Temimus and Deveiqus

The mitzvah of Beris Milah is introduced with the words, “אֲנִי קֵל שַׁקַּי, הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים — I am Kel Shakai, walk yourself before Me, and be whole.”

To me, this pasuk addresses the focus of the most basic open question in Jewish philosophy. Clearly the attention of Yahadus is on keeping mitzvos. But what is the goal of following mitzvos? What is the goal of life, that mitzvos are to help us accomplish?

How are we supposed to read the quote? Is the walking before G-d that is primary, and being whole a side-effect? Or, is being whole the focus of the pasuq, and walking before G-d is a means to reach that temimus? On a deeper level, these two approaches are different aspects of the same idea. A person lives in tension between his spiritual and physical sides — neshamah vs. guf. To achieve wholeness, so that the entire person is working harmoniously, he would necessarily be serving his spiritual goal, and walking in Hashem’s path. In reverse, if one strives for deveiqus to a singular G-d, how could he be a chaotic battleground of warring urges? Cleaving to G-d forces His priorities to be yours, leaving temimus.

This is not to say that there is no distinction in approach. By stressing different elements, there are profound practical implications. For example, consider the debate between Chassidim and non-Chassidim on the importance of davening in the appointed times. We should be clear that the Chassidic position is that one must invest time to prepare for davening, even if this is at the expense of timeliness — it is not blanket permission to ignore the clock.

Chassidus is a deveiqus-based hashkafah. Therefore, when weighing the relative merits, it is more important to be able to invest time to prepare one’s mind and heart for the act of tephillah, for relating to Hashem, than when the tephillah actually begins.

To someone with a temimus orientation, however, zehirus, meticulousness, care in how each facet of the mitzvah is done, is the more important consideration. Zerizus, haste to do what’s right, is an important middah (personality trait). Both come into play when considering the timeliness of tefillah.

Both Mussar and Chassidus saw a predecessor in the Ramchal. I think this too is possible because the Ramchal appears to echo the Torah’s dialectic. For example, they have two contrasting ways of understanding the beginning of the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim:

יסוד החסידות ושרש העבודה התמימה הוא שיתברר ויתאמת אצל האדם מה חובתו בעולמו ולמה צריך שישים מבטו ומגמתו בכל אשר הוא עמל כל ימי חייו. והנה מה שהורונו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה הוא, שהאדם לא נברא אלא להתענג על ה’ ולהנות מזיו שכינתו שזהו התענוג האמיתי והעידון הגדול מכל העידונים שיכולים להמצא. ומקום העידון הזה באמת הוא העולם הבא, כי הוא הנברא בהכנה המצטרכת לדבר הזה. אך הדרך כדי להגיע אל מחוז חפצנו זה, הוא זה העולם. והוא מה שאמרו זכרונם לברכה (אבות ד): העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור בפני העולם הבא.

 

The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is in a person obtaining clarity and realizing the truth of what is his duty in the world, and to what he has to set his sights and aspirations in all of his activities all the days of his life. This is what Chazal taught us, that a person was created for nothing but finding pleasure in God and enjoy the splendor of His Presence; for that is the true pleasure and greatest joy of all forms of enjoyment that can be found. The true place where this pleasure may be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avos 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”

So the question becomes what is the nature of this “corridor”? We cannot get the full pleasure of Hashem’s presence in this world. So, do we try our best to achieve deveiqus, connection to Him, in this world and thereby earn success in the world to come? Or is the purpose of this life to refine oneself to be capable of as much connection — and therefore as much enjoyment — in the next world, and that refinement is significantly different than connecting itself?

I would suggest that Chassidus sees itself in Mesilas Yesharim because they take the former stance, whereas Mussar sees itself because of the latter interpretation. This ambiguity is possible also because the middos listed in the beraisa of Pinechas ben Yair which the Ramchal uses as his list of topics for the rest of the text is on the one hand an exercise in self-refinement, but on the other hand framed as a latter up to holiness, Divine Inspiration (Ruach haQodesh) and the revival of the dead (Techiyas haMeisim).

As the Ramchal writes later in the chapter:

ואמנם ראוי לו שתהיה כל פנייתו רק לבורא יתברך, ושלא יהיה לו שום תכלית אחר בכל מעשה שיעשה אם קטן ואם גדול אלא להתקרב אליו יתברך ולשבור כל המחיצות המפסיקות בינו לבין קונו, הן הנה כל עניני החומריות והתלוי בהם, עד שימשך אחריו יתברך ממש כברזל אחר אבן השואבת. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא אמצעי לקורבה הזאת, ירדוף אחריו ויאחז בו ולא ירפהו. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא מניעה לזה, יברח ממנו כבורח מן האש.

 

It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Creator, may His Name be blessed, and that his every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near to the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthy elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until he is pulled towards the Blessed One just as iron to a magnet. Anything that might possibly be a means to acquiring this closeness, he should pursue and clutch, and not let go of; and anything which might be considered a deterrent to it, he should flee as from a fire.

Deciding what is of value in this world in terms of what brings us closer or further from G-d became the centerpiece of Chassidic thought. Whereas the Mussarist would see a couple of sentences later:

…כיון שביאתו לעולם אינה אלא לתכלית הזה, דהיינו, להשיג את הקירבה הזאת במלטו נפשו מכל מונעיה ומפסידיה.

 

… Since our coming to [this] world is for nothing but this goal, which is to obtain this closeness by rescuing his soul from all the deterrents to and detractors from it.

And so they can conclude that no, the Ramchal is talking about dealing with those issues now, in the corridor, to enable true cleaving to G-d in the World to Come.

Perhaps this plurality is the whole point of the Torah’s doubled phraseology. Because there are two groups of approaches to the same ends, we don’t want to eliminate one in favor of the other. Each person can pick out a derekh that best suits him — as long as he aims for the proper goal.

Mysticism and Rationalism: Act I

I have been exposed to many misunderstandings in online conversations that revolve around the issue of Mysticism and Rationalism as competing strains in Jewish Thought. Including the idea that these accurate describe streams of Jewish Thought altogether. I also want to challenge the notion that the popularization of Qabbalah is somehow a byproduct of the Maimonidian Controversy, an “equal and opposite reaction” to what some saw as the excesses of the Rambam’s Rationalism. (Which is where this first post will end.)

The nevi’im clearly spoke and taught an esoteric aspect of Torah. Aside from the obvious evidence in places like the Maaseh haMerkavah in the beginning of Yechezqeil, the short description by Yeshaiah, or the Man in the Throne in Shemos, it is logically compelled that there be an esoteric element to the prophetic tradition. After all, the nevu’ah is a state of awareness not experienced by the masses. Any discussion of how to get beyond the first steps, what it was like, etc… has to be opaque to the masses. It’s not only like describing music to the deaf by using comparison and contrasts to color, it is trying to do so in sign language.

