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edited by Yosef Blau Robert S. Hirt, Series Editor
THE MICHAEL SCHARF PUBLICATION TRUST of the YESHIVA UNIVERSITY PRESS NEW YORK
THE ORTHODOX FORUM
The Orthodox Forum, convened by Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, meets each year to consider major issues of concern to the Jewish community. Forum participants from throughout the world, including academicians in both Jewish and secular ﬁelds, rabbis, rashei yeshiva, Jewish educators, and Jewish communal professionals, gather in conference as a think tank to discuss and critique each other’s original papers, examining diﬀerent aspects of a central theme. The purpose of the Forum is to create and disseminate a new and vibrant Torah literature addressing the critical issues facing Jewry today.
The Orthodox Forum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Joseph J. and Bertha K. Green Memorial Fund at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
The Orthodox Forum Series is a project of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an aﬃliate of Yeshiva University
Copyright © 2006 Yeshiva University Press
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Orthodox Forum (11th: 1999 : Congregation Shearith Israel, New York, NY) The conceptual approach to Jewish learning / edited by Yosef Blau. p. cm. – (The Orthodox Forum series) Proceedings of a conference held at Congregation Shearith Israel, New York, N.Y., March 14–15, 1999. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-88125-907-1 1. Judaism – Study and teaching – Congresses. 2. Jewish religious education – Teaching methods – Congresses. 3. Jews – Education – Congresses. 4. Jewish learning and scholarship – Congresses. I. Blau, Yosef. II. Title. III. Ser ies. BM71.O78 2005 296.6’8 – dc22 2005027025
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Contributors Series Editor’s Introduction Preface Yosef Blau 1 The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning: The Method and Its Prospects Aharon Lichtenstein 2 The Impact of Lomdut and Its Partial Reversal Yosef Blau 3 Polyphonic Diversity and Military Music Shalom Carmy 4 Lomdut and Pesak: Theoretical Analysis and Halakhic Decision-Making J. David Bleich 5 The Brisker Derekh and Pesak Halakhah Mordechai Willig 6 Conceptual Approach to Learning and Hinnukh Yosef Adler 7 The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education Jeremy Wieder viii xi xiii
1 45 55
87 115 131 145
8 “What” Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited 167 Mosheh Lichtenstein 9 Reflections on the Conceptual Approach to Talmud Torah Michael Rosensweig 10 From Reb Hayyim and the Rav to Shi’urei ha-Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – The Evolution of a Tradition of Learning Elyakim Krumbein 189
11 The Brisker Method and Close Reading – Response to Rav Elyakim Krumbein 299 Avraham Walfish 12 Beyond Complexity – Response to Rav Avraham Walfish Elyakim Krumbein The Orthodox Forum Eleventh Conference List of Participants Index 323
Editor’s Note: At times, we have used the term Lomdus rather than Lamdanot to describe erudition, as it is popular common usage.
Other Volumes in the Orthodox Forum Series Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy edited by Moshe Z. Sokol Jewish Tradition and the Non-Traditional Jew edited by Jacob J. Schacter Israel as a Religious Reality edited by Chaim I. Waxman Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations edited by Shalom Carmy Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law edited by David Shatz, Chaim I. Waxman, and Nathan J. Diament Engaging Modernity: Rabbinic Leaders and the Challenge of the Twentieth Century edited by Moshe Z. Sokol Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suﬀering edited by Shalom Carmy Jewish Business Ethics: The Firm and Its Stockholders edited by Aaron Levine and Moses Pava Tolerance, Dissent and Democracy: Philosophical, Historical and Halakhic Perspectives edited by Moshe Z. Sokol Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law edited by Adam Mintz and Lawrence Schiﬀman Formulating Responses in an Egalitarian Age edited by Marc D. Stern Judaism, Science And Moral Responsibility edited by Yitzhak Berger and David Shatz
The Brisker Method and Close Reading – Response to Rav Elyakim Krumbein
i. Textual considerations in Brisker lomdut
Following in the footsteps of his two illustrious mentors, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l (henceforth: the Rav) and (yibadel le-hayyim) Rav Lichtenstein, Rav Krumbein (henceforth: RK) sets out to examine the underlying methodological foundations of the Brisker derekh of learning. His point of departure is Rav Lichtenstein’s claim that Brisker lomdut focuses on “primary questions,” relating to the definition and analysis of the sugya’s fundamental concepts, and deals only minimally with “secondary questions,” relating to textual issues. Upon surveying the writings of central figures of Brisker lomdut, RK concludes that the first two generations of Soloveitchiks1 focused heavily on “secondary” questions, regarding the conceptual method as a tool for resolving textual issues. Analysis of the Rav ’s 299
shi’urim, mostly drawn from Shi’urim le-Zekher Abba Mari, leads RK to the conclusion that the Rav transferred the focus of learning from resolution of textual issues to the search for a complete conceptual mapping of the sugya. My own experience as a student both of Rav Lichtenstein and of the Rav predisposes me to both to accept the general drift of RK’s argument and to critique some of its underlying presuppositions. Well do I remember my surprise when I first began studying R. Hayyim’s writings and found, time and again, that R. Hayyim seemed far more persistent in his attempts to resolve the Rambam with the Gemara than the Rav had been in his shi’urim. On the other hand, already as a young student I felt that much of the charm of the Brisker derekh lay in the power of the “two dinim” approach to explain seemingly disparate sugyot, each on its own terms, without imposing the terms of the one sugya upon the other, as most previous commentators tended to do.2 My subsequent career as a lamdan who attempts to combine conceptual insights – often inspired by Brisk – with the textual discipline I acquired in academic circles might cast some doubt on the objectivity of my experience of Brisk. In my view, subjectivity in the proper dosage and correctly deployed need not impugn, and indeed may enhance, the quality of one’s thinking,3 however, I need not rely unduly on my own subjective impressions. Other students of the Rav were struck by his insistence on interpreting Rishonim literally, even when common sense dictated that they could not possibly have meant what they seemed to be saying.4 The Rav here follows in the footsteps of his predecessors. Where an apparent contradiction between two sugyot forces Tosafot to reinterpret the words davar she-eino mitkavven in Kereitot 20b as meaning melakhah she-eina tzrikhah le-gufah, R. Hayyim demonstrates “two dinim” within davar she-eino mitkavven, enabling him to resolve the contradiction while maintaining the usual meaning of the phrase.5 Similarly, where most Rishonim resolve a difficulty in the Mishnah Kelim 2:2 by delimiting the case (ukimta), the Rav demonstrates how a fundamental conceptual distinction may explain the Mishnah without such delimitation, in accordance with the view of the Rambam.6
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
