Monday, January 04, 2016

Torah and Masorah - Part I

[My previous two posts have, inter alia, a common theme: The problematic interaction between Jewish Tradition and Academics, especially Jewish Studies. I would like to continue that discussion, with an eye to segueing toward an examination of one aspect of the role of Tradition (מסורה) as a factor in Halakhic decision-making, and the setting of religious policy. This is a work in progress (with revisions), so that as this series progresses, אי"ה, I hope to touch on others.]

Almost twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to address the plenum of Kenes Lavie II (of which I was a founder). On that occasion, I discussed the fact that the leadership of the Religious Zionist community was woefully ill-prepared to engage the unprecedented religious, ideological and cultural challenges that the Post-Modern, Liberal West laid at our door. We lack the tools to critically examine the unstated (and often religiously hostile) assumptions of contemporary intellectual discourse. We lack the learning necessary to discern the full range of legitimate options with which the Torah provides us in order to engage the challenges of (post)-Modernity. Far too few representatives of Torah are able to present eternal truths in ways that the Western oriented can understand, much less respect. Even fewer are attuned to the ways in which General Culture enriches the life of the God Fearing, Observant Jew while, at the same time discerning of the limits to that encounter.
[A very promising methodological response to Modernity, which is actually Maimonidean in its contours, was recently provided by Professor Baruch Brody. As I will note in a future post, the situation is not appreciably better today than it was two decades ago, and demands attention.] 

My specific point on that occasion was the need, the dire need, to include the study of Jewish History as part of the Torah curriculum in Yeshiva High Schools, Yeshivot Hesder and Midrashot and as part of the overall training of Rabbis and Educators. Such training was, and in my opinion remains, both valuable per se as well as critical for engaging the historicist challenge that, even then, was manifest in the community. The point of departure was a paragraph from R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes' introduction to his work 'דרכי הוראה.' 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Maharatz Chajes, who himself possessed a PhD in History, cogently identifies the challenge posed by critical Historiography as of equal moment with that of Graeco-Roman Philosophy in the Middle Ages. As with Maimonides, who was his intellectual hero, he assumes that mastery of Jewish History and Academic method will enhance Judaism's intellectual stature. In this way it will help to fend off the criticism of Reformers that Judaism is antiquated and riddled with superstitions. I offered, in addition, that if one reads his closing paragraph carefully in light of parallel Programmatic sections by Maimonides, one can conclude that the study of Jewish History can serve as a source of increased spirituality and Service of God, as it uncovers the Ways in which Providence works in History, and preserves both Judaism and the Jewish People, despite all odds and unending travail (the addressing of which also arises as part of this effort).
Feeling immensely satisfied with my presentation, I descended the stage and encountered Rabbi Professor Ya'akov Blidstein. He pointedly asked me: 'What will you do with Historicism?'  Embarrassingly, not only did I not have an answer; I hadn't seriously considered the question. 

Looking back, there were several reasons for this (and for the fact that I have only started to deal with this issue in recent years). 

Religiously, I was (and remain) firm in my conviction as to the essential autonomy of Torah and Halakhah (see here and here). This is a point of departure that I learned from Mori ve-Rabi, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל and I have never seen any reason to deviate therefrom (which is not to say that Tradition doesn't change in details and applications. We will, אי"ה, return to this point.) My personal inclinations were reinforced professionally by the unique training which I received at Harvard. The program that was founded by Professor Isadore Twersky זצ"ל. Prof. Twersky was an avid exponent of the application of the 'History of Ideas' approach to Jewish Intellectual History (somewhere between the approaches of Lovejoy and Skinner). He sought the continuity in Judaism. He devoted himself to demonstrating that, alongside obvious interaction with the contemporary world, there are basic ideas and themes, dynamics and patterns that spanned the continents and transcended the generations (with an exclusive emphasis on the Post-Talmudic era). In this way, consciously or unconsciously (I suspect the former to be the case), he strove to balance what he viewed to be a facile, superficial historical reductionism that characterized Jewish studies. And, while he argued forcefully that Halakhah should be restored to its rightful place at the center of Jewish Intellectual History, the possibility that academic findings might impinge upon practice never arose (in my time, at least). No doubt, the fact that the overwhelming majority of his students were Orthodox and Yeshiva trained (many of them former students of Rabbi Soloveitchik and themselves Orthodox rabbis), reinforced this tendency.

