American Orthodoxy

It Will Be Torah and I Am Compelled to Study It: A Philosophy of Madda as Hiddushei Torah?

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The notion of Torah u-Madda—that Torah and secular studies can enrich each other—has been a byword in the Modern Orthodox community for decades. Yet some have claimed it is in decline. Lehrhaus is proud to present a symposium grappling with Torah u-Madda: how we got here, the challenges that have arisen, and how its meaning continues to evolve over time.

Symposium Contributions: Editors’ Introduction, Elana Stein Hain, Stuart Halpern, Yisroel Ben-Porat, Sarah Rindner, Erica Brown, Shalom Carmy, Leah Sarna, Tzvi Sinensky, Yaakov Bieler, Moshe Kurtz, Elinatan Kupferberg, Olivia Friedman, Margueya Poupko, Noah Marlowe; Letters to the Editor: 1 | 2

I have sometimes suspected that the radical distinction between poetry and prose lies in the very different expectations of readers: poetry presupposes an intensity that is not tolerated in prose.
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights”

We sense that the spirit of the nation, which is bound with the light of Torah-truth as flame to ember, has, through its distinct character, fashioned the distinct form of the Torah She-ba’al Peh… Torah She-ba’al Peh inhabits the very character of the nation…
– R. Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot Hatorah 1

Questions of Torah u-Madda typically presume a stable division between Torah and Madda.[1] Of course, in one sense, this obviously holds true. Bereishit Rabbah is Torah, The Feynman Lectures on Physics is not. From an institutional perspective, the division is equally clear. Bava Batra is studied in the Beit Midrash, biology, business management, and binomial distributions in the classroom.

At a given time, with given texts, we can indicate Torah and Madda (or its predecessor, hokhmah). But consider Rambam’s study of the Torah in a historical context in Moreh Nevukhim or his critical account of the development of the Torah She-ba’al Peh in his introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah, which challenged a traditional Geonic model of a more substantial Revelation of Halakhah.[2] Were these ideas first suggested today, they would likely be classified as Madda; now they are Torah.[3]

The study of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Ethics, or Alfarabi’s Fusul al-Madani, is not talmud Torah. But as we encounter their ideas and influence through the study of Rambam’s notion of the mitzvah of ahavat Hashem, his Hilkhot De’ot, and his Shemoneh Perakim, it certainly is.[4] Jerome and Aquinas did not produce Torah, but what happens to their biblical interpretations when they’re quoted by Don Isaac Abarbanel?[5]

Once we move from specific texts to the realm of ideas and intellectual history, Madda ceases to be reliably distinct from Torah. As Torah engages with accounts of reality which have been furnished by Madda, as insights of Madda percolate into Torah, as truths of Madda redirect the flow of Torah’s meaning, and as new discourses emerge in the Beit Midrash which, in their infancy, are undifferentiated from Madda, the boundary separating Madda from Torah dissolves. Hokhmah which is interpretively constrained by the discourse of Torah is Torah. A serious consideration of the religious value of what we think of as Madda needs to begin with an awareness of this historical confluence and move beyond the appreciation of Madda per se to a richer imagining of the possibilities of talmud Torah.

Madda as Torah

In its most coherent usage, Madda refers to truths and ways of thinking which do not appear indigenous to the masorah. But over the course of time, as it enters Jewish intellectual currents and then canonical works, Madda becomes Torah. For example, Empedocles’ theory of the four elements was once just Madda, then it became a mix of Torah and Madda; having been abandoned by modern science, it now remains mostly Torah. In the introduction to his philosophically conservative Magen Avot, R. Simeon b. Zemah Duran justified his inclusion of “words of the nations amid holy words” by arguing that Moshe canonized the prophecies of Iyov as Torah despite their foreign origin. Today we might add Mishlei’s embrace of the ancient Egyptian wisdom text Instruction of Amenemope and we can speculate if Plato’s Symposium made its way into the Torah of Bereishit Rabbah.[6] Likewise, the sublimation of Madda into Torah is exemplified by the degree of gentile influence on mussar literature (with the sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh’s use of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography being a notable modern example), and the incorporation of Neoplatonic and other philosophical ideas into early Kabbalistic writings, particularly, and acknowledgedly, by R. Azriel of Gerona.[7]

The Maimonidean controversy which erupted in early 14th century Languedoc over the popular study of philosophy was not over its value as merely supplemental to talmud Torah. While the opposing Rishonim maintained it caused laxity in observance and allegorical distortion of the Torah, the proponent Rishonim argued that philosophy is integral to the true understanding of Torah, a thoroughgoing part of its masorah and religious intellectual culture, and the salient force in the purification of theological beliefs.[8] Philosophy was not justified as Madda, but as Torah.

