Brisk and Telzh

At some point during my time in YU I chose not to follow the more popular “track”, leading to Rav Herschel Schachter shlit”a’s and lbchl”ch R’ YB Soloveitchik zt”l’s shiurim. Instead, I chose Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l’s shiur. A key element of that decision was my sense that something inherent in Brisker Derekh did not speak to me; Rav Dovid’s approach was that of his rebbe’s, Rav Shimon Shkop’s, variant of Telzher Derekh. While I don’t believe that then I could have articulated why that is all that clearly, I have given a good deal of thought to the matter since, and hope to do so now.First, what is Brisker Derekh? Perhaps a good place to start, not in the least because it is somewhat humorous and therefore memorable while still being pretty accurate, is with Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s essaycomparing how various darkhei limud would try to answer the question, “What makes tea sweet, is it the sugar or the spoon stirring?”The Brisker answer:

There are two (tzvei) dinim in sweetening tea: The cheftza (substance), i.e., the sugar; and the pe’ula (activity), i.e., the stirring with the spoon. Everyone knows that Lipton is the “Brisk” tea because it has a double (tzvei dinim) tea bag.

This is typical of Brisker Derekh which seeks distinctions, chaqiros. One therefore contrasts multiple cases, or multiple opinions in a single machloqes to see how they differ. The explanations involve ideas like cheftza vs. pe’ulah, or cheftza vs. gavra (is it that the object must have something done to it, or that a given person has a duty to do something?), or pe’ula vs. chalos (the time or location of the action vs. the time or location of the change of halachic state), etc… This allows the Brisker to fit the rulings under discussion into overarching halachic rules.

In a sense, the Brisker derekh is a scientific endeavor. In an experiment one compares the experimental set with the control set, trying to find two that only differ in one point so that the scientists can determine which point is the cause of the phenomenon. Then the phenomenon is fit into a larger pattern, to get a single formula that fits a wider variety of cases. Finding the chaqirah and using it to tie the case into a broader principle.

In contrast, here’s the Rav Shimon derived response:

It is the Hitztarfus (Fusion) of tea molecules and sugar molecules that makes the tea sweet.

Telzh was founded by R’ Eliezer Gordon, a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter. Telzh wasn’t a mussar yeshiva, although it had a strong mussar program. However, its approach was far more intellectual. Rather than the emotional Mussar Shmuess, the Telsher approach focused on Shiurei Da’as, classes on thought an attitude. This made it different enough not to be considered part of the movement.

(My own rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, was a strong believer in the use of the shmuess and emotion. For example, shmuessen usually included singing a song. I remember most semesters began with a shmuess and a song. Once we sang “Vetaheir libeinu” for over twenty minutes before the start of the zeman.)

Still, the mussar roots of Telzh meant that the notion that halakhah as a whole has a purpose was a given. As was the idea that the purpose is sheleimas ha’adam, completion of the self. Therefore, while Brisk sought the explanation of individual laws in terms of halachic principles, Telzh looked for the purposive explanation. Therefore while Brisk looked at multiple opinions of a single case, or multiple cases, Telzh focused on the singular. Even if looking at multiple opinions, it was to find what they shared in common, not to find contrast. What do these opinions say about what is essential about the meaning, purpose and role of the mitzvah?

Fundamental to Brisker philosophy is the idea that halakhah has no first principles. It can only be understood on its own terms. As R’ JB Soloveitchik describes in Halachic Man, it’s only through halakhah that man finds a balance between his religious neediness for redemption and his creative constructive self. (Ironically, a true halachic man would never explore the questions addressed by Halachic Man! R’ JB Soloveitchik’s loyalty to Brisk, while true in terms of derekh halimud, style of studying gemara, was compromised on the perspective level by his interest in philosophy.)

Brisker Derekh gave the post-haskalah observant Jew a mental experience that compared to the thrills of scientific study. Telzher Derekh gave him the excitement of philosophical study. As well as connecting his learning and mitzvah observance to his quest to be a better Jew.

Loosely along similar lines, Rav Chaim Brisker rejected the argument in favor of Radziner tekheiles because it was a scientific one, not halachic in basis. Halakhah is itself the primary basis, non-halachic argument is irrelevent.This distinction is also manifest in their approach to going beyond the letter of the law. The Brisker chumrah is one where the person is chosheish leshitas… — concerned for the position of so-and-so. The notion that while the baseline law is lenient, one may want to “cover all the basis” and satisfy all opinions. Entirely in terms of mechanics of law. In Telzh, a chumrah would be chosen based on the person’s plan for sheleimus, an awareness of what flaws they’re ready to address, and finding opinions that can be related to it.I was recently asked why someone would wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin if it wasn’t an expression of uncertainty that Rashi’s opinion was correct. That’s a Brisker position — chumros are about cheshash, uncertainty in ruling. In Telzher thought (and not uniquely Telzher), one might do so because they found a kavanah that better fits the order of parshios in Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, and wishes to experience that in addition to fulfilling what they know to be law. Contrast this with R’ JB Soloveitchik’s statement that “there is no ritual in Judaism”; he saw no reason in additional rituals, things like kavanos only have meaning for him if they were products of halachic imperative.