There were also good sociological/social reasons for ignoring Historicism. Thoroughgoing historicism was (and remains) the hallmark of the Conservative Movement (a.k.a. Historical Judaism). Whatever it was that Solomon Schechter intended 'Catholic Israel' to mean, by the 1960's and 1970's it came to mean whatever Jews did in the name of Judaism. Hence, the prime directive became the adaptation of Jewish Tradition to contemporary mores by means of reducing any given law or practice to its original (presumed) context, which is itself achieved through academic research. Indeed, the late Professor Gerson Cohen (a noted medieval historian and Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary), was quoted as saying that 'the study of history is Torah as we know it.' The threat posed by Conservative Judaism was a formative element of Orthodox religious awareness from the 40's through the 70's, even though Orthodoxy was well into its dramatic resurgence by the late 70's and early 80's. As a result, the use of historical research within the context of Halakhic discourse was simply not done.

By the late 1990's, much of this had changed. For reasons that are unclear, to me at least, the Modern Orthodox World became increasingly flaccid, intellectually. Rabbis and Laypersons quoted Rav Soloveitchik, but not as a result of engaging with the thought processes that lay behind his writings but, rather, dogmatically. This, in turn, was fed by the two, contradictory tendencies within the community. On the one hand, the same global deference to Rashe Yeshiva that had long marked the Haredi community, and a variation on the institution of Da'at Torah, appeared within the Modern Orthodox community in North America and its Religious Zionist counterpart in Israel. This more authoritarian turn led to a downturn in Orthodox Intellectual discourse, and a concomitant inability to rigorously engage intellectual and cultural challenges.

At the same time, ironically, a crisis of authority was actually starting. Orthodoxy was beginning to experience the first results of the dissolution of what Professor Haym Soloveitchik has famously call 'Mimetic Judaism.' In his famous essay, 'Rupture and Reconstruction,' Professor Soloveitchik addressed the disappearance of a living tradition of religious observance and spirituality that had dissolved in the Post-Holocaust World, leaving Religious Life to be determined by Religious Texts, alone. To this shift, following similar suggestions by Yoske Ahituv and Menachem Friedman, he attributed the increasingly strict, some would say authoritarian, observance of Halakhah that marks contemporary Modern Orthodox Jews (the so-called, 'swing to the Right'). 

This unstated fabric of religious life, wherein one patterns one's religious comportment on that of one's elders, and its replacement by religious life based upon books led to a serious shift in the quality of religious life and observance, per se. For much of halakhic decision-making is predicated upon a living, sometimes unstated consensus as to which authors have more valence and which have less. Similarly, there is a cautious and reverential flexibility to Halakhah and Religious Policy, which is also based on intuition and mimesis (again, a point to which I will return anon). This breakdown of living tradition of how Halakhah is adjudicated and Talmud Studied, came precisely at a time when the level of Torah and Halakhic Literacy among Orthodox Jews was greater than at any time in recent history. In tandem, the appearance of databases and websites (e.g. Bar Ilan's Responsa Project and אוצר החכמה, respectively) flooded, democratized and transformed the study of Torah and, especially, of Halakhah. This combination of basic skills and unlimited material, merged with an anti-authoritarian trend among acculturated Orthodox Jews who were increasingly affected by Post-Modernist individualism

It seems to me, then, that the disappearance of the religious fabric that informed Traditional Jewish Life is responsible for the present chasm that threatens to divide Orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic. It is responsible both for extreme conservatism and even Halakhic Paralysis (in the case of מסורבות גט, for example) and for an increasingly aggressive type of religious individualism, on the other hand. In the absence of this religious fabric, other approaches to Jewish Tradition are being advanced by members of the Orthodox intelligentsia. That is where Professor Blidstein's question enters.

(To Be Continued)

   

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mesorah and Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל: Part One

One of the central Foci in the great debate over the Ordination of Women, has been the position of my Master and Teacher, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ"ל. This is altogether appropriate, as the Rav זצ"ל remains the preeminent Halakhic and Philosophic Authority and Legitimator of a vision of Orthodox Judaism that posits active engagement with General Culture and Society. [I am avoiding use of the term 'Modern Orthodoxy,' with which Rav Soloveitchik was less than happy.] Effectively, he was the teacher (and the teacher's teacher) of the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews who inhabit the Yeshiva University/Rabbinical Council of America orbit.

