No Apologies Necessary, Rabbi Gordimer!

Rabbi Gordimer, with all due respect, you’re mistaken. You didn’t have any explaining to do. You were gracious in your apology, but you cannot truly offer penance when you have done no wrong. What you wrote wasn’t revolutionary, wasn’t offensive, and, honestly, I think most of us understood your intent quite well. You have now assuaged one who misunderstood you, but your original critique still rings true.

Full disclaimer: I am neither a student of the Rav, nor more than casually familiar with his oeuvre. My father-in-law was considered one of his brilliant talmidim in his day, but we did not have long discussions about his Rebbe’s opinion on various subjects. So I approach this discussion as an outsider. That means I can look at general principles that arose in your discussion far more than I could hope to address anything unique to Rav Soloveitchik. So it is in that vein, with full disclosure of my limitations, that I contribute my thoughts.

You wrote:

… when dealing with master disseminators of Torah – rebbeim – one cannot sever their temporal existence and their writings from their eternal and living legacies. One must look to the closest disciples of a Torah disseminator to determine his focal impact and long-term emphases, and to understand the traditions, insights and attitudes he transmitted and exemplified.

The only thing you said with which one could possibly quibble is the phrase “when dealing with master disseminators of Torah.” I believe that what you wrote is true of any writer.

One who reads a teacher’s books or essays is obviously going to remain a distant second to that scholar’s “closest disciples,” those who studied under his tutelage for several years, when it comes to correctly portraying the thoughts and beliefs of their teacher. The only exception to that rule would be a student who deliberately misconstrued his teacher’s positions — and the remedy to that is found by looking at what other close associates and students have to say. From everything I have heard from others, your essay reflected the consensus, rather than the positions of an outlier.

What you wrote was no insult. No one was declared “unfit.” What you found at issue is the very reason why we are told not merely to study the works of Talmidei Chachamim, but to be “meshamesh,” which is perhaps poorly translated as “serving” them. A Shamash is not an Eved. In modern terms, Executive Assistant would be a more accurate term. By being close at hand, by listening even to the ordinary dialogue of a person, one learns things which cannot be gleaned from books. And Chazal exhorted us to have this experience with Sages, in order to learn to emulate them — to learn to think as they do.

And as I said, the disparity between readers and close associates is not limited to “master disseminators of Torah.” Rabbi Gordimer, you are a prolific writer, so I’m certain you can identify instances where your own written work has been misunderstood and misconstrued. I am sure that you can identify times when various readers ascribed to you motivations, emotions, and implications which you simply did not possess at the time. I’ve certainly had this experience often enough (yes, my writing can be inadequately clear. But still).

These are often exercises in projection: someone angered by something I wrote (although considering how I studiously avoid controversial topics, I cannot understand how that happens) might describe me as “angry.” On at least a few of those occasions, I remember chuckling as I was writing the “angry” comment. [I do laugh at my own jokes, and even sarcasm. It’s a problem.] In fact, I now fully expect someone to comment what a fool I am to not recognize that I write about contentious topics, although I think my sarcasm was obvious. It is simply all too easy to read what one wishes to see in the writings of another.

I have heard more than once that the Talmud is deliberately cryptic for this reason. As we know, a neophyte cannot simply sit down with a Gemara and start reading. Rather, it requires years of training to be able to so much as read through a page on one’s own, even to understand which type of punctuation is implied at what point, where a sentence begins and ends, and whether it is a question or answer. While Artscroll may have removed much of the guesswork, one still needs a great deal of assistance to comprehend what the page intends to tell you.

As I said, I understand this to be no accident. Rather, Rav Ashi and Ravina wanted to preserve the Oral Law, yet require that a student acquire the skills necessary by learning with a teacher. Rebbe Yochanan did precisely the same; in fact, the Yerushalmi is still less comprehensible to beginners. They all recognized the very danger that is the topic of our discussion. The chain of our Mesorah is not a trail of books.

In his response to you, R’ Avrohom, Prof. Kolbrener wrote: “Confining the legacy of R. Soloveitchik to that ever-contracting circle, the batei midrashim, is a much surer way of ‘killing off’ the reputation of the Rav, and consigning his legacy to antiquarians and the already converted.”

I believe this very revealing quote confirms that the phenomenon I mentioned earlier is relevant here. Prof. Kolbrener fell into the trap of reading the material in a way that confirmed what he wished to find.

