Rav Soloveitchik – Historical Approach to Talmud Study

We are indebted to Rabbi Gil Student for recently sharing this important vintage recording of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l on the historical approach to Talmud study. It is important to understand that the Rav here addresses not only the irrelevance of the historical approach to a true understanding of Halacha, but also the grave danger and the undermining consequences of this approach.


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37 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    The talk is easily misinterpreted by those whose knowledge of the Rav ztl is partial. Contemporaneous with the Rav’s talk we have the high praise that the Rav’s SIL, Prof. Isadore Twersky, wrote in review of the first (halakhically relevant) work of the 20th century’s greatest historian of halakha, the late Prof. Jacob Katz. Of course, Prof. Katz’s lifelong student was the Rav’s son. RAL ztl spoke glowingly of Prof. Ephraim Urbach. The point is that halakha has a unique perspective, rules, categories, and methodologies that halakhists apply to historical circumstances. Gud Asik was not invented from whole cloth because of a shortage of wood; it may well have been applied aggressively in such a circumstance. The Shabbos Goy, for example, is a unique contribution that elucidates Amirah le’akum on Shabbat.

    The Rav did not endorse academic Talmud; my sense is that it was applied to academic Talmud as an alternative/replacement for classical limmud. As well he judged that it was not for most students. Nonetheless, the Rav had a life-long friendship and great respect for last century’s greatest Talmudist who mastered traditional and academic approaches, the GRASH ztl.

    Ironically, academics look at the Brisker methodology as an innovation in the study of Talmud, as or perhaps more transformative than what the academy has produced. See for example the very brief remarks by Prof. Christine Hayes in her review of Prof. Saiman’s recent book.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Personal friendship and respect for contributions of GRSL urbach and Katz on this instance should not be used as a pretext for rewriting the historical record as to what RYBS said not just in 1964 but also in 1975 or for minimizing the content and meaning of what was said in clear and easily comprehensible English RYBS clearly rejected the notion that a purported shortage of wood was the Halachic basis of a Halacha LMoshe Mi Sinai

    • Pseudoapikoreshockster says:

      Where is the evidence for the rav’s “great respect” for rabbi Lieberman? With the great power you have now vested in me to make sweeping unsupported assertions, au contraire the rav was stupefied by the shallowness of RSL understanding of the Halacha.

      • dr. bill says:

        The Rav ztl’s written letter and his son’s studying with him every afternoon at JTS, leaving YU after the Rav’s shiur.

        the story you are referring to happened at the brit of the late Prof. Arthur Hyman’s son. Your version is not even close to correct; Rav Chaim Heller ztl was there and the Rav said something to both Rav Heller and Prof. Lieberman that you need to ascertain. I had the zechut of speaking to Prof. Hyman when he davened one row behind me in shul in Edison, NJ at a Simcha of his wife’s great-granddaughter. Prof. Hyman was attracted to YU to teach Jewish philosophy by the Rav, despite being a JTS graduate.

  2. dr. bill says:

    One more point. In the first half of the 20th century, the academic field of Jewish scholarship was often agenda-driven, attempting to establish the innovation with which those living millennia ago responded. They would blame codification and the like for the way halakha is now practiced.
    In recent times, the academic practitioners are often traditional Jews, lacking such motivations. They grow mei’chayil el choyil and illustrate the creative use of the Mesorah that halakhic history illustrates. If anything would draw attention, it is their demonstrations of change in traditional pesak that Haredi /religious (non-halakhic) influence of the last 150 years illustrates.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Many when pushed on the subject demonstrate a marked absence of Yiras Shamayim on TSBP and Torah Min HaShamayim and indulge in apologetics and worse .Perhaps you should read ArtScrollS Introduction to the Talmud in its entirety for a change of pace from the academic study of ancient and medieval Jewish law that cannot be called Torah Lishmah that you invariably vote in threads of this nature

  3. Joel Rich says:

    The shiur begins with comments about “recklessly applied” implying “properly applied” is OK