The textual component of Brisker lomdut is not confined to its attempts to maintain the plain sense of the sources. Oftentimes Brisker lamdanim display a remarkably acute sensitivity to the language of the sources, as well as to context. The Rav was particularly outstanding in this area, especially in his readings of Mishnah and of Rambam, and many of the Rav ’s textual insights are, to the best of my knowledge, without parallel in the Talmudic and exegetical literature. The Rav commented on the omission of the measurement of “10 tefahim” from the Mishnah at the beginning of Eruvin, as opposed to its appearance in the similar Mishnah at the beginning of Sukkah;7 on the words gevurat geshamim at the beginning of Ta’anit;8 on the difference between “Hashem ha-Nikhbad ve-ha-Nora” (seder ha-avodah shel Yom ha-Kippurim) and “ha-Sheimot ha-Kedoshim ve-ha-Tehorim” (Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 6:1)9 and many other similar insights. Of course, alongside this impressive textual sensitivity, Brisker lomdut often displays the opposite tendency, well-documented among critics of the Brisker approach: to prefer conceptual consistency to textual integrity – even to the point of radical reinterpretation of the sense of the text.10 However, the tendency I have noted should not be ignored, as it often is in discussions of Brisker conceptualism. Acute textual insights are the source of many conceptual novellae, and sometimes characteristic Brisker conceptualization spawn new questions and insights relating to the text – for example, the Rav ’s question: how can Rav ’s (the amora) interpret mav’eh at the beginning of Bava Kamma as damage done by a human, when the conceptual roots of responsibility for human damage and for the other kinds of damage listed in the Mishnah are completely different?11 Although certainly no one has ever doubted that Brisker methodology relates to Talmudic texts, the examples I have cited demonstrate that the textual component of Brisker lomdut runs far deeper than most previous discussions of the topic would indicate. RK’s focus on one kind of textual concern, resolving difficulties, led him to distinguish between the “irrefutable, quasi-mathematical proofs” of R. Hayyim and the “reasonable confirmation” characteristic of
the Rav. However, once we have seen that there are other kinds of textual concerns which play an important role in Brisker methodology, we may question whether indeed RK has told us the whole story. It is in no way my intention to question the centrality of the conceptual focus in Brisker lomdut, but rather to strike a different kind of balance between the conceptual and the textual than the balance suggested by RK.
ii. The lomdut circle
RK, following the lead of Rav Lichtenstein, notes the prevalence of “secondary questions” within Brisker discussions; however, both writers attempt to account for the role of these questions within the framework of the model which differentiates “primary” from “secondary” questions. I would propose a different model for lomdut, which would allow greater latitude and flexibility, and would better account for the depth of textual concern characteristic of Brisk. My model is based on the “hermeneutic circle”, a model employed by thinkers since the time of Schleiermacher to deal with a fundamental paradox embedded in the heart of the interpretative enterprise. Interpretation is always founded on a kind of vicious cycle, inasmuch as no individual textual detail may be adequately understood without comprehending the context in which it appears; on the other hand, the context may not be understood without first apprehending the details which it comprises. Different thinkers have suggested models for dealing with this paradox on the philosophical plane, and these models generally are based on positing some kind of foreknowledge or preliminary intuitive grasp of the overall context, which enables an initial comprehension of the details, in turn enabling a firmer grasp of the overall context, and so forth. Thus interpretation takes place always within a circular movement, in which firmer grasp of the details and deeper understanding of the whole impact on one another to create a spiral effect. The model of the hermeneutic circle creates a framework in which we may analyze different schools of interpretation, depending upon the thinker’s suppositions regarding the kinds of questions and tools necessary for grasping the details and the whole. Different
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
schools of Talmudic study may be analyzed using a similar model, which I will call the “lomdut circle.” This circle will focus on the interaction of textual and conceptual components of learning, and posit the paradox: one may never understand the underlying concepts of a sugya without clear understanding of its textual details; on the other hand, it is impossible to understand the textual details without knowledge of the underlying concepts which govern the sugya. Any learning methodology must provide a point of entry into this circle and a method to proceed from there: Either one presupposes some kind of intuitive grasp of the concepts, utilizing them to focus on understanding the textual details; or one presupposes a basic preliminary knowledge of the workings of the text, enabling the lamdan to delve more deeply into the conceptual issues. Thus the “lomdut circle” does not eliminate distinctions between methods of learning focused on the text and those which focus on concepts, but rather provides a model for arranging different learning methodologies along a sliding scale, from the most textually based to the most conceptually based. What is eliminated within this model is the possibility that a method of learning might – even theoretically – focus single-mindedly on one aspect, while ignoring the other. The symbiotic nature of the text-concept nexus guarantees that any method of learning will need textual acumen in order to understand concepts and conceptual acumen in order to understand texts. The nature and the centrality of one or another component will indeed differ from method to method, but the interdependence of the components is a philosophical necessity, which will be true of all methods. Using the model of “primary” and “secondary” questions, Rav Lichtenstein argued that Brisk has only a marginal concern with the latter; RK argued in turn that R. Hayyim and R. Velvel focused on textual concerns, and utilized the conceptual methodology – which is the heart of Brisk – in order to resolve textual difficulties, whereas the Rav took Brisker lomdut to its logical conclusion, by focusing the learning clearly and firmly on the primary, conceptual issues, relegating textual issues to secondary status. Based on the model of the lomdut circle, I would argue that both “early Brisk” and the
Rav ’s approach need to be formulated differently, and the difference between the two will thus be much less sharp. The lomdut circle is a model of interpretation, and inasmuch as Talmudic study always begins with the text and seeks to understand that text, it is correct to employ this interpretative model, rather than a model in which concepts become “primary” and texts become “secondary”. The circular model will explain the heavily conceptual focus of Brisk as a method of interpreting texts which focuses on the texts’ conceptual component. However, this model readily affords insight into the textual concerns and sensitivities displayed by Brisker lomdut: The conceptual sophistication of Brisk and their novel textual sensibilities in fact depend on one another and feed off one another. Recasting R. Hayyim and the Rav in order to fit them into the new mold I have presented, we can readily sense that the distinctions between them are likely to be more subtle than those suggested by RK. Indeed both of them ought to be, and are, concerned both with texts and with concepts, and neither of them can escape dealing with the one no matter how much they may focus on the other. We will develop this point in greater detail and more clearly in the following chapter.
