Thursday, May 3, 2018

Meshivas Nefesh!!

Rabbi Bleich

Preface to Contemporary Halachic Problems Vol. 6

"The Torah of the Lord is perfect, it restores the soul "


Study of Torah is first and foremost a mizvah, indeed the most sublime of mizvot. Study of Torah is itself the summum bonum to which man must aspire. But study of Torah is also many-faceted and multi-purposed. The Psalmist declares, "The Torah of the Lord is temimmah, perfect; meshivat nafesh, it restores the soul."

What is the meaning of the phrase "meshivat nafesh"? The word from which the verb is derived is also the source of the term "teshuvah," meaning "repentance" or "return." Torah has the power to restore the souls of Jews who have departed from Judaism and, a fortiori, of those millions who have grown up in invincible ignorance bereft of instruction in the teachings of their faith. "Temimmah" has the connotation of "whole" or "complete." Torah is not only an end in itself; it has restorative powers capable of rejoining fractured segments of a Jewish soul.

Sensitive mussar or exhortation and hortatorical prodding are no doubt effective instruments and serve to have the desired effect, at least for some. Spiritual warmth associated with the atmosphere of Shabbat and Holy Days, singing, dancing and ecstatic prayer generate a religious experience that is transformative, at least for some. Yet, among the ranks of Torah scholars there were those who regarded emphasis upon aught but Torah study with grave suspicion. They certainly did not deny that other experiences yielded at least limited results. But they remained suspicious of misplaced concentration on endeavors other than Torah study both because they believed that only Torah study has a durable effect and because of concern that a misplaced emphasis upon fear or emotionalism and ecstatic experience might result in subversion of the Jewish system of values.

An intelligent person thinks with his head rather than with his heart. Torah is entirely intellectual but it is the religious experience par excellence against which all other religious experiences fade into virtual insignificance. For many it is "ha-ma'or she-bah" that is "maḥaziran le-mutav" (Palestinian Talmud, Haggigah 1:7 and Eikhah Rabbah, introduction, sec. 2), the illumination in the words of Torah that kindles their soul and returns them to the life for which they were destined.

Some years ago I was invited to address an academic forum. After my presentation, a distinguished-looking individual approached me and identified himself as a professor of medicine at a prestigious medical school. He further identified himself as a ba'al teshuvah and proceeded to thank me profusely for having altered the course of his life. I was completely bewildered. I had never before met the gentleman and, although he later rose to prominence and his name would now be recognized by many readers of this volume, at the time, his name was unfamiliar to me. He explained that a number of people with whom he had a close personal relationship had endeavored to influence him to adopt an observant life-style. But, he explained, the experiences to which they had introduced him left him wanting, nor did the spectre of eternal damnation move him. He claimed that, as he was resolving to put aside his flirtation with Judaism, he came upon one of the volumes in this series. In it he discovered a dimension of Judaism of which he had been entirely ignorant. He was for the first time exposed to the penetrating insights, intellectual intricacies and subtle nuances of halakhic dialectic that are the quintessence of Torah and the source of unbounded challenge and delight. He discovered that there is more to Judaism than rituals, ethical maxims and pious platitudes. Gradually he became a changed person and an observant Jew.

For that transformation I take no credit; I served merely as the ventriloquist's dummy. This narrative serves only to underscore that the discussions and analyses presented in volumes such as these serve not only as their own end –– surely a noble enough purpose, in and of itself –– but as a potent instrument for making the profundities of Torah readily accessible to those who cannot otherwise slake a thirst of which they themselves are often not aware.

A second meaning is assigned to the term "meshivat nefesh" by Ibn Ezra and in an essay titled "Torat ha-Shem Temimmah" attributed to Ramban. Defining the term as "answering" or "responding," they understood the verse as declaring that the Torah is perfect or complete in that it has the capacity to resolve questions and quell doubt.

Faith is not a priori. King David begins this psalm by declaring that the heavens proclaim the glory of God, i.e., that creation is testimony to the existence of a Creator –– an argument from design. According to Ibn Ezra, the verse presents a further and more powerful basis for faith. The Torah itself, when its depths are plumbed, reveals the presence of the divine lawgiver and becomes self-validating. The verse forms an argument from religious experience, but from intellectual, rather than emotional, experience.

