Two Approaches to Torah and Mitzvot

18 Mar
Image result for Yehuda DovBer Zirkind

by Yehuda DovBer Zirkind

The Abolition of the Mitzvot in the Messianic Era
In the first two parts of this essay we discussed two different approaches to the Torah: 1) the “perfect Torah” approach which emphasizes the absolute and eternal nature of the mitzvot; and 2) and the “evolving Torah” approach which highlights the historically conditioned aspects of Halacha which are potentially subject to revaluation and revision.These two paradigms are related to a broader theological question about the nature of the mitzvot: 1) do the mitzvot reflect God’s ultimate and unconditional will (kvayachol);[1] or 2) do the mitzvot reflect God’s instrumental will for humanity, providing an instruction manual for how to redeem the world? In other words, is the main purpose of the mitzvot for the sake of God (i.e. that humankind should fulfil God’s wishes) or for the sake of man (i.e. that God’s plan for humanity should be realized)?The former approach is a transcendent or vertical paradigm, (i.e. the mitzvot are oriented toward the divine realm); the latter approach is an immanent or horizontal paradigm, (i.e. the mitzvot are oriented toward the human realm). Rabbinic literature abounds with statements that support both points of view. On the one hand, for example, Chazal state that God says (regarding the offering of sacrifices), “it causes satisfaction to Me, that I gave commands and My will was executed.”[2] On the other hand,  there is another statement of Chazal that, “the mitzvot were given only in order to refine human nature.”[3]The late rabbi and professor Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) analyzes these two paradigms in his magnum opus Torah min Hashamayim Ba-aspaklaria shel Ha-dorot in great detail.[4] He attributes the first model to the theological school of thought espoused by Rabbi Akiva and his disciples, and the second model to the school of Rabbi Ishmael.[5] According to Rabbi Heschel, these two paradigms form two major structural columns which uphold the Jewish theological edifice.  These two overarching ideas are articulated in various iterations throughout the different ages and genres of Torah texts. One of the major differences between these two conceptual paradigms concerns the theoretical possibility of God changing or abolishing the commandments in the future. This hinges on the question of whether Halacha is an end in itself or a means toward achieving a higher end. According to the transcendent view of the commandments as God’s ultimate and unconditional will, the mitzvot are ends in themselves and therefore they are eternally binding (just as God Himself is eternal, so too His will is eternal);[6] whereas according to the immanent view of the mitzvot as God’s instrumental and functional will, the mitzvot serve as a means of implementing a greater spiritual vision for humanity. Hence, it is possible for the instructions to vary based on changing circumstances, or to be suspended entirely once their mission has been accomplished. This finally brings us back to the Mei Hashiloach. The Mei Hashiloach’s views about the possibility of changes in Halacha seem to be predicated on the latter approach, which views the mitzvot as a spiritual means, rather than an end in itself. This can be deduced from the Mei Hashiloach’s comment on Rav Yosef’s opinion that mitzvot beteilot le-atid lavo (the Mitzvot will be annulled in the future).[7] There are many opinions regarding the exact meaning of this statement and what le-atid lavo (in the future) means in this context. Some opinions maintain that it refers to the Messainic Age. Others opine that it refers to the period after the resurrection of the dead. Still others state that it simply refers to the time after a person dies.[8]The Mei Hashiloach’s comments about the annulment of the mitzvot in the future are cryptic and difficult to understand. He makes the radical claim that Torah and mitzvot are akin to garments whereby one can grasp God (in the same manner that, lehavdil, one can embrace a person through their clothes), but they do not constitute the unmediated and “naked” divine essence. (This idea is discussed in Kabbalistic sources, but I won’t elaborate on this here). This is analogous to a king and his royal garments. The royal garments reflect the glory and majesty of the king, but they are not identical with the king himself. The Mei Hashiloach explains that, while in our current reality the only way to connect to God and His will is through the garments of Torah and mitzvot, in the future there will be a direct revelation of Godliness without the mediation of garments. He thus distinguishes between God Himself, who is the (unchanging) Absolute, and the mitzvot which are a—at least for now—a necessary but transitional means of reaching the divine.