by the Rabbanus HaRoshis of Eretz Yisrael? Why couldn't the Rabbinical Assembly do just as well as the Rabbanus HaRoshis, if the problem is אפקעינהו רבנן לקידושין מיניה?! Ribbono d'alma kula, what are you out, to destroy everything?! I will tell you frankly, I will be relieved of two masechtos. I will not have to say shiurim on Gittin and Kiddushin, and then Yevamos as well.

And I want to be frank and open. Do you expect to survive as Orthodox rabbis? Or, do you expect to carry on the masora under such circumstances? Curse will replace the Torah. I hope that those who are present here will join me in simply objecting to such symposia and to such discussions and debate at the rabbinical convention. When I was told about it, I thought, "Would it be possible?" I cannot imagine that at the Republican National Convention or Democratic National Convention, should we introduce a symposium on whether communism and democracy, perhaps communism should replace democracy in the United States. Could you imagine such a possibility? I can not. Because there is a certain system of postulates to which people are committed, and such a discussion, at the National Convention of the Republican Party, would be outside the system of postulates to which the American people are committed to. And to speak about changing the halachos of Chazal is, of course, is at least as nonsensical as discussing communism at the Republican National Convention. It is discussing self-destruction, a method of self-destruction and suicide.

I know; you don't have to tell it to me because, בתוך עמי אנכי יושב, I don't live in an ivory tower, I don't live in a fool's paradise. I know that modern life is very complex. I know your problems; many of your problems are passed on to me. We are confronted with horrible problems - social, political, cultural, and economic. Problems of the family, problems of the community, and problems of society in general. We feel, and I sometimes feel like you, as if we are swimming against the tide; the tide is moving rapidly, with tremendous force, in the opposite direction of which we are moving. I feel it, I know that - you don't have to tell it to me. The crowd, the great majority, has deserted us, and cares for nothing. I know the danger of let's say ta'aruvos - of weddings, of church weddings, in which a Jew or a Jewess is united in marriage by a priest and a Reform rabbi. I know all of that. We are facing an awesome challenge, and I am mindful of all that. I don't live, as I told you, in a fool's paradise. However, if you think that the solution lies in the reformist philosophy, or in an extraneous interpretation of the Halacha, you are badly mistaken. It is self-evident; many problems are unsolvable, you can't help it. For instance, the problem of these two mamzerim in Eretz Yisrael - you can't help it. All we have is the institution of mamzer. No one can abandon it - neither the Rav HaRoshi, nor the Rosh HaGola. It cannot be abandoned. It is a pasuk in Chumash: "לא יבא ממזר בקהל ה'".[13] It is very tragic; the midrash already spoke about it, "והנה דמעת העשוקים"[14], but it's a reality, it's a religious reality. If we say to our opponents or to the dissident Jews, "That is our stand" - they will dislike us, they will say that we are inflexible, we are ruthless, we are cruel, but they will respect us. But however, if you try to cooperate with them or even if certain halachic schemes are introduced from within, I don't know, you would not command love, you would not get their love, and you will certainly lose their respect. That is exactly what happened in Eretz Yisrael! What can we do? This is Toras Moshe and this is surrender. This is קבלת עול מלכות שמים. We surrender.

The Torah summons the Jew to live heroically. We cannot allow an eishes ish, no matter how tragic the case is, to remarry without a get. We cannot permit a giyores to marry a kohen, and sometimes the cases are very tragic, I know from my own experience. I had a case in Rochester, with a gentile girl, she became a giyores, the woman became a giyores, before she met the boy. She was a real giyores hatzedek; she did not join our fold because she wanted to marry somebody - giyores hatzedek. And then she met the Jewish boy. He came from an alienated background, had absolutely no knowledge of Yahadus. She brought him close to Yahadus, and they got engaged, and he visited the cemetery - since he came closer to Yahadus, he wanted to find out about his family, about his family tree, so he visited the cemetery in which his grandfather was buried, and he saw a strange symbol - ten fingers like that. So they began to ask; he thought it was a mystical symbol. So he discovered that he is a kohen. What can you do? This is the halacha, that the kohen is assur b'giyores. I know the problem. We surrender to the will of the Almighty.

