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.