[9]The implications of the Mei Hashiloach’s analogy between garments and mitzvot can be extended further. Garments serve a dual function; they provide both a revealing lens and concealing mask whereby a person is revealed to, and perceived by, others. Furthermore, a person can change their garments at will. The analogy of garments to mitzvot indicate that they offer only a partial glimpse of the divine light, but not the full expression of the divine glory. Furthermore, just as garments can be changed, so too it is theoretically possible for the mitzvot to be changed or abolished if God (the King) deems it necessary to metaphorically change his wardrobe, i.e. express Himself in different ways based on His desires and the spiritual capacity of His subjects to behold His light. It must be noted that this idea is a mystical conception of the mitzvot and not a halachic one. Thus it runs the risk of leading to antinomianism and therefore must be checked and controlled by the authority of Halacha. Indeed, one can detect in the Mei Hashiloach’s statements a tension between his theological-mystical outlook and his normative-halachic commitment.[10]These ideas can also be analyzed from a different angle. The Mei Hashiloach is known for his highly original approach of vindicating biblical sinners and villains by uncovering the spiritual intention behind their ostensible sins (although they are ultimately inappropriate for that specific situation).[11] For example, he discusses the juxtaposition in Parashat Shelach of the story of the mekoshesh (the wood gatherer on Shabbat) and the commandment of Tzitzit.[12] The Mei Hashiloach explains that Tzitzit alludes to and represents Yira’ah—the need to exercise fear and restraint in one’s actions, lest they transgress God’s will. According to the Mei Hashiloach, the wood gatherer reasoned that since Shabbat is a foretaste of the Eternal Shabbat when Mitzvot will be abrogated, he need not be guided by the discipline of fear and restraint. Thus, the Mitzva of Tzitzit—which is supposed to evoke the fear and awe of God—is written in the Torah in close proximity to the story of the wood gatherer, in order to warn us that contrary to the wood gatherer’s belief, we must serve God with fear.[13] However, this is true only until we reach the point of complete Berur (the process of clarification whereby we remove all ulterior motives and only do what God wants us to do).[14] Thus, the conditions for the fulfilment of the mitzvot may be altered based on one’s spiritual predicament.In another passage,[15] the son of the Mei Hashiloach, Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner of Radzin (1828–1878),[16] also known as the Beit Ya’akov, quotes a teaching in the name of his father regarding Orla (the prohibition to eat fruit produced by a tree during the first three years after planting). The Mei Hashiloach cites this law to convey the idea that certain things are prohibited only temporarily, because a person is not yet ready to absorb them, like unripe fruit which cannot be digested properly. Likewise, all forbidden foods contain a spark of holiness, but they also contain harmful properties. Therefore, these foods cannot be consumed before the time is right, but there will be a time when the fruits will become ripe for consumption. He invokes the concept of the annulment of the commandments in the future as support for his idea.
Contraction and Expansion
Another key concept in the Mei Hashiloach’s philosophical system is the tension between tsimtsum (contraction) and hitpashtut or harchava (expansion).[17] He maintains that during the earlier stages of spiritual work, we must exercise maximum restraint (tsimtsum) and fear (yira’ah) to ensure that we do not veer off the path of divine service. At this stage, we may be required to take upon ourselves additional restrictions and stringencies (gedarim and sayagim) not required by Halacha. The rationale behind this is that in order to engage in a specific activity we must ensure that the action can be infused with holiness. If we have not fully developed our divine consciousness such that it permeates everything we do, and instead we engage in a certain activity only to satisfy our desires, that action can interfere with our divine service and the manifestation of divinity in the world. However, if we have already attained a higher stage of divine consciousness, we can engage in a mode of harchava (expansiveness) instead of restraint. At this point, we can let go of certain restrictions and release ourselves from a fear-based mode of observance. Instead of excluding certain activities from the sphere of our divine service, we can broaden the “playing field” and partake of many more activities and physical pleasures. One of the examples cited by the Mei Hashiloach[18] is the permission given in Devarim for the mundane consumption of meat, as opposed to the previous requirement[19] that only meat brought as a sacrifice may be consumed. The Torah states, “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul.”