Torah u-Madda isn’t an ideology or a pedagogy to be subscribed to or rejected. Certainly, there are perennial and unavoidable religious questions about the crucial balance between the dignity of cultural distinctiveness and healthy societal engagement and vital concerns about which texts or fields of study might be spiritually nourishing or deleterious, religiously enriching or challenging (if we admit such a dichotomy) – questions which different communities will adjudicate differently. But being haphazardly bundled together under the term Torah u-Madda obscures the nature of the encounter between Torah and universal wisdom. Torah u-Madda is a reality: a description of Torah’s dynamic logos, an undeniable historical commitment to the idea that the waters of Torah swell from all streams of truth.

Eternal Flux of Meaning

The apparent mutability of Torah finds its theological expression in the sweeping philosophy of hiddushei Torah, which entails that Torah is not only the contents of the original Revelation of the eternal devar Hashem, but that subsequent discussions, interpretations, and insights are also Torah, whose study demands the spiritual intensity which characterizes talmud Torah.[9] Torah, at least the Torah She-ba’al Peh, is not a fixed set of ideas, laws, and narratives, but a living discursive tradition which consists of the open-ended intertextual discussions which take place across the diachronic pages of Rabbinic literature and their perpetuation, understanding, and meaning which exist within the social reality of Klal Yisrael.

While the confluence of Madda and Torah occurs on the broader scale of intellectual history, the influence of Madda on the meaning of Torah is more subtle and pervasive. Torah qua Torah only has meaning within the national consciousness of Klal Yisrael. If no Jews understood the texts of Torah, would Torah exist? As such, although in one form, Torah has crystallized as a textual corpus – after all, textual study satisfies the mitzvah of talmud Torah and traditional debates over the circumscription of the halakhic category of kol ha-Torah kula refer to the primary textual corpora of the Written and Oral Torah[10] – the vibrant consciousness of Torah is perpetually being nurtured within a developing socio-epistemic reality. While the texts of Torah persist, their meaning is continuously being renewed, as they are reperceived through prevailing interpretive dispositions and against the background of accepted truths.[11] In its fullest sense, Torah is not embodied by a series of free-floating texts, but by a rushing stream of intergenerational consciousness.

Consider the first chapter in Bereishit. Despite traditional beliefs to the contrary, in many Modern Orthodox communities, an interpretation which took as its basis the notion that, from a scientific perspective, the observable universe is less than six thousand years old would be rejected as nonsense. Whereas in other frum communities, any alternative interpretation would be rejected as unorthodox. And yet, even in the latter, few read geocentrism into Bereishit, despite some rabbinic effort to reverse the historical tide.[12] While the true meaning of Bereishit patently consists of a fundamentally different account of reality than modern science, truths of Madda have still recontoured the meaning of Torah.

This evolution can be witnessed in real time through my friend Nachi Weinstein’s podcast Seforim Chatter, which invites both traditional and academic scholars of Jewish studies to share their research with a largely Yeshivish audience. Arguably the Torah u-Madda capital of North America, Seforim Chatter is actively changing the interpretive consciousness of an ostensibly non-Torah u-Madda community by introducing an academic awareness into the popular understanding of the history of Torah scholarship. Likewise, in a landmark contribution to Torah, R. Yonason Rosman, who studies in a Kollel in Staten Island, published a sefer, Hokhmah Ba-goyim Ta’amin: Ve-hashpa’ot Hokhmat Ha-amim al Ha-yahadut Be-meshekh Ha-dorot, which, after introducing the author’s account of the difference between Torah and hokhmah, provides an impressive, although not exhaustive, catalog of the influence of gentile wisdom on the full historical range of Jewish intellectual culture, drawing on both rabbinic admission and scholarly research. By citing academic studies to substantiate its arguments, the sefer, which participates in a distinctly traditional discourse of Torah, has schlepped Madda into Torah. And should its observations impact the understanding of the dynamics of Torah within its communal discourse, it will have fostered the Torah of Torah u-Madda.

