An Alternate View on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Academic Talmud Study

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Lawrence Kaplan

In his recent Lehrhaus essay “Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Academic Talmud Study,” Professor Avraham (Rami) Reiner proves himself to be a genuine disciple of his great master, as he manages to balance genuine admiration—indeed reverence—for his teacher with an objective and critical stance regarding some of his basic teachings and attitudes in a blend that is both personally moving and intellectually illuminating. I find myself, however, unable to agree with Reiner’s thesis that Rav Lichtenstein’s attitude to academic Talmud study changed over the course of time from an earlier completely negative and rejectionist outlook to a later one that “reflects a certain softening, an understanding, and perhaps even a limited acceptance of the accomplishments of academic Talmud study.” In my view, Rav Lichtenstein’s opposition to academic Talmud study was consistent throughout his life. Moreover, I would contend, Reiner’s misreading of the historical picture points to a deeper error, namely, his failure to appreciate the roots of this opposition, to understand the genuine threat that academic Talmud study poses, in Rav Lichtenstein’s view, to traditional Jewish faith in general and the authority of the Halakhah and its representatives in particular.  

The overwhelming evidence that Reiner brings for Rav Lichtenstein’s earlier opposition to academic Talmud study—and more such evidence could be cited as well—is clear and undisputed. However, the two pieces of evidence—one historical, the other textual—that Reiner offers for a softening of that opposition are much less convincing. Let us examine each in turn.

Reiner invokes the historical example from the history of Herzog College, noting that when the College first opened, “the lecturer for a required course called ‘An Introduction to Oral Law’ was none other than Rabbi Lichtenstein.” Reiner suggests that it was Rav Lichtenstein’s “desire to prevent the teaching of a historicist course [that] led him to teach the course himself.” In support of this suggestion, Reiner further notes that “(i)n the early 1990s, as the college steadily grew and developed, prospective teachers of Talmud and halakhah were disqualified one after another as it became clear to Rabbi Lichtenstein, in his capacity as rector, that these teachers had been trained in academic Talmud departments.”

But, “(f)rom that point forward,” Reiner indicates, “in contrast to everything we have thus far described, the Faculty of Oral Law at Herzog College developed in a different direction, to the point that eventually, every one of its members was the product of research institutions where they had studied Talmud and related disciplines.’’

Reiner claims that these facts “speak for themselves” and they indicate that Rav Lichtenstein “backtrack(ed) from his prior staunch opposition.”

But facts rarely speak for themselves; they require interpretation. While they may indicate that Rav Lichtenstein on a practical level backed down from what he might have come to see as an increasingly quixotic attempt to keep academic Talmud study out the College, they do not show that he ever abandoned or even softened his fundamental theoretical opposition to such study.

In substantiation of my contention that these “facts” adduced by Reiner do not speak for themselves, let me cite a very thoughtful comment on Reiner’s article by Rabbi David Brofsky, a leading disciple of Rav Lichtenstein, who, unlike Reiner, has remained within the walls of the beit midrash. Brofsky takes issue with Reiner’s conclusions, maintaining, as I do, that Rav Lichtenstein’s fundamental opposition never changed. As for his softening on a practical level and allowing academic Talmud study to take root in Herzog College, Brofsky suggests that, in addition to age being a factor, such “softening” may have been caused by “decades of watching frustrated students turn to institutions such as Hartman, Beit Morasha, and Siach (all of which he did not approve) and becoming more open to and aware of their religious needs.”

Brofsky’s astute observation deserves elaboration. By allowing academic Talmud study to take root in Herzog College in response to the desire on the part of many of his students for such study—and this despite his disapproval ab initio of academic Talmud study—Rav Lichtenstein accomplished two things. First, such students could now pursue academic Talmud study at Herzog College, which, while distinct from Yeshivat Har Etzion, was still affiliated with it and under its general influence. They would not be forced to wander in “strange fields,” either pursuing such studies in Israeli universities or in the various yeshivot and institutes listed by Brofsky of which Rav Lichtenstein disapproved. And, since Academic Talmud study is not cut from one cloth, the teachers of Oral Law at Herzog College, while “product[s] of research institutions where they had studied Talmud and related disciplines,” may have espoused somewhat more traditionally oriented modes of such study. This situation of allowing academic Talmud studies to take root in Herzog College was no doubt far from ideal in Rav Lichtenstein’s mind, but he may have viewed it as a necessary concession, in the sense of mutav she-yokhelu besar temutot shehutot, ve-al yokhelu besar temutot nevelot, better to engage in an activity that is disapproved of than in blanketly forbidden activity.