    • dr. bill says:

      thank you, I did not know we now have to censor/edit the words of the Rav ztl. Let’s be dan le’kav zechut and assume it was accidental or at least not purposeful.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      I challenge any listener to arrive at the conclusion that RYBS in fact implied or ever stated that the historical method could ever be so “properly implied” The entire tone and tenor of the comments and RYBS shiur in 1975 IMo dispel such an unsupported notion

      • Joel Rich says:

        I suppose it depends on how you define “the historical method”. Does it include textual history (girsaot)? What about paradigm shifts? (Why doesn’t R’ Lichtenstein’s “Source of Faith article mention slam dunk proofs of HKBH’s existence a la Rambam et al?) I think it’s more about who does it – much like ISTM the orthodox abandoned talking Tanach due to maskilim and Tikkun Olam due to Conservative.

      • dr. bill says:

        Joel, as usual, I think you are clearly correct. Part of our Mesorah is the notion that if a rebbe does not behave appropriately, al tevakshu torah mi’pihu. That would seem to apply, a fortiori to a non-Jewish or non-traditional scholar. As a result, there is a natural tendency to look askance or at least question the insights of academic sources. The leap to then categorically deny their validity is understandable, albeit illogical.

        In my view, however, this is not a valid reading of the fundamental Talmudic text. A discussion of this topic, including a discussion of a variety of counter-examples, is well beyond a blog post.

  4. Gavriel M says:

    The historical method is not only more interesting than Brisker Lomdus, and is not only more productive than Brisker Lomdus, it is also far closer to traditional methods of Torah study than Brisker Lomdus. One can learn more Torah from half a page of Tosefta Kifshuta than one would learn from a lifetime of shiurim forwarding preposterous resolutions of nonexistent stiras.

    • dr. bill says:

      the skvere hasidim who have a strong interest in zemanim seem to agree; toseftah ki’peshutagh is on occasion plagiarized. the combination of classical lomdus with scholarship remains the greatest work of the last century and perhaps even longer.

    • Pseudoapikoreshockster says:

      To suggest that the so called “brisker method” bears no fruit is to nullify the towering achievements of Rabbis Feinstein Soloveitchik Kotler… Preposterous!

  5. Bob Miller says:

    What elements of our historical knowledge from external sources have been verified well enough to enter into a practical halachic discussion as useful evidence?

    • dr. bill says:

      read Jacob Katz on Amirah le’akum or davening maariv early or Chaim Soloveitchik on wine or lending with interest or Elisheva Baumgarten on halakha wrt women in medieval Ashkenaz and tell me what you see as questionable.

      do you ask what verification Achronim has for their interpretations of Rishonim? One of the greatest current academics teaches how to verify comments about the thinking of Rishonim. It results from an exhaustive study of what that rishon read which is more likely to inform what he wrote than a sevarah proposed centuries later.

      • rkz says:

        Ad I wrote bfore, Katz was extremely agenda-driven, and he often did not even try to understand the sources (and when he did he was uasually wrong anyway)
        A much much better example of a proper use of the academic method can be found in some of the articles of RPCS and some of the articles of YMTS.

      • dr. bill says:

        In a dispute between Dr. Haym Soloveitchik and you, influenced as well by my own reading, there is no contest. Your biases are clear; his not so much. Clearly, all of us make errors; even one who invented a methodology of great value is no exception.

        His students and grand-students continue to produce a deeper appreciation of halakhic history and development. Those who see need no value in such meta-halakhic studies can simply not read.

      • rkz says:

        WADR, Dr. Bill, we had this discussion in the past, and all the (academic) scholars I consulted agreed with my assessment. I wrote my opinion (in a more academic form, of course) in my doctoral thesis, and none of the readers objected it (although one the readers commented that I was overly strident)
        I do see some value in meta-halakhic studies, as I wrote clearly before. I even teach it. The problem is Katz (and others), not the entire method.

      • dr. bill says:

        where do you teach it? can you tell me of other academics who maintain your view of the late Prof. Katz? Forgive me, but I have never encountered a scholar with that POV.

