The Limits of Inspiration

One of the most popular articles in the last Klal Perspectives Issue, focused on the crisis of spiritual connection in the American Orthodox Community, was Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s titled “Just One Thing is Missing: The Soul”. BTs might particularly appreciate Rabbi Weinberger’s reference to a line from an old song “Something inside has died, and I can’t hide it, and I just can’t fake it”. As Rabbi Weinberger cataloged a multitude of ills of the Orthodox community the lyric that came to my mind was “Your no good, your no good, your no good, baby your no good”.

Last week, the Five Towns Jewish Times ran Rabbi Weinberger’s article on the front page. This week there were four letters to the editor, starting on page 73, two of which expressed a preference for the more traditional learning Torah approach as opposed to the emotional inspiration approach of Rabbi Weinberger.

I always found Rabbi Tatz’ article on “Why Inspiration Doesn’t Last” to be very instructive on this issue. Rabbi Tatz points out that initial inspiration is necessary in the beginning of a growth process, but after that “determination, perseverance and a stubborn refusal to despair” are needed to achieve lasting growth. Rabbi Tatz warns us not to be misled into thinking that the world is supposed to be a constant thrill, and then to feel only half-alive when it’s not.

Spiritual work is hard and it’s easy to see why a person might prefer a more passive “Inspire Me” approach. My experience as a Baal Teshuva with it’s unreal initial growth phase followed by the slow going plateau period, as well as the teaching of my Rebbeim has shown me that you have to put in the work day in and day out. Torah. Avodah. Gemillas Chasadim. There are ups and downs, and it’s certainly not a life of “We will, we will Rock You”, but there’s growth and there’s connection and the depth, meaning and beauty of the Torah life lies before us.

You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
But you must try, try and try
Try and try, you’ll succeed at last

29 comments on “The Limits of Inspiration

  1. A Jew that is truly striving for completeness, knows that he has never achieved it – the goal is continuous improvement or growth.

    The halacha defines many types of kavanah in different mitzvos. I think discussing those details is well beyond the scope of a blog comment format.

    I think Judaism wants us to understand and use many facets of observance:

    1) understanding the purpose of observance – connection to G-d
    2) learning Torah
    3) paying attention to mitzvos performance, including all the different kavanahs
    4) using the internal emotions rooted in love and awe to power our performance
    5) getting the necessary motivation and inspiration

    The Mesillas Yesharim advices to use these and more tools because the need to grow never ends.

  2. Let’s say the subject here is about what is necessary to be a complete Jew, not only what is necessary to be in technical compliance with a given mitzvah.

    Many mitzvos themselves require kavvanah which is closely associated with inspiration and motivation. The other mitzvos might not require these but are enhanced by these.

  3. In our case of mitzvah observance it is necessary to do the act correctly for it to be a mitzvah.

    Even if we would agree that inspiration is a necessary component of a given mitzvah, I think it’s clear that doing the act correctly and inspiration in the act are not equally necessary.

  4. Where there are two necessary ingredients, it’s hard to say convincingly that one is more necessary.

  5. Micha, Rabbi Tatz agrees 100% that details and day to day connection to G-d are both important. He is not dealing with all the elements that go into that day to day connection and the nuances in different levels of connection. His point in that article is the limits of certain forms of inspiration. Most people would agree that inspiration has limits.

    I’m not sure you can get away from Torah and mitzvos being the primary path to connection. Of course they need to be done with a objective of connection to be more effective.

  6. RSB: In this contrast between RMW and R/D AT, I would say that you are saying what R’ Tatz does. But in doing so, you give me a new framing for what I’ve been trying to say in this thread, so I’m grabbing it.

    I am arguing that “day to day” and “details of Torah observance” need not go hand-in-hand. Day to day attention to G-d and life’s ultimate purpose is what produces “erev Shabbos Jews” (the Jews of R Soloveitchik’s youth in Eastern Europe who felt the excitement of Shabbos coming) in a way that ever-more meticulous observance of the law of Shabbos will not.