From the prophetic tradition evolved the Sifrei Heikhalos, which refers a genre, not an individual text. These works describe the “palaces” of heaven, guided meditations that would help someone up the various levels from earth to heaven, allowing the practitioner to approach G-d. These too are filled with physical imagery describing what most of us haven’t experienced and aren’t currently equipped to experience. So we know the descriptions are metaphoric; and yet I presume to the initiate they really capture what they’re trying to describe.

One more famous example is the Shi’ur Qomah by Rabbi Yishma’el, actually self-described as being revealed by the angel Metatron to the tanna. This attribution is more accepted than some others. For example, Gershon Shalom (Jewish Gnosticism, pg 40) gives it tannaitic or at the latest amoraic origins. The book describes G-d in anthropomorphic terms, describing dimensions and each of the limbs of this Divine Form. How the rishonim respond to the text is illustrative.

The Rambam is so sure it’s heretical, he describes the Shi’ur Qomah as a Byzantine forgery (Teshuvos haRambam, Blau, 1:201).

R’ Saadia Gaon (Egypt 882/892 – Baghdad 942) took the approach I implied above, that the book should be read in the same light as the Maaseh haMerkavah. Which means the dispute over Who is the Man in the Throne — whether it’s a symbol to represent the Divine created out of the mind of the perceiver or a created being that is the embodiment of Hashem’s Glory (the Kavod Nivra) — would apply to the Shi’ur Komah as well. (R’ Saadia himself holds the latter with respect to Maaseh haMerkavah. See my earlier discussion in Mesukim MiDevash: Mishpatim.)

Meanwhile, there is a second esoteric tradition that speaks an entirely different language, as found in the numbers, letters, phonetics, combinatorics and discussion of names of G-d of Seifer haYetzirah. Tradition attributes the book to Adam, Avraham avinu, or R’ Aqiva, (R’ Moshe Cordevero says the latter, although he also suggests a hybrid solution — written by Avraham, redacted to its published form by Rabbi Aqiva.) But fortunately, our discussion depends more on when the book was published and studied than on when it was written. We’re looking at streams of thought, not the birthplace of an idea in obscurity. Rabbi Aqiva’s interest in Seifer haYetzirah brings its topics to the fore, to the discussion of Jewish Thought.

Rav Saadia Gaon wrote a commentary to Seifer haYetzirah using a system of Hebrew phonetics he himself devised, mapping it to concepts in a more Aristotelian philosophy system. Our first hint that the mystical and rationalist perspectives on things didn’t historically stand apart. R’ Saadia Gaon sees its discussion in terms of number, geometry and form preceding actual object, and its description of the various names of G-d as applying the various Aristotelian categories to our perception of Him.

In Rav Saadia Gaon’s work describing his own philosophy, Emunos veDei’os, there are no citations from Seifer haYetzirah nor references to its mode of thought. In all probability his work was published in response to public need, which in turn was caused by social pressure. The Moslems of his time were embracing an Aristotelian view of the world. Aristotle was at this point 1300 years old, and so thoroughly dominated the world of science and metaphysics it was accepted as the definitive description of how the world works. Only details were considered questionable. The Kalam (“Dialecticians”) arose among the Moslems, like the Scholastics later to among Christians, who try to unify their religion with this knowledge of the world, unifying revealed and discovered into one complete Truth. The Jews living among them were also struggling with these questions.

Rav Yehudah haLevi (also, “Rihal”; Toledo 1075/1086 – Israel 1141) takes a stance in The Kuzari. There is some speculation that it was written as a response to Emunos veDeios. The Kuzari vehemently rejects the notion of religion based on philosophical speculation. After all, whatever one philosopher proves, you can find another who proves the opposite. (1:13) It is a fitting tool for the Greeks, who lack a mesorah, but Semites and in particular the Jews have a more certain source of knowledge. (1:63) His conception of that tradition is not a collection of select authorities (the great rabbis of the past) but as a living culture of all the Jewish People — including the reader.

However, one can’t pigeonhole the Kuzari as an opposite to Emunos veDei’os. Both employ modes of thought we would consider Rationalist, rather than describing transmitted ideas on the basis of earlier authority (like the Yetzirah), or instructing one how to experience the metaphysical (as the Heikhalos literature does). Although he includes mesorah as a source of givens rather than only working from what can be known a priori, he reasons from those givens in philosophical ways.

Rihal believes that Divine Attributes are “derived from the way His creatures are affected by His decrees and measures”, not actual descriptions of G-d as He Is. But unlike Rav Saadia (and later the Rambam), he also spends time emphasizing the value of these descriptions to the human emotional experience. And also, in contrast to Emunos veDei’os, he discusses Seifer haYetzirah (names of G-d, the concept of sephirah) at length.

The first publication of what we today think of as Qabbalah is the Bahir, originally called after its author, Medrash R’ Nechunya ben Haqanah (1st cent CE). For example, that is how it is cited by the Ramban. Although, part of the work does also refer to the Teverian vowel system, which didn’t exist until the Geonic period, so this attribution doesn’t work for the entire final product. (Which is only to be expected for a text that is composed centuries before it is promulgated in writing. Oral traditions by their very nature grow and evolve, and are supposed to — this is one of the motivations for leaving them oral.) For our purposes, we merely note its publication date, Provence 1126.

The publication of the Bahir was when the public becomes aware of the results of combining the 10 sefiros, which from the Yetzirah are not described beyond their role as digits, with the angelology of the Heikhalot. For the first time the 10 sefiros are described in writing as channels which conduct Divine Influence down to creation, and angels in their own right.

Just 8 years after the Bahir’s revelation to the world, the Rambam was born. Notice this means the trend toward publishing the esoteric predates the Rambam.

The Rambam and the Moreh Nevuchim is a logical place to begin act 2, so I’ll pause here.

 

 

Narcissistic Spirituality

I was at a Mussar conference once, and Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin asked me about the programming. He asked, roughly, “When did Mussar shift from being about giving to others to being about working on my own middos?” In general, this kind of self-focus is an error that is all too easy in many spiritual paths.

Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov (Spain, appx. 1390-1440) in his derashos on parashas Devarim, compares three statements by tannaim who each consider a different pasuq of the Torah as conveying the Torah’s central theme. (Quoted in Yedei Moshe in the Vilna edition Midrash Rabbah, and by R’ MM Kasher in Torah Sheleimah.)

The Sifra (a/k/a Toras Kohanim) par’ Qedoshim 4:12 writes:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” — Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great principle of the Torah.”

Ben Azzai says, “‘Zeh sefer toledos adam’ — this is an even greater principle.”

Ben Azzai’s “great principle” is Bereishis 5:1-2:

This is the book of the generations of man.  On the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him.  Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and he named them “Adam” on the day they were created.