iii. Modes of thought and modes of presentation
In order to analyze the goals and methods characteristic of the Rav and of R. Hayyim, RK offers a kind of “rhetorical” analysis of essays authored by these two figures. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first published attempt to analyze the rhetorical flow of Brisker discussions, and – like all pioneering attempts – it provides many new perspectives and much food for thought, but also raises a host of methodological issues. Focusing on two central texts, Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim ha-Levi and Shi’urim le-Zekher Abba Mari (henceforth: szam), RK differentiates between the founder of Brisk and his illustrious grandson by raising the following rhetorical considerations: What kind of questions – and how many questions – open the discussion?
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
At what point does the discussion end – to what is it meant to lead? What kinds of proofs are brought for assertions and arguments? How are new concepts developed and applied to further cases? I don’t find all of RK’s arguments regarding these issues convincing, and there is room to debate many of his conclusions on a point by point basis12. However, I would like to focus my critique on a broader methodological issue, which in turn will divide into two lines of discussion. Rhetoric is the art of presenting one’s ideas, hence rhetorical analysis needs to take account of two elements: modes of thought and modes of presentation. Here too we encounter a circular process – undoubtedly the purpose of presentation is to express the thoughts and these, in turn, are accessible to the reader only through the mode of presentation. However, while intertwined and interdependent, these two aspects of a lecture or a text, are yet differentiable. In presenting one’s thoughts to an audience, the skillful lecturer or writer – and the scholars of Brisk were highly skillful – will take into account the nature of his audience, the nature of the forum in which the ideas are presented, as well as an assortment of educational goals; all of these are separable (at least to an extent) from the flow of ideas as they were developed by the scholar in isolation. Again, due to the symbiotic nature of these two modes, they cannot be analyzed in isolation from one another, but one or another element will predominate in different kinds of analysis. I would submit that, in order to understand the Brisker derekh (or any other derekh ha-limmud), the modes of thought should be our main focus: We should be mainly interested in how the practitioners of Brisker lomdut thought through a sugya, and the rhetorical concerns which impact on these thoughts were presented to different kinds of audiences should be seen as a background concern. However, in order to “isolate” the modes of thought from the modes of presentation, we need to be aware of rhetorical aspects of the presentation, in order to differentiate these from the essential thought modes. Let me illustrate these points by applying them to a point that
I find problematic in RK’s argument: his selection of szam as basis for his analysis. RK argues that “these two volumes were the first and almost the only books to be published with the Rav ’s explicit consent and under his direction,”13 but nonetheless he anticipates possible criticism: It is possible that I will be criticized for my exaggerated reliance on these discourses, it being argued that the Rav ’s regular shi’urim were different. While a difference may exist, I do not accept this critique. To the best of my knowledge and experience, the “materials” we have focused upon do in fact establish the basic tendencies that animate the Rav ’s lomdut, the spirit of which hovers over all his teachings…The main difference between the two types of shi’urim relates to the diligence with which he would construct “entire topics…”14 However “the diligence with which he would construct ‘entire topics’” is exactly the point which RK seeks to establish! Nor is this an isolated difference between szam and other shi’urim of the Rav, as I shall shortly demonstrate. Indeed it is only to be expected that szam would differ in its rhetorical structure from most shi’urim of the Rav, given the unique forum in which it was given: a mass audience, before whom a single annual lecture would be delivered, as opposed to the bulk of his shi’urim, which were delivered before his students, with whom he met on a regular basis for consecutive study of a single body of text. It is no wonder that such a lecture would focus much more heavily on concept than on text, and many of the rhetorical features that RK builds upon may be traced directly to that. Were we to have a series of public yahrzeit lectures delivered by R. Hayyim or R. Velvel or R. Moshe, then we might have more of a basis of comparison between them and the Rav. Yet even then we would have to take account of the difference between the kind of mass audience that would attend a yahrzeit shi’ur of R. Hayyim in Volozhin or Brisk and the kind of mass audience that attended the Rav ’s yahrzeit shi’urim.15 All of these concerns impact on the kinds of conclusions we may draw from analyzing the differences in rhetorical structure between the Rav ’s yahrzeit shi’urim and R.