Ironically, the discussion of the Rav's position on Semikha for women has not been centered upon the Rav's expressed halakhic position against ordaining women. Rather, an extraordinary amount of attention has been paid to a speech that the Rav delivered in 1975 to the Rabbinic Alumni of RIETS. That address, which was partly programmatic and partly polemic, was occasioned by a controversial proposal by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman ז"ל to resolve the plight of contemporary Agunot. Rabbi Rackman, inter alia, suggested that the presumption (hazaqah) that a woman will 'settle' for almost any husband (טב למיתב טן-דו מלמיתב ארמלו) was predicated upon the inferior status of women in ancient society, and that it should no longer be invoked. Rav Soloveitchik lashed out, as much against the interpretation as against the proposal. He proceeded to anchor this behavioral presumption in the Female personality, based upon his interpretation of Gen. 3, 17; and attributed thereto eternal, transcendent validity. [Two points deserve to be noted. First, the Rav's interpretation is very extreme and among his leading disciples there has been great hesitancy to adopt it. Second, Dr. Aliza Bazak has recently demonstrated that in the past four centuries, Halakhic authorities have invoked this rule either in favor of the woman, or in order to exclude its use.] 

However, discussion of the Rav's harsh critique of R. Rackman's proposed interpretation has too often missed its basic point of departure. What earned Rav Soloveitchik's ire was not so much the status of a behavioral presumption per se, as the fact that R. Rackman's interpretation was fundamentally, and explicitly, historicist in nature. Rav Soloveitchik stridently objected to the fact that his opponent was reducing an halakhic concept to its presumed sitz im leben. This, he asserted, was a violation of the methodological integrity, and axiological autonomy of Torah, the process by which Torah is studied, and Halakhah applied. For this reason that the Rav prefaced his criticism of R. Rackman's proposal with a passionate, inspiring and highly repercussive description of the methodology of Torah Study, which he described as Mesorah (מסורה). The speech incorporated many themes of the Rav's other writings and must be carefully 'unpacked' in order to be fully appreciated. Here, I would like to zero in on one of the Rav's central points, as expressed in two key paragraphs. [I've used, and corrected, the transcript by Dr. Eitan Fiorino]:


What does קבלת עול מלכות שמים require of the לומד התורה, the person who studies Torah?  First, we must pursue the truth, and nothing else but the truth.  However, the truth in תלמוד תורה can only be achieved through singular Halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is attained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses, and passed on from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the חכמי המסורה. It is ridiculous to say "I have discovered something of which the רשבdidn't know, the קצות didn't know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge; I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new." It’s ridiculous. One must join the ranks of the חכמי המסורה  (חז"ל, ראשונים, גדולי האחרונים)-- and must not try to rationalize from without the חוקי התורה and must not judge the חוקים ומשפטים in terms of the secular system of values.  Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psychologism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of תורה ומסורה; and, it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism; no matter how good the original intentions are of the person who suggested them. 


Second, we must not yield -- I mean emotionally, it is very important -- we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm -- usually it is a transient and passing charm -- of modern political and ideological סברות.  I say not only not to compromise -- certainly not to compromise -- but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex.  The thought should never occur that it is important to cooperate just a little bit with the modern trend, or with the secular, modern philosophy.  In my opinion, יהדות (Judaism) does not have to apologize either to the modern woman or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism.  There  is no need for apology -- we should have pride in our מסורה, in our heritage.  And of course, certainly it goes without saying one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends. And one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient values of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.

One overarching concern emerges from this passage: the autonomy and integrity of Traditional Judaism as a faith that is rooted in the acceptance of Divine Revelation. Revelation, in turn, is incorporated in the Written and Oral Laws, as interpreted (again, by Divine mandate) by the outstanding scholars of the many generations leading back to Sinai, whom Rav Soloveitchik calls חכמי המסורה. Tradition is composed of two, mutually dependent elements: Content and Method. In the case of method, by dint of its Divine origin and the religious integrity of its expositors, the values and legal constructs that the Torah comprehends must, by definition, transcend time and geography. [Much the same can be said of methodology. It is, however, the first component that I wish to address here. I will, אי"ה, return to this point in the longer essay that I am preparing. Suffice it to say here that the Rav's remarks about the Rashba, GRA and Ketzos relates to the methodological assumptions that they share, not to specific ideas.]

It is in this light that the Rav's crescendo should be understood: 'One...must not try to rationalize from without the חוקי התורה and must not judge the חוקים ומשפטים in terms of the secular system of values.  Such an attempt, be it Historicism, be it Psychologism, be it Utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of תורה ומסורה; and, it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of Assimilationism and Nihilism.' 

It is important to note what Rav Soloveitchik is doing here, and that which he is not doing. 

