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An Introduction to Jewish Faith Studies

In prior generations, Yeshiva study placed greatest emphasis upon the study of Talmud. We, though, the students of Rabbi A.I. Kook, follow in the ways of our master who called for greater weight to be placed upon faith-oriented studies in our age.
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1. Universals and Particulars
2. Repentance According Rabbi Kook
3. Jewish Faith Study

Universals and Particulars
In prior generations the greatest emphasis in Yeshiva study was placed upon the study of Talmud, Rashi’s commentary, and the Tosafist’s inquiries. We, though, the students of Rabbi A.I. Kook, follow in the ways of our master who called for greater weight to be placed upon faith-oriented studies in our age. This was the foundation laid by Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah, Rabbi Kook’s son, in the Mercaz HaRav Yeshivah.

There are two central paths in Torah study: (a) the study of the oral tradition, which calls for dealing with fine details, and (b) the study of broader axioms of Torah - the foundations of Jewish faith. This approach is based upon the teachings of Rabbi Kook, who understood the depth of the significance of the redemption. The universe is comprised of an infinite number of details, all of which spring forth from one unity, and the redemption is what bonds them - understanding the great depth of the details, and, afterwards, grasping their interrelationship and seeing how all of them comprise a system of universals, and how all of these universals are no less than the one all-encompassing universal order.

The world will be redeemed when not a single detail is cut off from the harmonious whole.
This approach finds expression in Torah study. The goal is to reach a kind of synthesis which will cause us to go from the universals (Jewish faith) to the particulars (oral tradition), and the opposite. Because the universals are more important, we place greater emphasis upon the understanding of Jewish faith and philosophy; yet, because the amount of material in the oral tradition is so great, we devote more time to its study.

Even when we study an intricate Halakhic investigation, our main task should be to come up with some universal rule - a "unified theory." In the last hundred years there has indeed been much progress made in Talmudic studies, and this is connected to the redemptive process at hand. I am not referring necessarily to Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav; the entire yeshiva world has been infused with a lofty spirit which calls for a more all-embracing approach to study. There is an attempt to learn the general rules which underlie the numerous details. When we occupy ourselves with the study of a general rule, the main objective is grasping the common denominators; details are less important. All the same, one must at least have a basic understanding of how the fine points weave their way into the overall picture. There is a need for great Torah scholars who boast a command of both the details of the Torah and its general rules alike. (And while every individual clearly by nature leans to one direction or the other, at least in a child’s early years, when we are still uncertain about the youngster’s leanings, it is important to nurture both of these aspects alike).

Repentance According Rabbi Kook
In the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, unlike other yeshivas, the Elul semester is not marked by scrupulous piety and examination of the finer details of behavior, though every scrupulous act is certainly praiseworthy and desirable. The path followed by the yeshiva, in keeping with Rabbi Kook’s philosophy is elevation via focusing on the lofty and all-encompassing whole. The atmosphere, on the whole, should be more exalted. Desires, goals, and thirst for the Divine must be developed such that every act that a person performs , small or great, be done in a different light.

For example, in order that an individual eat less passionately, the yeshivas of the mussar movement tend to address the details connected with eating manners: what one should concentrate on while eating, how much one should eat, etc. Rabbi Kook’s approach, though, claims that a person should involve himself in more lofty matters, and then, naturally, his relating to food will not be detached from these other concerns, and, being part of a loftier drive, he will not eat in a brutish manner.