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
Hayyim’s hiddushim: do these reflect differences in the style of learning (modes of thought) or differences in modes of presentation to two different audiences in two different milieus? We may illustrate the difference between the Rav ’s yahrzeit shi’urim and his shi’urim on the daf by noting another unique aspect of the material in szam. In most of the shi’urim in szam, the Rav goes beyond the bounds of strict formalistic Halakhah and develops ideas of a spiritual nature. For example: “Sometimes the Holy One, blessed be He, invites man to His home…and man is God’s guest…Other times the Holy One, blessed be He, who fills all the worlds and encompasses all the worlds, descends from His heavenly abode, responds to the prayers of man, and rests the Divine Presence in the house of man.”16 “Only in the land of Israel does rain or its absence represent an expression of love or a hiding of the Divine Face. Outside Israel, lack of rain is no more meaningful than any other calamity…Rain in the land of Israel is not only a vital need, but a wondrous symbol of God’s close relationship with his nation…”17 Passages like these, developing profound spiritual-experiential ideas out of incisive halakhic-conceptual analyses, abound in szam18 and in other shi’urim associated with special occasions (shi’urim on repentance and on the haggadah, shi’urim to his daily students prior to holidays), but we would search for them in vain in the Rav ’s daily Talmud shi’urim or in his other halakhic writings. Not that the Rav would avoid aggadic topics in his daily shi’urim – the Rav would address such issues when the Talmudic passages would present them, and indeed the Rav, more than Talmudic scholars who preceded him, concerned himself with areas of Halakhah of a clear spiritualexperiential nature, such as prayer and mourning.19 However, in his shi’urim “on the daf,” spiritual ideas were expressed in formalistic Brisker terminology (albeit expanded to include topics not normally addressed by previous Brisker scholars), in a style devoid of lyrical forays into the experiential realm. For example: in discussing the halakhic basis for separating the High Priest for seven days prior to Yom Kippur, the Rav discusses the concept of preparing for stand-
ing before God, without attempting to convey the excitement and drama of the encounter, as he would have done in his philosophical writings or in szam.20 The difference between the contents and style of szam and those of the Rav ’s halakhic shi’urim is rooted in conscious rhetorical and educational decisions by a master educator. The daily shi’urim were given to full-time students of the Rav, and focused on the text, on the concepts emerging from the text, and on the methodology which the Rav was practicing and teaching. The yahrzeit shi’urim were single virtuoso performances, designed to present Brisker lomdut in a manner which would be comprehensible and inspiring to a massive and diversified audience.21 The mode of presentation impacts upon the content and style of the shi’ur; doubtless, the mode of thought, bound up as it is with the mode of presentation, is also affected. While the unity of the Rav ’s method of learning predominates, the differences of style and nuance between different frameworks of study cannot be ignored. Careful study of szam will certainly afford important insights into the Rav ’s method of learning, but conclusions based upon the rhetorical structure of these shi’urim are likely to be overstated, and even misleading.
iv. Textual and conceptual in R. Hayyim and the Rav
Analysis of other writings by the Rav and by his predecessors needs to be informed by awareness of the role of “modes of presentation” in determining rhetorical structure. Thus before we derive conclusions from the kinds of questions or the kinds of arguments presented in a given shi’ur, we need to consider the social setting in which the shi’ur was given or written. Inasmuch as the goals of the teacher or writer are educational and rhetorical, as well as intellectual, we need to ponder the extent to which the line of argumentation is influenced by each of these considerations.22 Let us consider, for example, RK’s comments regarding the tendentious editing of Rabbi M.Z. Shurkin in Harerei Kedem.23 Regarding Harerei Kedem (vol. 1), no. 3, RK finds that the textual
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
question – why does the Rambam write “in his youth” rather than “even in his youth”, as in the Shulhan Arukh – is not a genuine textual problem, and was inserted by the editor in order to tailor the Rav ’s shi’ur to the textual focus prevalent in the Torah world for whom R. Shurkin is writing. RK argues that the language “it is slightly difficult” indicates that the editor is aware that the Rambam is merely citing the language of the Gemara, and there is no authentic textual difficulty. However, the continuation of the shi’ur, where the Rav explains the dispute between the Rambam and the Shulhan Arukh, based on the presence or absence of the word “even” clearly indicates that the Rav does attach importance to this textual point. Moreover, terms such as “slightly difficult” appear several times in the Rav ’s published shi’urim24 – perhaps precisely to signal that the Rav is asking a different kind of textual question than is usual in the Torah world! One may indeed ponder whether, and to what extent, these textual issues served as the point of departure for the Rav ’s analysis, as opposed to a textual peg on which to hang his conceptualization. This, in turn, illustrates my main point – noting which issue or which question opens an analysis is not, in itself, a sufficient basis for reconstructing the main lines of the thinking process. RK further compares Harerei Kedem (vol. 1), no. 73 with a parallel discussion in Kuntres be-Inyan Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim, pp. 73 ff. In Kuntres, the shi’ur opens with a “conceptual mapping” question, absent from Harerei Kedem, which opens rather with a with a difficulty raised by Lehem Mishneh in reconciling the Rambam with the Gemara. RK explains this difference, as well as others, as R. Shurkin’s rearrangement of the shi’ur in an attempt to demonstrate to a textually-oriented haredi audience the textual benefits offered by the Rav ’s conceptualism. However, the differences between the presentations may be explained differently, based on a fundamental difference between the format of the two books. The Kuntres is a series of shi’urim “on the daf” of massekhet Yoma, and hence may be expected to expand upon conceptual issues arising from the Gemara and their ramifications in discussions of different Rishonim. Harerei Kedem, on the other hand, is a book of novellae, clustered around different festivals, and hence may be expected to summarize the main
line of the discussion and focus it on a few salient points – in this case, resolving a difficulty in the Rambam. To strengthen this point, let us note that Hiddushei ha-Gram ve-ha-Grid contains a discussion of the same issue, and follows the line of thought presented in Harerei Kedem. Thus when the Rav wrote novellae, as in Hiddushei ha-Gram ve-ha-Grid, his mode of presentation follows lines similar to those followed by R. Shurkin.25 However, I would like to raise a more basic issue: Does the fact that a hakirah opens a shi’ur automatically indicate that the underlying thinking is conceptual rather than textual? Oftentimes a hakirah arises from points indicated by textual aspects of the sugya, rather than by pure conceptual logic – indeed on more than one occasion the Rav remarked that he never would have raised a given hakirah at the outset of a shi’ur, had he not been aware of Rishonim who had adopted an approach that he found counterintuitive.26 To my mind, this would indeed seem to be the case in the shi’ur in Kuntres which we are discussing,27 and this illustrates the lomdut circle, as well as its connection to the nexus of modes of thought and modes of presentation: hakirot are not pure logical constructs, but rather grow out of a combination of textually-based knowledge and conceptual acumen. When the lamdan presents his thoughts to an audience, there would be no inaccuracy either in opening with abstract concepts or in opening with textual discussion, and his choice of one or the other is likely to be governed as much by rhetorical-educational concerns as by intellectual accuracy. Careful analysis of the rhetorical structures of the Rav ’s Torah may indeed enable us to uncover the distinctive emphases and concerns of his lomdut, but this must be based on more refined techniques than RK has provided. Turning to R. Hayyim, we discover a similar problem with RK’s methodology. RK assumes – pace Rav Lichtenstein – that careful study of the characteristic structure of R. Hayyim’s writings may reveal to us the true nature of his goals and methods. I share this conviction, but again insist that the tools must be more refined, taking full account of the lomdut circle, as well as the circular connection between thought and presentation. My analysis of several shi’urim in R. Hayyim’s book on the Rambam reveals that ques-
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
tions are not raised according to the dictates of a text, nor are the answers suggested in the order that they would arise in the course of a textually-based analysis. Rather, the shi’urim are carefully-crafted structures, in which an idea is built step-by-step; each question and each suggested answer is brought at the point where it advances the basic conceptual goal of the shi’ur.28 Thus, although RK has correctly perceived the centrality of textual problems and resolutions in R. Hayyim’s presentations, there is reason to believe that this reflects his mode of presentation more than his mode of thought. This dovetails well with descriptions of R. Hayyim’s oral shi’urim and of his interactions with his students, which indicate that the hakirah and the concept served as the goal and compass of his teaching.29 Can one determine unequivocally whether R. Hayyim sought to resolve textual difficulties and used the conceptual method as a means, or whether he sought to define concepts and used textual difficulties as a means? I would submit that this question is at best difficult to resolve, and that the likeliest answer is – both. In short – the lomdut circle.