[20]According to the Torah, the only permission to eat non-sacrificial meat is, “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary.” The Mei Hashiloach explains this based on the statement in the Talmud that an Am Ha’eretz (ignoramus) is not permitted to eat meat.[21] The Am Ha’eretz, writes the Mei Hashiloachwill eat meat only in order to indulge his appetites, rather than to gain strength to speak words of Torah,  hence he is proscribed from eating meat. Only someone who has attained a state of harchavat hada’at (an expanded consciousness and greater spiritual awareness) may eat meat, since the energy derived from the eating will be elevated toward divine service. This, according to the Mei Hashiloach is the spiritual meaning of “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary”: it refers to an expanded spiritual consciousness. Based on the this, he offers an ingenious interpretation of why we eat dairy foods on Shavuot: we commemorate the fact that before the giving of the Torah (i.e. before they reached an advanced stage of divine service), the Israelites—like the Am Ha’eretz—were afraid to eat meat. This dialectic between tsimtsum and hitpashtut —when we are allowed to expand our sphere of activity because we are “spiritually safe” vs. when we must restrict our sphere of activity out of concern that we are not yet on a high enough spiritual level for that activity to be spiritually safe—is the basis for another idea brought up by Rabbi Cardozo in his presentation. This is the idea that there are certain prohibitions that we must observe, not for their own sake, but because those around us are on a lower level and are not yet spiritually refined. In Rabbi Cardozo’s words: “There could be mitzvot which I must keep, not because I need it, but because my neighbor needs it.” This idea is illustrated by the Mei Hashiloach’s commentary on the verse in the story of the Akeda: atah yada’ati ki yerei elokim atah (“Now I know that you are a God-fearing man.”)[22] There is a difference, writes the Mei Hashiloach, between yir’at elokim (fear of God) and  yir’at y-h-v-h (fear of Hashem). The fear of God refers to a situation where someone refrains from an activity because they have not yet reached a level where this activity can be done in an untainted manner. On the other hand, fear of Hashem (yir’at y-h-v-h) refers to a situation where one is allowed to engage in a particular activity based on their own spiritual status but is prevented from doing so by God’s command only for the sake of his/her fellow. The Mei Hashiloach elaborates upon this idea in many other places. In an interesting comment[23] he offers a clever homiletical interpretation for the difference between the way the word ani kadosh (I am holy) is vowelized at the end of Parashat Shemini[24] (dealing with forbidden foods) and Parashat Kedoshim (which discusses the mandate of holiness).[25] In the former case, the word ani is vocalized with a kamats, whereas in the latter case, it is vocalized with a patach. The Mei Hashiloach explains that kamats alludes to tightness and constriction, similar to the action of clenching the fist (related to the Hebrew words kemitsa and lekamets). This alludes to the state of affairs which prevailed when the Israelites were first commanded to keep the laws of kashrut. Due to the sharp transition from being allowed to eat whatever they desired to keeping the strict dietary laws, they had to exercise great restraint and tsimtsum. The patach, on the other hand, refers to openness (related to the Hebrew words petach and liftoach) and is related to the mode of Harchava, or expansiveness, when one reaches a higher state of holiness and can engage in a more open and inclusive form of divine service.[26] To be continued.
[1] The idea that the mitzvot are not only divinely revealed and commanded but express God’s personal and ultimate will is discussed in kabbalistic and chassidic sources, see, for example, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, section 1, Likkutei Amarim, chap. 4-5, 23-24, 38, 40-41, 46-47, 53; Ibid., Tanya, section 4, Igeret ha-kodesh, siman 29,  and in numerous other places.
[2] Sifrei Bamidbar, section #107; Ibid., section #118; Ibid., section #143.
[3] Bereshit Rabba, Vilna ed., 44:1; Vayikra Rabba, Vilna ed., 13:3.
[4] My exposition of these ideas is my own interpretation and variation on Heschel’s broader theme.
