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.

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