The Torah Academy - A Model for the Arts and Sciences based on TorahTorah and Science

The Torah Academy – A model for the arts and sciences based on Torah: Knowledge and Self-expression


In the past few months two new books from Rabbi Ginsburgh were published, one in Hebrew and the other in English titled, Wisdom: Integrating Torah and Science. These two books were the topic of a half-day symposium at Bar Ilan University, hosted by the program for Torah, Technology, and Science at that prestigious institute. Both books included one of Rabbi Ginsburgh’s earliest models on Torah and science, called the Torah Academy.

The Torah Academy model draws a correspondence between the various areas of modern academic study and the basic Kabbalistic model of the sefirot. Each area is usually afforded its own faculty (as it is called in Europe) or school (in the United States) in a modern university. The Torah Academy model was published originally in 1995, a little over 20 years ago, in a short 20 page pamphlet. A few years later, I translated the pamphlet and its contents into Hebrew. A few years later, in 2004, Rabbi Ginsburgh passed on to me his deep insights into everything that had gone into the original pamphlet. In a few sessions, which I recorded and tried to transcribe on the fly, he added 20 pages worth of very terse and Kabbalistic shorthand notes that require intense work to open and present to the reader. In this series of articles, we will be looking at the Torah Academy model through those notes, delving into each correspondence in the model in length.

Before beginning let us first introduce the complete model in the form traditionally used for models based on the sefirot. A model of this type is called a partzuf in Kabbalah, and we will use the two words, model and partzuf, interchangeably.

Knowledge and Speech

When God created man, the Torah tells us that God, “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living anima.”[1] Onkelos, a convert to Judaism, was the first person to translate the Torah into Aramaic, the universal language at the time (much as English is today). He was a great Torah scholar and one of the rabbinic leaders of his generation. His translation is considered one of (if not, the) first literal commentaries on the Pentateuch. His rendering of these words in Aramaic translates back into English as, “and it [God’s breath] became in man the breath of speech.” This translation follows the well-known rabbinic taxonomy of nature into four categories: inanimate, vegetable, animal, and speaker. According to this categorization of all that inhabits reality, the power of speech (dibur, דבור, in Hebrew) is what distinguishes man from the animals and from the rest of God’s creation.

While Onkelos’s translation and its underlying schema are relatively well-known, Rashi, the most important literal commentary on the Torah writes something that most are less familiar with. On the words, “a living anima,” he comments,

Livestock and animals were also characterized as “living anima.” However, this one [the living anima] belonging to man is more animated than all the others, for knowledge and speech were added to it.

What Rashi adds to Onkelos is the uniqueness of man’s knowledge or awareness (in Hebrew, dei’ah, דעה). It is speech together with awareness that differentiate man and place him in a separate category. Thus, knowledge/awareness and speech characterize mankind and are the two most essential attributes of man’s anima or psyche (nefesh, נפש, in Hebrew) and it is they that make him a living being, referring to the myriad actions that fill mankind’s life as individuals and as a community. Speech and what we will call the pursuit of knowledge are what motivate mankind’s life and as such they are also at the core of the creation of the modern academic system, whose subjects are taxed with both making us conscious of reality and providing us with a means to speak, or express ourselves, in various forms.

The wedding of our desire and need

Higher education’s goal is to satisfy and wed knowledge with speech, the two most profound of mankind’s inner yearnings. Knowledge reflects humanity’s desire to know reality and speech reflects our need for self-expression. By using the verb “wed,” we are suggesting that knowledge and speech are a masculine-feminine pair of powers in the psyche that like a man and a woman, reach their ultimate state of maturity when they conjoin, in what is described in Torah as inter-inclusion. In Kabbalah, maturity is measured in terms of the capacity to join with one’s absolute opposite. Thus, a young woman is considered mature when she is able to marry and through the inter-inclusive joining of herself and her husband, create a new home, a new reality that is robust enough to nourish and cultivate others be it through the begetting and raising of their own children or through charity to others—the cornerstones of every domestic environment.

Knowledge and speech in the rabbinic mind

Our identification of knowledge or awareness with the masculine and speech with the feminine rests on two seminal statements made by the sages. Regarding women the sages remark that, “women—their knowledge is light [i.e., not heavy]”[2] (נָשִׂים דַּעְתָּן קַלָּה עֲלֵיהֶן) and that, “Ten measures of speech descended into the world; women took nine of them”[3] (עֲשָׂרָה קְבִין שֶׁל שִׂיחָה יָרְדוּ לְעוֹלָם. תִּשְׁעָה נָטְלוּ נָשִׂים).

