Letters To The Editor: A Further Response To Tzvi Goldstein On Centrist Orthodoxy And Haredi Orthodoxy

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Letters to the Editor

[Ed. Note: For previous responses to the original essay, see here.]

I found R. Tzvi Goldstein’s recent piece “Rack up Those Mitzvot” to be insightful, enlightening, and thought-provoking. His thesis that Centrist Orthodox values can be subsumed under the overarching value of elevating this world—olam ha-zeh—through active involvement in it, deserves further attention and ought to be adapted into high school curricula. That said, I believe that presenting Ramhal as the foil to this position is faulty. Given that Goldstein’s only quote of Ramhal is from Mesilat Yesharim, some brief remarks  about that work  are in order.

To begin with, Goldstein himself notes in a footnote that Mesilat Yesharim presents  a more nuanced picture in chapter 19, but he does not expound upon it. And this is no mere nuance. In fact, that section of Mesilat Yesharim appears to explicitly reject the part of Ramhal’s opening chapter which Goldstein quotes! Chapter 19 reads, “One whose intention in his Divine service… is to receive recompense in olam ha-ba (the World to Come) does not have the best of intentions. For as long as one is motivated by personal benefit, ultimately his Divine service is service of oneself.” Space does not permit discussing approaches of how to resolve this apparent contradiction, but I trust it is self-evident that Goldstein’s assertion that Ramhal’s opening is the ikar, “with later material serving to add nuance,” is left wanting. To adapt a phrase, don’t judge a sefer by its introduction.

More importantly, I’m not sure Goldstein accurately presents even Ramhal’s opening chapter itself. Granted, Mesilat Yesharim begins with an emphasis on olam ha-ba and a devaluation of olam ha-zeh, but the olam ha-zeh under discussion appears to be that of physical pleasures. Surely Rav Soloveitchik, even in seeing value in the struggle, would agree that our purpose in this world is not physical indulgence. True, there is a contrast between Rav Soloveitchik’s idealization of struggle in this world versus Ramhal’s idealization of serenity in the World to Come, but that is a far cry from Goldstein’s take that “Life lived according to Ramhal’s perspective… is not oriented towards building anything meaningful in this world.”

Ramhal himself asserts that although the ultimate realization of one’s potential is in olam ha-ba, the only determinant of that is our actions in olam ha-zeh. The ultimate question, then, is what aspects of olam ha-zeh will bring one to be worthy of olam ha-ba according to Mesilat Yesharim? Is it an insular, Torah study only approach, as Goldstein suggests? Not at all, as further examination of Mesilat Yesharim makes clear.

In chapter 11, “Purity of Sin,” or “Nekiut,” Ramhal offers a general comment that one ought to steer clear of all sin, but proceeds to focus on sins which he declares require special attention. Nearly every single example he delves into is this-world focused. The lion’s share is dedicated to financial impropriety (including vis-à-vis non-Jews) and sexual impropriety.

In the next section, he discusses gossip, deceiving one’s neighbor, shaming, revenge, lying, and hatred. The only examples which could be argued to be removed from this world are brief sections on Shabbat, kashrut, and shevu’ot, the prohibition on taking oaths.

Ramhal then lists character traits which need attention and, notably, he does not list intrapersonal traits such as patience or diligence in Torah study. Instead, he lists interpersonal traits—this-world focused!—such as anger, haughtiness, and jealousy. And within the discussion of these traits, his primary focus is not on the negative impact they have on oneself, but rather on the impact they have on one’s fellow human beings.

Even when he discusses the dangers of seeking honor, whose primary concern could ostensibly be understood as hurting oneself, Ramhal emphasizes that the problem is that it will bring one to engage in behaviors that are hurtful to others. In that context, he extols the Mishnah which exhorts us to “Love working (in this world) and hate being in rabbinic positions” (Avot 1:10).

In the chapter on perishut, commonly identified as  asceticism, Ramhal emphasizes that the reasons to minimize speech and food consumption are not to achieve some sort of monk-like communion with God, but to avoid spiritual pitfalls, prominent among them sins against one’s fellow man, such as theft, sexual impropriety, and gossip. As he makes clear at the end of the chapter, he is not advocating for asceticism, elements of which he condemns explicitly.

To take a final case in point, in the aforementioned chapter 19, Ramhal writes that one must take care not to cause any pain to another person, or even to animals and insects. That doesn’t sound dismissive of olam ha-zeh. Other examples abound.

None of this is to take away from what I see as Goldstein’s essential hiddush, that is, the unification of Centrist Orthodoxy’s defining values under the umbrella of seeing intrinsic value in worldly engagement, in our efforts to sanctify and redeem it. There is a significant portion of the Haredi world for whom this is not true, but I don’t believe their worldview is primarily animated by Mesilat Yesharim. I am not overly familiar with Ramhal’s other works such as Derekh Hashem, Da’at Tevunot, 138 Gates to Wisdom, and their kabbalistic overtones. However, none of Ramhal’s material which I have studied, nor the books or lectures connecting to Ramhal’s thought which I have consumed, have indicated a radical divorce between olam ha-zeh and olam ha-ba in the way Goldstein presents it.

Anecdotally, based on my experiences in Haredi settings, and fundamentally, based on the Haredi world’s message, I believe Nefesh Ha-Hayyim’s “Torah Lishmah” is the proper foil to Goldstein’s argument. In his letter, Yaakov Resnik mentions Nefesh Ha-Hayyim as a criticism of Goldstein’s essay. Perhaps paradoxically, I believe formulating the Torah-only insular approach through the lens of Nefesh Ha-Hayyim would only make Goldstein’s case stronger.

Lastly, the primary association of Mesilat Yesharim is as a book of musar study. Perhaps Ramhal, though, who pre-dated the Musar movement, did not envision Mesilat Yesharim as a book of musar study and, therefore, understanding the fullness of its philosophical approach requires evaluating it in light of his other works. Be that as it may, the predominant context in which it is studied today is as a book of musar study. 

And paradoxically, I believe musar-oriented yeshivot are the component of the Haredi world for which Goldstein’s portrayal is least accurate. It is no coincidence that musar-oriented yeshivot such as Machon Shlomo or Shapell’s are those which encourage ba’alei teshuvah to integrate their newfound religious observance with their prior lives, to continue their professional journey, be it in medical school, law school, hi-tech, or filmmaking. Another contemporary example which illustrates the musar school’s concern for this world is Covid. Early in the pandemic, musar figures such as Rabbis Hillel Goldberg[1] and Lawrence Kelemen[2] advocated for strict adherence to medical recommendations and government regulations, while yeshiva deans such as Rabbis Beryl Gershenfeld, Naftali Kaplan, and Yechiel Yitzchok Perr were among the first to close, and last to fully open, their yeshivot in their respective locales.

I look forward to further scholarship from R. Goldstein crystallizing the valuable wisdom of R. Hirsch, R. Soloveitchik, and R. Lichtenstein into language accessible for a new generation of Centrist Orthodoxy.

Chaim Goldberg
Jerusalem, Israel

[1] Full disclosure: Rabbi Goldberg is my father.