Chidush and Shinui

Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma went to Peki’in to visit their rebbe, Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua asked them to repeat something they had learned in the beis medrash since their last encounter. They answered, “We are your students, and we drink of your waters.” Rabbi Yehoshua replied, “Ee efshar leveis hamedrash belo chidush — It is impossible to have a beis medrash where nothing new is taught.” (Chagigah 3a)

Innovation is a critical element of Torah study. In Ish haHalakhah (pg. 73), Rav JB Soloveitchik explains that the recipient of the mesorah is not passive; rather, he receives while acting in the image (as it were) of the Creator of Worlds.

Obviously, though, this isn’t a carte blanche. Not all creative intepretations the Torah could possibly be equally valid. Rav Soloveitchik distinguishes between chidush, the positive process of innovation, with shinui, inappropriate changes to halakhah. But he writes in the halachic domain, where this conclusion is obvious; what is a legal system without a well-defined legislative process?

A month ago (“Ikkarei Emunah”, end) , we looked at the list of beliefs listed in Avos 3:11 (or 15 in some editions that Rav Elazar haModi’in says could keep one from having a share in the World to Come. Among them is “megaleh panim baTorah shelo kehalakhah — revealing perspectives in the Torah which are not according to halachah”. One might think this refers to halachic statements, however, it could also mean aggadic statements that somehow violate the halakhah. In fact, the Tosafos Yom Tov (ad loc) gives “veTimna haysah pilegesh — and Timna was a concubine” as an example, the textbook case of a verse that not only has no halachic impact, but also its philosophical or ethical content is unknown.

The Tosafos Yom Tov is clearly applying the concept R’ Soloveitchik calls “shinui” well beyond law, in the realm of parshanut, explaining the text.

So, given that this distinction between chidush and shinui goes beyond violating the legal process, how do we determine what it is?


Let’s first make a Kantian distinction between analytic judgements and synthetic ones. Analytic judgements are tautologically true, true by definition, or inherently false because they’re paradoxical. Synthetic judgements are ones that, as a matter of fact, happen to correspond to reality.Examples:

  • Analytic: All black houses are black.
  • Synthetic: My house is not black.

Analytic judgments must be true. They are neither mesorah, nor philosophy, nor science. The gemara sometimes questions a source text by asking “Lamah li qera, sevarah hi — Why do I need a verse, it is logical!” If a statement logically derives only from definitions provided by the Torah, it too is Torah. Such judgments must be chidush.

Therefore we can define mesorah as follows: The body of knowledge revealed at Sinai, and all further analytic judgments, including sevarah (logic, inductive and deductive reasoning) and derashah (exegesis), that are based entirely upon that knowledge.

Halakhah is a different thing, as it includes rules for legislation and therefore laws and decisions that are enacted rabbinically. Chiddush, the growth of the body of mesorah through identification of its implications, is only part of the evolution of halakhah. However, halakhah therefore also excludes parts of mesorah. In particular rulings that are well grounded in the Torah but run against rabbinic decision. For example, the overwhelming majority of Beis Shammai’s rulings. Shinui in halakhah is therefore straightforward: it’s a violation of any of the halakhos about how to determine halakhah. For example (caveats and subtleties glossed over): rescinding established precedent, following a rejected minority opinion, etc…

Synthetic judgments depend on research, on accumulating new facts. One can only know if “My house is not black” by finding out about my house. Here, the information is capable of being Torah, or non-Torah, depending on the kind of information it adds — is one accumulating a fact about the Torah that was until now unnoticed or forgotten, or is one making a scientific or sociological observation?

Only in the case of non-Torah synthetic judgements one can ask whether or not it qualifies as shinui, manipulation of Torah into something it isn’t. The question becomes what is the mesorah’s position on the matter? Is there one, or a spectrum of them? Are you taking one side of a debate? Can your statement be shown to be implied or supported by a mesoretic concept? Are you voicing an opinion in the face of mesoretic silence? Or, are you proposing a new solution to a question the Torah addresses in order to accomodate something you believe to be true for other reasons?

We can in principle encounter four situations:

1- The mesorah, either in explicitly relayed statement, or in another statement that one can find implied our conclusion. In other words, the statement is a chidush, an expansion of a Torah idea — either because it is an implication, or resolves what would otherwise be a problem.