Even after my critique on RK’s methodological assumptions, I believe that his key insight remains intact, although in a moderated fashion. As my own experience as a student of the Rav ’s will confirm, the Rav often – in contradistinction to his predecessors – would focus on understanding the Rambam conceptually and would neglect resolving the Rambam with the Gemara. As different as szam is from the Rav ’s halakhic writings, they do nonetheless have much in common; as for R. Hayyim, even after taking into account the rhetorical purpose of many of the textual difficulties he raises, nevertheless we cannot ignore the insistent preoccupation with making sure that no difficulties remain in understanding the text, so noticeably absent in the Rav ’s lomdut. Hence, although I have argued that neither the Rav nor R. Hayyim completely subordinate one of the aspects of the lomdut circle to the other, I do concur that there are differences of emphasis and scope, as well as of style, between the two. My more nuanced understanding of the divergences between
these two key figures of the Brisker school leads me to question RK’s analysis of the reason for the change. RK suggests that the Rav simply followed R. Hayyim’s revolution to its logical conclusion: after R. Hayyim demonstrated the centrality of conceptual analysis to Torah study, albeit as a tool for handling the textual concerns traditionally addressed by Talmudists, the Rav perceived that conceptualization can and should be treated as a subject – indeed the subject – for study in its own right. There is logic, and perhaps a degree of truth, in this explanation, but again I would argue that there were other factors that played a role in this development. R. Hayyim and the Rav operated in very different intellectual, social, and religious environments. In R. Hayyim’s milieu, there was little room for any intellectual pursuit other than the nuances of every line of Gemara and its commentaries, Tosafot and the Rambam, R. Akiva Eiger, the Sha’agat Aryeh, and the Ketzot. Within such an environment a trail-blazing Talmudist such as R. Hayyim would naturally orient his thinking and teaching towards the ways in which his novel methods could resolve the textual issues so central to his cultural surroundings. Regardless of whether a hakirah or a sevarah originally emerged in R. Hayyim’s mind from a priori conceptualization or from grappling with a textual issue, R. Hayyim’s milieu, as well as his target audience, would ensure that textual difficulties would feature prominently in his discussion, both as point of departure and as point of destination. The Rav of course taught the Brisker methodology within a modern pluralistic environment. To be sure, his students were accomplished Talmudists, but their intellectual horizons were not confined to subtleties of the Talmudic text. Nor were his own. Much of the Rav ’s ouevre attests to his keen awareness of the need to translate30 the message of Halakhah into the idiom of modern man, and it is easy to see how focusing lomdut on the concept rather than the text might play a significant role in facilitating this translation. The Rav ’s trailblazing methodological/philosophical discussions of the foundations of Brisker lomdut may readily be attributed to his project of cultural translation, and it is arguable that these concerns impacted on his method of learning and on his style of teaching.31
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
Moreover, the Rav, as communal rabbi and communal leader in midtwentieth century America, often served as spokesman for Jewish law and culture before secular and gentile authorities. Many of the Rav ’s recently-published letters32 attest to the Rav ’s outstanding ability to translate sophisticated halakhic concepts into a language that even non-Jews could understand and appreciate, and this of course required a heavy focus on the concepts – marked with the Rav ’s distinctive intellectual stamp – rather than on texts. Attention to the impact of the cultural and spiritual environment upon Brisker lomdut may further help elucidate another question which concerned RK and other writers. RK cites an argument between Rav Lichtenstein and his son Rav Moshe Licthenstein, regarding the focus of Brisker lomdut on questions of “what,” namely issues of delineation and definition, as opposed to “why” questions, dealing with the underlying roots and reasons for halakhic phenomena. Elsewhere I have argued that the difference between these formulations is largely semantic, and that indeed both formulations may be found in several places in the Rav ’s own writings.33 My concern here is to suggest that the roots of both formulations may lie in an unresolved tension at the heart of the Rav ’s learning. No one would disagree that the Brisker method always seeks to understand, and not only to classify, and it is equally clear that Brisk is not interested in finding teleological reasons for halakhot.34 However the boundary between “understanding” and “teleology” is not ironclad, and the question arises: Is it indeed possible to lay bare the conceptual roots of a halakhah by using definitional and classificatory forms of reasoning, without impinging on the teleological? The issue, indeed, is one of the nature of “understanding,” and the Rav ’s oeuvre provides two models of understanding. The Rav often – and especially in his philosophical writings and in szam – sought the experiential aspect or the spiritual-axiological meanings underlying the halakhot. However, no less frequently – and especially in his standard shi’urim in Gemara and Halakhah – the Rav sought no more than conceptual mapping. I believe that both of these models of understanding reflect different wellsprings of the Rav ’s halakhic thinking.35 The Brisker approach to learning
was deeply influenced by the inroads of Haskalah, and by the need felt by leading figures in the yeshivot in Eastern Europe to offer budding Torah scholars an intellectually attractive alternative to secular disciplines, and especially to the exact sciences. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, schools of thought arose in several fields in the humanities and the social sciences, which sought to emulate the success of the natural sciences by asserting the disciplinary autonomy and unique methodology of each field.36 Similarly, Brisker lomdut sought to emulate the success achieved in natural science by focusing, like the sciences, on “what” questions, rather than “why” questions.37 Far more aware than his predecessors of the methodology of natural science, the Rav continued their tradition of shaping the autonomous discipline of lomdut by rejecting teleological “why” questions in favor of the “what” questions conducive to conceptual mapping. However, the Rav ’s response to the spiritual challenges of the twentieth century included spiritual and experiential elements, which could be rooted only, in his view, in the realm of halakhic thought and lomdut. The Rav ’s unprecedented concern with experiential realms of Halakhah and his unique amalgam of lomdut and spirituality stem from his response to challenges not addressed by his Brisker forbears. As in many other aspects of the Rav ’s thought, two approaches dwell side by side, each finding expression on different occasions. The Rav ’s complex attitude towards “what” and “why” questions cannot, in my view, be fully understood by means of the internal dynamics of Brisker lomdut alone, but rather requires analysis in light of the cultural factors and socio-educational concerns that impacted on the different generations of the Brisker dynasty.
