Brisk and Mussar

This post is a continuation of my previous post on the nature of Mussar, and on an earlier post contrasting Brisker and Rav Shim’on Shkop’s derekh (as I saw Rav Dovid Lifshitz’s variant thereon).

In the earlier post I wrote:

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.)

R’ Gil Student recently cited sources to make this point (quoted at length for those who get these posts by email rather than chasing web links):

1. R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the great-grandfather of Boston’s and YU’s R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik) explains that commandments were not given based on their corresponding historical events, e.g. eating matzah on the night of the 15th of Nissan based on the Exodus. Rather matzah is a “chok” (unexplained commandment) and God arranged history to play out so as to correspond to the commandment. While history can give us hints about the commandment’s true meaning, it is never its true source. (Beis Ha-Levi Al Ha-Torah, Bo sv. de-kevar p. 9d/18) I can’t find it now but I seem to recall the Beis Ha-Levi using this to explain why Lot was eating matzah on Pesach (Rashi, Gen. 19:3) even though there was no historical reason to do so. The commandment of matzah is the reason that history followed the course to necessitate it.

2. In a similar vein, there are some commandments whose reasons seem to be to maintain the world, such as the prohibitions of murder and theft and the obligation to give charity. However, R. Chaim Soloveitchik (the son of the Beis Ha-Levi) is quoted as having said that this is not the reason for these commandments. God theoretically could have created a world in which charity was destructive and murder productive. However, God looked to the Torah and created a world that corresponds to the commandments. The reasons offered by various sages for the commandments are not true reasons because human intellect cannot fathom those reasons. Rather they are personal meanings — human benefits — that we can subjectively find in the commandments. (Haggadah Shel Pesach Mi-Beis Levi, sv. she-anu och’lim pp. 182-183)

3. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quotes his grandfather, R. Chaim, as rejecting all attempts to explain why God created the world (e.g. because it is the nature of the good to do good) and asserting that it was simply God’s will to do so. Those types of explanations imply that there is a lacking in God, which is impossible. Therefore, the only possible explanation is that it was His will and there is nothing further to investigate. (Halakhic Man, pp. 52-53)

These approaches greatly minimize the effort of the vast philosophical and ta’amei ha-mitzvos literature, that search for reasons for the world and the commandments. One can only find benefits of the commandments and not reasons for them (cf. R. Hershel Schachter, Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav, pp. 68-69). They also seem to argue against a concept of “natural law” that is proposed by many medieval authorities and championed by the Mussar proponents. However, an argument could be made that there is an artificial natural law that God intentionally implanted into the world.

(R’ Student then continues by contrasting the Brisker position with that of the Rambam. They eschew philosophy and invoke the limitations of human knowledge. The Rambam was perhaps our most noted philosopher. And yet the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is a key tool of the Brisker derekh.)

To these examples, let me add a recollection of mine of a shiur by R’ JB Soloveitchik in which he explains that even “lo sirtzakh — do not murder” can not be fully understood, and requires simple obedience to Hashem’s command. After all, is there any objective way to define life? Does murder include abortion? Euthenasia? “Pulling the plug”? Refraining to put it back in when the plug is pulled for regular maintenance? Heart death? Brain death? What about a milkhemes reshus, when the king makes war for the sake of expanding territory?

Similarly, RJBS tells a story of his father. When Rav Moshe Soloveitchik was a rav in Washington Heights, the shofar blower was a Lubavitcher chassid. The shofar blower was preparing for his duty one Rosh haShanah, in a state of heightened emotion, in tears because of the awesome job ahead. Rav Moshe’s attitude: Do you cry before eating matzah at the seider? This is a mitzvah and that’s a mitzvah. No different. (RJBS then continued by citing the Rambam to prove that shofar is a kind of prayer, and thus requires attention to its message that isn’t necessary with most other mitzvos.)

Even RJBS, who I claim (as quoted above) defied the notion of Halachic Man by being concerned to formulate the notion itself, limits his exploration of the meaning of mitzvos to post-facto lessons to be drawn from the experience of the act. Rav Herschel Schachter isn’t quoted as using this term, but RJBS used to call these explorations “halachic hermeneutics”, which illustrates his belief that they weren’t fundamental understandings of the mitzvos.

My conclusion (although not uniquely my idea) in the post on contrasting styles of limmud:

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.

Brisk doesn’t simply refrain from asking “fahr vus?”, they stress the extent to which it’s unanswerable.