With no embarrassment, I had to look up “antiquarian.” It means a person who studies or collects antiques. And let’s be honest: to one who looks at physical age, a 3300-year-old document is an antique. The Talmud is an antique. The Mishnah Berurah is called “recent” yet is a century old, and, like more modern halachic literature, builds upon earlier conclusions and applies very ancient principles to new situations. These are the “antiques” under discussion in this context.

In other words, Prof. Kolbrenner believes it would “kill off” the reputation of the author of Halakhic Man to leave his legacy in the hands of those studying Halakha. Need I say more?

Yes. Because he also defined the Batei Medrash as “that ever-contracting circle.”

He certainly didn’t mean this in any physical sense. It is well-established that the number and size of batei medrash is growing, and following an exponential curve at that. The Mir in Jerusalem was a single Beis Medrash a generation ago; now there are five buildings. A plethora of new institutions have opened and expanded at the same time, all over Israel and the United States. It’s easy to understand why there are housing issues in Lakewood, because hundreds of newly-married couples rent their first apartments there every month.

So it seems apparent that Prof. Kolbrener intends this in the sense of diversity of thought. This is an astounding statement, because there are now hundreds more teachers for these thousands more students, and all of these new teachers bring their own methodologies and opinions along with them — unless one believes that all of this expansion has been accompanied by increasing rigidity in terms of what types of thoughts are “acceptable.”

Without apology, that would be mistaken — actually, it defies logic. New teachers from diverse institutions mean increased diversity of thought. The surfeit of students means that it is easier, not harder, to gather a “critical mass” of them around a new set of ideas, whether or not they were ever previously considered acceptable. [See, for example, Open Orthodoxy, committed to beliefs that R’ Avi Weiss himself said were not permissible less than two decades ago.]

It is the same circle. It’s called the “dalet amos of Halacha,” and it’s not getting tighter. It’s just getting a lot more crowded. To an ever-increasing extent, Jews are recognizing that our place is within that circle. Which, even for those minimally familiar withRav Soloveitchik’s writing, we recognize as the central topic of Halakhic Man.

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10 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    In marshaling the academic disciplines to examine a Gadol or his literary output, it’s important to recognize the special characteristics of Torah transmission to each generation. There’s a type of apprenticeship.   Also, lifelong self-improvement goes on at all levels.  It includes the reexamination of past resolutions of thorny situations, problems, or contradictions.

    There are times when an inner circle (large or small) understands someone or something in the greatest depth and with the greatest fidelity.


  2. dr. bill says:

    the Rav ztl differentiated between the motivation versus the basis for a particular psak or approach.  many of his closest talmidim knew the basis, which would discuss publically; what motivated him was known to a much smaller group with whom the Rav would discuss a particular situation.

    factually the logic of a psak is transmitted from generation to generation; the motivation is often lost.  it is only in more modern times, where disciplines beyond those normally employed by poskim have been used, that the complete nature of the situation in which the psak was given has been established.  The works of many from the late Profs. Jacob Katz and Israel Ta Shma to Profs . Chaim Soloveitchik and Elisheva Baumgarten to name just a few, illustrate the new perspectives provided.

    how  or even if those perspectives should enter the halakhic process, is an important issue.

    perhaps, prof. kolbrener’s literary approach is something yet harder to integrate into a more holistic view of an individual.  in general, many writers on this site, do not (choose or want to) integrate newer methodologies (historic, literary, etc.) in to their halakhic perspective, a topic of critical importance.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Perhaps because that’s never how Mesorah worked?

      • dr. bill says:

        I agree that the mesorah has not incorporated such methods historically.  However, changes in how the mesorah operated have occurred many times in the past. Three critical examples.
        1     The transition to the written word and its eventual dominance is perhaps the most important.  The amount of important precedent expanded dramatically.
        2)    Similarly, the reliance on general knowledge modified the mesorah as the nature of ever changing general knowledge continued.  (interestingly reliance on general knowledge may have led to significant issues where the understanding of that knowledge was faulty.)
        3)     In a somewhat different vein, baalei hamesorah identified changes in circumstance that have not been explicit in previous decisions.
        Like the previous three examples, greater knowledge of the circumstance surrounding previous precedent may similarly be considered by poskim, particularly in more debatable cases.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Heterodox movements have often used similar historical or psychological arguments to undermine the Halacha, so such arguments need to be used and received very cautiously.   The arguments often come enveloped in clouds of obscure language.