Torah as Its Holistic Spirit

Read carefully, the familiar midrash in Eikhah Rabbah (2:13) which distinguishes between Torah and hokhmah, “If someone tells you there is hokhmah among the gentiles (ba-goyim), believe him… that there is Torah among the gentiles, don’t believe him,” suggests this fluidity. The distinction made between Torah and hokhmah is often taken to be an assertion of the superiority of Torah over gentile wisdom: either by virtue of one of its characteristic features or by recourse to an external moral standard. Understood this way, the midrash implies a substantive contrast between Torah and hokhmah – Torah has one character, gentile wisdom another. But read in context, as a gloss on the verse in Eicha which serves as its basis, the midrash is actually making a more nuanced observation.

The midrash begins with the verse, “Their kings and leaders are among the gentiles (ba-goyim), there is no Torah,” lamenting the lack of Torah among the Jews in exile. In Eikhah, the absence of Torah ba-goyim doesn’t refer to the deficiency of the virtues of Torah among the canons of gentile wisdom, but to the impoverished state of Torah when Klal Yisrael finds itself ba-goyim. Torah is not depicted here as an abstract typology of wisdom against which hokhmah is contrasted, but as a palpable force swept up in Klal Yisrael’s historical voyage. Recognizing that Torah is shaped by the spiritual reality of Klal Yisrael, the midrash draws out the natural conclusion. While there is indeed hokhmah ba-goyim, there is no Torah ba-goyim. Torah exists be-yisrael. The distinction between Torah and hokhmah is not simply a matter of text but of context.

By describing Torah as the spiritual-intellectual current which flows through Klal Yisrael rather than an idealized, static, body of wisdom, the midrash thus allows for hokhmah to become Torah when it travels to yisrael and is absorbed into the discourse of Torah. Observably, where even hokhmah resides be-yisrael and not ba-goyim, we find hokhmah becoming Torah most distinctively – comparative scholarship and the literary-theological approach in the study of Tanakh, the partial collapse of the semi-arbitrary division of Yeshiva and academic Talmud study – reflecting the obverse of Eikhah: the organic flourishing of Torah when Klal Yisrael is not ba-goyim.[13]

Of course, as contemporary opposition demonstrates, hokhmah tends to encounter resistance before becoming Torah.[14] The tension between the Yerushalmi and Bavli over the value of Greek wisdom never resolves.[15] It continuously reverberates within the Torah, ensuring that the soul of tradition never gets carried away by the prevailing epistemic winds.[16] Thus, charges of importing foreign Madda were not only brought against Rambam and his philosophical successors. Tosafist dialectic was denounced as “dialeqtiqa shel goyim” in Sefer Hasidim,[17] the philosophical and psychological insights animating the mussar movement were objected to as an unorthodox corruption of tradition,[18] and R. Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky cautioned his students to stay away from “chemistry-learning… the foreign spirit which was incorporated into… the traditionally transmitted Torah:”[19] namely, the analytical Brisker approach to the study of Halakhah.[20]

Nonetheless, in all these instances, communities in Klal Yisrael rejected the charges and the power of hiddush prevailed, in part by virtue of combination of factors – most prominently, an author or authors who are recognized as pious, firmly within the fold, and masters of tradition; the compelling power of the idea(s) in question; and its resonance within traditional concepts and modes of thought – which certified their authenticity and allowed erstwhile Madda to be a celebrated expansion of the palace of Torah.

Lomdus and Philosophy

It is worth pausing on R. Wilovsky’s characterization of Brisk. Lomdus has become so indelibly impressed into the contemporary halakhic consciousness that Torah thought cannot be entirely separated from Brisker insights. Everyone in the Yeshiva today, even those who aren’t its conscious proponents, has become sensitized to the possibility that a given halakhic detail or rabbinic formulation can be explained through a more precise elucidation of the underlying halakhic concept.[21] And yet, R. Wilovksy’s critique conjures a counterfactual reality in which R. Hayyim Soloveitchik’s insights were rejected from tradition as Madda.

