Professor Lawrence Kaplan
McGill University, Montreal
Jonathan Garb recently took note of the revival in contemporary Israeli Haredi society of spiritualist practice and doctrine. While further research is required, there appear to be parallel signs of searching and creativity in the contemporary Israeli Religious Zionist community. One important manifestation of this spiritual and intellectual search and creativity is the development over the past two decades of new methods of teaching Talmud in Israeli Religious Zionist yeshivot. As my title indicates, I wish to focus on those Religious Zionist Rashei Yeshivah (yeshivah deans) and Ramim (talmudic lecturers) who have sought to integrate academic talmudic scholarship into their shi‘urim (talmudic lectures) and Batei Midrash (study houses), and the theological issues raised by this integration. But first some words of background.
All the new methods of teaching Talmud have developed against the backdrop of the hitherto and perhaps still dominant approach to teaching Talmud in Religious Zionist yeshivot, namely, the classical conceptual approach known informally as lomdus, or as the ‘Brisker’ approach after its founder, Rav Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853–1918), whose leading contemporary ideological exponent, advocate and practitioner is Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Har Etzion and generally viewed as the leading figure on today’s Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox scene.
This method is known for its ahistorical, highly abstract and formalistic nature, focusing on the conceptual foundations of talmudic law and eschewing the search for religious significance. Regarding the method’s abstract nature, Rav Lichtenstein writes: ‘The conceptual approach to learning … is overwhelmingly tilted towards fundamentals – above all, the most basic of intellectual chores: definition. Armed with sets of categories, the conceptualist strives… to grasp the essential character of a particular element and hence to classify it.’ Regarding its formalistic nature, Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, a son of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, writes that the Brisker method ‘effected a shift from the “why” to the “what”, and from the final cause to the efficient cause. No longer is it the task of the learner to ascertain why a certain Halakhah is as it is. … Rather … the goal of the analysis of the concrete phenomenon at hand is to understand what it is and how it works.’ As Rabbi Lichtenstein fils notes, in ‘the Brisker approach … [it is] the practical implications (nafka minas) that become the standard by which opinions (sevarot) can be examined, for positions are now held accountable for their halakhic manifestations in actual practice’.
What needs to be emphasized is that for the classical Brisker, once one has carried out the basic intellectual chore of definition through, say, exploring the competing definitions of the ‘what’ of a particular law – for example, the commandment to eat in a Sukkah on the first night of the festival – and has further examined the practical implication resulting from the different conceptual understandings of that commandment’s ‘what’, one’s task is over. No further inquiry is needed to ascertain how the conceptual debate regarding the ‘what’ of the commandment to eat in a Sukkah might illuminate its religious significance. Here the formalistic nature of the Brisker method comes to the fore. Against this backdrop, three new methods of Talmud study have emerged, all responding to the Religious Zionist spiritual quest referred to above: 1) a modified Brisker approach; 2) the Torat Erets Yisrael (‘Torah of the Land of Israel’) approach; and 3) what I would call the shiluv (‘combined’) approach, a term that implies forming a new and harmonious whole. What these three approaches have in common is the desire to retain the conceptual analysis of the Brisker approach, but to abandon its strict formalism and combine it with the search for religious meaning and significance (mashma‘ut).
The modified Brisker approach, set forth both by Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Michael Rosenzweig, one of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s most outstanding disciples, stresses the need to move from the traditional Brisker emphasis on the ‘what’, i.e., formalism, to raising the question of ‘why’, and to – I am citing here Rabbi Rosenzweig – ‘distil the values and themes that issue forth from the nuances of halakhic conceptual analysis into a broad religious outlook’. That is, to cite Rabbi Avi Walfish, one ‘translates halakhic concepts from the formalistic language prevalent in classic Talmudic discourse into language of value accessible and more relevant to … students’. The Torat Erets Yisrael approach, represented most prominently by Rav Yehoshua Weitzman, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Ma’alot, similarly seeks to combine traditional lomdus with the search for mashma‘ut, which it finds in the esoteric soul of the Torah that undergirds and gives life to the exoteric aspect. That is, unlike the modified Brisker approach, where mashma‘ut is understood to refer to rationally comprehensible, personal-existentialist themes and values, in the Torat Erets Yisrael approach, mashma‘ut is perceived in highly spiritual, indeed kabbalistic terms, and the relationship between the exoteric legal content of the talmudic text and its esoteric spiritual or kabbalistic significance often seems, at least to a non-initiate like myself, very tenuous indeed. Perhaps almost as important as what the modified Brisker and Torat Erets Yisrael approaches share in the positive sense – namely, the attempt to combine lomdus with the search for mashma‘ut, however differently that mashma‘ut may be understood – is what they share in the negative sense, namely, the deliberate avoidance of criticalhistorical lines of inquiry for the study of rabbinic literature, in particular any idea of the historical development of the halakhah.