Furthermore, by allowing academic Talmud study to take root in Herzog College, despite his disapproval, Rav Lichtenstein neatly forestalled the possibility of any effective pressure on the part of students desiring such study to incorporate any academic Talmud in Yeshivat Har Etzion proper. Indeed, I have heard that when such students would approach various ramim and request that some academic Talmud study be incorporated into the shi‘urim, they were told, “If you are interested in such study you can pursue it at Herzog College. Here we study Talmud in the traditional manner.”

We have here an ironic development. Reiner relates that at the yeshiva’s annual Hanukkah party in 1982, Rav Amital gave what became known as “the hilltop speech.” In response to reports that a student at the yeshiva had taught visiting high school students mishnah in a manner different from the way the gemara interpreted it, Rav Amital told the student “to go and establish another yeshiva on the next hilltop over, where he would be able to teach whatever he wanted.” As fate would have it, eventually the yeshiva itself built a “hilltop” institution where Talmud would be taught in non-traditional academic manner—Herzog College. And this institution was not even “on the next hilltop over,” but on the very same hilltop as the yeshiva! Although ironic, at least this development allowed such teaching to be cordoned off from the yeshiva proper.

[In a similar way, Rav Soloveitchik was once heard to have praised Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, the President of Yeshiva University, for having kept “Hokhmas Yisrael out of the Yeshiva,” that is, out of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the Yeshiva proper. But it was so kept out by being cordoned off in YU’s adjacent Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.]

Contra Reiner, the mere historical fact that Rav Lichtenstein backed down from his attempt to keep academic Talmud study out of Herzog College does not show that he ever abandoned or even softened his fundamental theoretical opposition to such study.

Perhaps aware of the speculative nature of his historical piece of evidence, Reiner turns to textual evidence. He adduces a passage from Rav Lichtenstein’s important programmatic essay, “The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning: The Method and its Prospects,” delivered in 1999 at Yeshiva University’s Orthodox Forum. This passage in particular, Reiner alleges, “reflects a certain softening, an understanding, and perhaps even a limited acceptance of academic Talmud studies.”

In the passage, addressing the question of the academic study of textual variants and realia, Rav Lichtenstein writes:

Indeed, the Torah world should pay more attention to this component [study of textual variants].… [A]ccess to its findings can and should be more widespread than it is today. We need not exaggerate… Many of the points that have been raised with respect to textual accuracy apply equally to knowledge of realia. This, too, is the province of experts, but accessible to a wider audience. This, too, can obviously be of critical halakhic import in some cases… This is not to denigrate the importance of factual information or of those who labor to provide it. Anyone who engages in serious learning is indebted to them at some point, and the debt should be acknowledged.

On the basis of this passage, Reiner claims that “(t)here can be no doubting that the tone and content of this article differ significantly from the rejectionist atmosphere that prevailed in the early 1980s,” and that—here comes the key claim—“it reflects a certain softening, an understanding, and perhaps even a limited acceptance of the accomplishments of academic Talmud studies.”

Allow me to count myself among the doubters.

First, Professor Reiner, through his careful excisions (indicated by the ellipses) leaves out those parts of Rav Lichtenstein’s remarks where he minimizes the importance of the study of textual variants and realia. Thus, after the sentence “We need not exaggerate” regarding use of textual variants, Rav Lichtenstein goes on to say “The prevailing perception that the overwhelming majority of textual variants cited are of little or no substantive consequence is indeed correct. Nevertheless, awareness is in order.” Similarly, after his comment that knowledge of realia “can obviously be of critical halakhic import in some cases,” Rav Lichtenstein continues “Yet here too most of the specialized knowledge is of little conceptual significance, except insofar as one simply wants to know, as fully as possible, what is being depicted in the gemara.” It need not be said that, given Rav Lichtenstein’s overriding commitment to the conceptual approach to the study of Talmud, his saying “most of the specialized knowledge is of little conceptual significance” is equivalent to his saying it “is of little significance.”