  7. Just to add on to what Steve said in the name of the Rav,

    Rav Soloveitchik zt’l from Dr. Peli’s On Repentance:

    “Please allow me to make a ‘private confession’ concerning a matter that has caused me much loss of sleep… I still remember- it was not so long ago- when Jews were still close to God and lived in an atmosphere pervaded with holiness. But today, what do we see? The profane and the secular are in control everywhere we turn.
    Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the ‘sanctity of Shabbat.’ True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbath. The label ‘Sabbath obverver” has come to be used as a title of honor in our circles just like HaRav HaGaon neither really indicate anything and both testify to the lowly state of our generation. But it is not for Shabbath that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten ‘erev Shabbath’ . There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no ‘erev Shabbath’ Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!” (pp. 97-98)

    I will copy/paste the last sentence again, because it’s hits home to me.

    There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!”

  8. Look at it this way-RYBS mentioned that the Torah tells us that Klal Yisrael reached the heights of spirituality at the splitting of the Red Sea, but needed to be given the mitzvos and Torah study on a day to day basis even before Maamad Har Sinai to ensure and implant spirituality on a day to day basis. Inspiration IMO is important, but it is no subsititute for sweating the day today details of Torah observance.

  9. As has been my recurring theme:

    There is an intellectual issue of spending time learning about the forest, and not “just” the structure of each tree, branch and leaf.

    But I’m speaking as someone who neglected giving the core topics (gemara, halakhah, etc…) they attention they deserve for decades to study these things: Emunos veDei’os, the Kuzari, Moreh Nevuchim, and so on down the generations to Michtav meiEliyahu and contemporary works. With an attention that went as far as detouring into Plato and Aristotle to understand the rishoniim, Kant and Hegel to understand R’ Hirsch, R’ Dessler, R’ Hutner and R’ Soloveitchik.

    I learned the hard way about the gap between knowing enough to have pet theories about what life and Torah are all about, and actually living them. Between knowing all about G-d, and knowing G-d.

    It’s that latter issue that inspiration tries to combat. To mixed success; the emotional high of a single Carlebach minyan doesn’t necessarily last longer than hand-washing for hamotzi that dinner.

    What I’m differing with you over is my feeling that education isn’t the third alternative. It’s a prerequisite. Something else (which I would still call inspiration, but R’ Tatz wouldn’t) is.

    Let’s look at R’ Weinberger’s own Eish Kodesh. He provides education that focuses on the forest, a steady diet of inspirational experiences, as well as longer-term (trying something for weeks or months) not single event) experiential programming.

  10. BT, was this PDF book taken down for a reason, such as to release it in some other form? Maybe there are copyright issues when others post it. Please check.

  11. It’s not I that expect much from them, they were R Weinberger’s words.

    I agree that understanding Hashem and our relationship with him is key, Micha.

    The problem is there isn’t one solution (as we know). Keeping the conversation rooted in the BeyondBT forum, we all know that what inspired BT “A” to become frum isn’t what might have inspired BT “B”, “C”, or “D”. All of them want to grow or wanted to grow at some point. Creating a culture of growth that not only promotes different types of Torah, Avodah, Gemilus Chasadim (to use the often quoted phrase from Mark and Steve Brizel), but embraces a personal relationship with Hashem (I am not saying devaykus) is what inspires most people.

    With learning it could be anything from Even Shelayma (by the Vilna Gaon), to Gemara, to Hilchos Mukzuah, to Tanya. However if it is only viewed as learning in the academic sense, then we have missed the boat.

    Using the vehicle of an inspirational speaker is, a good band-aid. It’s a one opportunity cure. If, however, that speaker is used as a basis for an ongoing shul learning project, then we are creating something ongoing.

    For example, my shul recently brought in Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. As a follow-up, the shul just sent out copies of his small book, “Letters to the Next Generation 2”. I am hoping to try to use the book to develop informal multi-family learning/discussions.

  12. Neil,

    Young children? I think you expect much of them. But in any case…

    Teaching hashkafah is important. Knowing about G-d is important. Knowing G-d, having a relationship with Him, is more important.

    So, in addition to keeping the word “G-d” in our yeshivos, we do need to do more to “inspire” (although not in R’ Tatz’s sense of the word).