The Yerushalmi describes the same dispute, albeit in the opposite order, in Nedarim 9:4 (vilna ed. 30b). But the version of the medrash R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov comments upon is a third quote. Ben Zoma cites “Shema Yisrael“, which I doubt would surprise any of us.

According to Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, each are emphasizing a different ideal.

  • Ben Zoma – Shema Yisrael: One’s relationship with the Almighty
  • Rabbi Aqiva – Ve’ahavta lerei’akha: One relationship with other people
  • Ben Azzai – Toledos Adam: Self-refinement, self-perfection — one’s relationship with oneself. Understanding one’s “image” of the Divine and thereby refraining from all sin.

(I should tangentially point out that this is not the only way to understand the contrast between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai. There is a large literature on the subject. E.g. see this shiur by R’ Binyamin Zimmerman, distributed by Yeshivat Har Etzion, “Gush”. While you’re there, you may notice he extensively quotes from my translation of the introduction to Shaarei Yosher.)

This is akin to a recurring theme on this blog, the triad the Maharal identifies with “Torah, Avodah uGemillus Chassadim” and Dr Nathan Birnbaum, with “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres”. My own description: Hashem places us in three worlds, and each world has the opportunity of enabling a class of relationships, and each has its challenges of becoming an end in itself.

We live in the physical world, where we can interact with other people. In the ideal, this is dominated by empathy (rachamim) and expressed in lovingkindness (gemillus chassadim. However, we can fall into the traps of hedonism, epicureanism, and turning other desires of the flesh into life goals.

Hashem also placed us in heaven, where we can relate to Him through service (avodah) coming from a personal knowledge (da’as) of the Creator. But dreams of heaven also lead us to idolatry and paganism — using spirituality and metaphysics in “magickal” ways, trying to make our lives better without making ourselves any better.

Last, because of the tension between the two, we are forced to make conscious decisions. A world emerges within our own minds, containing our experiences — including the experience of thinking (metacognizance). The role of Torah is to perfect that world into a place of harmonious splendor (tif’eres). But having dreams and aspirations also opens the door to frustration and anger when they are thwarted, and overassessment of their importance — egotism.

Among the baalei mussar, this idea is expressed in a tripartite division of the mitzvos: bein adam lachaveiro (between a person and his peers), bein adam laMaqom (between man and the Omnipresent), and bein adam le’azamo (between man and himself). However, this addition of a third category is novel; usually bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam laMaqom, are described as being the sum of all the Torah. Five commandments of one (including honoring one’s parents as Hashem’s partners in one’s personal creation), five commandments of the other.

Although, related to the theme of this post, bein adam le’atzmo isn’t an end in itself. Healing oneself, perfecting oneself, is not meaningful as an end in itself. So, now someone is more perfect — a more perfect what? He is closer to the Image of the Divine, but what it is G-d does or Is that we are supposed to be an image of? I can live with the idea that since all of bein adam le’atzmo is a means to bein adam laMaqom and bein adam lachaveiro, one can equally choose to look at those mitzvos separately or not, depending on one’s purpose. But still, it’s nice to find sources that predate Rav Yisrael Salanter for the three-way-division perspective.

Returning to R’ Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, he is saying that each side of this triad was made a “kelal gadol” by one of these tannaim. Someone can follow the Torah by viewing the central mission it lays out for us in one of these terms.

Chassidus sets out man’s goal in life as deveiqus, cleaving to G-d. Their “kelal gadol” is Shema. The yeshiva world obviously revolves around Torah, and as the Nefesh haChaim (cheileq 4) puts it, Torah is immersed into like a miqvah leaving an indelible change on the person. “Zeh seifer toledos ha’adam – this is the book of the origins of man.”

Mussar is more complicated… It shares the yeshiva world’s notion of self-refinement. But it defines self-refinement in terms of one’s yir’as Shamayim (which in Novhardok becomes about bitachon, trusting in Him) and in terms of generosity to others. That is the ideal person, what one is refining oneself to become. With that background, we can rephrase R/Dr Levin’s question as asking why we stopped looking at what kind of outward connections to G-d and to other people the person of perfect middos is capable of making, and focused only on the middos themselves.

It’s a kind of spiritual narcissism; religion becomes all about me.

Related is R’ Wolbe’s conceptualization of frumkeit in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. To quote part of my analysis in an earlier blog entry:

Rav Wolbe notes a different alternative to thoughtfulness — instinct. To Rav Wolbe, frumkeit is an instinctive drive to be close to the Creator. It is not even specific to humans; the frumkeit instinct is what King David refers to when he writes, “כְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף, וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵ-ל אָכְלָם — lion cubs roar at their prey, and request from G-d their food.” (Tehillim 104:21) And, “נוֹתֵן לִבְהֵמָה לַחְמָהּ, לִבְנֵי עֹרֵב אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאוּ — He gives the animal its food, to the ravens’ offspring who cry.” (147:9)

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

Frumkeit is a narcissistic version of pursuing deveiqus. It’s not that G-d is One, it’s that I have to be the holy person who declares that unity. It’s not even really being driven to do the mitvah for the sake of the mitzvah, it’s for the sake of me having the mitzvah under my belt.

So, it is possible working from any of these Great Principles to end up with a self-focus religiosity. One overwhelmed by anokhius (literally: Me-ness). I could become more interested in my being holy than in Hashem’s Will being done, and be upset that someone else played the role I dreamed of for myself in the revival of Mussar. Or one can turn one’s Shabbos guest into a lulav or tefillin — an object for doing a mitzvah, rather than a friend to be loved the way I love myself.

But in contrast, the path of bein adam le’atzmo, is accutely prone to this problem. Ben Azzai’s “book of the generations of man” requires constant reminders that the perfect man must be perfect for some function. Too much talk of middah work without enough Qunterus haChesed (the translation in Strive for Truth calls it “Discourse on Lovingkindness”) leads to self-absorbtion.

It’s a danger of the Western zeitgeist that it’s too easy to make a religion out of independence and autonomy. And I fear the same decay into such “narcissism” has taken hold in the typical Beis Yaakov education in the past decade.

As recently as ten years ago, girls in these schools were being taught in very clear terms that their central mitzvah is chessed. In fact, the Beis Yaakov school system was the only active contemporary movement that followed R’ Aqiva’a (as understood by RSTiST) kelal gadol of ve’ahavta lerei’akha. (Or for that matter, Hillel’s.) High School girls are routinely expected to dedicate a number of hours per semester performing acts of chessed. Chesed then underpins their future lives as wives and mothers — roles that require much giving to people who too often take them for granted.