In contrast to the modified Brisker and Torat Erets Yisrael approaches, the shiluv approach, whose most thoughtful and articulate representative was the late Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), has as its goal, to cite Rav Shagar, ‘the cleaving [to the divine] which reveals itself in the uncovering of the existential significance and meaning [mashma‘ut] of the sugya [unit of talmudic discourse], and the method it adopts is that of uncovering this meaning through joining together [shiluv] the tools of traditional conceptual analysis, lomdus, and those of [historical-critical] scholarship [keilim lamdaniyyim vemehkarriyim]’. This integration of academic historical-critical scholarship into the world of the yeshivah is especially exemplified in the adoption of a diachronic approach to the halakhah. Thus, to take a particularly striking example, both Rabbis David Bigman and Yaakov Nagen, two eminent exponents of the shiluv approach, in their talmudic shi‘urim on sugyot dealing with tort law, have sought to show how a diachronic examination of the chronological layers of the relevant rabbinic literature reveals that the rabbis’ legal approach to the issues in question underwent over the course of time – and here both Rabbis Bigman and Nagen independently used the same phrase – ‘a complete revolution’ (mahapakh gamur).
However, as the above examples show, the shiluv approach of integrating academic historical-critical scholarship with its diachronic approach into Israeli Religious Zionist Yeshivot raises the spectre of the historical development of the halakhah, challenging its authority as a divinely revealed system of Law. To be sure, the issue of halakhic development and the theological challenges it raises go back to Zechariah Frankel and were taken up more recently by Louis Jacobs, but these have now expanded beyond the world of the university or modern rabbinical seminary to the traditional yeshivah.
Perhaps the key theological challenge is that the diachronic approach is liable to undercut the continuity of rabbinic literature. There are three ways this undercutting can take place, although I will focus on the third.
First, the diachronic approach reveals that the meaning that a later layer of rabbinic literature, say, the stama de-Talmuda, the latest anonymous stratum of the Babylonian Talmud, ascribes to an earlier layer of rabbinic literature, say to a statement of a Babylonian Amora, often does not correspond to its original meaning. Here the shiluv approach, while conceding, indeed stressing this point, would view, to use our example, the author of the stam as a creative expositor of the view of the earlier Amora, deliberately reshaping and developing that view in accordance with his own understanding of the relevant issues. This approach is set against the critical approach of the noted talmudic scholar, Professor David Weiss Halivni, who argues that the shift in meaning from an earlier layer of rabbinic literature to a later one often results from the later layer’s failure to understand the intent of the earlier one. Rav Shagar explicitly rules out Professor Weiss Halivni’s approach as ‘shattering the continuity of the tradition’.
Second, much modern historical scholarship maintains that the medieval rabbinic authorities (Rishonim), under the pressure of changed social and historical conditions, simply ignored or misread or twisted the relevant talmudic sugyot in order to arrive at a satisfactory solution to the practical problems confronting them. As opposed to this view, Rav Shagar argues that the very pressure of changed conditions led the Rishonim to discover genuine interpretive possibilities in the relevant sugyot that allowed them, without any distortion or misreading, to solve problems raised by the new conditions. Rabbi Elisha Anscelovits, another eminent exponent of the shiluv approach, takes a different tack. He suggests that while the Rishonim did, in fact, often change the form of the law, ‘it was in order to best apply all the original concerns [of the law] under the changed circumstances’.
Third, the threat the diachronic approach poses to the continuity of rabbinic literature is especially aggravated by its being combined with the search for significance advocated by the shiluv approach, for precisely this combination seems to imply that the development of rabbinic law was fuelled by shifts or even revolutions in values among rabbinic Sages. But can Orthodox Rashei Yeshivah admit that shifts in values occurred among the Sages; and if these did occur, how to account for it?
Rav Shagar indeed admits that such shifts occurred. For example, he argues that a diachronic approach to the halakhic literature dealing with marriage indicates a shift from viewing marriage as kinyan (‘acquisition’) to interpreting it as kiddushin (‘sanctification’). In response to the objection that such an approach undermines the authority of halakhah as a divinely revealed system of Law, Rav Shagar, drawing on the teachings of Rav Kook, and even at one point referring to Hegel, maintains that this very evolution of values is part of an on-going process of divine revelation, or, as he states elsewhere, represents the absolute divine will as it manifests itself in the unfolding of both the history and the Torah of the Jewish people.
Most representatives of the shiluv approach, however, for example Rabbis Anscelovits, Walfish and Meir Lichtenstein (another son of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein), reject Rav Shagar’s approach either explicitly or tacitly, first, on theological grounds, believing it to be too close for comfort to the positive–historical approach of Rabbis Frankel and Jacobs; second, on pedagogical grounds, believing it will not inspire students in their spiritual search; and third, on scholarly grounds, believing it does not do justice to the complexity of the rabbinic texts themselves. Rabbi Anscelovits, as we saw, maintains that while there may be changes in the form of the law, ‘it [is] in order to best apply all the original concerns [of the law] under the changed circumstances’. Rabbi Walfish argues that a close examination of the halakhic literature dealing with marriage indicates that Rav Shagar’s diachronic view must be rejected on scholarly grounds. Rather the strat of the halakhic literature dealing with marriage need to be read synchronically, and in all of them marriage is viewed both as kinyan and as kiddushin, though the balance between these views is constantly being recalibrated in the light of changing historical conditions. Finally, Rabbi Meir Lichtenstein, in a similar vein, argues that at the heart of the halakhic discussion of any particular issue are the challenges and dilemmas that that issue poses. These challenges and dilemmas require for their solution that the halakhah balance competing values or concerns. Though the details of the original halakhic solution may change over time, such changes reflect not a shift in the rabbis’ fundamental values and concerns, but, again, their rebalancing and recalibration. A thorough examination of this important internal dimension of the shiluv debate must await, however, the more extended study that I am now preparing.