      • rkz says:

        I teach in the BED men’s program in the Michlala (Bayit VaGan) and in the MA program in Orot (in the men’s program).
        Other academics who maintain my view of the late Prof. Katz? Back in my MA studies, I heard this from several scholars, but I do not know if they would want me to write their names here.

      • dr. bill says:

        so you are not teaching at academic institutions. Academics who will not publically state their views are as useful as a fourth wheel on a tricycle.

        Tell me how they stack up against those academics in “the Pride of Jacob?” Almost all the contributors across diverse fields of Jewish history/scholarship disagree with prof. Katz on one point or another; all hold him in the highest esteem.

      • rkz says:

        Dr. Bill, rest assured that all of the scholars that I heard this from are from the upper tier of academics in the relevant fields (at least one has already won the Israel prize for his Academic Judaic Studies). It is possible that there is a generational gap here, since these scholars are mostly in the 40’s and 50’s (although one of the is over 70 and one is over 60).
        BTW, I did not say that they did not state their views in public, they did so indeed. All that I wrote was that “I do not know if they would want me to write their names here.”
        I’m puzzled by your comment about me “not teaching at academic institutions”. (Unless you mean that they don’t have PHD programs. AFAIK, that’s not part of the definition here in Israel. Maybe in the past.)

      • dr. bill says:

        The institutions at which you teach are the criteria I use, not their lack of Ph.D. programs. Your obfuscation around naming the late Prof. Katz’s detractors, not even one citation from a written/published record by any of them, and the prominence of the contributors to “the Pride of Jacob” puts a conclusion to this disagreement. In my career as CTO, I had more than one detractor; those who hide behind anonymity never had the gravitas to even merit any response. As I was taught as a graduate student, the unidentified man invisible man in the doorway can be wearing any color suit or none at all; nothing can be determined.

        I will continue to value the works of his students and grand students despite your views. Often these matters are settled by history and the number of citations his work receives. In my case, the accolades from the Rav ztl’s son and SIL make it unnecessary to for me to await the judgment of history.

        ad khan hakafah rishonah.

      • rkz says:

        A. They made their comments in public. It is my choice to refrain from naming them on the internet. (BTW, my identity is no secret, I linked to articles at least once)
        B. You are certainly entitled to ignore what I wrote or to disagree or to belittle or whatever other reaction you wish. I never claimed otherwise.
        C. Katz’s work is available to anyone who wants to study it. My opinion (shared by many) was formed by reading what Katz wrote. If someone reached or reaches or will reach different conclusions, that’s perfectly legitimate, but it does not bind anyone else.

        Brakha VeHatzlakha
        Roye Zak

  6. Shades of Gray says:

    Does anyone know what Rav Soloveitchik thought of RSRH’s private criticism of Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman’s “Mar Shmuel: A Portrait of the Life of a Talmud Scholar” for interpreting halochos propounded by its subject as an “outgrowth of his great love of mankind”(Artscroll biography of R. Hirsch , p. 263) ?

    Dr. Ari Bergmann, who is both a student of Rav Moshe Shapiro and Prof. David Weiss Halivni, is described in an article by Columbia Prof. Ari Goldman as being Halivni’s “unlikely successor” at Columbia University. Goldman quotes Dr. Bergmann as saying that “these two approaches, the traditional and the academic, were once viewed as incompatible and thus their audience was completely different. Now, however, these two approaches are not only seen as compatible but complimentary to each other.” In an article on the YU blog last September, Dr. Bergmann spoke about navigating a clash between secular and religious approaches, when “you have to make a choice of priorities”(“When the Talmud Meets Finance”).

    R. Dovid Bashevkin’s new website “18Forty” has an interview with Dr. Bergmann and links to Dr. Yaakov Elman’s articles in the Talmud section, among other links ; TorahAnytime has Dr. Bergmann’s “OU Citifield Event: Understanding the Evolution of Torah Shel Baal Peh – Are All Views Equally Acceptable?”