  13. I think it should be noted that Rav Weinberger gave two suggestions about dealing with this problem: Experiencial and Educational
    The Exepriencial example was the one that Mark wrote about above, the inspriational speaker

    The educational example is as follows (from the article):

    On the educational front, our institutions must begin to bring the Infinite into the four Amos (cubits) of the classroom and of the shul. Rebbeim, morahs, and rabbonim must be trained to impart the heart and soul of Yiddishkeit in a lucid and inspiring way. There are many extraordinary mashpiim and mashpios (influential role models) whose talents have been mostly tapped by the world of Jewish outreach. We (the “FFB’s”) must admit that many of our rabbis and educators are simply unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the language of emunah. There seems to be an expectation that emunah will be miraculously conveyed to baalei batim and students by means of some mysterious osmosis that is perhaps complemented by an occasional shabbaton or seminar. But, it ain’t happening.

    The thirteen fundamental principles of faith must become a basic part of the curriculum in all schools and shuls. G-d must be brought back into our institutions and into our homes. It makes no difference if one place prefers a Litvishe G-d and the other a Chassidishe G-d. Open and frank discussions about faith and doubt must be encouraged – not feared and stymied. To ignore these critical dimensions of religious growth by claiming that it would supplant the traditional format of chinuch is, I submit, a grave error. All the regular Torah learning must surely continue. If anything, such learning will be energized and uplifted when taught to individuals who are struggling to get to the bottom of what this whole undertaking known as Yiddishkeit is about.

    It would be wonderful if seforim such as Nesivos Sholom, Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (Rav Itamar Schwartz) and those of R’ Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, would be adapted as a means of developing a curriculum to teach emunah, beginning even with young children.

  14. Micha said “If Rabbi Tatz were correct, Volozhin and Slabodka wouldn’t have produced those famous stories of alumni who learn gemara Shabbos afternoon — while smoking their cigar.”

    Not sure how you came to that conclusion.

    Bob- Rabbi Tatz was talking about a specific type of inspiration. I acknowledged at least 3 definitions, Rabbi Tatz, Rabbi Weinberger’s inspiration speaker variety and your broader dictionary definition.

    Inspiration is a motivator, hard work leads to growth.

  15. I have never attended a Carlbach minyan, but they seem to inspire people, based on reports I heard from people who attended.

  16. Believe it or not, my excursion into semantics had a reason.

    I take issue with Mark’s and Rabbi Tatz’ narrow definition associating inspiration solely with the initial, transitory high. That view could lead one to ignore the more permanent, lower key inspiration needed to sustain meaningful, non-mechanical study and practice. The dictionary citation was just to demonstrate that inspiration comes in more than one flavor.

  17. I spoke about defining terms, and didn’t define my own usages!

    There are third alternatives to studying shas and posqim on the one side and being in the moment at some “artificial” inspiring moment / event on the other.

  18. The dictionary is irrelevant. You have to see R’ Tatz’s usage in context. You have no guarantees he meant it the way defines it.

    That said, we have plenty of people who go through the motions, including the motions of daf yomi and regular chavrusos and don’t feel personally connected. People who do all the rites, and can’t stand up against temptation to cheat on their taxes or to beat their children.

    If Rabbi Tatz were correct, Volozhin and Slabodka wouldn’t have produced those famous stories of alumni who learn gemara Shabbos afternoon — while smoking their cigar.

  19. If you don’t understand the definition from which an author is using a word, then you’re missing their point.

  20. They are free to use more specialized definitions, as I am to use a broad one.

  21. The dictionary’s definition is very broad. Read and think about Rabbi Tatz and Rabbi Weinberger’s use of the word inspiration.

    If you’re not doing the hard work, the inspiration is not working.

  22. This is from Merriam-Webster online (definition 1 b):

    the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions
    Not only the initial or momentary types of inspiration move us.

  23. They’re both needed, but they have to be put in perspective. Inspiration is the jump-start, hard work is the engine of growth.

    I don’t think inspiration, as Rabbi Weinberger is using the term (ie inspirational speaker) can be an ongoing state of mind. Rabbi Tatz explains why in the article that I pointed to. It should be noted that Rabbi Tatz’ articles like the inspiration one, have to be read slowly multiple time. Rabbi Tatz himself says this in the introduction to Living Inspired.

  24. FYI, “You can get it if you really want” was a Jimmy Cliff reggae song. Years ago in Manhattan I saw his movie that included it; the film had English subtitles for the Jamaican English soundtrack!

    Back to the subject:

    Clearly, inspiration and hard work are both needed, so there is no reason to set them in opposition. Inspiration is not just a momentary thrill; it can become an ongoing state of mind that support the effort.

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