Now plainly, Brisker lomdus did not emerge ex nihilo.[22] R. Hayyim’s principal hiddush was to masterfully hone lomdus and bring it to the fore. Moreover, a reorientation to sharply examine received Torah and clarify its core concepts is a recurring process in the Torah She-ba’al Peh. Attention to conceptual formulation suffuses the talmudic reception of Tannaitic literature and the precise language and organizational schema of Rambam’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot and Mishneh Torah.[23] When I hear grumblings about lomdus, I am reminded of the words of the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel: “Poetry can only be critiqued by poetry. A judgment of art that is not itself an artwork has no citizenship rights in the realm of art…”[24] Surely, the only way of appreciating the talmudic conversation’s dialectical dance of halakhic intricacies is through a new poetics of talmud.[25]

Nonetheless, an analogy to Madda is not without merit. Within the scope of halakhic thinking, lomdus refocuses the locus of inquiry directly on the nature of halakhic concepts.[26] Is prayer a heartfelt petition or awe-inspired worship? Is the telos of talmud Torah phronesis, erudition, or hedonic noesis? The discourse of lomdus constitutes a movement away from the practical, normative, and particular to the theoretical, philosophical, and systemic. And, in this way, lomdus is analogous to the most substantial contribution of Madda to Torah in the medieval period: the tradition of medieval Jewish philosophy, which, like lomdus, introduced a discourse which represented Torah as a philosophical system.[27]

Now, within the original tradition of Brisk, the analogy between lomdus and philosophy is limited to their theoretical orientation. Qua Jewish philosopher, R. Hayyim is opposed to the idea of philosophical inquiry as Torah.[28] In Brisker thought, Torah emerges from the Divine Will which is beyond the ken of human reason and explications of Halakhah consist of clarifying its internal definitions and mechanics, to the deliberate exclusion of philosophical rationale or historical, social, or psychological realia.[29]

However, the voluntarism of Brisk inspired the intellectualism of Telshe and invited R. Elya Meir Bloch’s critique that halakhic reductionism fails to appreciate the wisdom of the Torah and ignores the social and psychological realities with which Halakhah is concerned.[30] In contrast to Brisk, Telsher thought understands that the wisdom of Torah is continuous with discourses of human reason and that a deeper understanding of the spiritual verities of the human condition yields sharper insight into Torah. While it has yet to be fully realized, the theology animating Telsher lomdus allows for the reincorporation of philosophy and Madda into the consciousness of Torah.

Possibilities of Hiddushei Torah

Already a millennium ago, in his introduction to Ha-emunah Ha-ramah, the philosopher R. Abraham Ibn Daud observed that the verse (Deut. 4:6), “Observe and perform them, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations,” indicates that philosophical substantiation is a part of Torah since it is through the ecumenical language of philosophy that the wisdom of Torah is recognized beyond its natural borders. Today, this role is shared by moral psychology, narratology, jurisprudence, literary theory, and an array of disciplines which beckon to new vistas in talmud Torah.

I think of R. Zadok Ha-kohen of Lublin, the philosopher of hiddush, who writes: “Even though later generations are inferior, they nevertheless have the virtue of dwarves on the shoulders of giants, since the Gates [of Insight] opened by their predecessors remain open before them and they themselves continue the process of opening new Gates. Even though they are greatly inferior, [their insights] penetrate deeper, for they have passed through the Gates in their soul opened by earlier generations.”[31]

Every truth – of philosophy, aesthetics, history, science, or the human condition – has the potential to enrich the discourse from which hiddushei Torah emanate. And, although we can imagine a world where Torah was only nourished by our indigenous masorah and we had the hermeneutical tools to excavate all worldly wisdom from the Torah, as we live in an exilic world in which we are incapable of such exegetical feats and the Torah has already become conscious of foreign wisdom, the fundamental question is not if hokhmah is to be approached but, in a reality of its perpetual influence, what we, Klal Yisrael, want the texture of our Torah to be.

Consider a reality in which the Vilna Gaon’s diagnosis that “to the extent one is deficient in secular wisdom he will be deficient a hundredfold in Torah study, for Torah and wisdom are bound up together,” was taken seriously by a Yeshiva tradition which, to paraphrase R. Aharon Lichtenstein, taught “linguistics with Amos, historiography with Melakhim, agronomy with Zera’im, physiology with Niddah, chemistry with Hometz U-matzah, philosophy with Yesodei Ha-Torah, psychology with Avodah Zarah, and political theory with Sanhedrin.”[32] I can imagine a tradition of a rich philosophical Torah attempting to move us from the first few verses of Kohelet to the last few and a masorah of psychology attempting to probe the pedagogical mechanics of Mishlei.