vi. Invisibility of textual concerns in the rav’s thought
RK’s claim that the Rav significantly modified the nature and aims of Brisker lomdut quite naturally raises the question, why and how the Rav (as well as Rav Lichtenstein) believed that his method of study accurately reflected the tradition begun by R. Hayyim. RK’s response to this issue is not my current concern, insofar as I have
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
argued that the relationship of text to concept is more complicated, both in the Rav and in R. Hayyim, than that traced by RK, and that such changes as occurred were influenced by educational concerns. However, my claim that textual concerns play an important role in Brisker lomdut raises a further vexing question: Why did the Rav, in all his extensive and incisive expositions of Brisker methodology, focus single-mindedly on the conceptual and ignore the textual? The obvious answer is that the main innovation of Brisker lomdut was understood, both by practitioners and by the public at large, as located on the conceptual plane, and in no way should any of my arguments in this article be construed as demurring from this consensus. I have argued that Brisk is characterized as well by distinctive methods of reading Talmudic texts; however, there is no doubt that these innovative textual readings emerged from the conceptual breakthrough at the heart of the Brisker methodology. In addition to this answer, I would suggest a further consideration. The Rav ’s thinking was shaped at a time when the prestige of scientific thinking was at its height, whereas textual hermeneutics had not yet attained the centrality to which it rose in the latter half of the twentieth century. In his efforts to demonstrate the intellectual rigor and power of Torah learning, the Rav would naturally tend to depict lomdut in terms akin to the sciences.38 The incontrovertible centrality of conceptualization in Brisker lomdut facilitated the Rav ’s portrayal of lomdut as building a conceptual model which could then be measured against and applied to the raw halakhic data. Despite the brilliance and depth of the Rav ’s depictions of the Brisker methodology, I have attempted to demonstrate that his portrayal is incomplete. In doing so, I am influenced by the contemporary intellectual climate, in which awareness of textual and interpretative tools plays a central role. Responsiveness to this cultural milieu opens up new perspectives, in which we may perceive aspects of Brisker lomdut which have not previously been given proper emphasis. The lomdut circle enables us to combine the Rav ’s insights regarding the Brisker method with heretofore-neglected textual aspects, in order to afford us a clearer and more complete picture of this method of learning.
Even though the Brisker method is usually noted for its analyticconceptual innovations, its contributions to textual interpretation should not be overlooked. The method of “two dinim” often enables the interpretation of two seemingly parallel sources each on its own terms, without imposing upon one or the other concepts drawn from other places. The Rav deployed highly-developed textual-exegetical tools, and suggested many novel insights based on original and profound textual readings. The claim that the conceptual innovation gave rise to the textual insight is not plausible in many of these instances; hence it is difficult to maintain the differentiation between “primary” and “secondary” questions, which lies at the heart of RK’s article. Based on the “hermeneutic circle,” we may suggest replacing the “primary / secondary” model with the model of a “lomdut circle,” in which conceptualization and close textual reading can never be divorced from one another. Hence the differences between R. Hayyim and the Rav cannot be as sharp and dramatic as RK has suggested. RK’s analysis of R. Hayyim’s and the Rav ’s shi’urim failed to take account of a central methodological factor: The difference between modes of thought and modes of presentation. Factoring this point into the analysis, we arrived at the following conclusions: RK’s focus on szam ignores the essential differences between this work and other halakhic writings of the Rav. The conceptual focus of these shi’urim is related to the framework in which they were given, and other works of the Rav display significantly different features. Close analysis of R. Hayyim’s shi’urim reveals that, despite the apparent highlighting of resolving textual difficulties, the deep structure of many shi’urim reveals a different goal: the deployment of textual issues in order to demonstrate the power and utility of the conceptual method. In the Rav ’s shi’urim, placing a conceptual hakirah at the beginning of a discussion need not indicate that the hakirah methodologically precedes grappling with the text, and it may indicate a pedagogical or rhetorical structure, rather than a mode of thought.
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
Conclusion: The interweaving of text and concept, of modes of thought with modes of presentation, render a clear demarcation between primary and secondary issues untenable. Nevertheless there do seem to be different emphases and nuances in R. Hayyim’s and the Rav ’s methods of learning. I do not believe, however, that these differences stem from a kind of built-in logical development, but rather are rooted in socio-cultural considerations. In the talmudo-centric culture of R. Hayyim, a Talmudist will naturally make his mark by demonstrating the textual ramifications of his method of learning, even if his own proclivities lie in the conceptual arena. In an environment, however, where the Talmudic text competed with other intellectual pursuits, the Rav sensed that the success of lomdut was rooted in its conceptual power, even if his own learning devoted significant attention to the text. The Rav ’s single-minded focus on the conceptual aspects of the Brisker method may be explained both by the popular perception of the nature of the method, as well as by the Rav ’s deep appreciation of the role of “conceptual mapping” in the successes of modern science. The heightened awareness of hermeneutical considerations characteristic of our generation may afford us a more complete and more balanced picture of the role of the text in the lomdut of Brisk in general and of the Rav in particular.