    • Mycroft says:

      But to the best of my knowledge many who discussed the reasons with the Rav for his psak in were cautious of extending his psak in because each psak was Sui generis.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    R Menken deserves a Yasher Koach for pointing out a number of important facts: I would just add the following:

    1) The Yerushalmi in Horayos tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu “shteiged” for 40 years until finally like a light bulb that went on in the night, he gained clarity over all of TSBP. Anyone who has learned whether in the highest shiurim on the planet , a daf Yomi level or a beginner’s level, can tell you that learning Gemara is an extraordinarily humbling experience just by realizing the scope of the subject matter of the Yam haTalmud and the difficulty in understanding the same. Yet, the truest love of HaShem is spent breaking one’s head over a dificult sugya and a cryptic phrase in a Rishon or Acharon. We all have the tools and crutches available for aides in learning, but in order to truly become a Talmid Chacham you have to be able to walk without the use of a crutch.Yet, in order to get to this level, you must have a rebbe who links you back to Matan Torah.


  4. William Kolbrener says:

    A former teacher of mine – a Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem – used to speak pejoratively of S-L-O-T – an acronym for Special Logic Of Torah.  He would say that according to this special ‘law’: if you want to know about physics, you ask a physicist; if you want to know about biology, you ask a biologist, but if you want to know about Torah…, you just ask anybody!’ By this I understood, he was saying that in every other field, the authority of disciplinary languages was maintained, while in the world of Torah, somehow, with no or little learning one could have the license to say just about anything (he may have been paraphrasing a Netziv in Devarim).

    If R. Menken needs to look up the word ‘antiquarian,’ he probably should not comment on my understanding of the representations of epistemology and hermeneutics in R. Soloveitchik’s work. Philosophy and even literary criticism are also areas of expertise, and without understanding the disciplinary languages that inform such studies, one should best remain silent.  As I tell my students at the university, I always trust a scholar who is able to say ‘I don’t know.’  When he or she acknowledges an area in which they do NOT have expertise, I know I can trust them better in areas in which they claim they do.

    Despite the unembarrassed foray into Merriam-Webster, R. Menken misconstrued my meaning. Leaving R. Soloveitchik to the antiquarians would be akin to leaving him to someone looking for an old book in an antique book store, or a scholar finding a curiosity in a museum.  But the teachings of the Rav, like those of the Torah, should continue to live, I was suggesting, giving meaning to our present and futures

    Apparently my former Rosh Yeshiva’s special law does not – these days – apply only to Torah.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      The story about SLOT is appreciated. It is worse than the Professor says; it is relatively routine to see people quoting the Rambam or other sources, in order to challenge the positions of Gedolim who know the entirety of the Rambam by heart.

      Nonetheless, Prof. Kolbrener’s condescension is rather foolish, unless he wishes to assert that he knows every word in the dictionary as well as those Gedolim know the Rambam. I wasn’t going to say anything, but I once took on online vocabulary test “on a lark,” and learned that my knowledge of English stands at a “Shakespearean” level. Why does he imagine I was unembarrassed to admit lack of familiarity with “antiquarian?” I knew most readers would share my need for the definition.

      It is also foolish because that word has nothing all to do with epistemology, hermeneutics, Rav Soloveitchik, or the points I have made above — in other words, one could as easily claim that I should refrain from any intellectual pursuits if I don’t know the meaning of a particular word used with similar frequency to “querulous” — a word which I would assert is far more relevant here.

      Finally, while he claims I “misconstrued” his meaning, Prof. Kolbrener then confirms I was correct. [Note that he offers no defense of his illogical assertion that batei medrash are a “contracting circle.”] In his comment above, he claims that without literary criticism, Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings will be left to those “looking for old books;” his literary approach is needed in order that the Rav’s teaching “should continue to live.”

      But of course, the Rav is studied daily by scholars at YU and across the Jewish world. His teachings and thought are very much alive, unless you consider traditional Torah study akin to searching for dusty antiques. In fact, the thoughts of great teachers of Torah are alive to an extent unknown outside those “contracting” batei medrash. There are no disciples of Aristotle today, nor those who directly trace their scholarship back to Shakespeare. Yet our understanding of the Shulchan Aruch, the Rambam, Rashi, and the Gemara are all greatly impacted by the education provided by teacher to student, all of whom are part of one common Mesorah.

      As I said in my essay, “Prof. Kolbrenner believes it would ‘kill off’ the reputation of the author of Halakhic Man to leave his legacy in the hands of those studying Halakha.” That is, in fact, the best way to ensure that his teachings live in perpetuity.

    • Bob Miller says:

      When do you use a dictionary?

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