2- The mesorah is total silent on the point. We have not been able to resolve any position. Then such new ideas can not be “shinui”, since there is no old position to have been changed.

3- Multiple positions coexist in an “eilu va’eilu”, a plurality of Torah approaches. In which case, the position is supportable from the Torah, as the opinion preexisted the novellum. It’s not shinui, so it would be valid to use this new idea to choose one side of the debate over the other.

4- The mesorah relays a single range of opinions, and this new idea is neither within it, nor implied by some other point similarly relayed. This case, and this case alone would be problematic in my model.


Since shinui depends on trying to accomodate information other than Torah, one of the key areas in which it comes up in an aggadic context would be in questions of science and Torah. Here we often face a dilemma. We have two sources of truth. They therefore must agree — or one of them be assumed to be incorrect.The Rambam’s position in this regard, the centrality he gives Aristotilian physics, has gotten much criticism. Not only from the anti-Maimonidians of the period of the rishonim, but even such authorities who embraced science as the Vilna Gaon and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch take issue. So, perhaps we can look to his shitah with an awareness that the Rambam defines the more liberal edge on this in our mesorah.The more famous quote in the Rambam is where he explains why he rejects Aristotle’s argument that the universe could not have had a beginning in time and but yet asserts the incorporeality of G-d despite the literal text (e.g. “the Mighty Hand”, “for the Hand is on the throne of G-d”, etc…) seemingly asserting He does have a body:

For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the … the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved, and there is no need to force interpretations on scripture to make it fit one position, as long as the other position is defendable.

Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion, and it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. … On the contrary, Scripture itself teaches the Incorporeality of God. …

But if we assume that the Universe has the present form as the result of necessity, there would be occasion for the above questions. And these could only be answered in an objectionable way, implying denial and nullification of all the simple statements of the Torah, which no enlightened person doubts are meant as they simply are. … If … Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it. (Guide, II:25)

The Rambam has two requirements:
1- that the philosophy (which included “natural philosophy”, science, in his day) be compelling, and
2- that it not run counter to the words of the prophets, the fundamentals of our religion, and what no Torah enlightened person doubts; in other words, does not run counter to mesorah. Unfortunately, the Rambam discusses the point in the context of claims that would defy basic beliefs. So his description of the second criterion is not as forceful as it could be. However, the reference to the Torah-enlightened does disambiguate.

Secondly, the Rambam’s insistence that he was not innovating in contradiction to earlier sages (shinui) forms a core part of the introduction to the Moreh.

… I adjure any reader of my book, in the name of the Most High, not to add any explanation even to a single word: nor to explain to another any portion of it except such passages as have been fully treated of by previous theological authorities: he must not teach others anything that he has learnt from my work alone, and that has not been hitherto discussed by any of our authorities. The reader must, moreover, beware of raising objections to any of my statements, because it is very probable that he may understand my words to mean the exact opposite to what I intended to say. He will injure me, while I endeavoured to benefit him.” He will requite me evil for good.” Let the reader make a careful study of this work; and if his doubt be removed on even one point, let him praise his Maker and rest contented with the knowledge he has acquired. But if he derive from it no benefit whatever, he may consider the book as if it had never been written. Should he notice any opinions with which he does not agree, let him endeavour to find a suitable explanation, even if it seem far-fetched, in order that he may judge me charitably. Such a duty we owe to every one. We owe it especially to our scholars and theologians, who endeavour to teach us what is the truth according to the best of their ability. I feel assured that those of my readers who have not studied philosophy, will still derive profit from many a chapter. But the thinker whose studies have brought him into collision with religion, will, as I have already mentioned, derive much benefit from every chapter. How greatly will he rejoice! How agreeably will my words strike his ears! Those, however, whose minds are confused with false notions and perverse methods, who regard their misleading studies as sciences, and imagine themselves philosophers, though they have no knowledge that could truly be termed science, will object to many chapters, and will find in them many insuperable difficulties, because they do not understand their meaning, and because I expose therein the absurdity of their perverse notions, which constitute their riches and peculiar treasure, “stored up for their ruin”….

He insists that his words will only be understood if explained in accordance with mesorah. It would seem the Rambam did not set out to give alternate explanations to those offered by Chazal. Aside from that, he feels the need to do so would only be by someone who thinks they know science and philosophy but are “confused with false notions and perverse methods”.