Furthermore, while it is true that Rav Lichtenstein states in this passage that the study of textual variants and realia does not in any way challenge or undermine traditional Talmudic study, there is no indication that he ever felt differently. All the evidence brought by Reiner about Rav Lichtenstein’s rejectionist attitude toward academic Talmud study in the early 80s does not indicate any opposition to the study of textual variants and realia. Indeed, in the methodology shi‘urim that Rav Lichtenstein gave in the Yeshiva from 1974 to 1992 discussed in Ron Kleinman’s article on the topic, he would often discuss the significance of textual variants and their use.  

These two points are related. Precisely because textual variants and realia offer little conceptual significance, as such issues focus merely “on secondary issues, at the margins of the sugya, rather than the heart of the matter,” to quote an article by David Flatto, Rav Lichtenstein could, at the same time, accept the usefulness of the academic study of textual variants and realia, while minimizing both its importance and any possible theological danger it might pose. Inasmuch as this aspect of academic Talmud study only touches on the margins of a sugya, it does not affect how we approach its heart.

This brings us to a third point, possibly our central one. If Rav Lichtenstein, going back to the early 80s, never opposed the academic study of textual variants and realia, inasmuch as they focus “on secondary issues at the margin of the sugya,” what aspect of academic Talmud study that does focus on “the heart of the matter,” on the heart of the sugya, did he oppose?  

The answer, as it emerges both from Reiner’s account and from Rav Lichtenstein’s writings, is that what Rav Lichtenstein objected to was academic Talmud study’s historical, diachronic approach to rabbinic literature. What seems to have been particularly objectionable to him was the diachronic approach’s attempt (to again cite Flatto) “to sort the material temporally in order to map out the trajectory of development of rabbinic concepts.” This approach can often reach the conclusion that the meaning that a later layer of rabbinic literature ascribes to an earlier one—such as the view that a Babylonian amora will ascribe to a tannaitic statement or the way a particular amoraic statement was understood by the stama de-Talmuda (anonymous redactor)— often does not correspond to its original meaning.

It was precisely this implication contained in his use of the diachronic approach on the part of Aharon Mishnayot in his article Li-fshuto shel Talmud (“Toward the Plain Meaning of the Talmud”) to which Rav Lichtenstein objected, in Reiner’s description. As Mishnayot relates:

Rabbi Lichtenstein[’s]… main criticism was against my claim that the Yerushalmi tends towards straightforward explanations more than the Bavli. Rabbi Lichtenstein explained that the halakhic tradition accords with the Bavli, whereas the implication of my words is that the Yerushalmi is to be preferred, in opposition to the said tradition.

Here Rav Lichtenstein’s objection to the diachronic approach to the study of rabbinic literature is legal in nature, that the logical conclusion of academic assumptions may diverge from traditional ones on how to determine the bottom-line halakhah. But in various other essays that touch on the subject, Rav Lichtenstein’s objections are more religious and theological in nature. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does Rav Lichtenstein discuss this matter in an extended and systematic way. But from his various scattered remarks it appears that in his view the diachronic approach raises two main dangers: it takes a judgmental attitude to Hazal, demonstrating a lack of respect for their stature; and it raises the specter of the historical development of the halakhah, challenging its authority as a divinely revealed system of Law and possibly even leading to a relativistic historicism. [A similar approach was also set forth by Rabbi Dr. Kalman Neuman, a careful and knowledgeable observer of the Israeli Religious Zionist scene who was close to Rav Lichtenstein, in an extended and thoughtful comment on Reiner’s article.] Interestingly, the first danger appears to occupy a greater place in Rav Lichtenstein’s consciousness than the second. In any event, the authority of the Talmud in both cases is undermined.

With respect to the first danger, in his essay “Why Learn Gemara?” among the reasons Rav Lichtenstein offers to explain “the yeshiva world’s continued commitment to gemara” (p. 11) is: “To open a gemara is to enter into th(e) overwhelming presence [of Hazal], to feel their force of their collective personality… so as to be irradiated and ennobled by them.” And then, almost parenthetically, he adds “and not as in a historico-critical mode in order to pass judgment on them.”  