However, increasingly, the Beis Yaakov system is making tzeni’us, modesty in behavior and clothing, an expression of self-respect, their central message for the girls in their school. Emphasizing an admittedly critical middah, particularly in a world where we “worship” whomever has the spotlight. Where we seek self-validation through the accolades of others. Tzeni’us means giving with no expectation of receiving, even receiving attention or “ego-stroking”, in return. But we have gone from teaching a life of chessed, giving to others, to focusing on a middah, and we’re attenuating the message of what that middah is for, what is it the tzenu’ah woman is more capable of accomplishing that gives tzeni’us its value.

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Brisk and Telz

(Published in the December 2010 issue of Kol Hamevaser, “The Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body”. The issue’s topic: “Derekh Ha-Limmud”. (Two additions not in the published version are added in this sans-serif font.)

At some point during my time in Yeshiva University, I chose not to follow the more popular “track,” leading to R. Hershel Schachter’s and R. J. B. Soloveitchik’s shi’urim. Instead, upon my return from Israel for my junior year, I joined R. Dovid Lifshitz’s shi’ur, where I remained until my graduation from Yeshiva. A large part of my motivation was that my great-grandfather, R. Shlomo Zalmen Birger, had a kloyz, a small beit midrash, in Suvalk, and Rav Dovid, the Suvalker Rav, knew him and remembered my family. However, the primary impetus of that decision was my sense that something inherent in the Brisker derekh did not speak to me, whereas Rav Dovid’s derekh ha-limmud was that of his rebbe, R. Shimon Shkop, a variant of the Telzer derekh, which was a methodology that did speak to me. I do not claim that I could have articulated this clearly at the time, but I have given a good deal of thought to the matter since and hope to explain it now, as well.

First, what is the Brisker derekh? Perhaps a good place to start, not in the least because it is somewhat humorous and therefore memorable, in addition to still being pretty accurate, is with R. Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s essay comparing how various darkhei ha-limmud 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 bacause [sic] it has a double (tzvei dinim) tea bag.”[1]

This is typical of the Brisker derekh, which seeks distinctions, hakirot. One therefore contrasts multiple cases, or multiple opinions within a single mahaloket (dispute), to see how they differ. The explanations involve ideas like heftsa vs. pe’ullah, heftsa vs. gavra (is it that the object must have something done to it [heftsa], or that a given person has a duty to do something [gavra]?), pe’ullah vs. halot (the time or location of the action [pe’ullah], vs. the time or location of the change of halakhic state [halot]), etc. This allows the Brisker to fit the specific positions under discussion into overarching halakhic categories.

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 cases 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 in order to derive or generate a single formula that fits a wider variety of cases. The goal is to find the hakirah and use it to tie the case into a broader principle.

In contrast, the following is R. Bechhofer’s response to the question about tea in the style of R. Shimon Shkop: “It is the Hitztarfus (Fusion) of tea molecules and sugar molecules that makes the tea sweet.”[2] The point here is that R. Shimon often goes beyond the limits of Halakhah to appeal to the reality or experience it generates in his answer to a question. These first principles, givens that are self-evident before entering the halakhic system, allow R. Shimon to discuss the lessons the Halakhah was intended to impress on the one following it.

In the same issue of Kol Hamevaser, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper has an article titled “Can Retson Hashem matter in Lomdus?: Mitsvah ha-Ba’ah ba-Aveirah and the Limitations of Formalism[*]. It is worth perusing in this context. I think Rabbi Klapper intentionally limited his discussion to Brisker lomdus in particular, due to its overwhelming popularity. As he opens: “We live in the universe Brisk hath wrought, and I do not propose to begin Cartesian-style from first principles.”

The answer I’m effectively offering here is that the limitations aren’t of formalism, but of Brisker derekh and its “scientific” approach in particular. And there are other methodologies already developed, one needn’t begin anew to utilize a different methodology.

I would like to give a real example, but first, let me apologize for its complexity. By the very nature of the topic of derekh ha-limmud, it is difficult to find simple examples that are illustrative. If the topic were straightforward, the lines of reasoning would be short and probably not be made explicitly. As a side note, side-by-side comparisons of darkhei ha-limmud are also difficult to find. Before even looking at the differences in answers created by the differences in learning styles, one must realize that the types of questions that each derekh considers significant and worth exploring also differ. I am therefore choosing a question actually discussed by R. Shimon Shkop that is more “Brisker” in tone than some others.[3]

Let us look at how the two darkhei ha-limmud would understand the mechanics of bittul hamets, of nullifying one’s hamets (leaven) before Pesah. In reality, Halakhah does not recognize real ownership of the hamets, since ownership means rights to use, and one may not use hamets on Pesah. The “ownership” one is nullifying is that created by a special biblical decree. The Gemara (Pesahim 6b) compares this to a pit dug in public property. You are culpable for any harm that comes from stumbling on “your” pit, even though it is in the public domain and your ownership of the pit is not real.  Rabbeinu Nissim (Ran, ad loc.)  explains that this “non-ownership” is why bittul hamets is effective; since the whole problem is caused by non-ownership, simply making a statement of nullification is enough to eliminate it. However, no one would claim that one could declare that he or she no longer has an attachment to the pit and thereby avoid payment! Why shouldn’t we draw this conclusion, though, if the Gemara itself compares these two forms of pseudo-ownership?

This question is more typical of Brisker analysis, using a distinction to find the borders of an idea. A Brisker answer to such a question focuses on the difference between a prohibition related to an object (heftsa) and, in this case, the responsibility for an event that occurred due to someone’s action (pe’ullah). The prohibition is not to eat hamets, an object. However, the financial obligation to make restitution for someone’s injured or lost property that fell into a pit dug in public land is due to the event of that property falling into the hole, an action. Therefore, one needs more than a simple declaration to eliminate one’s ties to the pit.

Rav Shimon (Sha’arei Yosher 5:23) gives a different answer. He says that the validity of bittul hamets rests on the fact that it is the Halakhah that generates the non-reality of the ownership. Had the Torah not prohibited the use of hamets, the person would remain the full owner. Therefore, he has the authority to renounce what remains of the ownership (which Ran tells us is slight and can therefore be eliminated by a simple formula). In the case of the pit, the “ownership” is itself the verse’s decree – the property in question is public property. Since one does not have inherent ownership of the pit, one cannot distance oneself from it. Within Rav Shimon’s worldview, the question is whether one’s “ownership” of the object is inherent or scriptural, and from that point the discussion moves on to what this notion of inherent (perhaps I should say “pre-halakhic”?) ownership means and how it impacts bittul and related matters.

To Brisk, the problem is collapsed into the object vs. action distinction made in the Gemara elsewhere with respect to oaths and vows. To Rav Shimon, though, it is an instance of a basic principle about the philosophy of ownership, a return to first principles.