This essay is an abridged translation (with a few minor additions) from “Ha-Shitah ha-Briska’it ve-ha-Kri’ah ha-Tzemudah – Teguvah le-Ma’amaro shel ha-Rav Elyakim Krumbein,” Netuim 11–12 (Ellul 5764): 95–137 (henceforth: Ha-Shitah). 1. Rav Meir Lichtenstein remarked to me that, while analyzing extensively the writings of R. Hayyim and of R. Velvel (the Griz), it is curious that RK omitted analysis of the writings of R. Moshe Soloveitchik, the Rav ’s father. In his view, Rav Moshe is largely responsible for the shift that RK attributes to the Rav.
2. Compare S. Wald, “Le-Derekh Shimusho shel ha-Rif bi-Mekorot ha-Talmud ha-Bavli,” Shenaton HaMishpat HaIvri 18–19 (5752–5755): 205, who argues that, whereas Tosafot strive to harmonize sugyot, the Rif allows them to speak for themselves. I would add that, whereas the Rif allows contradictions to stand, Brisk attempts – often following the Rambam – to resolve the contradictions without undermining the peshat.
3. A thinker who has argued this point at length is Hans Georg Gadamer. 4. Stanley Boylan, “Learning With the Rav, Learning From the Rav,” Tradition 30:4 (1996): 140 (cf. M. Genack, ed., Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halakha, Man of Faith, (Hoboken, n.j.: Ktav, 1998), 172.) Several other sources report similar impressions both of Brisk in general and of the Rav in particular, and it is noteworthy that a leading non-Brisker conceptualist, Rav Shimon Shkop was renowned for his unique dedication to understanding peshat. See sources collected in Ha-Shitah, 98–97 n. 6. 5. Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim ha-Levi, Hilkhot Shabbat 10:17. 6. Iggerot ha-Grid ha-Levi, Hilkhot Kelim 17:5–7. See Ha-Shitah, 124–125, for full discussion of these examples and for further examples. 7. Reshimot Shi’urim she-Ne’emru Al-Yedei Maran Rabbeinu Yosef Dov ha-Levi Soloveitchik, edited by Zvi Y. Reichman (New York: 5749), 7. 8. Iggerot ha-Grid ha-Levi, p. 37. 9. szam, vol. 2, 164–181. See discussion of these and other examples in Ha-Shitah, 125–127. 10. Well-known critics of Brisker willingness to set aside the peshat include Hazon Ish and R. Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg and see introduction to third part of Even ha-Ezel. Rav Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, vol. 1 (Jersey City, n.j.: Ktav, 2003), 36–37, notes the phenomenon and defends it, albeit with palpable misgivings. 11. Reshimot Shi’urim she-Ne’emru Al-Yedei Maran ha-Rav Yosef Dov ha-Levi Soloveitchik – Bava Kamma, edited by Zvi Y. Reichman (New York: 5760), 3. 12. I have briefly indicated some of the directions which need to be pursued in HaShitah, 106. 13. RK’s article, text adjacent to n. 39. 14. RK’s article, text adjacent to n. 71. 15. To be sure, many of the participants in the yahrzeit shi’urim were talmidei hakhamim, and many were the Rav ’s own disciples. Nor did the Rav lower the level to accommodate those participants who might have been less knowledgeable. But he most certainly did modify the content and focus to address the multifaceted nature of his audience (see below, n. 21), and I would argue that he also took account of significant differences between American-trained talmidei hakhamim and the kind of scholar who predominated in his Lithuanian birthplace. Whereas the world of shas and Rishonim would fill the intellectual horizons of the latter, the former would combine their Talmudic learning with intellectual interests in other areas. Compare the Rav ’s own analysis of the different educational needs of his American rabbinic students and those of the Lithuanian yeshivot in Community, Covenant, and Commitment (see below n. 32), 95 ff. 16. szam, vol. 1, 66. RK (text adjacent to n. 66) discusses this passage, as an example of the distinctive approach of the Rav, but does not note that passages such as this do not appear elsewhere in the Rav ’s halakhic writings. 17. Ibid., 196–197. 18. See further examples in Ha-Shitah, 128–129.
