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Defining Hashkafa: Two Approaches and Why They Matter

Last week’s article ended with one core question: What is the focus of our lives—this world or the next world? This one question has several essential ramifications: What is the definition of a successful life? How should Torah be learned? What approach should I take in making a parnasa, which for most people accounts for the lion’s share of their lives as adults?

In my experience, the standard answer is that this world is a smokescreen; a distraction from what is meant to be the real focus—the world-to-come. This is most explicitly formulated in the first chapter of Mesillas Yesharim: “A person must have complete clarity regarding his obligation in the world … Chazal has taught us that man was created only to derive pleasure from Hashem and enjoy the radiance of His Shechina … and the true place of this pleasure is Olam Haba.” However, I will argue that strong sources argue for the Olam Hazeh approach, seeing our time in this world as the priority for the impact that we can make here and now.

An entire community adopting the Olam Hazeh approach has the potential to make significant headway in achieving that goal. The imagery of a great battalion, “phalanxes of soldiers working together to accomplish a mission at the behest of their commander-in-chief,” is meant to convey this ideal—and is rooted in the Torah’s own description of the very formulation of Bnei Yisrael as a nation.

Every individual—man and woman—is meant to see themselves as enlisted in this battalion, pitching in to help it succeed. Finally, drawing from the mitzvos of machatzis hashekel and the command to build Hashem a Mishkan, I suggest that everyone has something crucial to contribute to accomplish this objective.

This worldview can yield two crucial benefits: First, people will be motivated to confront the many challenges facing our communities and the world at large in the spirit of “leovdah u’leshomrah—developing and preserving the world,” hopefully leading to significant progress in countless areas.

Second, simply the feeling that a person has something unique to contribute—a role to play that is only his—can revitalize a person’s entire approach to life, specifically including his perspective on Judaism, talmud Torah and avodas Hashem.

 

Defining ‘Hashkafa’

I have noticed two challenges with many of the approaches that I’ve seen in trying to teach hashkafa. First, there is a lack of clarity regarding what the term actually means. “Hashkafa” is often used interchangeably with “machshava,” and sometimes even with “mussar.” These are three distinct areas of learning, although specific sefarim can sometimes walk the line between two or even all three of them.

My understanding of the three is like this: “Hashkafa” describes ideas that are downward-oriented, answering the question, “What does Hashem want me to think about this human issue?”1

“Machshava” is the opposite, describing ideas that are upward-oriented: “What am I meant to think about this divine issue?” (Divine foreknowledge versus human free choice being a classic example). This category is often alternatively identified as Jewish philosophy.

Finally, “mussar” describes ideas that are inward-oriented, helping me better understand myself and facilitating ethical development. Those who dismiss hashkafa as “fluffy” or “impractical” are usually making just such a category error, as the very definition of hashkafa entails questions which are practically relevant to human life. The goal of a hashkafa—a worldview, is to create a cohesive frame that pieces together the different parts of a person’s life and sets a direction towards which everything should be oriented. Difficult decisions can be held up against the worldview for clarity and direction. To do that effectively, the worldview needs to be nuanced, well-grounded and applicable to a wide range of people.

 

Avoiding the Encyclopedia

Second, much of the formal teaching around questions of hashkafa is in encyclopedia style: Here are three approaches to question 1—The Rambam says x, the Kuzari says y and the Baal Shem Tov says z. Here are three perspectives on question 2—Ramban, Rabbi Crescas and Baal Hatanya. Each question is addressed on its own, leading to a wealth of information but very little integration. After all, having numerous approaches to every question will not serve me well when I actually need to make a decision. Additionally, this style of teaching gives the impression that the questions being discussed are largely academic rather than practically relevant, which is, of course, not correct.

I will try to avoid both problems here. As important as issues of mussar and machshava are, I plan to put them aside and focus on the practical questions of worldview: What is the goal of life, what is my role in that goal and how can I work towards accomplishing it? Rather than bringing a number of answers to those fundamental questions, I hope to zero in on one—with its practical ramifications. That is not to say that other approaches have no merit; instead, I am advocating for an approach that I have found to be powerfully motivating and overflowing with meaning.

I aim to suggest an approach to life that can rejuvenate our religious lives. Hashem enlisted the Jewish people as His soldiers, creating a “great battalion” ready to do His will in this world. Every single “soldier” has a unique mission to accomplish, revealed by his God-given talents and guided by the Torah’s system of values and ideals. As a community dedicated to this worldview, our combined efforts can begin crafting a society, and, ultimately, a world that reflects those values.

The “great battalion” needs you! Are you in?

The next article will lay the foundation for this perspective, with a look at an unexpected term that shows up a number of times throughout the Torah’s description of the formation of the Jewish nation.


Tzvi Goldstein graduated from Yeshiva University with a semicha and a degree in Psychology. After making aliyah, he taught in Yeshivat Hakotel for five years and now edits sefarim for a number of publishers. He recently published a sefer with Mosaica Press called “Halachic Worldviews,” exploring Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to developing hashkafa from halacha, and writes at tgb613.substack.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

 

1 The Midrash Sechel Tov (Bereishis 18:16) points out that the term “lehashkif” generally entails “looking down from above.” See Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s comments to Shemos 33:21 for his presentation of this idea: “Not to behold God, but to view the earth and earthly concerns, man and human affairs, from God’s standpoint—that is the highest goal attainable to man here below, and hence the only goal to which he should aspire.”

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