In short, Brisk asks “Vus?” (What?), Telzh asks “Fahr vus?” (Why?)Anyone who has been following this blog should be unsurprised by which one I felt spoke to me.

Saying Shema Together

When I was in High School, we would all say Shema together, with trop. Since then, I’ve only seen this practice a few times; amongst a minyan of descendents of students of the Gra in Yerushalayim, at R’ Feldman’s shul in Atlanta, and a couple of other places. When learning Alei Shur this morning, I found this beautiful description of the value of the minyan reciting Shema as one.From Shir haShirim Rabba, translation mine:

“She who (fem.) dwells in the gardens, friends are attentive to your voice; let me hear. Flee my beloved, and liken yourself to a gazelle, or a young hart on the mountain of spices.” (Shir haShirim 8:13) When Israel enter the sysnagogue and say Qeri’as Shema (lit: the reading or calling of Shema) with concentration of thought (kavanas hada’as), in one voice, with a single thought and meaning, Hashem says to them “She who dwells in the gardens, when you call friends, I and My retinue are attentive to your your voice; let Me hear!” But when Israel say Qeri’as Shema with their attention cut short, this one earlier, that one later, and do not concentrate their thought in Qeri’as Shema, the divine inspiration flees and says “Flee my beloved, and liken yourself to a gazelle, a tzevi, the tzava, the army of above who give likeness to Your Glory in a single voice, in a single breath, on the mountains of spices, of besamim, of the shemei shamayim, heaven of heavens above!”

Tefillin Mirrors

When I started wearing tefillin, few people used a small hand mirror to see whether or not it was properly centered. I recall men using the shiny metal area indicating where to push on a door, the window in a door to a darkened stairwell, and other awkward solutions. Compared to that, the current ubiquity of mirrors, whether in the tefillin bag or even glued to the bottom of the tefillin box is a G-d-send. But for most of Jewish history, mirrors were not cheap to come by. So what did the Ribbono shel olam expect us to do?
We lived for millenia before the heter iska allowed someone to give someone else money in a mechanism that allowed him to make money on the deal. The current interest free gema”ch is laudable, but we no longer feel the sense of brotherhood of “achikha ha’evyon” (your impoverished brother) that the Torah speaks of receiving your loan. Not to the extent that someone could buy a home off gema”ch money. Jewish society decayed, and workarounds had to be provided to minimize the impact of that decay.

Without the mirror, the only way to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin correctly is through areivus, each person in the minyan taking responsibility for each other’s tefillin. Tefillin actually underscored the unity of the minyan, and the brotherhood of all Jews. But Jewish society decayed, and workarounds had to be provided to minimize the impact of that decay. The mirror is a better solution than trying to catch your reflection in a doorknob.

But now that we have mirrors, all we can see is ourselves.

Hispa’alus, or: Yismach Moshe

One of the critical tools of Tenu’as haMussar is hispa’alus, “learning ‘with lips aflame.’” Literally, the word is the reflexive of “to work”, in other words “to work on oneself.” Hispa’alus is such a useful practice it even became part of their davening, tefillah behispa’alus.What is hispa’alus? The Alter of Kelm describes a four-step process:

  1. Intense and single-minded concentration on a single thought. One phrase, sentence or paragraph, repeated out loud and with a tune, to help keep away extraneous thoughts.A beginner should start with five minutes and work his way upward.
  2. That much focus on a single thought creates an emotional response. As does the use of melody and chanting.The Alter of Novorodok focuses on this emotional component. In his version of hispa’alus, the melody and volume are more critical.
  3. Through the extended concentration, one can find a chiddush a new insight into the thought.As many corporate managers learn, if you want your employees to “buy into” a new project, you hold a brainstorming session. By getting each person to contribute ideas to the project, they get a sense of possession. The project becomes “theirs”.

    Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.

  4. Last, the person deepens the insight into profundity on Torah, one’s own nature, and the interaction of the two. How the Torah speaks to my condition, and how the uniqueness of who I am and how I see things speaks to the Torah.

