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When I was in yeshiva, before I had any real accomplishments in learning of my own, I was taught that as Jews, we don't fix the world by going out and literally improving it with our hands and labour. The "Jewish way" to improve the world is through learning Torah and doing mitzvot, which creates spiritual improvements that bring shefa to the world and that's how the world gets properly fixed.

I would like to know what are the sources of this idea? They seem to be Kabbalistic, but they could also be tied to the "who are the builders" sugya etc (Shabbat 114a) or other sources. Has anyone studied this point inside and knows the sources it is based on?

Let's try not to make any political statements please. I am not advocating nor criticising this approach, just seeking to learn more about its origins.

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  • You can't spread the tzelem elokim through the world unless you were koneh it first, that's all.
    – The GRAPKE
    Jan 31 at 10:33
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    Nefesh Hachaim was a big proponent of the idea based on earlier sources, esp. gate 4, see e.g., chapters 10, 11
    – mbloch
    Jan 31 at 13:14
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    You are trying to make a distinction that in truth doesn't exist. "Doing mitzvot" מעשה המצות, is about "action" in the material, physical world. That includes "learning Torah", which requires minimally, the movement of your lips in order pronounce. Although we recognize the categorization of "Written and Oral Torah", we acknowledge that "the Torah is one." This is the meaning of "smoke" עשן. That all of Creation is comprised of: ע׳ולם, ש׳נה, נ׳פש, which is also ע׳יט ש׳ל נ׳חש (See Shemot 19:18) Jan 31 at 14:52
  • @YaacovDeane I wasn't clear. I mean, it's not the Jewish way to make the world better through activism and changing minds (for example), but through performing mitzvot, which will itself change minds in the world without ever having spoken to anyone directly, through shefa etc
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jan 31 at 15:00
  • Maybe think about adjusting the language of your question. Just to emphasize, many of the Mitzvot are engaging in the mundane aspects of life, like business (for example paying wages on time & taking profit appropriately), eating, paying taxes, etc, but doing these things in a way of holiness. When joining that with a blessing, it elevates not only the specific thing you are engaged with, but also that entire aspect of Creation. Jan 31 at 16:36

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Nefesh Hachayim (1:6) writes that our mitzvos "fix" the corresponding higher worlds (altho unclear to me if affects others as well), in 1:16 he clearly writes that Torah study sustains all the higher worlds, presumably allowing for the shefa to flow unimpeaded.

(I might point out that the above is the kabbalistic take; the rationalist approach is that learning Torah teaches us how to live good lives which in turn benefit society and the world at large, see eg Moreh Nevuchim 3:31.)

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  • I appreciate the reference to MN, but if it's got nothing to do with the question, best to leave it out?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jan 31 at 16:02
  • @RabbiKaii Nothing to do with the question? Rambam writes that learning and living Torah—which are spiritual endeavors—affect society for the better. It is admittedly not thru mystical workings however the effect is similar and also supports the approach you were taught in Yeshiva. As we learnt in Yeshiva:"תניא כוותיה... ולאו מטעמיה". You obviously prefer kabbalistic ideas (as I do rational ones) and often bring them into the convo. I thought it would give more perspective and sharpen the positions. All that said if you still prefer that I take it out I would honor that request.
    – Nahum
    Jan 31 at 16:26
  • Incorrect, I like to try to synthesise both schools, which I equally respect. The question is indeed though about a more mystical approach, and it mentions shefa as the catalyst for change, rather than rational effort (like activism, armies etc). The Rambam's approach here seems very different to that approach
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jan 31 at 16:35
  • @RabbiKaii I wasn't talking about activism and armies, I was talking about "personal" Torah and Mitzvos affecting the world for the better via their positive impact on those around us who in turn affect those in their ambit positively etc effectively bettering the world at large. If you believe that they can be synthesized then the MN reference is spot on—just term it "shefa"!
    – Nahum
    Jan 31 at 16:45
  • If your opinion of the Rambam's explanation is that we should focus ONLY on Torah, and that will fix the world ONLY through naturalistic improvement to our society, then fair enough, but that does sound at first glance like it needs a quite a bit more explanation. Feel free to summarise how that is supposed to work? How would Jewish society's improvement, say, fix the antisemitism on twitter, or stop NATO and Russia going to war, according to Rambam?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jan 31 at 16:51
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This is not a learned answer, but I have found the book ‘Judaism’s Challenge: Election, Divine Love, and Human Enmity’, edited by Alon Goshen-Gottstein, very helpful in answering these kinds of questions (about how b’nai Israel are to be a blessing to / improve the world etc.). The essay by Eugene Korn in this volume - ‘Israel as Blessing: Theological Horizons’ - I have found especially good, providing sources as it does for various models of how Israel is to be a blessing to the goyim and fix the world. His three models are: ‘Blessing as Active Universal Engagement: Teaching Theology and Morality’, ‘Blessing as Passive Modelling’, and ‘Blessing as Non-Relational Theurgic Agency’. As you can see from that essay, the more ‘theurgic’ model that you seem to be alluding to in your question is just one approach to the matter that one can find in the mekorot.

Hope that helps.

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