What would Torah be if R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg’s directive regarding the inclusion of an academic awareness into the Beit Midrash, “to introduce the love for the old Beit Midrash to those circles which viewed it as the remnant of a dated, vanishing past, and then to bring a new awareness and love for science and inquiry to those for whom the Torah and the literature and lifestyle connected to it are the highest attainment,” had fostered its own Yeshiva world?[33] The colloquial chasm between Torah and art is only sustained by the lack of an artistic tradition emerging from within the walls of the Beit Midrash.

Reading Ludwig Wittgenstein or William James or studying Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics do not independently satisfy the mitzvah of talmud Torah. But I imagine a Beit Midrash with the same fierceness, vibrancy, creative passion, and bikkush ha-emet that I fell in love with when I walked into Telshe Chicago over a decade ago, in which the insights of Wittgenstein enrich our Torah of Halakhah, James our hiqqerei emunah, and Eco our lomdus. Our aspirations to gadlus be-Torah deserve no less.

Yagdil Torah ve-ya’adir.

I am deeply grateful to Shlomo Zuckier and Nosson Sternbach for their gracious assistance in formulating this essay.

[1] Notable exceptions include R. Shalom Carmy’s penetrating apprehension of the tendency to forego unmediated engagement with specific ideas in favor of labeling them as Torah or Madda and Alan Brill’s perceptive recognition that the category of Torah has been constructed differently in different eras and communities, encompassing, at times, logic, folklore, philosophy, philology, and poetry, [R. Shalom Carmy, “As We are Now is Not the Only Way to Be: On the Place of the Humanities in Contemporary Religious Culture,” Tradition 45:2 (Summer 2012): 11-30; Alan Brill, “Judaism in Culture: Beyond the Bifurcation of Torah and Madda,” The Edah Journal 4:1 (Iyar 5764): 22; response by Yitzchak Blau, “Contemporary Fads and Torah u-Madda: A Response to Alan Brill,” idem 4:2 (Kislev 5765)]. For a perspicacious critique of the idea that there is a coherent ideological question of Torah u-Madda, see R. Mayer Schiller, “Torah Umadda and The Jewish Observer Critique: Towards a Clarification of the Issues,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 6 (1995-1996): 58-90.