How does this become a style of prayer? Obviously, saying every line of the siddur with five minutes of concentration apiece (and that’s just when you’re starting out!) is impossible, both humanly, and because of the finite time of the day. Instead, certain parts of tefillah call for this kind of attention: the first berakhah of the Amidah, the first line or paragraph of Shema, maybe the verses in Qorbanos about bitachon (trust in G-d) which the siddur rells us to repeat three times each, whichever tefillos speak to you and where you’re up to in life. In adapting hispa’alus to contemporary prayer in a contemporary synagogue, perhaps Kelm’s style of hispa’alus that is quieter then Novorodok’s passioned cry would be more useful.Perhaps it’s best to explain by inviting you to experience it. I ask you to try the following next Shabbos morning, and write about your experiences on the “comment” section for this post.

The middle blessing of the Shabbos Amidah begins:

Yismach Mosheh — Moses will be happy
bematnas chelqo — with the giving of his portion,
ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant
qaraso lo — You have called to him.

The line looks simple enough, however riches lie underneath, with a little concentration. Rather than spell out what they are, and my opinion on what they mean, I am going to list some questions to think about and give you a chance to find your own chiddushim, your own relationship to the text.

Why does it say “yismach” in the future tense? Wasn’t Moshe’s happiness at the time?

“Yismach” is from the word “simchah”. Think of some of the other words for happiness: sason, gilah, etc… How do they differ in usage? What does the choice of “yismach” here indicate?

“Bematnas” with the giving of his portion. What does it mean that Moshe is happy with the giving of his portion, his lot in life, rather than referring to the happy is caused by the portion itself? The mishnah says “Who is wealthy? One who is samai’ach bechalqo — happy with his lot.” Nearly the same phrase, but without “bematnas”. The lot itself. Am I to be happy with my lot, or with the giving of it?

“Ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant…” Rashi says the word “ki” has 7 meanings, “because” is only one of them. The others are: rather, when, that, perhaps, if, reason. Why did they choose a potentially ambiguous word? What happens to the meaning of the phrase if we try some of these other translations?

“Eved ne’eman.” What does it mean to be an “eved Hashem”, servant of G-d. What’s the added point of being “ne’eman”, a reliable servant in particular?

“Karasa lo” — You called to him. Why not “qarasa oso”, that Hashem called him, why “to him”?

Why does being a servant make Moshe happier with his lot? Or, in light of the above questions, why does being called to as a reliable servant make him happy — and the kind of happiness we call simchah — with the giving of his lot? And is “because” and “why” the only connection implied?

And most important, what does this say of my worship and my happiness?

Look! “Treasures buried in the sand”, repeated with minimal or no thought every week holds worlds of meaning about ourselves and how we should relate to G-d. Through hispa’alus we can not only find them, but use them to enrich ourselves.

As I wrote, I invite you to explore this line of the siddur yourself. See what hispa’alus can bring to your middos and your prayers. And, if you’re comfortable, share your experience with the other readers. (Recall that you can always post anonymously.)

The Kuzari Proof, part III

A recent email from Yeshivat Har Etzion of a shiur by Rav Chaim Navon included the following quotes from R’ JB Soloveitchik’s essay “Uvikashtem MiSham“. Notice the poetic treatment of the idea that knowledge through proof is indirect, yet one’s belief in and relationship with the Creator should be first-hand.

While the philosophy of the Middle Ages and also that of the early modern period expressed the search for infinity and eternality in an objective manner, through the formulation of definitive proofs, which were thought to be logically valid, the modern view presumes to deny the logical-objective worth of these proofs…

This view came to uproot, but ended up planting; it came to deny, but ended up believing. It denied man’s ability to draw indirect conclusions through proofs… But instead of eradicating all these proofs from its book, it accepted and reaffirmed them as non-mediated experiences that are not based on logic, but rather are expressed through sudden revelation and illumination. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Uvikashtem Misham, pp. 127-128)

The experience of God in man’s confrontation with the world expresses itself not through proof based on an act of abstraction, but through a feeling of sudden revelation of an unmediated fact in the consciousness of reality. (Ibid., p. 131)

In this shiur, Rav Navon associates the approach of emunah through proof with the Rambam, as we already discussed in parts I and II of this discussion. Emunah through direct experience, the position I believe is Rav Yehudah haLevi’s, is shown to be shared by the Raavad. Which is why the Rambam depicts Avraham avinu as being an accomplished philosopher of 40 when he finds G-d, whereas the Raavad says he was three. (Hil’ Avodah Zara 1:3; both positions were previously taken in medrashim.) See the shiur for more…

Some thoughts about Parashas Yisro

I
There is a difference in how Moshe Rabbeinu’s sons are named. Shemos 18:3-4:

And her two sons; that the name of one was “Geirshom” because he said “I was a geir (foreigner) in a strange land.” And the name of one was “Eliezer” because E-lokei Avi (the G-d of my father) was be’ezri (at my aid), and He saved me from the sword of Par’oh.