    As Joel Rich pointed out, Rav Soloveitchik generalizes at the beginning of the shiur that the historical method if “not qualified and recklessly applied… if applied unreservedly, recklessly…placed exclusively in a historical perspective”. Just as when discussing the kashrus of “meditation”, a broad term, one needs to distinguish methodologies, the “historical method” likewise subsumes different flavors, as RYBS implies. Regarding specifics, one may encapsulate from the shiur about the interaction between historical need and halacha that the “historical need…enhances his creative faculties…in conformity with halachic methodology” (10:45) and that “even the most potent response to the need, can only be in halachic terms”(12:45).

    As Steve Brizel mentioned, the linked 1964 shiur is similar to the well known lecture RYBS gave in 1975 to RIETS alumni(“Talmud Torah and Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim” ). RYBS similarly gave the example in the 1975 lecture about psychologizing Euclidean geometry(” As a matter of fact, not only Halacha. Can you psychologize mathematics?… I can give many psychological explanations of why Euclid said that two parallels do not cross…”). Another similarity is that in the 1975 shiur, RYBS also speaks about the accusations of the fossilization of halacha and of it being unresponsive to human needs.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    R. Soloveitchik says at the beginning of the linked shiur that the reckless application of the historical method would “dispel the aura of kedusha which has surrounded the Torah Shel B’al Peh throughout the ages”.

    In his preface to “Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith”, Dr. Joshua Berman raises the issue of the “aura of kedusha” in the context of Tanach interpretation, using identical words(sample chapter available on the Koren website):

    “Even as the Rambam and Ralbag engage ancient Near Eastern texts to help us understand the Torah, for many, there is a certain hesitation to do so that stems from the realm of religious psychology. When you sit to learn, there is a certain aura of Kedusha that you feel as you open a textured, cranberry-colored sefer from left to right. Somehow, Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts just doesn’t do it. There is almost a feeling that such materials, even if not forbidden, are surely from the world of ĥullin, the wider, general world, and somehow encroach upon the holiness of the endeavor of Talmud Torah. In our world, where an atmosphere of holiness – Kedusha – is such a fragile thing, the feeling is understandable. However, figures like the Rambam, Ralbag, and Abarbanel (1437–1508) freely and seamlessly integrated non-Torah materials into their study of the Torah…”

  8. Shades of Gray says:

    The Noverminker Rebbe, if I recall correctly, spoke about the holiness of Torah a number of years ago at an Agudah convention , to the effect of his being opposed to certain modernistic explanations on parshas hashavua which he said undermine its kedusha, and that the multitudes of charedim l’dvar Hashem want no part of that new method; such books don’t belong on our book shelves(he didn’t mention a specific book, and I’m not sure if he meant to imply that individuals, as opposed to the “multitudes” of charedim, may have reason to benefit from such methodology).

    Speaking of the Noverminsker Rebbe, Rav Hershel Schachter recalls his memories of the Rebbe at the Breuer’s yeshiva Shabbos shiur and at the Washington Heights Agudah minyan, and describes the Rebbe’s intellectual honesty in admitting a mistake to the minyan. See 4:45 of the linked shiur:


  9. Shades of Gray says:

    Interestingly, the Rebbe had a role in the founding of this website( “while he may be surprised for the credit, Cross-Currents owes itself to the vision of the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a”). See beginning of this link:


  10. nt says:

    We need to realize that we Jews also have a historical method of Talmud study. We carefully kept and documented our history, esp. the writing of the Talmud, the contributions of the Savoraim, etc. This history is very useful in learning. However, I think academic historians often ignore the Talmudic traditions history and start developing theories on their own without worrying about whether their assumptions hold water. They can just rely on their students knowing even less than they do.

    • dr. bill says:

      To refer to “a historical method of Talmud study” is nonsense beno shel nonsense. Read the intro to the Marcheshet where he makes mention that he learned before the new Matan Torah in Brisk. Or the Gaon’s unrelenting opposition to pilpul. Or various Rishonim who utilize what we would today call layers on occasion, something that disappeared from use by the end of the period of the Rishonim.

      What needs to be emphasized and understood is how this interacted with pesak, which remained much more consistent as the darchai ha’limmud transformed. And even there anyone who cannot differentiate between the methods of pesak of RSZA ztl, Rav Ovadyah Yosef ztl and Rav Shlomo Goren ztl ought ask for a refund on their yeshivah tuition.