[5] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Torah min Hashamayim Ba-aspaklaria shel Hadorot (Theology of Ancient Judaism) [Hebrew], 3 vols. (Vols. 1-2, London: Soncino Press, 1962-1965; vol. 3, New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1995). An abridged translation in English has appeared as Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations, edited and translated by Gordon Tucker with Leonard Levin (New York: Continuum, 2005). Numerous studies are devoted to this work. For some general reviews and summaries, see Arnold Jacob Wolf, “Heschel’s ‘Torah from Heaven’,” Judaism 53, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 300-309; Reuven Kimelman, “Torah Min Hashamayim Ba-Aspaklaria Shel Hadorot (Theology of Ancient Judaism)/Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations.” Shofar 26, no. 1 (Fall 2007): 225-229; Idem, “Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Theology of Judaism and the Rewriting of Jewish Intellectual History,” The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 17, no. 2 (January 2009): 207-238. Relevant to our discussion is the notion of Mitzvot  tsorech gavoha (‘‘the commandments as divine need’’) which is connected to the transcendent paradigm of Mitzvot explained in this essay. On this topic, see Arthur Green, “God’s Need for Man: A Unitive Approach to the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel,” Modern Judaism 35, no. 3 (October 2015): 247-261.
[6] For an eloquent articulation on this view based on the teachings of Chabad Chasidism, see the essay of my teacher Rabbi Yoel Kahan, Machshevet ha-Chasidut, ed. Menachem Mendel Kaplan (Kfar Chabad, Sifriat Eshel, 2001), 1:175-182.
[7] Niddah 61b.
[8] See Yehuda Chayun, Ozarot Aharit Hayamim, vol. 1, chap. 12,
[9] Mei Hashiloach, vol. 1, folios 51b-52a on Bamidbar 19:2; Ibid., folio 19 on Tractate Megila 12b; Ibid., vol. 2, p. 122 on Tractate Megila 12b. (Note: the references to the Mei Hashiloachrefer to the New York: Rabbi M.J. Lainer, 1984 edition, available online at See the source sheet #6 accessible online at: Cf. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, chap. 4.
[10] There are many studies which analyze the Mei Hashiloach’s views about Halacha. For an important recent study, see Benjamin Brown, “Theoretical Antinomianism and the Conservative Function of Utopia: Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef of Izbica as a Case Study,” The Journal of Religion 99, no. 3 (July 2019): 312-340.
[11] The Mei Hashiloach sought to rehabilitate the sins of biblical characters and their perpetrators by showing that there is a deep spiritual idealism underpinning these actions. Thus, according to him, hidden behind the surface appearance of coarse sins are profound spiritual truths which the protagonists are trying to convey through their actions. Nevertheless, they are regarded as sins because despite their good intentions they are misguided by executing an inappropriate course of action. For a treatment of this issue, see Herzl Hefter, “Reality and Illusion: A Study in the Religious Phenomenology of R. Mordekhai Yosef of Ishbitz,” (MA thesis, Tel Aviv University, 2018), 18-24.
[12] The story of the wood gatherer is in Bamidbar 15:32-36. The commandment of Tzitzit follows immediately thereafter in verses 37-41.
[13] Mei Hashiloach, vol. 1, folio 49b on Bamidbar 15:38. See the source sheet #7.
[14] According to the Mei Hashiloach each individual person is born with their own flaw that they need to clarify and rectify. See Morris M. Faierstein, All Is in the Hands of Heaven: The Teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica, rev. ed. (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2005), 56-62. Idem, “Personal Redemption in Hasidism,” in Ada Rapaport-Albert, ed., Hasidism Reappraised  (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1996), 214-224; Idem, “Two Radical Teachings in the Mei ha-Shiloah and Their Sources,” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 21 (2010): 111-114.
[15] Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner, Sefer Beit Ya’akov on Bereshit (Warsaw: Chaim Kelter, 1890), p. 25 on Bereshit 1:11. See the source sheet #8.
[16] See Shaul Magid, “Izhbits-Radzin Hasidic Dynasty,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe
[17] See Morris M. Faierstein, All Is in the Hands of Heaven, 38, 64-66.
[18] Mei Hashiloach, vol. 2, p.  71 on Devarim 12:20. See the source sheet #9.
[19] See Vayikra 17:3-7.
[20] Devarim 12:20.
[21] Pesachim 49b.
[22] Mei Hashiloach, vol. 1, folio 9a on Bereshit 22:12. See the source sheet #10.
[23] Mei Hashiloach, vol. 2, p. 50 on Vayikra 19:2. See the source sheet #11.
[24] Vayikra 11:44-45.
[25] Vayikra 19:2; Ibid., 20:26.
[26] For more examples of the Mei Hashiloach’s teachings on this idea see this source sheet:
As taken from,
1 Comment

Posted by on March 18, 2020 in Uncategorized


One response to “Two Approaches to Torah and Mitzvot

  1. Fanuel Kisoma

    June 18, 2020 at 3:18 am

    Thank you for sharing spiritually words


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