He is forthrightly condemning the subjugation of Judaism to external systems of values; coercing it to conform thereto, in violation of its textual and interpretive tradition. Such reductionism makes Man the judge of God's Word whether because he thinks it is passe (Historicism), it doesn't fit what we now hold to be psychologically correct (Psychologism), or doesn't give the individual the personal satisfaction s/he was expecting (Religious Subjectivism). According to the Rav, one struggles to fulfill God's Word. One does not blithely dismiss it out of self-worth and intellectual hubris. (This is the actual central element of Rav Soloveitchik's famous critique of Korach.)

At the same time, he definitely did not (indeed, he could not) advocate a blind, 'know nothing' stance toward the outside world and its culture, and their relationship to Torah (as some have more than implied). His epistemological model, which was beautifully mapped out by מו"ר Prof. Yitzhak Twersky ז"ל, posited the courageous enlisting of the full panoply of Western Culture for the explication and enhancement of Judaism. Judaism, in the Rav's model (and in marked contrast to Maimonides), creatively engages and interacts with other systems of thought and value. It is enriched and our appreciation of it deepened by that interaction. It does not, however, subordinate itself to them, or makes its validity contingent thereupon. The core values and institutions of Judaism, rooted in the Talmud and its literature, control and balance the manner in which outside forces and ideas impact upon (and stimulate) it. 

This is not to suggest, however, that changes in social and historical circumstances do not affect Halakhah. Obviously, they do. However, the interaction between them (and the pace of that interaction) is predicated upon the tools that Tradition itself provides. That, I believe, is what lies behind the distinction that the Rav makes later in that address between 'change' and 'novel interpretation' (חידוש). 

The Rav neither believed in freezing Judaism in time, nor did he ignore the existence of historical change. While he was conservative in matters of Psak, especially in the area of synagogue ritual and function, he did not mechanically rule based merely on the basis of precedent (or the lack thereof). He issued rulings based upon his massive Torah scholarship, his heightened sensitivity to the responsibility of adjudicating God's Law, and a careful evaluation both of the needs of the questioner and the integrity of the Torah. (And he was, after all, the progenitor of the revolution of Torah Learning that has changed the face of Orthodoxy, for the good.) However, in all such cases, he responded to change in light of the built-in traditional methodology of Halachic interpretation and decision-making that spans the generations. How that methodology function, we will (אי"ה) address in a subsequent post.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Torah, Academia and Historicism

Forty years ago, I spent a riveting afternoon with one of the greatest Jewish historians of the second half of the twentieth century. I was then in the midst of a personal crisis; grappling with the question whether a key element of my chosen life's path, training as an academic historian, was worthwhile or religiously valid. This person graciously gave me an entire afternoon of his time to field my questions, listen to my concerns and share his hard won insights.It was an extremely memorable few hours, that was both formative and enriching.

In the course of our conversation, we touched upon the question of Biblical History and the academic approach thereto. Then, as now, this topic troubled me deeply. I offered that, then as now, I maintain that acceptance of many of the basic assumptions and conclusions of academic Bible scholarship (e.g. multiple authors, late composition, non-historicity of key events etc) is incompatible with any credible form of Orthodox Judaism. My interlocutor smiled, understandingly, and told me that as a graduate student he had been obliged to delve into this field and write a paper that was compatible with current research on the subject. He added that he prefaced his work with a disclaimer that he viewed the project as nothing more than a theoretical exercise. Afterwards, he tossed the paper in the nearest circular file.

'How could you do that?' I asked. 'It's a game,' he replied. You play the game according to the rules. When you're finished, you stop playing.' 

At the time, I thought that his answer was a bit flippant. Unfortunately, I didn't press the point and I never had the opportunity to clarify his words. I suppose I was satisfied by the fact that a person of impeccable scholarly integrity could dismiss the obliging force of academic Biblical historiography with such aplomb. Still, I've often thought about that exchange. Hazal famously observed that it takes one forty years before he understands the full implications of a teacher's words (Avodah Zarah 5b). Along those lines, forty years later, I think I finally understand what my interlocutor was saying.