Recognition of the diversity of genre within the category of Torah complicates a simple division of Torah and Madda, see, for instance, a consideration of piyyutim as Torah in Tosafot on Rosh Hashanah 27a s.v. “Kima’an” and Avoda Zarah 35a s.v. “Mai,” Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot 2:721, and the broader category implicated in Sh”ut Har Tzvi Yoreh De’ah 105. The ontology of Torah is further complicated by the observation that Torah does not simply accrue through the conscious interpretation of previous Torah texts and ideas. Consider the parabolic Torah of R. Nahman of Bratslav or the folkways of Torah depicted in Berakhot 62a. Furthermore, even works within the discourse of Torah are subject to evaluation of their claim to Torah, as can be seen in the case of the “yenuka ha-pilai,”see here.
[2] Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 54-63.
[3] See the contemporary controversy recorded by R. Dovid Breslauer, Nahlei Devash: Inyanei Divrei Torah Ve-divrei Sofrim (South Fallsburg, NY, 2015) 27. For a modern reformulation of the Maimonidean approach, see Netziv in the introduction to Ha-emek She’eilah.
[4] Herbert Davidson, “Maimonides’ ‘Shemonah Peraqim’ and Alfarabi’s ‘Fusul Al-Madani,’” PAAJR 31 (1963): 33-50.
[5] Eric Lawee, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition: Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), 27-58.
[6] Michael Fox, “From Amenemope to Proverbs: Editorial Art in Proverbs 22,17–23,11” ZAW 126:1, 76-91, and works cited therein.
[7] For examples of the former, see Diana Lobel, A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); D. Rosin, “The Ethics of Solomon Ibn Gebirol,” JQR 3:2, 159-181; and Immanuel Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth (Philadelphia: JPS, 1993) 117-134. For the latter, see R. Azriel’s Peirush Ha-aggadot Li-Rabbi Azriel; Boaz Huss, “Mysticism versus Philosophy in Kabbalistic literature,” Micrologus 9, 125-135; and Jonathan Dauber, Knowledge of God and the Development of Early Kabbalah (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
[8] Gregg Stern, Philosophy and Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Interpretation and Controversy in Medieval Languedoc (London: Routledge, 2009).
[9] This philosophy is colorfully articulated by R. Isaac b. Shmuel of Acre in Me’irat Einayim (Jerusalem, 1993), 99-100, and in Derashot Hatam Sofer: Helek Gimmel (Jerusalem, 1959), 19. As it happens, R. Isaac expresses this philosophy in his critique of a Maimonidean stream of thought, namely, that the obligation to study Torah is satisfied with knowledge of the Mishneh Torah and the remainder of one’s time should be occupied with philosophical speculation. And, furthermore, the emergence of this attitude can be traced to a reception of Rambam’s idea that the controlling purpose of Torah study, with the probable exception of Tanakh, is to arrive at the ascertainment of what is obligated, permitted, and forbidden. Now, the pinnacle of the mitzvah of talmud for the Rambam, which consists of philosophy, also has a dialectic, discursive character. One can therefore speculate if the two approaches can be harmonized within a more contemporary philosophic temper which locates philosophical inquiry within the realities of a given tradition. [See Rambam’s explicit circumscription of the transmission of the Torah to halakhic works in his introduction to the Mishneh Torah and multiple such descriptions including throughout the introduction, in his introduction to Sefer Ha-mitzvot, in Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:13, in his letter to R. Pinchas b. Meshullam the Judge of Alexandria (Igrot Ha-Rambam, ed. Y. Sheilat (Ma’aleh Adumim, Il: Sheilat, 1995), 438-445), and in the fragment of his letter quoted in an anonymous apologia (ibid, 257-259); and his description of the philosophical component of Talmud in Moreh Nevukhim 3:51; for the last point, see e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988)].
[10] E.g. Rambam, Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; Shulhan Arukh Ha-rav, Yoreh De’ah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, Kuntres Aharon.
[11] In his exhaustive article circumscribing the category of Torah as subject to the mitzvah of talmud Torah, R. Aharon Kahn notes the strange truth that the medical remedies in the Talmud are Torah even if they did not originate from within the masorah, [“Li-kiviat Ha-heftza shel Torah Be-mitzvat Talmud Torah,” Beit Yosef Shaul 3, 305-403]. Conceiving of Torah as the hermeneutical discourse of Torah provides an explanation. The remedies codified in the Talmud were part of the Rabbinic consciousness through which Torah was understood.
[12] See e.g. R. Yosef Zalman Bloch, Be-emunah Sheleimah (Monsey, 2012), 327-383.