On the other hand, to say that the Halacha is not sensitive to problems and not responsive to the needs of the people, is an outright falsehood. The Halacha is responsive to the needs of both the community and the individual. But the Halacha has its own orbit, moves at a certain definitive speed, has its own pattern of responding to a challenge, its own criteria and principles. And I come from a rabbinic house; it is called beis harav, the house into which I was born, and believe me, Rav Chaim used to try his best to be a meikil. However, there were limits even to Rav Chaim's skills. When you reach the boundary line, it is all you can say: "I surrender to the will of the Almighty." There is a sadness in my heart, and I share in the suffering of the poor woman, who was instrumental in bringing him back to the fold, and then she had to lose him. She lost him; she walked away. This is why the Rambam says that talmud Torah is identical to קבלת עול מלכות שמים.

To speak about Halacha as a fossil, Rachmana litzlan, is ridiculous. Because we know, those who study Halacha know, it is a living, dynamic discipline which was given to man in order to redeem him and to save him. We are opposed to shinuyim (changes), of course, but chiddush is certainly the very essence of Halacha. There are no shinuyim in Halacha, but there are great chiddushim.[15] But chiddushim are within the system, not from the outside! You cannot psychologize Halacha, historicize Halacha, or rationalize Halacha, because this is something foreign, something extraneous.

As a matter of fact, not only Halacha. Can you psychologize mathematics? I will ask you a question about mathematics; let us take Euclidean geometry. I can give many psychological explanations of why Euclid said that two parallels do not cross, or the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If I were a psychologist, I could interpret it in psychological terms. Would it change the postulate, the mathematical postulate? And Marah d'alma Kula - Almighty God - when it comes to Torah, which is from HaKadosh Baruch Hu, all the instruments of psychology, history, and utilitarian morality are being used in order to undermine the very authority of the Halacha. The human being is invited to be creative, inventive, and engage in inspiring research from within, but not from without. Instead of complaining against the inflexibility of Halacha, let us expose, let us explore its endless spaces, and enjoy talmud Torah, and find in talmud Torah a redemptive, cathartic, and inspiring reality.


[1]This is a transcript of remarks by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l which preceeded a shiur to RIETS rabbinic alumni in 1975. The audio is available here. Light magazine printed a synopsis of this address in November 1975 using the title, "Surrendering to Almighty." In 2013, a lightly edited transcription was posted here under the title, "Talmud Torah and Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim". The text we are presenting to the reader here is a more precise transcription which includes additions and corrections compared to the aforementioned versions.

[2]Sanhedrin 97b

[3]In 1967, the Rav lost his mother, his wife, and his brother.

[4]Avos 3:6; Berachos 6a.

[5]Berachos 20a.

[6]Berachos 13a.

[7] Hilchos Krias Shema 1:2.

[8] Hilchos Teshuva 3:8.

[9]Yevamos 118b; Kesubos 75a; Kiddushin 7a, 41a; Bava Kama 111a.

[10]Bereishis 3:16.

[11]Yevamos 90b, 110a; Kesubos 3a; Gittin 33a, 73a; Bava Basra 48b.

[12]Kiddushin 1:1.

[13]Devarim 23:3.

[14]See Koheles 4:1 and Medrash Rabbah ad loc.

[15]The preceding section of text ("the house into which I was born..." through "...but there are great chiddushim") appears in the text posted here, but the audio for this section is missing/erased in all the versions of the recording we could find. The text does, however, correspond to basic ideas reported at the same point of the address in Light magazine and seemed accurate/plausible to Rav Hershel Schachter shlit"a, so we have included it here.

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