A few days ago, someone sent me an article by Michael Cantrell, entitled 'Must a Scholar of Religion Be Methodologically Atheistic or Agnostic?' Cantrell's stated purpose is to question Peter Berger's assertion that 'every inquiry into religious matters that limits itself to the empirically available, must necessarily be based on methodological atheism' (P. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, New York 1969, 110). In other words, by definition, the student of religion may not consider the Divine or the Sacred realms as factors in the development of religions, since there is no way of objectively proving their existence. Of course, some scholars are people of faith (as they are fashionably described today). However, since others are not believers, the more principled position is to deny (or suspend judgement) on the existence of the Sacred and to ignore it as a factor in one's researches. This, Berger (together with most social scientists) asserts is the most scientific and objective way to undertake one's researches. Berger calls his approach, 'Methodological Atheism.'

Cantrell engages Berger's position from a number of different angles (and I urge people to read his piece). What caught my attention was his contention that Methodological Atheism is not an assertion of scholarly objectivity. It is, de facto, an affirmation of secularism and a denial of the Sacred. It is not methodological atheism. It is atheism. [It reminds me of the argument that children should not be raised with religion, but allowed to choose when they reach adulthood. In fact, those parents effectively decide that their children should not have religion.] In academic terms, affirming methodological atheism is usually the equivalent of an affirmation of Secular Materialism, a position that is absolutely incompatible with a faith commitment (unless one has a weakness for Ibn Rushd).

For the person of faith, then, the academic study of religion without God is a game, because a major element of the scholarly calculus is missing. That is, I think, what my discussant was saying so long ago. In addition, Academic Biblical Scholarship is vulnerable for other reasons. To begin with, the archaeological and literary record is still very thin, subject to endless interpretations and highly speculative. But more to this, as with every scientific undertaking, academic findings are conditional. They only reflect the state of a field at a given time (and based upon whatever theoretical approach is then in fashion). They should, by definition, never claim to be definitive, because at any given time someone at the other end of the world may be upending the scholarly consensus with an unheard of finding. The most a scholar can say, or should say, is that 'such and such' is the most reasonable answer based on all we know at this time. Unfortunately, this is most decidedly not the case in the groves of academe; where dogmatic acceptance of the scholarly status quo is expected of both students and practitioners, and those who differ are suffered to absorb the slings and arrows of scholarly outrage.

As a practitioner of the academic method, I have no argument with my colleagues in Biblical Studies. They follow the rules and try their best to reach the truth, as best they can and as best they understand it. Furthermore, I am not arguing for a theistic approach to scholarship. In my own work, I do not write that 'such and such' occurred  because God willed it. I might not even think it, since it would raise serious issues of Predestination and Theodicy. I, too, try to explore the causes that lie behind intellectual and historical developments. As a medievalist, writing in a time of Deus Absconditus (הסתר פנים), such an approach is more comfortable. [I do maintain the importance of and the formative role played by the perception of the Sacred and the individual's experience of God in the understanding of Judaism and Jewish History. ]  

However, within the internal discourse of a faith community, there is no room for methodological atheism. Here, one must not play be the rules of 'the game.' God is the central portion of our calculus. Secular materialism, which drives Him from the universe and beyond, is an anathema to the person of faith. 

That does not mean that the findings of historians should be dismissed. Questions are valid. Doubt is a legitimate religious category. However, as with so many other matters, a person of faith must be sustained by his convictions that the historical record will ultimately confirm that which the Bible states; that the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch (and inspiration of the Prophets and Hagiographa) will be confirmed; and that the Tradition of the Written and Oral Law also transcend the exigencies of the contexts within which they first emerged

This is certainly the case when one considers that while scientists (and social scientists) may dogmatically affirm 'This is it,' at most all they can really say, is 'maybe this is how it is.' After all, the basis of the Scientific Method lies in the conditional nature of scientific conclusions (as Popper and Kuhn have taught us.). Hence, when the person of faith confronts academic findings, our Rabbis observation that ברי ושמא, ברי עדיף should obtain. It is both dishonest and wrong to make Judaism totally subservient to Secular Materialist Scholarship. Put differently, internal discussions of how Torah should be studied, interpreted and applied must posit that it has integrity as the veritable Word of God. Restricting Torah to the passing fashions of academic consensus, or to historicist reductionism, is totally unacceptable.   

The reader has every right to object, at this point: 'See to your own wounds, for you are a practitioner. Are you not?' Obviously, I am. After the above conversation, I went on to complete a doctorate at Harvard, followed by a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in Religion at Yale, and followed by twenty-three years as an historian of Halakhah and Jewish Intellectual History. In my research, I follow all of the canons of accepted academic procedure, with no pangs of conscience. In addition, I do believe that the study of Jewish History is a legitimate arm (if an ancillary one) of Torah. So, who am I to criticize?

I hope to address these issues in future posts.