Rav Kook letter 134, addressed to Moshe Zeidel (written 1908), addresses the question of evolution. Rav Kook comes out positively, showing parallels between the progressive unfolding of life that evolution entails with the Jewish worldview. In that letter he writes (tr. Meir Shinnar):

My opinion is, that all whose opinions are straight should know, that even though there is no truth demonstrated in all these new investigations, still we are under no obligation to contradict them outright and to stand against them, because it is not at all the main point of Torah (ikar shel Torah) to tell us simple facts and events that happened.

Later he writes:

And in general, this is a great principle in the battle of opinions, that any opinion that comes to contradict something from the Torah, we have to in the beginning not to contradict it, but to build the palace of Torah above it, and that way we are elevated by it, and through this elevation the opinions are exposed, and later, when we are not pressed by anything, we can with a full and confident heart to fight against it as well. There are several examples that prove the point, but it it is difficult for me to elaborate, and for a wise heart like you the short form is suuficient, inorder to know how to worhip Hashem (lidgol bshem Hashem) above all the winds that blow, and to use everything for our true good, that is also the good of all.

Rav Kook would seem to advocate accepting scientific data even when it requires building our edifice of Torah around it.

However, where does he say that we are to rebuild, rather than to build? In other words, shinui rather than chidush?

Why would Rav Kook be asking us to rebuild Torah around something in which “no truth [is] demonstrated”? Clearly the letter is not about truth, but education and communication. Rav Kook is telling us not to bother with confrontation. The essence is the essence, the lesson of the history. This letter is strategic advice, not epistomological statement. It does not pay to distract people from that to debate their deeply held positions about history.


The basic problem with shinui, adapting the Torah to another discipline is one of epistomology. Isn’t emunah sheleimah taking the Torah as fact, part of the reality that needs explaining, rather than one of the explanations?The alternative is essentially taking a pagan, “god of the gaps” approach to religion; that religion exists to explain the incomprehensible, and therefore only exists in the gaps in our understanding. As those gaps close, the room for paganism deminishes.Thor was a “god of the gaps”. Lightining wasn’t understood, and it was powerful and scarey. So, they proposed a god to explain it, and thus safety comes from keeping him happy and understanding it boils down to reading his myth and moods. Once they felt they understood lightening scientifically, they could do away with Thor.

It the same attitude as “There is nothing left to do but pray”. Aren’t we supposed to pray WHILE there are still other things left to do? Doesn’t our belief in a scientific resolution coexist with our belief in a theistic one?

The idea that the mesorah includes beliefs, even as non-essentials (such as history, or aggadic beliefs which have no halachic impact), which are simply stopgaps until science gives us a “real answer” is a “god of the gaps” approach to religion.

This epistomology becomes really unsupportable when extended to its logical conclusion. The theory that Canaan had so few residents that there was no way 3 million Jews would have had to fight to conquer the country — they would have overwhelmed it by sheer numbers. The typical biblical archeologist similarly questions the numbers cited in the Exodus altogether. Once one permits reinterpretations to accomodate scientific consensus, one removed the basis for belief even in the revelation in Sinai. After all, as most Conservative Rabbis would argue, couldn’t one preserve the “inner truth” of the Exodus and the Siniaitic Revelation without embracing the historicity of the events themselves? How can one explain accepting the methodology when it would mean innovating new understandings of the flood, and yet reject the same method’s conclusions when it comes to an essential belief?

This returns to a theme I raised a while back. Neither side of the dispute as it is playing out now is embracing all their sources of truth equally. If questions of science and religion are to be resolved, it’s only by taking the known facts of each as known facts, and only accepting theories that really accomodate both. If that can’t be done, we are forced to set the question aside until we can — not accept a poor answer. See Trends in Resolving Torah and Science.

2 thoughts on “Chidush and Shinui

  1. A minor nitpick about the analytic/synthetic distinction. For Kant, at least, a synthetic judgement is not one which depends upon empirical research or accumulation of facts. A synthetic judgement is one which brings forth something new, some knowledge which was not already contained in the terms of the claim.

    So for Kant, 5+7=12 is a synthetic judgement. Synthetic judgements can be known made without examining the world, and can be as necessarily true as analytic ones (the synthetic a priori).

    What you have described is the distinction between the analytic and the a posteriori, not the analytic and the synthetic.

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