Similarly, in his exchange with Rabbi Yehuda Brandes addressing the problems involved in teaching gemara in religious Zionist Yeshiva high schools, Rav Lichtenstein, in responding to several new approaches advanced by R. Brandes for teaching gemara in this context, forcefully states:

Regarding [some of these approaches] I am ready to declare that even if, as argued by R. Brandes, they reap success, it is sometimes better to close the gemara than to distort it. Some approaches undermine Hazal’s enterprise, their motivations and their authority; some dim the holy trembling that must accompany Torah study and characterize it (p. 55).

Though Rav Lichtenstein does not specify to which of the approaches advanced by R. Brandes these criticisms apply, it appears almost certain that he has in mind R. Brandes’ call to “cause an upheaval regarding the use of well-known and accepted scientific, philological, and historical tools in the beit midrash and in holiness” (p. 47). The very fact that R. Brandes felt the need to add the concluding words “and in holiness” indicates that he was sensitive to the possibility that some might charge, as indeed Rav Lichtenstein did charge, that such approaches “dim the holy trembling that must accompany Torah study and characterize it.”

Finally, in his essay “The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning,” referred to earlier, Rav Lichtenstein states that “Considerations of emunot ve-de‘ot effectively bar the acceptance of certain [academic] modes on interpretation, specifically those that denigrate Hazal and challenge their preeminence… A Talmudic critic might sit in superior judgment upon the gemara because he can conjugate the aorist, while Ravina and Rav Ashi probably couldn’t. Brisker scions harbor no such inclinations” (p. 50).

Even more striking, in the middle of the passage from that essay dealing with the study of textual variants and realia, the very passage that Reiner claims reflects “a certain softening” in Rav Lichtenstein’s opposition to academic Talmud study, he parenthetically contrasts the (limited) usefulness of the study of textual variants with the unhelpful “gutting of Hazal’s world through conjectural evisceration and stratification” (p. 48). It is difficult to see any “softening” here.

But, more important, this seems to be the one place where, if only obliquely, Rav Lichtenstein refers to the diachronic approach.

Rav Lichtenstein’s comment regarding “conjectural… stratification” is revealing. He, of course, was acutely aware of all the different strata comprising rabbinic literature: Tannaitic midrash, Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli—indeed, he would often in his shi‘urim, unlike more standard yeshiva heads, refer to and analyze Tosefta and Yerushalmi, in addition to Mishnah and Bavli. It would seem, then, that what Rav Lichtenstein has in mind here is the diachronic approach, exemplified by Professors David Weiss Halivni and Shamma Friedman, which sharply differentiates and drives a wedge between the Amoraic material and the stama de-Talmuda, the anonymous material, in the Babylonian gemara, viewing them as two distinct strata. Thus, Halivni writes (Mekorot u-Mesorot: Yoma ‘ad Hagigah, pp. 7-8) “We should view the gemara as a work comprised of two separate books: the book of the Amoraim and the book of the anonymous material, which differ from one another in language, approach, and history.”

It follows from this that by “conjectural evisceration” Rav Lichtenstein has in mind Halivni’s further claim, alluded to earlier, that “the authors of the anonymous stratum,” inasmuch as “they flourished long after the Amoraim,” would often explain the Amoraic material in forced ways because, he goes on to explain, they “lacked the complete versions of all the relevant sources, or lacked the correct version of the text they were explaining, or lacked the requisite knowledge for understanding the text” (The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud, p. xxxi). These gaps are then to be filled by Halivni himself in his “critical” explanations of the Amoraic material.

If this is what Rav Lichtenstein had in mind, it is not surprising that he would have viewed such “conjectural evisceration and stratification” of rabbinic literature as “gutting … Hazal’s world” and, we may add, lessening respect for them and “dim[ming] the holy trembling that must accompany Torah study and characterize it.”

Regarding the dangers of historicism posed by the diachronic approach, Rav Lichtenstein points out in his essay “Torat Hesed and Torat Emet: Methodological Reflections”:

The world of wissenschaft … focuses on facts, is committed to the hegemony of authorial intent, and is marked by a measure of austerity–critics would say, of aridity. It bears, in sum, a monistic cast. It, of course stresses, often contentiously, the element of change and development within halakhah. Given a historicist orientation, however, this is frequently ascribed to external factors, and is thus perceived as a corrosive process, reflecting presumed relativism (p. 83).  