As it appears in context, the first remark comes to say that the feminine is more susceptible to persuasion and more easily influenced. Like Eve, the first embodiment of the feminine principle who was seduced by the primordial snake in the Garden of Eden,[4] the feminine is quick to adopt and identify with any particular point of view that is presented to it. In practice, this means that women are able to more easily identify with their inner nature and with their natural surroundings and less inclined to treat them objectively. For this reason, the feminine form of persuasion leans more on a sense of personal connection with the point being argued rather than relying on objective, logical arguments to prove its validity. The Talmud underscores this form of argumentation as particularly useful in helping women steer their husbands in the direction they prefer, an ability that was used for better or for worse. From our characterization of the feminine as having “light knowledge,” we can glean that the masculine faculty of knowledge is metaphorically “heavy,” characterized by a more objective stance that is not easily affected or changed,[5] without logically sound reasoning.

From the second remark, it is clear that the sages associate the feminine with speech—an archetype for all forms of self-expression. Indeed, in Kabbalistic and Chassidic writings, the powers of expression are described as feminine. Kingdom, the most feminine of all the sefirot is normally described as the power of speech. Speech is the most pronounced power of self-expression in mankind, but there are many other ways in which people are able to express themselves. Just about every one of our body’s parts can be used as a vessel for expression. As such, we can describe the relationship between the masculine consciousness and the feminine expression with the analogy of the mind and the body. The mind expresses itself through the body. When both reach their mature state and function together, then the body serves as a vessel for the mind while at the same time, the body modulates and motivates the mind’s desire and yearning to know reality. This is one of the most seminal models of light (knowledge/masculine/mind) entering its vessel (speech/feminine/expression).

The inter-inclusion of knowledge and speech

Now that we have established that knowledge is relatively masculine while speech and self-expression are relatively feminine, we turn to look at the process of wedding these two foundational characteristics of mankind. The Torah relates that when the first man was created, it was not a he or a she, but one body that contained both the masculine and feminine aspects. This is how the sages understand the verse, “He created them male and female… and He named them Adam.”[6] Thus, in the primordial, ideal state, knowledge and speech work together.

However, the primordial and ideal state in which the masculine and feminine were one was not to last for as God said, “It is not good for man to be solitary,”[7] and He set about to separate the masculine from the feminine. Of course, the separation is only temporary, for once both mature enough they are meant to conjoin and become one again, connecting and inspiring one another and together to procreate.

Similarly, though knowledge and speech/self-expression need to mature separately, once they have done so, they need to conjoin in order to rectify and complete one another. If knowledge, or the intellect, as we may call it, becomes the measure of all it tends to make us cold and alienated from the human condition. We would be aware of disease and old age but would probably prefer to focus on statistical and genetic analyses of these “phenomena.” On the other hand, if self-expression and speech stand above all else, they will tend to describe the human condition as dismal and hopeless. Let us now explain this in more depth.

Objectivity and subjectivity

Another way of describing the relationship between consciousness and self-expression, or between the masculine and feminine characteristics of mankind’s desires and needs is objectivity and subjectivity. The desire (or will) to explore reality and understand it is best done through objectivity. If reality is described differently by individual observers, then the description lacks objectivity. On the other hand, the need for self-expression, for speech, is best met when the full gamut of our subjective experience is considered and accessed.

In the academic context, knowledge and will form the basic powers that drive the objectivity inherently required in the areas of our model that correspond to the intellectual faculties: mathematics and the exact sciences. Our need for self-expression motivates our pursuit of the humanities and the human spirit found in the areas of knowledge that correspond to the emotional and habitual faculties of the soul: from psychology, to social studies, to politics.

One would assume that developing the human spirit would elevate humanity. However, it is not at all clear that left on its own, the human spirit can indeed rise to the occasion. Chassidic writings quote the verse, “Who is it that knows that the spirit of man ascends and the spirit of the animal descends”[8] as the basis for their being a human spirit and animal spirit in man. The human spirit is identified with the objective part of the psyche and is also called the Divine spirit. Inherently the Divine spirit is optimistic, as it is always grounded in faith in the infinite goodness of the Creator and in that fact that the world is based on loving-kindness. The animal spirit in man, on the other hand, refers to the subjective experience in our psyche. Inherently, the animal spirit is pessimistic, locked as it were into the fateful cycle of life followed by death, a destiny that man seems to share with all other creatures on Earth. Indeed, were it not for the input of the objective and optimistic Divine spirit in our soul, our subjective experiences would tend to push us down and take our mood with them.