Telz’s first rosh yeshivah was R. Eliezer Gordon, a student of R. Yisrael Salanter. Although it had a strong Musar (ethical improvement) program, its approach was far too intellectual to qualify as a genuine “Musar yeshivah.” Rather than the emotional Musar shmues (ethical discourse), the Telzer approach focused on shi’urei da’at, classes on thought and attitude. One attended a shmues not so much to learn information he did not yet know, but to be moved by the experience of the presentation. In a “shi’ur da’at,” one would reach for the same goal of spiritual wholeness as in the Musar yeshivot, but via an intellectual path. Without the experiential focus of Musar and its shmuesn (talks), its exercises and unique practices, its more emotional approach to internalizing texts, Telz still fit within the main Lithuanian yeshivah mold.

Rav Dovid Lifshitz was a strong believer in the use of the shmues and emotion. For example, shmuesn usually included singing a song, and the first shi’ur of a semester was among the occasions that were always marked with a shmues and a song. Once, we sang the song “Ve-taher libbenu,” a song containing a total of four words, over and over for more than twenty minutes, asking for Hashem’s aid to “purify our hearts” for the start of the zeman, the term. And this was typical.

Still, the Musar elements of Telz meant that the notion that Halakhah as a whole has a purpose was a given. This was further enforced by the claim that the purpose of Halakhah is shelemut ha-adam, completion and perfection of the self. Therefore, while Brisk sought the explanation of individual laws in terms of halakhic principles, Telz looked for a purposive explanation. And while Brisk looked at multiple opinions of a single case, or multiple cases, Telz focused on the singular. Even when looking at multiple opinions, its purpose was to find what they shared in common, not to find contrast. What do these approaches say about what is essential about the meaning, purpose and role of the mitsvah?

Fundamental to Brisker philosophy is the idea that Halakhah has no first principles. It can only be understood on its own terms. As R. Soloveitchik describes in Halakhic Man, it is only through Halakhah that man finds a balance between his religious need for redemption and his creative, constructive self. As the book opens,

“Halakhic man reflects two opposing selves; two disparate images are embodied within his soul and spirit. On the one hand he is as far removed from homo religiosus as east is from west and is identical, in many respects, to prosaic, cognitive man; on the other hand he is a man of God, possessor of an ontological approach that is devoted to God and of a world view saturated with the radiance of the Divine Presence.”[4]

This notion is a major theme running through the work, if not its primary thesis.

(Ironically, a true Halakhic Man would never explore the questions addressed by Halakhic Man! R. Soloveitchik’s loyalty to Brisk, while true in terms of derekh ha-limmud, style of studying Gemara, and the shi’ur he gave in Furst Hall, was also compromised on the perspective level by his interest in philosophy – as heard in his public discourses.)

A telling statement about the Brisker mindset is this bafflement expressed by Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik:

I have always been troubled by the role and position of the prophet. On the one hand, we rule that a navi is prohibited from introducing innovation in halakhah, from adding or detracting “even the serif of a yud“; on the other hand, Hashem communicated with the nevi’im, they prophesied, and their prophecy was written for all future generations. What purpose did their prophecy serve, given that they could introduce no halakhic chiddush? True, they rebuked the nation, and to give rebuke is certainly one of the reasons prophets were sent. But still, I am troubled by the notion that their message should be completely devoid of halakhic content.[**]

This instinct that for something to have religious content it must be phrased in terms of halakhah, that messages of Jewish thought or of fundamental values are inherently suspect is not one a Telzher, or most non-Briskers, would share.

The Brisker derekh gave the post-Haskalah (Enlightenment) observant Jew a mental experience that compared to the thrills of scientific study. The Telzer derekh gave him the excitement of philosophical study and connected his learning and mitsvah observance to his quest to be a better Jew.

Loosely along similar lines, Rav Hayyim Soloveitchik, known as Rav Hayyim Brisker, rejected the argument in favor of accepting Radziner tekhelet (blue dye used in tsitsit) because it was a scientific one, not halakhic in basis. Accordingly, Halakhah is itself the primary basis – non-halakhic argument is irrelevant.

This distinction is also manifest in the two derakhim’s approaches to going beyond the letter of the law. The Brisker view on humra, stringency, is one where the person is “hoshesh le-shittat peloni almoni,” concerned for the position of so-and-so. It is the notion that while the baseline law is lenient, one may want to “cover all the bases” and satisfy all opinions. In Telz, a humra would be chosen based on a person’s plan for shelemut, an awareness of what personal flaws he is ready to address, and the identification of opinions that can be related to them.

R. Soloveitchik famously declared that “there is no ritual in Judaism;” he saw no reason for additional rituals. To quote one example:

“For instance, a recent booklet on the Sabbath stressed the importance of a white tablecloth. A woman recently told me that the Sabbath is wonderful, and that it enhances her spiritual joy when she places a snow-white tablecloth on her table. Such pamphlets also speak about a sparkling candelabra. Is this true Judaism? You cannot imbue real and basic Judaism by utilizing cheap sentimentalism and stressing empty ceremonies. Whoever attempts such an approach underestimates the intelligence of the American Jew. If you reduce Judaism to religious sentiments and ceremonies, then there is no role for rabbis to discharge. Religious sentiments and ceremonies are not solely possessed by Orthodox Jewry. All the branches of Judaism have ceremonies and rituals.”[5]

I was once asked by someone if wearing Rabbeinu Tam tefillin necessarily expressed a lack of certainty that Rashi’s opinion about the ordering of texts in the tefillah worn on the head was correct. I would say his question reflects a Brisker position — “Brisker humrot are about hashash, uncertainty in ruling. A typical explanation of such a humra would be: “We hold like Tosafot, but it pays to be stringent to be hoshesh for Rosh’s opinion.” In Telzer thought (and not uniquely Telzer – it is typical of the Hasidut and Musar movements, as well), one might do so because one found a kavvanah (intent) that better fits the order of parashiyyot in Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, and thus wishes to experience that in addition to fulfilling what he knows to be the accepted law.

To R. Soloveitchik, kavvanah and religious experience can only authentically come from following Halakhah. The notion of extra-halakhic spiritual experience does not fit the Halakhic Man’s framework.

In short, Brisk asks the scientist’s “Vos?” (What?), and Telz asks the philosopher’s “Far vos?” (Why?). In my own desperate search for a more meaningful avodat Hashem, worship of God, I found it much more easily in the latter.

R. Micha Berger is a graduate of YC and lives with his wife and ten children in Passaic, New Jersey. He is the founding president of The AishDas Society, an organization that “empowers Jews to utilize their observance in a process for building thoughtful and passionate relationships with their Creator, other people and themselves.” Professionally, he is a software developer with over twenty years of experience in the financial industry.


[1] Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, “An Analysis of Darchei HaLimud (Methodologies of Talmud Study) Centering on a Cup of Tea,” available at: http://www.aishdas.org/rygb/derachim.htm. His complete survey is broader than these two examples, and includes some less humorous discussion as well.