We can return, then, to the conclusion reached by the diachronic approach that the meaning a later layer of rabbinic literature ascribes to an earlier one often does not correspond to its original meaning. To the extent that exponents of this approach, such as Halivni, attribute this shift in meaning from the earlier to the later layer as resulting from the later layer’s misunderstanding the intent of the earlier one, they are guilty, in Rav Lichtenstein’s eyes, of undermining respect for Hazal in suggesting they are poor, careless, or uninformed interpreters. And to the extent that the diachronic approach’s adherents attribute the shift in meaning to the later layer’s revision, whether deliberate or inadvertent, of the earlier layer against the background of changing historical conditions, they are, for Rav Lichtenstein, not only guilty of undermining respect for Hazal but also of engaging in a corrosive historicism, leading to relativism.

But the challenge the diachronic approach poses to the unity, continuity, and authority of rabbinic literature, as well as, in Rav Lichtenstein’s eyes, to reverence for Hazal, goes even deeper. This deeper challenge, perhaps paradoxically, arises precisely from an approach to the study of the Talmud that seeks to combine traditional modes of study of rabbinic literature, with both the diachronic approach and the search for the religious significance, the underlying values, of that literature. [Such an approach is now practiced in various religious Zionist Yeshivot, such as Siach, Othniel, and Ma‘ale Gilboa, which I have analyzed in a recent essay.] Precisely such a combination might seem to imply that the development of rabbinic law, the shift in meaning between its layers, were fueled by shifts or even revolutions in values among rabbinic sages.

Rav Lichtenstein does not address this particular issue directly, but there can be no doubt that such an implication would be anathema to him. His article, “The Human and Social Factor in Halakhah,” is one of his most nuanced and carefully balanced articles, with Rav Lichtenstein drawing perhaps even more distinctions and qualifications than usual. But one thing is clear—the claim that there have been fundamental changes in the ethos of the Torah, “virtually by definition, is, to the committed Jew, unconscionable” (p. 178). Furthermore, the argument that such putative changes in the Torah’s ethos would have played a role in later Sages reinterpreting earlier strands of rabbinic literature would, for Rav Lichtenstein, be tantamount to impugning Hazal’s “wisdom and integrity,” insofar as it suggests “that their judgment was diverted or warped by extraneous factors” (p. 180). Such opposition on Rav Lichtenstein’s part to the claim that there have been fundamental changes in the ethos of the Torah also lies behind his well-known and exceptionally harsh critiques of the views of Professor Tamar Ross on feminism and Rabbi Benny Lau on disabilities, both of whom argue, albeit in different ways, that there can be a shift of values in the unfolding of the halakhic tradition.   

The deep roots of Rav Lichtenstein’s opposition to the diachronic approach are clear. But there’s the rub. Many individuals, among them students of Rav Lichtenstein, who have moved from the world of the beit midrash to the world of academic Talmud study, or who wish to bring some elements of the world of academic study into the inner sanctum of the beit midrash, believe that such an approach can be undertaken. They see the conclusion arising out of the diachronic approach to rabbinic literature – that the meaning that a later layer of rabbinic literature ascribes to an earlier one often does not correspond to its original meaning – is true and convincing, that is, this conclusion is Torat Emet. [See “Torat Hesed and Torat Emet” p.83. “The world of Wissenschaft envisions itself as primarily devoted to Torat emet.”] The question arises then: Is it possible to formulate this conclusion drawn by the diachronic approach in such a way that it would not be subject to the criticisms leveled against it by Rav Lichtenstein? And this question, in turn, raises a further question, the answer to which is, of course, necessarily speculative: How might Rav Lichtenstein have responded to such formulations? I will address these questions in the forthcoming second part of this article.   

I would like to thank Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier for his many helpful editorial suggestions.


Lawrence J. Kaplan is Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in the Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University, Montreal Quebec. He received his B.A. from Yeshiva College, his M.A. and PhD. from Harvard University, and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elkhanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He was a Tikvah Fellow at the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization of New York University Law School, a Polonsky Fellow at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and a Research Fellow at the Maimonides Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Hamburg.