Concept of Torat Chayim

Our home page discusses the concept of Torat Chayim – the articulation and application of the Torah’s teachings to the most important questions confronting individuals and society. Below are quotations from important Torah thinkers who emphasised the importance of this approach. If you know of other Torah thinkers who should be included here, please email me to let me know.

1. Rabbi Azriel Hildersheimer (as explained by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg)

As bearers of the word of God, it is the obligation of rabbis to explain to the [Jewish] nation and to the world the view of Judaism with regard to all problems of ethics, law and social reform with which the new generation struggles. It is their obligation to demonstrate that Judaism is not merely a compendium of religious laws and customs but is a decisive spiritual force in the life of humanity. (Seridei Esh, Volume 1, Introduction, p.2)

2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Judaism is not a mere adjunct to life: it comprises all of life. To be a Jew is not a mere part. Judaism encompasses life in its entirety. To be a Jew is a sum of our life’s mission-in synagogue and in kitchen; in field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit – that is what it means to be a Jew. (Religion Allied to Progress)

This school is based on the ancient and sacred principle of Judaism, saying that social wisdom and social life on the one hand, and religious wisdom and religious life on the other hand not only are not mutually exclusive but, on the contrary, condition, complete and fulfil each other, and only by cohering, uniting, and merging most closely will they give birth to welfare and happiness, towards which we are bound to strive throughout our life in this world.- (Festschrift zur Jubilaeumsfeier der Unterrichtsanstalten der Israelitischen Religions-Gese/lschaft zu Frankfurt a.M. (1903), p. 34.)

The ideal of a perfect personal and national life, along with an understanding of the ultimate goal of all human development, are to be derived from the knowledge of the Torah. It is this ideal and this understanding that, first of all, must become the standard by which to measure and evaluate the modern non-Jewish world with all its spiritual,-moral and social phenomena that mark the lives of men and nations. (Collected Writings, (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1997) , vol.7, 456)

The Bible should not be studied as an interesting object of philological or antiquarian research, or as a basis for theories of taste, or for amusement. It should be studied as a foundation of a new science. Nature should be contemplated with the spirit of David; history should be perceived with the ear of an Isaiah, and then with the eye thus aroused, with the ear thus opened, the doctrine of God, world, man, Israel and Torah should be drawn from the Bible, and should become an idea, or system of ideas, fully comprehended. (The Nineteen Letters on Judaism)

[Learn Jewish texts] in order to live by them; to draw from them the teachings of Judaism concerning God, the world, mankind and Israel, according to history and precept; to know Judaism out of itself; to learn from its own utterances its wisdom of life. (The Nineteen Letters on Judaism)

Judaism is no religion, the synagogue no church, and the rabbi no clergyman. Judaism is no appendage of one kind or another to life, nor is it part of man’s vocation in life. Judaism embraces all the spheres of our life, being the sum of our life’s vocation.

To be a Jew in the synagogue and the kitchen, in the field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit, as … Read Morefather and mother, as servant and master, as man and as citizen, with one’s thoughts, in word and in deed, in enjoyment and privation, with the needle and the graving-tool, with the pen and the chisel–that is what it means to be a Jew. An entire life supported by the Divine Idea and lived and brought to fulfillment according to the Divine Will. 

The more, indeed, Judaism comprises the whole of man and extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind, the less it is possible to confine its outlook to the four cubits of a synagogue and the four walls of a study. The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will his views and aspirations be, the less aloof… will he be from anything that is noble and good, true and upright, in art or science, in culture or education; the more joyfully will he applaud whenever he sees truth and justice and peace and the ennoblement of man prevail and become dominant in human society: the more joyfully will he seize every opportunity to give proof of his mission as a Jew, the task of his Judaism, on new and untrodden ground; the more joyfully will he devote himself to all true progress in civilisation and culture–provided, that is, provided, that is, that he will not only not have to sacrifice his Judaism but will also be able to bring it to more perfect fulfilment. He will ever desire progress, but only in alliance with religion. He will not want to accomplish anything that he cannot accomplish as a Jew. Any step which takes him away from Judaism is not for him… Read More a step forward, is not progress. He exercises this self-control without a pang, for he does not wish to accomplish his own will on earth but labours in the service of God. He knows that wherever the Ark of his God does not march ahead of him he is not accompanied by the pillar of the fire of His light or the pillar of the cloud of His grace.

3. Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg

It is impermissible that this synthesis [of Torah and secular knowledge] should be confined in narrow and miniscule borders, such as the invention of a Sabbath belt in order to make possible the carrying of keys on the Sabbath, or the discovery of a cream for shaving without a razor, and the like. Rather, this endeavour is broad and deep and thus it is required and compelled to be. It is your responsibility to continue it in this direction… penetration to the depth of the sources and plumbing them anew for the purpose of the flowering of the spirit and a complete synthesis of Torah and life. (Li-Perakim, p.233)

5. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Judaism embraces the totality of life, not just areas of ritual concern. Two full volumes of Hoshen Mishpat deal with labor and business ethics, legal procedure, and laws of testimony. Judaism cannot be squeezed into the synagogue. The synagogue is just an institution and Judaism’s claim on the totality of human life includes the office, the factory, the kitchen, and the bedroom. (Shiurei Harav, p.131-2)