Notice that in the naming of Geirshom, there is mention of what Moshe said, however in the nammming of Eliezer, there is no such mention. But also notice that the “ki” comes before the “amar”, in other words, the reason for the naming is because of what Moshe said, not that Moshe gave the reason in his declaration.

There is a question addressed by rishonim: Why is the older one named for the exile, whereas the second son is named for something that happened earlier, before he was forced away from Mitzrayim? Shouldn’t they have been named in chronological order? One answer is that in those times (as we see in the naming of Yitchaq, Yaaqov and Yaaqov sons) naming normally fell to the mother. Tzipporah got the right of naming the firstborn, and she opened by thanking G-d for the events that brought Mosheh to her — his exile from Egypt. Then Moshe named Eliezer. (This is the origin of the custom in many Ashkenazic communities of alternating who names the children, started with the mother naming the firstborn.)

If I may use this idea to explain the distinction I made earlier… Tzipporah named Geirshom not because Mosheh was exiled, but because Mosheh said he was exiled. To her, it was not exile from Egypt but coming to Midan, finding his mate, teaching monotheism. However, Geirshom was named for the distress Mosheh felt at being separated from his people. He was named for what Mosheh said, his perception.


II
Why did Yisro decide to come to Mosheh and the Jews in the Midbar? The parashah opens “Vayishma Yisro” (and Yisro heard). The gemara (Zevachim 116a, quoted by Rashi) explains that Yisro heard about the crossing of the Yam Suf and the attack of Amaleiq.But when Yisro finally has a chance to talk to Mosheh, what does Mosheh tell him about? In Shemos 18:8 Moshe tells Yisro about “kol hatela’ah”, all the tribulations, that the Jews underwent. Which Rashi quotes the Mechilta explaining refers to Yam Suf and Amaleiq?

Why did Moshe tell Yisro about the two things Yisro knew already?

There is critical value to repetition. We say in Shema “and you will know today, and you will answer onto your heart.” The Sefas Emes explains, you can know something with your mind, and yet not internalize it in your heart. To internalize it, you must place it on your heart, even though it doesn’t get in. Eventually, it will break through.

This repetition to produce a change of heart is central to Mussar. The means of changing a middah is first qibbush hayeitzer, conquering it. By repeatedly resisting a desire, one can reach tiqun hayeitzer, the point at which it’s repaired.

One of Mussar’s key tools is the idea of making a qabbalah, accepting upon yourself an activity that slowly, incrementally, whittles away at a problem or builds up a strength. Through repetition of the qabbalah one can change the emotions.

Another tool is hispa’alus, studying or davening with “lips aflame”. Each time one learns about a middah with hispa’alus it makes an emotional impression. However, it’s slow an incremental. It will take many days of work to actually change a middah.

The difference between Yisro’s initial hearing about Yam Suf and the attack of Amaleiq and Moshe’s repetition is in the words “kol hatela’ah“. Repeated, it took on emotional content. Yisro no longer heard stories, he heard about trevails.


III
“VeHar Sinai ashan kulo” (Shemos 19:18). Rashi points out that the word “ashan“, with two patachs for vowels, is a verb. The normal assumption is that the phrase means “And Har Sinai was entirely giving out smoke.” However, there was a heavy cloud on the mountain (v 16), what would be the point of smoke too above it?Perhaps, and I stress that “perhaps”, it should be rendered “and all of Har Sinai turned into smoke”? That the mountain lost its solidity when Hashem was upon it?


IV
There are three prohibitions stressed in the laws of making a mizbei’ach given at the end of this week’s parashah. “Gods of silver and gods of gold do not make for yourself. A mizbei’ach of earth shall you make for Me…” (Shemos 20:19-20) “And if a mizbei’ach of stone you shall make for Me, do not them hewn; because your sword you placed upon it and profaned it.” (v. 21) “Do not go up steps onto my mizbei’ach, that you shall not reveal your nakedness on it.” (v. 22)Three prohibitions: (1) not making idols for the altar; (2) not using a sword, a tool of war, to make it; and (3) not using steps because of a lack of tzeni’us, that it calls ervah. These are the three sins that one must violate even at risk to one’s own life — idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality.

According to the Ramban, a message of the mizbei’ach is that the person sees the death of the animal and responds “That death should have been mine; it was I who forfeited my right to exist.” Therefore, in building the mizbei’ach, the means of re-earning the right to exist, the three prohibitions that override life are doubly inappropriate.