[2] Ibid.

[*] Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Kol Hamevaser December 2010, “Can Retson Hashem matter in Lomdus?: Mitsvah ha-Ba’ah ba-Aveirah and the Limitations of Formalism” (Retrieved Dec. 29, 2010)

[3] If you do not wish to slog through the example, skip ahead to the paragraph that begins, “Telz was founded by…”

[4] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1984),

[**] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Shiurim leZeukher Abba Mori, vol II page 173; rough tr. by Rabbi Chaim Brown, Divrei Chaim Blog, Nov. 25, 2010, “The role of nevuah in the eyes of a Brisker” (Retrieved Dec. 29, 2010)

[5] Lecture, “The Role of the Rabbi,” given to the Yeshiva University Rabbinic Alumni, May 18, 1955 (Yiddish). Translation by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. 2, (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1999), p. 54.

Balancing Community and Authenticity

This post, like the one I blogged last week, reflects a conversation with R’ Rich Wolpoe and R’ Ben Hecht on NishmaBlog and email, on the topic of R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo’s “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity“. That issue appears to be closely tied to the role of communal pesaq, and why do we need some kind of unity in practice, anyway. Comments on that blog entry also revolve around the role of communal acceptance of a particular pesaq and how that creates authority.

How do we balance that communal nature of a halachic community, of being a Chosen People, with the individual’s personal perspective and unique nature? And how does that balance express itself how halachic rulings should be made and followed?


When speaking to people about getting started in Mussar, one of the more asked questions is how all this middah work differs from a self-help program. Through repetition, I have a pretty standardized answer.

Both Mussar and Self Help involve a definition of the ideal, becoming cognizant of the real, and finding a path from the real to the ideal. Where things differ is in who defines the ideal. In Self Help, the focus is on actualizing the person you wish to be. Thus there is a focus on personal choice, doing your own thing, and autonomy.

In Mussar, it’s to become the person Hashem created you to be. For that matter, the same could be said of the Yeshiva Movement, and the ideal Jew as described in Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh haChaim. The split within Lithuania was about the amount of conscious effort one must place in the task of refining oneself. Rav Yisrael Salanter taught that one must actively pursue middah work. The Yeshiva Movement as it evolved in Volozhin and its daughter schools taught that Torah in-and-of-itself will effect this change, and one need only set out to study Torah, with the traditional focus on talmud and halakhah to become the people Hashem created us to be.

To that contrast, let me add a third alternative (in addition to self-help and Mussar): In Chassidus, the ideal is to cleave to G-d. There is a definition of an ideal person, although not phrased in terms of personal refinement but rather in how he relates to the Almighty. And so we can say that in both in the Vilna Gaon’s legacy and in that of the Baal Shem Tov, Judaism is defined in terms of personal becoming — whether it a process of becoming ever more shaleim (whole) or davuq (attached [to the Creator]), respectively.

And for that matter, Rav Hirsch’s approach to the purpose of mitzvos is as symbols and actions that inculcate lessons — and therefore also phrased as a personal transformation.

Given this focus, where then does national membership belong? Shouldn’t we each just follow those halachic positions that best express our own, personal, religiosity? R’ Cardozo’s playing down the role of codification is all about using the fluidity that would enable to better find meaningful religious experience. And yet I objected entirely because I assigned an importance to conformity, and in particular to the extent that we’re taught that accepted precedent is binding and closes the door on practicing the alternative. Why?

If we were discussing self-help this question would be valid. If self refinement were to be the person I defined as ideal, then such limitations would have not place.

However, an ideal of sheleimus and deveiqus defines an ideal in which each individual’s meaning is found as part of the whole. In playing a role in a larger community. Someone who tries to live as a metaphoric island can not be whole.


In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s essay “Community”, the Rav defines a basic dialectic in how people relate to the community: On the one hand, the purpose of the collective is to work together for the good of its members. The whole social contract philosophy of government is based on that perspective. On the other hand, the individual’s higher calling is to aid the the community.

Kelal Yisrael is a corporate entity of which the Rambam in Seifer haMitzvos can discuss mitzvos that apply between two Jews in terms of “haqatzeh el haqatzeh”, what “one end” does to “another end”. But Israel is also a set of Jews, a number of individuals.

The Rav argued that beris Noach and beris avos were covenants made between G-d and individuals, Noach and the forefathers respectively. Whereas beris Sinai created a corporate entity — the Jewish People. And from this he draws distinctions between stories in Bereishis and how we observe Torah today.

Personally, I would have made the personal covenent vs. national covenent distinction later, between the two berisim Hashem makes with us in the desert — at Sinai, and “the words of the beris … aside from the beris which He made with them in Horeb” (Devarim 28:69) at the plains of Moav. It is in describing this latter covenent that was given shortly before crossing the Jordan into Israel in which Hashem relays most of the nation-building laws of the Torah.

Rabbi Hecht beautifully described the national character of Torah as:

… [W]hat we may term the model of the symphony which advocates for the a collective of individuals who are actualizing their individuality but in a collective manner so that the result is greater than the sum of the parts…

The Ramban (among numerous others) likens the Jews to organs in a body. It’s like the symphony model. Not uniformity in action, but unity though each playing a different part toward the same combined action.

Or, putting it in the covenental terms — the beris at the plains of Moav had to come after a generation of people raised in a mileu of the beris Sinai. However, beris Sinai couldn’t be complete without it. Until the details spelled out in Devarim, given at Arvos Moav, there was only an incomplete definition of the entity the individual is to try to be an effective part of. At Sinai we were given the tools to learn how to play music, if we chose to pick them up. But at Arvos Moav the musicians were given the score to which the orchestra will be playing.

Does this deny the idea we saw in common in all those schools of thought that place the centrality of halakhah in how it shapes the person following it? Not at all! The goal is to be the best musician you can, to choose the instrument best suited to your proclivities and abilities and master it.

By giving us free will, Hashem offers us autonomy in two ways — first, we could choose to violate the beris. We have bechirah whether or not to fulfill the terms of the covenant. But even within conforming, we can choose our intrument. And a point somewhere in between these two extremes, by choosing how much we invest in studying music we have some input into whether that role in the symphony is first violin, or part of the chorus. Between the skills with which we were blessed, how and if we choose to develop them, we have some autonomy in our choice of role to play in the orchestra.

Kehunah and Unity

Back on Chanukah I wrote:

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel [mentioned in the poem "Ma'oz Tzur"], were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

One possible reaction to assimilation is to build up the fortress walls. We can hope to stave off negative influences by reducing out exposure to the outside world. The idea that we need to stay distinct is not necessarily one that isn’t heard, but perhaps one that we are overly stressing.

I think this too is a message of the soreg. Yes, there is a separation between Jew and non-Jew, but it is only waist high and woven of slats with far more space than wood. The “walls of my fortress” are a reminder, not a solid barrier.