[Jewish thought does not accept] the strange, obscure, psychic dualism though which…. [t]he man in the sanctuary and the man in the marketplace are two separate and distinct personalities who have absolutely nothing in common with one another….[An individual] stands before God not only in the synagogue but also in the public domain, in his house, while on a journey, while lying down, while rising up. (Halakhic Man, p.92-3)


4. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

For me, Judaism…encompasses all the universe, and it encompasses every new invention, every new theory, every new piece of knowledge or thought or action. (To the New York Times on his 70th birthday)

5. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits

Leading scholars throughout the world, it is true, are constantly engaged in re-examining Jewish law and interpreting its application to present-day circumstances… But, as a rule, their efforts are limited to solving religious problems in the light of modern conditions. What the hour demands even more urgently is to reverse the procedure: to solve modern problems in the light of religious conditions…

If Judaism is to have a message for [secularists] the chief emphasis ought to be, instead, on the profound moral, social and economic issues baffling our age and how Jewish teaching can help to ease their burden. Contemporary life has thrown up innumerable problems of this kind, such as H-bomb tests, labor relations, strikes, gambling, the treatment of non-Jewish minorities in Israel – to detail only a few at random. (Journal of a Rabbi, p.6)

In this article, Dr Fred Rosner argue that this is precisely the contribution that Rabbi Jakobovits made in the sphere of Jewish medical ethics.

6. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

Many people assume there is a contrast – if not conflict – between Torah and “life.” In this view, “life” includes all the practical, “serious” spheres whose participants contribute to the world and help develop it. As opposed to them is the “Torah,” with which young people who have not yet moved on to “real life” amuse themselves…

By delving into the tiniest details of all aspects of life, Halakha expresses its respect and appreciation for life in all its forms. The Torah addresses every part of a person’s life and strives to sanctify all of it – including everything from creative life, through economic life, to the most everyday and material of daily activities. The message that arises from the Torah’s occupation with these spheres is that every moment of life has significance, and can serve as the springboard to spiritual elevation….

Along with the commandments that comprise Halakha, Torah also includes a whole system of values that establish the proper relationship between a person and God, the community, and the world in general. A true life of Torah is one in which the spirit of Halakha influences one beyond its straightforward demands and prohibitions. A person who lives a life of Torah understands that the Torah does more than just delimit parameters of the permissible and the forbidden. It influences our attitudes towards all areas of life, such as politics, economics, and spirituality. (Torah and Life

7. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Jewish encounter with the policy issues of an age, in short, occurs when an expert in the facts seeks the guidance of an expert in the values; and there is nothing to compel that seeking, short of a continued demonstration that Judaism is in touch with life. (Tradition in an Untraditional Age p. 199)

A Judaism divorced from society will be a Judaism unable to influence society. It will live and thrive and flourish behind high walls within its own defensive space, but it will not speak to those who wrestle with the very realities – poverty, disease, injustice, inequality and other assaults on human dignity – to which Torah was directed in the first place. At best, those who engage with the world and are at the same time faithful to Judaism will be divided personalities, unable to integrate the two halves of their being because Torah and chokhmah are un-integrated in our time. (Future Tense)

Imagine the following wholly fanciful scenario: that Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Levi-Strauss, Durkheim, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Proust and Gustav Mahler had all been Jews of faith, comfortable in their identity, speaking in the voice of Jewish tradition, showing the world what it is to engage as a believer-in-God-who-believes-in-us, exemplifying the Jewish values of study, intellect, independence, iconoclasm, tzedek, mishpat, chessed and rachamim. They would have been different. The world would have been different. Judaism would have retained its energies instead of losing them to the entropy of an undifferentiated world…

Imagine a Judaism that engaged our greatest minds, our top professionals, our leading business people, our most creative artists, musicians and film producers, encouraging them to go into the world making a Jewish contribution as role models and exemplars of faith – the faith in God that leads us to have faith in the possibility of defeating the reign of violence, terror, injustice and oppression – a Judaism that might have led the missing eighty-five per cent of my contemporaries to be proud to be Jews. (A Judaism Engaged With the World – p.20, 22)

Torah im Derekh Eretz is the ongoing critical dialogue that must always occur at the interface between Judaism and its environing culture. (Tradition in an Untraditional Age p. 122)

Neither the biblical nor rabbinic tradition allows a prolonged retreat from the tense, unpredictable, ongoing dialogue with contemporary culture, with society in its Israeli or diaspora dimensions, and with the Jewish people as a whole. Renewing that holy argument is the future task of Jewish thought. For at stake is the fate of Torah whose living commentary is the Jewish people in dialogue with its covenantal calling. (Tradition in an Untraditional Age p. 134)

The Jewish encounter with the policy issues of an age, in short, occurs when an expert in the facts seeks the guidance of an expert in the values; and there is nothing to compel that seeking, short of a continued demonstration that Judaism is in touch with life. (Tradition in an Untraditional Age p. 199)

8. Rabbi Berel Wein

The Torah [has ideas], but someone has to articulate them. What’s our attitude toward the poorer sections of society? Toward the Arabs? Toward anything?… We don’t say that we are going to fix the world; we don’t say those things even though it is part of our heritage, even though that’s part of Torah. (Quoted in Faranak Margolese, Off the Derech, (Devora, 2005), p.203)