      In almost all instances where a derech is declared mi’chutz la’machaneh, it is/are the individual(s) who are the proponent(s) who is/are the problem as opposed to their derech.

      This is a complex topic not able to be addressed even in synopsis in blog space.

      • Bob Miller says:

        This is not the first time you’ve found the blog format to be too limiting. Can’t you get the full message out through some better medium?

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Listen to RHS on YU Torah re How to Pasken Sheilos also re ability of Amoraim not just to explain Tanaim but disagree with Tanaim prior to redaction of Gemara (Sof Horaah)

        It is well known that both CI and RYBS were reluctant to consider the views of Rishonim whose Kisvei Yad were recently published and not known to prior generations That is a very different issue from using better editions of well known texts which improve ones ability to access and learn Older versions are akin to a Sefer Torah Sheino Mugah That is a subject that is unrelated to the derech hapsak of Gdolim and whether their conclusions reflect Rov Poskim or their definition of Rov Poskim ArtsScroll in its Introduction to the Talmud which has great historical background on Yeshivos of EY and Bavel fascinating bios of Tanaim and Amoraim aldo contains Hakdama of Rambam to Mishnah and Yad and Igeres R Sherria Gaon It is a superb introduction to TSBP and contains much that the beginning student and even Bnei Torah and Talmidei Chachamim can benefit

      • nt says:

        dr. bill: You missed my point. My main point is that we have carefully documented the history of the writing of the Talmud, and of the mefarshim and poskim. This includes the history of disputes, whether Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel; Rambam vs. Raavad et al;, the ban on the Pri Chadash; the dispute about smicha b’zman hazeh; the get from Cleeves; the centuries long debate over pilpul that includes R’ Yaakov Pollak, R’ Heshel of Krakow, the Chasam Sofer, R’ Yisroel Salanter, among many others; the introduction of the Brisker style of limud, etc. etc.

        Many many of our own authorities spent time documenting our tradition and how it developed. These include R’ Sherira Gaon, Rambam, Shmuel HaNagid, Meiri, Tashbetz, the Chida. In our own day R’ Hersh Goldwurm wrote great books on the topic. There is no need to rely on secular academics who have only a superficial and perfunctory knowledge of these issues gleaned from translations and second-hand sources to understand these topics.

        I had my own problems in yeshiva with people who were sloppy about practicing Brisker methods without mastering basic shakla v’tarya and cheshbon principles, but that is not a fault of the methods. And whatever opposition R’ Chaim originally had is pretty much completely gone. It is also true that R’ Chaim’s methods are primarily used for teaching basic understanding of sugyos, but psak and applied halacha is a separate skill. The actual trade-offs between theoretical understanding and practical knowledge of halachos goes all the way back to the Ri Migash and possibly Rabbah and Rav Yosef. And you don’t need to go to academics for any of this knowledge. It is lying there in plain sight all over the place.

      • dr. bill says:

        nt, we are talking past each other and I have nothing to add to what I wrote.

        Bob Miller, changes in the derech halimmud is not my field of expertise and I will not cover it even on my blog devoted almost entirely to areas where I have expertise recognized by important others.

        I am not expert, but many scholars discuss the differences between various Rishonim and Achronim And even amoraim well beyond the three examples I noted above. Even traditional TC have remarked about changes like those I mentioned.

        Ad khan hakafah rishonah. 🙂

      • nt says:

        dr. bill: Changes in the derech halimud is not your field of expertise, but you felt comfortable saying what I wrote originally was nonsense? You sound very confident for someone with nothing to contribute to the conversation.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    RHS pointed out that RMF frequently paskened and then added paragraphs in a teshuvah upon being shown the views of major Acharonim ( Gra Noda bYehudah ) by the Mashgiach of MTJ why he was not paskening like such Gdolei Acharonim A good edition of MB with CI Shoneh Halachic or even the Dirshu MB will show that CI thought that MB was reversing well accepted Psak based on previously unknown sources

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