In recent generations a good number of movements have appeared, each of which tries to find way to elevate and redeem man and his world together. Let us give a brief rundown:
a. the Mussar Movement. There are many yeshivas today that continue to derive from this movement, which claims that a man must scrutinize his actions in order to discern his sins and to strive greatly to prevent their reoccurrence through a variety of methods. Even within the mussar movement itself there are a variety of schools, each one emphasizing a different trait. (Every important Rabbi who writes significant ideas in the area of Jewish faith also writes a work which outlines his position regarding proper ethical living. The Rambam, too, wrote advice for ethical living, but there is a difference between the importance placed upon such matters by these great authorities who saw such behavior as a precursor to Torah fulfillment, and the very central place given ethical behavior in man’s being by the mussar movement.
b. All-out devotion to the Torah and its commandments. By following Jewish law to the letter man is strengthened. Part of this approach is Lithuanian in origin, and says that the study of Torah and its logic, and not just the actual practice of the law, can raise man up tremendously. Today, almost all of the yeshivas contain a mixture of the methods of the Lithuanian and mussar schools.
c. the Hassidic Movement
d. world perfection via the Kabbala (Jewish Mysticism). An appeal to the masses through supernatural means and by embracing the hidden inner world of the Torah, the Kabbalah. This approach was most influential amongst Eastern Jewry.

The latter two movements claim that this world is merely an exterior manifestation, and one must always search to find that which is beyond the illusive façade through which we meet the world. Rectification will not take place here. We must approach the world from its inner, metaphysical side. This, the mystical approach, tells us that instead of working on himself and everything around him, man should occupy himself with serving G-d on a lofty and higher sphere. In this manner one manages to circumvent this transient world of appearance which constricts and exhausts him. There is, without a doubt, a great difference between those rare individuals who are able to occupy themselves with the higher realms, and the ordinary folk who must attain a kind of innocence which will allow them to be awed by this loftiness, and this will cause them to be elevated as well. This approach finds real and practical expression in forces like the teshuva (repentance) movement, and has provided significant expression for Jews from Middle-Eastern countries.

The Hassidic Movement says that it is possible to uncover heavenly secrets even in our physical world. Many say that Hassidism sprung up in order to offer an outlet for the Jew who was worn and weary from a dark and depressing existence - an existence which appears to be irrectifiable because of the burden of earning a living, especially in the Eastern Europe where the conditions were particularly difficult. Earning a living fell under the heading of life-saving measures. The Hassidic Movement rose up and said that man can redeem existence precisely in this gloomy arena by uncovering the Divine spark which will shed light upon every other aspect of life.

On top of all of these approaches comes the approach of Rabbi Kook which is an attempt to encompass all of these various worlds.
Let us consider Rabbi Kook’s approach to repentance. Rabbi Kook says that we should look at the acts which call for improvement like little snares and upon the good deeds like great mountains. Man’s soul is made up of many aspects. When man sins, it does not stem from the higher parts of his soul. These higher parts are detached from the lower ones at the moment of transgression. This reflects an aspect of the Hassidic approach. The Kabbalistic approach claims that even the evil in man stems from the higher sides of the soul and whatever act is performed in this world strengthens either the good or the evil. The process of repentance, then, is clear. Man attaches himself to upper forces and returns to his source. Rabbi Kook, though, goes even further. Even at the moment of the sin, says Rabbi Kook, the light of repentance is sparkling. That is, when a Jew sins, the very transgression already contains an expression of goodness. Every act is grounded in the physical, and there is no "evil" act as such (this idea originates from the Kabbalistic approach). Man’s intention is what determines the nature of an action. Hence, even after the sin, depending on how one relates to it, it may be transformed into good. The schools which deal with the individual himself who rectifies his sin will generally not emphasize the Kabbalistic and Hassidic approaches.

Rabbi Kook’s approach no doubt encompasses everything, but it’s a question of where the emphasis is laid. The emphasis, according to Rabbi Kook’s teachings, is dealing with lofty matters - through accentuation of the positive rather than declaring war upon the negative. In this manner the good light will shine through on earth as it does in heaven.

Jewish Faith Study
Rabbi Kook writes that all of the means and steps taken in Torah study must also be taken in the study of Jewish faith - the same seriousness, the same examination of all sides of the issue at hand rather than just one side, the same comparison of various approaches, the same study-hall environment with groups of students rather than in an isolated manner, the same delivering of lectures by rabbis, the same involvement of all of the students rather than just a few choice individuals, etc. It would also make sense, according to this approach, to have all of the students learning the same "tractate" - the same work - at the same time.

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