[13] Lawrence Kaplan, “Back to Zechariah Frankel and Louis Jacobs? On Integrating Academic Talmudic Scholarship Into Israeli Religious Zionist Yeshivas and the Specter of the Historical Development of the Halakhah,” JMJS 14, 89-108; Richard Hidary, “Traditional versus Academic Talmud Study: Hilkakh Nimrinhu le-Tarvaihu,” Kol Hamevaser 3:3, 8-9.
[14] Furthermore, even as it enters the tradition, Madda is not permitted to affect all expressions of Torah equally. A Rabbi can turn Madda into Torah by delivering a sermon consisting of a psychological insight encased in a biblical narrative – which is understood and spiritually ingested by his congregants as Torah – but Halakhah, or the normative expression of Torah, proceeds according to its own more tightly constructed internal logic and resists such frictionless intrusions.
[15] Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:1, Peah 1:1; Bavli Menahot 99b. Jonathan Engel suggested to me that the Yerushalmi’s intellectual liberalism reflects its formation be-yisrael.
[16] Nietzsche observed in Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 251, “The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe; they know how to prevail under the worst conditions… by means of virtues that today one would like to mark as vices – thanks above all to a resolute faith that they need not be ashamed before ‘modern ideas’; they change, when they change, only as the Russian Empire makes its conquests – being an empire that has time and is not of yesterday – namely, according to the principle, ‘as slowly as possible.’”
[17] Sefer Hasidim (ed. Parma) 752. Whether Tosafist dialectic was actually influenced by Christian thought is doubtful. See Haym Soloveitchik, “Three Themes in the ‘Sefer Hasidim’,” AJS Review 1, 339-357; Ephraim Kanarfogel, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 66-85.
[18] “Le-ma’an Da’at,” Ha-melitz 155.
[19] Beit Ridvaz (Jerusalem, 1908), 4. See also Marc Shapiro, “The Brisker Method Reconsidered: Review Essay of The Analytic Movement: Hayyim Soloveitchik and his Circle by Norman Solomon” Tradition 31:3 (Spring 1997): 78-102.
[20] To be sure, although, as argued below (see esp. note 26) there are other important commonalities between lomdus and Madda, I doubt whether R. Wilovsky was personally acquainted with proficient practitioners of Brisker lomdus. It is likely he encountered the same caricature that unfortunately prevails in certain contemporary circles, namely that “Brisker lomdus” is a series of templatic distinctions between such binaries as subject-object [heftzagavra] or action-result [pe’ulahtotza’ah], (a misapprehension which has unfortunately been exacerbated by seforim which attempt to reduce lomdus per se to a similarly crude framework). In fact, the words heftza and gavra never appear together in a single piece in Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim Ha-levi (with the exception of one piece in which the word gavra is a talmudic citation indicating a specific person, i.e. ha-hu gavra), reflect a much older talmudic distinction between classes of issurim (see e.g. Sh”ut Rivash 98), and are in no way representative of either original Brisker or modern lomdus. In Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim Ha-levi itself, the lomdus of Hilkhot Tum’at Meit, which is often overlooked in vulgar accounts of lomdus, receives the plurality of R. Hayyim’s attention and defies the crude templatic depictions. In a footnote to a lecture delivered in early 1940, R. Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, the Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe, already denounced this caricature. [See Shiurei Da’at: Ha-gra’i Mi-Telz Zatzukl (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2010) 92.] In actuality, rather than stodgy distinction, the desire of the lamdan is precise formulation. As described below, the heart of lomdus is the awareness that halakhic differences and divergences are not merely legal technicalities but rather flow organically from a precise elucidation of the nature of the underlying halakhic concept. Conflating lomdus with the popular series of binaries is analogous to drawing through a stencil and calling oneself a creative artist.
[21] A note of clarification about the term lomdus: in both academic and popular discussions of lomdus, “Brisker lomdus” is often conflated with “lomdus” per se, without differentiating the broader philosophical trend within Rabbinic discourse and scholarship of the past century from its particular form in the original lomdishe tradition of Brisk. (For example, figures such as R. Leib Malin, R. Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, and R. Shmuel Berenbaum have received little attention in the intellectual history of lomdus.) Furthermore, the distinction between the more ambitious, ideational, and dynamic lomdus of R. Hayyim and the conservative, classificatory, and technical lomdus of his son, R. Velvel, known as the Brisker Rav, has been overlooked. It is this latter lomdus which currently typifies a “Brisker vort” in the Yeshiva world.