We are charged to be G-d’s “mamlekhes kohanim vegoy qadosh — a country of priests and a holy nation.” We need to balance the separation implied by the concept of qedushah with our role as kohanim, a priesthood providing religious leadership. We can not be priests if we do not stay to our special calling, but our special calling is self-indulgent if we do not use it to serve others. “Ki miTzion teitzei Sorah — because from Zion the Torah shall come forth.” By wallling ourselves in we not only protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from teaching others.

I recently realize this dovetails well with an idea I posted about back in 2005 (this is only one part of a number of arguments for the beauty of and need for a plurality of Orthodoxies):

We must learn to look at other forms of Torah observance as “different parts of the same body”. Not to be tolerated despite their differences, but loved because of them. All come from the same toras imekha [and thus Jewish identity is matrilineal], the same basic worldview, values and aspirations. We differ, as did the shevatim, in mussar avikha [which is why sheivet membership is patrilineal], in the formal layer of education after that, where we learn our roles and where we fit in that greater mission.

This was the message Hashem gave Aharon in the beginning of parashas Beha’alosekha. Chazal write that when the heads of the shevatim brought their qorbanos (listed at the end of Naso), Aharon, whose role included being the head of Levi, was pained at not being able to participate. Hashem comforted him by pointing to the story of Chanukah. The chanukas habayis, the consecration of the Beis haMiqdash, by Aharon’s descendants the Chashmona’im, was greater than the offerings of the nesi’im. Why?

Each of the nesi’im brought what was physically the same offering. However, each offering was distinct in intent. The Ramban itemizes the allusions each nasi could find in the same offering that relate to his particular tribe, to his particular ancestor. The offerings were colored by mussar avikha, by each sheivet’s particularist role.

Aharon is then told, “When you cause the menorah [flames] to go up, toward the face of the menorah its lamps should burn.” The menorah has one central trunk, from which emerge six branches. The flame atop each branch must point toward the middle. Each branch is a different wisdom, a different skill-set. They all emerge from the same basic Torah, from the mother-taught values that define our Jewishness. It is Aharon’s job to remind us that they also must be channeled back toward that central core.

We all work toward a common goal. Knowing that each of us are unique, bringing unique thoughts and abilities, unique perspective and educational background, leads us not only to realize the full value of our own part in the greater whole (no man is “just another brick in the wall”) but to treasure the contributions of others because they are so different than our own, and bringing something to the whole that we can’t.

It struck me this morning that there is a common theme in the two.

Just as the shevatim had different roles in the same central goal, the various nations each have a role in humanity’s goal. That list of roles will always include the job of reminding the whole that they are a single whole that is supposed to work together for a common noble end. Whether it’s Aharon and the Chashmonaim reminding the Jewish people, or the Jewish people having the (unpopular) job of being the world’s reminder. That is called kehunah.

Vetaheir Libeinu

We say in the Amidah for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “Vetaheir libeinu le’avekha be’emes”, usually translated simply as “And purify our hearts to serve You in truth.””Vetaheir libeinu” provides an interesting contrast to “veyacheid levaveinu li’ahavah ulyir’ah es shemekha — and unify our hearts to love and be in awe of Your name”, said in the last berakhah before the morning recitation of Shema. Libeinu stands distinct from levaveinu, the same two-veis “levav” that we find in Shema, “And you shall love Hashem your G-d bekhol levavekha, with all your heart.” There, Chazal interpret the word as “beshnei yitzrekha — with both your inclinations”. In “veyacheid levaveinu” we speak of unifying the warring urges of a complex heart, which notably has one veis for each inclination, “levav”. Here we ask for surcease from that complexity, that Hashem render the single-veis “leiv” tahor, pure of other inclinations. (While many question the accuracy of “tahor” as being defined “pure”, “zahav tahor” does mean “pure gold”.)

“Le’avdiacha”. Rav SR Hirsch explains the root /ayin-beis-dalet/ as a more intensive form of /aleph-beis-dalet/, to be lost (just as an ayin is like an alef, but is supposed to be voiced). To lose one’s goals to another’s’, working entirely for another person. Here we speak of taharah from inappropriate goals so that one can work entirely toward the aims Hashem spelled out for us.

I would think that a Ba’al Mussar would focus on “vetaheir libeinu”, while the Chassid would read them as secondary to the next — le’avdikha. True to the fork in the hashkafic road between Litta’s focus on sheleimus, wholeness and completion, and Chassidus’s focus on deveiqus, cleaving to G-d.

Bi’emes — in/through truth: At first I took this to be an adverb for le’avdekha. However, I want to draw attention back to the first thing I skipped in this quote, the opening letter, “vav — vetaheir”. It begins with a prefix meaning “and”. This makes our phrase part of a list, along with, “qadsheinu bemitzvosekha, vesein chelqeinu beSorasekha, sab’einu mituvekha, vesamcheinu biyshu’asekha”. In all of those cases, the noun at the end of the phrase is the means by which we ask for the thing described by the rest of the phrase; for example “Sanctify us through your mitzvos”. (The mem in “mituvekha” deserves comment. Another time.) So, here too, emes would be the means, not a modifier for le’vadekha.

Taking the phrase all together: We are asking for Hashem to give us emes, by which we will get the taharas haleiv necessary to answer only one calling — His.

Modern Orthodoxy, Chareidism, and Mussar

Thinking about it, I don’t think the whole Torah uMadah (TuM) vs. Torah im Derekh Eretz (TIDE) vs. “Torah Only” distinctions which have become the borders between our communities are really compatible with Mussar. To simplify, let’s phrase the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Chareidim as basically whether (1) chol is an opportunity whose risks must be mitigated or (2) it is a set of risks that ought to be avoided and only then we can look to see what opportunities remain of what’s left. (TIDE and TuM then differ as to what the opportunity is, what one stands to gain from chol, and therefore what kinds of chol are more significant.)Both are relatively remedial ways of addressing personal challenge. Methods usable for setting communal policy or for someone who doesn’t really know himself. However, in a community of people who strive to know themselves and judge each situation accordingly, there is no need to rely on such blanket statements.

The current TuM/TIDE sociological groups do not include a TuM/TIDE plus tiqun hamiddos (repairing one’s personality traits. Probably because they are founded on the thought of R’ YB Soloveitchik, from Brisk (“you don’t need any more Mussar than you get from the Shulchan Arukh”), and R’ SR Hirsch, respectively. Modern Orthodoxy sadly collapses into Orthodoxy-Lite for so many of those who affiliate with that community because there is no such introspection. Without that self-awareness, the dangerous gets embraced long enough for the risks to blind the victim to themselves before anyone even thinks to ask the question of mitigating them.