Every age has witnessed the presence of both believers and doubters. Intellectual doubt and the questioning of fundamental beliefs have always been present in one form or another. It is nevertheless axiomatic that man has the ability to rise above such inner conflict and to experience faith. A just and beneficent God could not demand belief without bestowing upon man the capacity for faith. Abiding belief must, however, be firmly rooted in knowledge. Study has the unique effect of dispelling doubt. There is a story of a group of Jewish students in Berlin during the Haskalah period who, as a result of their encounter with secular society, began to experience religious doubts. Questioning the faith claims of Judaism, they were on the verge of rejecting fundamental theological beliefs. But before making a final break with Judaism they resolved to send one of their company to the Yeshiva of Volozhin, which at the time was the foremost Torah center of the world, to determine whether or not there existed satisfactory answers to the questions that troubled them. The young man to whom they delegated this task spent a period of time as a student in the Yeshiva and immersed himself completely in that academy's program of studies. Upon his return to Berlin he met with his friends who eagerly awaited his report. The young man described what he had seen and learned and related that he had never before experienced such intellectual pleasure. "But," they demanded, "have you brought answers to the questions which we formulated?" "No," he replied, "I have brought no answers –– but the questions no longer plague me."

Centuries ago, the Sages provided an explanation of this phenomenon. They depicted the Almighty as declaring, "I have created an evil inclination but I have created the Torah as its antidote" (Kiddushin 30b; Sifri, Parashat Eikev 11:18). With acquisition of Torah knowledge doubt recedes and ultimately dissipates. "The Torah of the Lord is perfect," Torah responds to the questioning soul and provides release from gnawing doubt.

A third interpretation of the phrase "meshivat nafesh" is advanced by Rashi in his commentary on that verse. Rashi explains that the word "meshivat" is employed in another of the meanings of the root from which it is derived, viz., "to restore." The Sages remark that, upon God's appearance at Sinai, the overpowering manifestation of His presence was more than corporeal beings could sustain. As a result, the souls of those assembled departed from their bodies; in effect, they died. However, subsequently, when revelation of the Torah occurred, their souls returned. "The Torah of the Lord is perfect;" words of Torah are restorative and have the power of revivification. Accordingly, the revealed words of Torah had the capacity to "restore the soul" of each person to the body it had earlier inhabited. The events that occurred at Sinai were supernatural and miraculous but the restorative powers of Torah are readily available and can be perceived by all.

Throughout the millennia, when Jews were beset with adversity and devastating loss, they were raised from life-draining despair and despondency by the curative power of Torah: "If not Your Torah as my delight, I would then have been consumed by my afflictions" (Psalms 119:92). That is true for Jews collectively and for Jews as individuals.

Sadness, grief and melancholy diminish life. The ability to achieve one's potential is severely compromised by bereavement. Throughout the entire period that Jacob believed Joseph to be dead he was deprived of contact with the Holy Spirit. Despondency prevents the ennobling force of the Holy Spirit from becoming manifest. Life itself becomes a burden. The antidote is Torah. Appreciation of previously unfathomed principles, elucidation of obscure concepts and formulation of novellae yield unparalleled satisfaction and intellectual thrill. In order to understand Rashi's interpretation of the verse a person must have suffered that type of grief and also have been privileged to have experienced the vistas of Torah study. The law of the Lord in its perfection restores life, bestows purpose and evokes joy.

As I wrote in the introduction to the first volume of this series thirty-five years ago, the Jew has always perceived God speaking to him through the leaves of the Gemara, from the paragraphs of the Shulḥan Arukh and the words of the verses of the Bible. The Sages long ago taught, Kudsha Berikh Hu ve-Oraita ḥad," God and the Torah are one; the Torah is the manifestation of divine wisdom. God reveals Himself to anyone who immerses himself in the depths of Torah; the intensity of the revelation is directly proportionate to the person's degree of penetration and perceptive understanding. To the scholar, a novel, illuminating insight affords a more convincing demonstration of the Divine Presence than a multitude of philosophical arguments. This is one "variety of religious experience" that William James did not encounter. It is a form of divine confrontation that must be experienced in order to be understood. Yet it is a relationship which every Jew may experience, at least be-ze'er anpin, in minuscule form, through Torah study.

The present volume is designed not simply to relate halakhic principles to contemporary problems but, in the process of doing so, to "restore the soul" in each of the meanings of that phrase: to provide the intellectual gratification so sorely craved by a Jewish soul, to confirm both intellectually and experientially, the axiological foundations of Torah and to invite the reader to share in the most intense and sublime of all pleasures –– the study of Torah.