More broadly, lomdus is not merely the province of the particular traditions of Brisk and Telshe whose lomdus emerges from a distinct theological matrix, and, having a defined character, have received the majority of scholarly attention, but is indicative of the general tenor of Torah scholarship of the past century; no one would consider R. Moshe Feinstein a Brisker and yet no one would confuse Dibrot Moshe with Ma’arakhot R. Akiva Eiger. While the Torah of R. Elchanan Wasserman or R. Aharon Kotler is easily distinguishable from Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim Ha-levi, R. Hayyim’s influence is unmistakable. Thus, while the Torah of individual scholars differ—not simply on the basis of halakhic philosophy, but due to personal scholastic inclinations such as style, scope, the balance of the thematic and the technical or of ideational clarity and textual fidelity, etc.—a universal stress on clarifying the halakhic construct under consideration unites the Torah of the modern Yeshiva world. Lomdus refers not only to a theoretical approach, but to a historical discourse of Torah, which is distinguished by a shared terminology, metaphysical realism, and distinctive emphasis on and esteem for the incisive formulation of internal halakhic concepts, in lieu of other explanatory methods. It is this discourse with its focus on the philosophical and metaphysical that resembles Jewish philosophy.
[22] For instance, Rashi frequently employs “Brisker” terminology (e.g. paqa shem minei), R. Isaiah di Trani explains halakhot by way of lomdishe distinctions, and R. Judah Rosanes (known for Mishneh Li-melekh and Perashat Derakhim) elaborates the implications of conceptual haqirot. The dawn of modern lomdus is apparent in the Aharonim in the century prior to R. Hayyim, for instance in the works of R. Aryeh Leib Heller, R. Yaakov Lorberbaum, and R. Akiva Eiger. And parallel trends are discernible in the collective halakhic consciousness of R. Hayyim’s era, namely, in the works of R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk, the Rogatchover Gaon, and R. Yosef Engel – though without R. Hayyim’s characteristic incisive precision and focus on the halakhic din.
[23] Leib Moscovitz, Talmudic Reasoning: From Casuistics to Conceptualization (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002).
[24] Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Fragmente, 117.
[25] The delightfully lyrical introduction to Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim Ha-levi, written by R. Hayyim’s son the Brisker Rav, consists of this argument.
[26] The analogy between Brisk and “Madda” is underscored by the similarity between lomdus and the more conceptual analyses emerging out of the contemporary academy which are concerned with, for example, the categories of charity, time, or atonement in Rabbinic literature.
[27] To be sure, although the sense of Halakhah as an ideal, unified, conceptual system emerges from R. Hayyim’s hyperfocus on the elementary halakhic concepts, it is never explicitly presented as such in his writings. Both throughout Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim Ha-levi and in the reflective introduction, the focus remains on clarifications of individual laws and concepts, which are driven by the resolution of specific difficulties and inconsistencies within Rabbinic texts. Halakhah does not depart from its classic, locally normative model. Likewise, although the notion that physical reality is perceived through halakhic constructs is implicit in talmudic discussions, when R. Reuven Grozovsky describes R. Boruch Ber Lebowitz’s apprehension of reality through Torah (in the introduction to Birkhat Shmuel III), he ascribes it to his love for and devotion to Torah, rather than the cognitive dimension of Halakhah. The formulation of these two facets of Halakhah, as articulated in Halakhic Man and Mah Dodekh Mi-dod, constitute R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s most significant contributions to meta-lomdus.
[28] The Brisker dictum, “Faith begins at the point that knowledge ends,” can be read as a proscription of philosophical speculation which would have occupied the intermediate space.
[29] For the theological basis of this approach, see Beit Ha-levi al Ha-Torah (Jerusalem, 1996) 119-123. The philosophical autonomy of Halakhah comprises R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s thesis in The Halakhic Mind, where he argues that a type of Jewish philosophy emerges merely from a richer appreciation of intrinsic halakhic concepts; philosophy begins with lomdus. It is telling that The Halakhic Mind is, at once, R. Soloveitchik’s work which is most philosophically engaged and most representative of Brisker thought.
[30] Shiurei Da’at: Ha-mahariyil Mi-Telz Zatzukl I (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2010), 11-17, 200-204; R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man trans. Lawrence Kaplan, (Philadelphia, JPS: 1983), 52-53. It is no coincidence that the orders of Kodshim and Taharot, whose halakhot are often understandably reducible to Scriptural decree, are overrepresented in Brisker Torah, whereas the most creative and compelling lomdus of the Telsher halakhist R. Shimon Shkop is on halakhic civil law. For more on R. Shimon Shkop and the role of human reason, see Elisha Friedman, “Natural Law and Religious Philosophy in R. Shimon Shkop’s System,” Tradition 49:4 (Winter 2016): 53-70; Alex Ozar, “‘These Are Matters Which Shatter Roofs’: R. Shimon Shkop on Law and Normativity More Broadly” Dine Israel 34, 111-139, and the works of Sagi and Wosner cited therein.
[31] Resisei Layla 13; see also Likkutei Ma’amarim, 6; Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakha,” Tradition 21:4 (Fall 1985): 1-26.
[32] Sefer Uklidos (The Hague, 1780), Introduction; R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View,” in Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning (Jersey City: Ktav, 2003), 93. An early expression of this idea is found in R. Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Yesod Mora Ve-sod Torah, Sha’ar 1.
[33]  R. Shalom Carmy, “R. Yechiel Weinberg’s Lecture on Academic Jewish Scholarship,” Tradition 24:4 (Summer 1989): 15-23.

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Elinatan Kupferberg currently learns Torah in the Beren Kollel Elyon at Yeshiva University. He is a talmid of Telshe Yeshiva of Chicago, Yeshiva of South Fallsburg, Brisk, and Beth Medrash Govoha. Elinatan has a master’s degree in Jewish Philosophy from Revel Graduate School, where he is completing a degree in Rabbinic Literature. He thinks the language of the brakha of Atah Honen suggests a reconsideration of Adam's eating from the Tree of Knowing and links the episode to the figure of Enosh at the end of Genesis 4. He can be reached at