Alternatively, I could say to a yeshivish person that what they need is a different kind of yeshivish, one in which tiqun hamidos tools are used to know when and how to protect oneself from today’s degenerating society without missing out on its opportunities. That the currently pursued alternative, retreating into fortresses, is a position for the weak. And weakening the masses engenders the need for further retreat ad infinitum. But the resulting “yeshivish” would be something that is too new to simply fit within the current movement’s umbrella.

And in fact, both this new Modern Orthodoxy and new Yeshivish would be identical.

The solution, in my humble opinion, is orthogonal to that whole axis. (Or perhaps I’m just one of the “newly converted” who just got a shiny new hammer and sees everying as nails…)

Different Parts of the Same Body

We can draw a theme from parashas Bamidbar through the beginning of Beha’alosekha.In Beha’alosekha, Moshe and Aharon count the Jewish People “according to their families, by their father’s household” (1:2), divided by sheivet. Sheivet is defined patrilineally. Membership in the Jewish People as a whole is matrilineal, though. Why? We also find this asymetry in a law mentioned later in that parashah — pidyon haben. While the father’s oldest child gets twice the inheritance of his other children, when it comes to the sanctity of the firstborn, and the need to redeem it, it’s the mother’s firstborn that is holy.We see a hint to the difference in a verse, “These are the children of Moshe and Aharon; the children of Aharon are…” The medrash explains that Aharon’s children are the children of Moshe, their mentor, as well. (Unlike Moshe’s own children, who did not follow their father as their mentor.) Fatherhood is captured by formal education. In fact, the mitzvah of chinukh, formal education, falls only on the father.

Mothers inherently teach, whether they wish to or not. They are the ones home, setting the tone that the children grow up within, the attitudes they absorb preconsciously. Deeper than formal education, the exchange of ideas, this is the exchange of culture, ideals, and values. In fact, a command to provide this education, which would necessitate formal and procedural “teaching” in order to fulfill this mitzvah, would get in the way of the true transmission of the instinctive culture.

The difference is summed up by Shelomo haMelekh: “Shema beni mussar avikha, ve’al titosh toras imekha — Listen, my son, to what your father gives over, and do not abandon your mother’s Torah.” It’s no coincidence that Chazal tell us “Do not read ‘toras imekha’ but ‘toras umaskha’ — the Torah of your nation.” Torah as orakh chaim, as the way the people live.

I analyze this aspect of things in more detail in Mesukim Midevash for Bamidbar. There are two aspects to Oral Torah which affects our understanding of the decline of generations in light of our progress to the messianic era, as well as explaining the need for mussar and the other derakhim that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries. I also wrote on this topic earlier, in an entry titled “The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks on the Hashkafic Road“.

But here I want to look at what it says about the nature of the shevatim. We all share common values, which is why Jewishness is matrilineal. Our roles, our assigned duties, are those of our sheivet, and since this can be formally taught, it’s patrilineal.

Parashas Naso continues this count down into the families of Leviim, and describing their duties.

In his Shabbos morning derashah, R’ Ron Yitzchak Eisenman (the rav of my shul), repeated an interesting point he found in a seifer titled Yalqut Shemu’el by R’ Shmuel Fine, a rav in Detroit in the 1930s. Among the coverings of the utensils of the Mishkan named when speaking of the duties of the Leviim to carry them form place to place were ones made of the leather of techashim. Tachash is the same kind of leather used in the top layer of the Mishkan’s roof. The word “tachash” is difficult to translate. Some, following a comment in Yechezqeil that Hashem made us shoes of tachash leather in the desert, identify it with an aquatic animal, since Bedouins use that to make their shoes. Others translate it as a “unicorn”. The Targum Unqelus defines it as “sasgona”, which the gemara (Shabbos 28a) tells us is an animal that rejoices (sas) in its many colors (gona). The Tankhuma (Terumah 6) says it has six (sheish – sas) colors. Chazal also say the tachash was created once, just for the Mishkan, which would fit the unicorn or the sasgona. (See Rabbi Nosson Slifkin’s Mysterious Creatures pp. 74-79 for a complete inquiry into the identity of the Tachash.)

The Yalqut Shemu’el asks why the animal used must be one that is sas, rejoices, in his colors. The sasgona is not only a single creature of diverse colors; it takes joy in its diversity! This is a key ingredient to building the Mishkan and in fact of building any qehillah. We shouldn’t merely tolerate Jews of other stripes, we should rejoice in their existence. Yahadus is stronger because we have Modern Orthodox Jews who take that Judaism to the streets, Yeshivish ones who are constantly raising the bar on the standards of Torah study, the chassidim who breathed life into America’s kashrus industry, the Zionists who secured for us a homeland and the anti-Zionists who insure we don’t worship it as an end in itself. Within the four amos of halakhah we need multiple expressions.

The tachash is not only identified with the sasgona, but also the unicorn. A kosher animal that had one horn, one qeren. “Keren” also means pride or power. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei “The sprout of David should sprout soon, and he will lift his qeren for your redemption.” The tachash is not simply a plurality, it’s a union of disparate parts, a synergy to make one greater force, one inseparable being.

We must learn to look at other forms of Torah observance as “different parts of the same body”. Not to be tolerated despite their differences, but loved because of them. All come from the same toras imekha, the same basic worldview, values and aspirations. We differ, as did the shevarim, in mussar avikha, in the formal layer of education after that, where we learn our roles and where we fit in that greater mission.

This was the message Hashem gave Aharon in the beginning of parashas Beha’alosekha. Chazal write that when the heads of the shevatim brought their qorbanos (listed at the end of Naso), Aharon, whose role included being the head of Levi, was pained at not being able to participate. Hashem comforted him by pointing to the story of Chanukah. The chanukas habayis, the consecration of the Beis haMiqdash, by Aharon’s descendents the Chashmona’im, was greater than the offerings of the nesi’im. Why?

Each of the nesi’im brought what was physically the same offering. However, each offering was distinct in intent. The Ramban itemizes the allusions each nasi could find in the same offering that relate to his particular tribe, to his particular ancestor. The offerings were colored by mussar avikha, by each sheivet’s particularist role.

Aharon is then told, “When you cause the menorah [flames] to go up, toward the face of the menorah its lamps should burn.” The menorah has one central trunk, from which emerge six branches. The flame atop each branch must point toward the middle. Each branch is a different wisdom, a different skill-set. They all emerge from the same basic Torah, from the mother-taught values that define our Jewishness. It is Aharon’s job to remind us that they also must be channeled back toward that central core.

We all work toward a common goal. Knowing that each of us are unique, bringing unique thoughts and abilities, unique perspective and educational background, leads us not only to realize the full value of our own part in the greater whole (no man is “just another brick in the wall”) but to treasure the contributions of others because they are so different than our own, and bringing something to the whole that we can’t.

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.