In my previous entry to this one, I gave the following as one defining element of Mussar:

A rebbe-chaveir of mine, R’ Dr Ephraim Becker, describes mussar (in the third sense of the previous triad) as a three part thing:
- There is the real, knowing where one stands
- There is the ideal, knowing where the Creator wants us to be
- There is the process of getting from the real to the ideal

And I wrote:

It is this notion of process, of climbing — literally “shteigin” — that is of value within nearly all derakhim, all paths, all approaches to the Torah. And thus lower case “m”, not specifically the Mussar Movement. The different derakhim define the ideal by stressing different aspects of it. Which will in turn suggests different paths, thus the name “derakhim“. But using tools to become the kind of person who can follow that path, to consciously pursue that derekh’s perspective on the end-goal, makes sense according to any derekh.

I wrote “of value within nearly all derakhim” because I thought of two possible exceptions: Breslov and related forms of Chassidus are so experientially oriented, that they refrain from overanalyzing things. By plotting a path one interferes with the natural emotional experience of having a relationship with the A-lmighty. The second exception was Brisk.

As we just saw, Brisk has as a fundamental assumption that one can not know the ideal. Therefore they can not define the process in terms of that ideal either. A Brisker doesn’t look to go beyond the letter of halakhah for aggadic reasons, neither in finding supportive exercises (Mussar practices or Chassidic hanhagos) nor in his choice of stringencies. A Brisker Chumrah (stringency) is a term used for trying to cover all the bases, all the opinions in the textual halachic process.

There is therefore little utility in Brisker thought for consciously planning a process. If you focus on how much we can not understand of the motivation of mitzvos rather than how much we can, you’re planning a trip without knowing where you’re going! To a Brisker, the process begins and ends with submission to halakhah. It is guaranteed to achieve the unknowable goal.

This was the mindset in Volozhin when R’ Yitzchaq Blaser (“Rav Itzeler Petersburger”, a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter and compiler of Rav Yisrael’s letters into Or Yisrael) visited. The students literally carried him out of the beis medrash. “A page gemara is the best Mussar seifer.” A position to which he would agree, actually, despite looking in that page for Mussar lessons rather than assuming its goals would mystically emerge from a straight focus on halakhah.

This is quite different than the position of earlier rashei yeshiva of Volozhin, such as its founder, R’ Chaim Volozhiner, whose seifer Nefesh haChaim is entirely about the function of mitzvos. It is also in distinction to R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s rebbe, the Gra, who not only writes about the reasons for mitzvos, he also taught that observance was a tool for reaching the goal, not a guarantee. In Even Sheleimah ch. 2, the Gra explains the use of water as a metaphor for Torah. Learning Torah is like watering a garden. If you have beautiful plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. If you water weeds, all you get is more weeds.

Sadly, I think the Vilna Goan’s metaphor is born out. We live in an era where few seek to understand the ideal at any depth greater than what they absorbed in the early grades. There are few attempts at a systemic study of aggadita, or how to tie that to one’s observance of mitzvos and lifestyle. Aggadita’s role has been reduced to nice vertlach on the parashah or a thought of Chazal with not grand picture, no grounding, no attempt to define a target to which one should aim their lives.

I think that is the same social force that brought Brisk to the fore — it’s a style of learning that not only allows one to neglect such studies, but actually invites such elision. (Symptomatic: Making a siyum on a volume of gemara without making any attempt to comprehend large sections of narrative within it.)

And unfortunately we see weeds in our garden. Well watered weeds. Talmidei chakhamim who make a splash in the national media for tax fraud. Schools founded and funded on embezzled money. Someone who prepared and teaches daf yomi who sold treif chickens for years. And even among the masses, an entire “under the table” economy designed to violate “dina demalkhusa dina” (the law of the land is the law), which undebatably applies to taxation. Disdain for Jews of other stripes. Etc… we all know the communal problems, no need to wallow in them any further.

I’m not blaming Brisker Derekh for these ills. I am actually saying the causality is in reverse: We want answers about what to do next, with no eye toward the forest for all the trees. That kind of culture will cause people to gravitate toward a modality of learning which doesn’t try to explain the tree’s relation to the forest. But also, I think that if we’re to cure the problem, advocating other modalities in our children may be part of the solution.

Let every page of gemara studied remind our youth that we not only must follow halakhah, we must do so for the sake of building and being idealists.

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