The More Things Change… Rav Soloveitchik’s Derasha on Talmud Torah and Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim
The issues confronting the Orthodox community of today, as novel as they seem, are in large measure reruns of the same issues half a century ago. And those same issues were reruns of the same core issues going back centuries earlier, and millennia earlier as well. Whether it is the recent challenge relating to female clergy in Teaneck, or new efforts to permit remarriage without a Get, the essence of the issues is the same.
These challenges were masterfully addressed with impeccable precision, insight and eloquence by Rav Soloveitchik zt”l in his November 1975 address to RIETS Rabbinic Alumni. The Rav’s remarks have been newly transcribed and presented by TorahWeb with painstaking accuracy, correcting errors in previous transcriptions. Please carefully read the timeless words of the Rav on this pivotal matter, produced by TorahWeb with utmost meticulousness and authenticity.
I would be remiss not to invoke the Rav’s public remarks two years prior, which likewise pertain with extreme prescience to contemporary events in the Orthodox orbit :
Korach rebelled against authority. All Jews are equal. Hence, everyone is entitled to interpret the law… The study of the law, Korach argued, is an exoteric act, a democratic act, in which every intelligent person may engage. Moshe’s claim to being the exclusive legal authority, and the exclusive interpreter of the law, Korach argued, was unfounded and unwarranted.
The consequence of such a democratic philosophy is obvious. What Korach wanted, and what many want even now – and I’m not only speaking of dissident groups, I’m speaking of the Orthodox community – whether they speak it clearly or they use political terms and dubious language to cover it up, is that the instrument of the Torah be commonsensical for the everyday empirical intelligence, not the esoteric conceptual ideal logos, which can only be obtained through painstaking study and hard training…
The Oral Law (Halacha) has its own epistemological approach, which can be understood only by a lamdan (advanced Torah scholar) who has mastered its methodology and its abundant material. Just as mathematics is more than a group of equations, and physics is more than a collection of natural laws, so, too, the Halacha is more than a compilation of religious laws. It has its own logos and method of thinking and is an autonomous self-integrated system. The Halacha need not make common sense any more than mathematics and scientific conceptualized systems need to accommodate themselves to common sense.
When people talk of a meaningful Halacha, of unfreezing the Halacha or of an empirical Halacha, they are basically proposing Korach’s approach. Lacking a knowledge of halachic methodology, which can only be achieved through extensive study, they instead apply common-sense reasoning which is replete with platitudes and clichés. As in Aristotelean physics, they judge phenomena solely from surface appearances and note only the subjective sensations of worshippers. This da’as (simplistic) approach is not tolerated in science, and it should not receive serious credence in Halacha. Such judgments are pseudo-statements, lacking sophistication about depth relationships and meanings. (1973 shiur at Rabbinical Council of America convention; The Rav: Thinking Aloud – Sefer Bamidbar, pp. 127-148. And see here.)