In reference to the Torah Academy, the 8 lower areas of knowledge are initially guided by the animal spirit, or subjective experience, in man, while the human spirit is initially to be found more strongly in the exact sciences and mathematics. Thus, it follows that the lower 8 areas of knowledge have an air of pessimism around them. The question then presents itself whether the humanities are indeed able to make the world a better place, whether they have the capacity on their own to lift our collective spirit. If our desire to express ourselves would remain focused on our subjective experience alone, if the humanities knew only of the human condition, they would tend to paint a bleak picture of reality and most probably draw our future as forever destined to repeat our worst moments. This is the result of the pessimism that is part of the nature of subjectivity. This is because the more we identify with our subjectivity, the more we feel alone and isolated; subjectivity fosters both a sense of being unique and distinct, and of being separate and secluded. Therefore the more we identify with ours subjective self, the more reality appears to be hopeless and depressing. We can think of how many artists, who are more subjective than most people, are prone to harm themselves or to fall into mental disarray.

Objectivity is the antidote to the self-centeredness fostered by subjectivity. When added to the humanities, it has the power to lighten the human spirit’s load and allow the ascending spirit of man to affect our subjective spirit. The exact sciences and mathematics are motivated by the naturally optimistic spirit of our higher spirit. No area of human knowledge has advanced over the millennia more than mathematics, which since the Scientific Revolution have been joined by the explosion of knowledge in the exact sciences. Mathematics and the hard sciences correspond to our mental faculties, wisdom and understanding, and true intellect tends to lift our spirit and instill optimism for a better future in our hearts.

Let us take a closer look at this insight into the relationship between objectivity and the humanities by analyzing a midrash—a homiletic teaching form the sages—on the nature of the male and the female.

Rabbi Yehoshua was asked: Why is it that the man exits [the womb] with his face downward but the woman exits with her face upward?

He answered them: the man looks to the source of his creation and the women looks to the source of her creation.[9]

This midrash captures one of the most central tenets of the Torah’s inner dimension regarding the different yet complementary attributes of the masculine and feminine. As explained elsewhere in length, the masculine dynamic begins above, but strives to descend (which in the midrash is described as “face downward”), only to ultimately return to its source by ascending. This is known as the principle of, “descent for the sake of ascent.” In contrast, the feminine dynamic begins below but strives to ascend (which in the midrash is described as “facing upwards”), but then also seeks to return to its source by descending; this is known as the principle of, “ascent for the sake of descent.” These are opposite, but complementary dynamics: opposite because of their ultimate direction (the male aims upwards—towards the spiritual) and the female downwards (towards the material), but complementary because when they treat their relationship as a dance, they are able to join the heavens and the earth, the spiritual with the material together.

The blue arrows first descend and then ascend representing the masculine dynamic. The red arrows first ascend then descend representing the female dynamic:

If we apply these two dynamics to knowledge and speech as we have been doing all along, we find that science (the subject of our pursuit of knowledge) aims to descend in order to add objectivity to the humanities, thereby elevating them. By adding objectivity to the humanities and the arts, our faculty of knowledge adds vitality and optimism to them, ensuring that they are vehicles for advancing mankind. On the other hand, the humanities seek to ascend in order to awaken an awareness and an interest in our subjective reality to mathematics and the exact sciences.

To chart our insights so far, we can draw the following augmented model:

As we will see later, the areas charted as part of the crown follow a pattern of feminine-masculine-feminine because Torah possesses a certain masculine objectivity.

Unifying science with the humanities

From all that we have seen it should be clear that science and the humanities need one another. The pursuit of knowledge, which by nature is more objective and therefore prefers the exact sciences and mathematics has to take an additional interest in the subjective mindset found in the humanities. At the same time, in order to attain a measure of objectivity, the humanities need to be augmented by the objective languages of mathematics and the exact sciences.

The insertion of subjectivity into the objective disciplines leads to the development of technology and other tools that can help mankind express itself. At the same time, introducing objectivity into the humanities enlivens them and helps them serve the human spirit with an optimism that indeed, the human condition is constantly improving and being rectified.


[1]. Genesis 2:7.

[2]. Shabbat 33b, Kidushin 80b, and elsewhere.

[3]. Kidushin 49b.

[4]. In addition, the word “mother” is etymologically related to the word, “matter,” reflecting our intuitive notion that the feminine is more related to matter and the masculine more related to spirit.

[5]. The sefirah of knowledge is anatomically associated with the brain stem or posterior part of the brain which extends down to the neck thus extending the identity to cover the neck as well. In fact, someone who is stubborn is described in the Torah as “stiff necked,” indicating that once they have been convinced of a particular point of view, their sefirah of knowledge becomes unyielding and inelastic. As such, in the most abstract psychological terms, the sefirah of knowledge refers to our ability to identify: be it to (1) identify a person, an object, or an idea, or (2) our ability to identify with any of these (see Tanya, ch. 3). When knowledge is described as light this indicates that the individual easily identifies with and attaches while heavy knowledge symbolizes the individual that remains aloof and is not quick to seek attachment.

[6]. Genesis 5:2.

[7]. Ibid. 2:18.

[8]. Ecclesiastes 3:21.

[9]. Bereisheet rabbah 17:8.

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