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
19. This has often been noted by the Rav ’s disciples, starting with Rav Lichtenstein, “Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik,” in Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, edited by S. Noveck (Washington: B’nai B’rith Book Service, 1963), 294–297; and see further sources in Ha-Shitah, 109 n. 39. 20. Kuntres be-Inyan Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim, 7; and compare ibid., 51, as well as further sources collected in Ha-Shitah, 109–110 n. 40. See further discussion and further example in Ha-Shitah, 129. Elsewhere I have analyzed the methodological, philosophical, and spiritual roots of the differences between the Rav ’s formalistic treatment of spiritual concepts in his usual Talmudic study and the lyrical, experiential treatment in his more aggadic and philosophical studies. 21. R. Ziegler documents the Rav ’s decision, at the advice of his wife, to orient the yahrzeit shi’urim to halakhic topics accessible to the educated layman; see his, “Introduction to the Rav ’s Life and Thought,” in A Study and Program Guide to the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Boston: 2003), 25. See further Rav A. Lichtenstein, “The Rav at Jubilee: An Appreciation,” Tradition 30:4 (1996): 52–55, and especially p. 53: “I vividly recall how one year, several decades back (!), he began to prepare a Yahrtseit shi’ur to deal with kinyan hatser, but then dropped the idea out of concern that the infrastructure might not be sufficiently familiar to many in the audience.” Also see my comments in Ha-Shitah, 110 n. 43. 22. A leading and pioneering exponent of rhetorical analysis of halakhic sources is the Rav ’s son, R. Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, whom I thank for having exposed me to this important intellectual tool. 23. RK, n. 87. For detailed discussion of this example, see Ha-Shitah, pp. 130–132. 24. See examples in Ha-Shitah, 112. One example is from the opening of a shi’ur in szam. 25. RK is aware of the parallel to Hiddushei ha-Gram ve-ha-Grid, but explains it diachronically: The Rav ’s early style, in his joint work with his father, was still dominated by classical Brisker patterns, whereas the Kuntres reflects the distinctive style of the Rav ’s maturity. I see no reason to prefer this to my synchronic explanation. 26. See examples in Ha-Shitah, 113 and n. 49 there. 27. My reasons for this understanding are explained in Ha-Shitah, 131–132. 28. See examples 1 and 2 in Ha-Shitah, 132–136. Compare the observation of R.S.Y. Zevin, Ishim ve-Shitot (Jerusalem), 66, and see explanations of some of R. Hayyim’s standard keywords in R. M. M. Garelitz, Mavo le-Hiddushei ha-Grah ha-Shalem al ha-Shas – Bava Metzi’a (Jerusalem: 5755), 15 n. 17. Some of the shi’urim of R. Hayyim do seem to be governed by the logic of textual difficulties; see example 3 in Ha-Shitah, 136–137, and see suggested explanation there. 29. See, for example, Y.L. Don-Yihyeh, “Bi-Yeshivat Volozhin,” in Yeshivot Lita – Pirkei Zikhronot, E. Etkes and S. Tykochinsky eds., (Jerusalem: 2004), 155, who describes R. Hayyim testing students by posing a hakirah and having students support each side of the hakirah from the Gemara. See further the description of R. Hayyim’s usual method of teaching before and during his shi’ur in Garelitz (supra, n. 28), 8–9, and see my discussion in Ha-Shitah, 116.
30. I am borrowing the term “translate” from the Rav in “Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition (1965): 59 ff., where the Rav discussed the degree to which the man of faith is able to “translate” his religious message into the language of majestic man. Compare Rav Lichtenstein’s comments on the Rav as meturgeman in “The Rav at Jubilee” (supra, n. 21), 53–54. 31. Rav Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, 57 notes that R. Hayyim didn’t need to “sell” Torah, as opposed to educators today. Although the Rav ’s students certainly were not characterized by the “flagging interest in Gemara” displayed by the contemporary dati-leumi students of whom Rav Lichtenstein wrote, I would submit that the Rav addressed an educational issue similar in kind, if not it degree. Indeed Rav Lichtenstein himself, in “Kakh Hi Darkhah Shel Torat ha-Rav – Le-Derekh Limudo Shel ha-Grid Soloveitchik,” Alon Shevut Bogrim 2 (1994): 116–117, suggests that the Rav ’s teaching was influenced to a degree by his intellectual and spiritual surroundings. I heartily agree with Rav Lichtenstein that these are not external socio-historical influences, but rather “as a spark, an idea which perhaps originally flashed elsewhere, but whose products and consequences are rooted entirely in the world of Halakhah;” nonetheless the influence may run deeper than suggested by Rav Lichtenstein’s cautious observations. There may be some merit to Dr. Avinoam Rosenak’s suggestion that the Rav ’s lomdut was influenced by neo-Kantian conceptions, and see his article, “Philosophia u-Mahshevet ha-Halakhah – Kri’ah be-Shi’urei ha-Talmud shel ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik le-Or Modelim Neo-Kantiani’im,” in Emunah bi-Zemanim Mishtanim, edited by A. Sagi (Jerusalem: 5757); however, Rosenak’s methodology is flawed, and I believe his thesis to be highly overstated at best. 32. Community, Covenant and Commitment – Selected Letters and Communications (Jersey City: Ktav, 2005). 33. See citations in my (unpublished) article, “Hermeneutikat ha-Galuy ve-ha-Nistar be-Mishnat ha-Gridas” (henceforth: Hermeneutika), n. 102. Rav Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, 56–57, similarly distinguishes between a legal “why,” lying at the heart of the Brisker enterprise, and a philosophical “why,” which is not an organic part of lomdut. See example and discussion in Ha-Shitah, 119 n. 63. 34. The Rav frequently rejected attempts to find psychological, sociological, or metaphysical reasons for halakhot, and see discussion in Hermeneutika. In addition to the reasons suggested below for this rejection, we may note a theological concern, that the job of the human lamdan is to understand what God has willed, not to presume to understand why He has willed it. See Hermeneutika for discussion of the religious and spiritual ramifications of this postulate. 35. Again, I am not suggesting that the depth and breadth of the Rav ’s thought may be “explained” in reductionist fashion by socio-educational factors, but rather that these concerns impacted upon his thinking, and helped to shape it. As central as I believe these factors to be in shaping his thought, the thought itself is sui generis, marked by the distinctive power of the Rav ’s personality and genius. 36. See J. Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory (New York and London: Columbia
The Brisker Method and Close Reading
University Press, 1995), 29–30, who documents the search for disciplinary autonomy in several fields, and critiques it, noting the important contributions to science of interdisciplinary research. Compare Rav Lichtenstein’s reservations regarding the notion of autonomy in lomdut in Leaves of Faith, 53. 37. This notion is stressed several times in the Rav ’s writings, and see sources cited in Hermeneutika, where I also note similarities and differences between the Rav and Rav M.A. Amiel regarding this issue. 38. See, for example, the Rav ’s recently published letter, “On the Nature of the Halakhah”, in Community, Covenant and Commitment (above, n. 32), where the Rav bases his portrayal of the nobility of halakhic research on the freedom of the Halakhah from raw data and external constraints, and the depiction of the Halakhah as a “creative gesture,” akin to mathematical analysis. On p. 275, the Rav claims: “Therefore, it is absurd to say that halakhic research consists in the study of texts. Instead, it is a creative performance. The text serves only as an auxiliary, as a frame of reference. The real Halakhah-noesis realizes itself through pure thought and ideation…” As I have argued in this paper, this portrayal of lomdut does not do justice to the Rav ’s own practice, and is heavily influenced by the Rav ’s perception of what kinds of intellectual discipline are respectable, attractive, and exciting for modern man.