Five Nineteenth Century Rabbinic Thinkers: A Retrospective Analysis
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
loving memory of Yaacov Ben Yitzchak (AH),
beloved father and grandfather,
whose yahrzeit was the 25th of Tammuz.
Dedicated by: Stanley & Ellen Stone
and their children, Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi.
Five Nineteenth Century Rabbinic Thinkers:
A Retrospective Analysis
investigated the thought of five rabbinic figures functioning at roughly the
same time. Four of them were born
in the nineteenth century (R. Lipschutz was born in the previous century) and
their rabbinic careers were solely in that century (with the exception of
specifics, I would like to mention shared qualities of rabbinic greatness. We noted several times the breadth
and range of these writers. Netziv
wrote commentaries on Chumash, Talmud, Sheiltot, and Sifrei, as well as
Of all these writers, R. Lipschutz produced the fewest works, but his classic commentary on the Mishnah is all-inclusive. In this commentary, abstract Talmudic analysis and practical halakhic rulings appear together with philosophic, historical, linguistic, and scientific questions.
Each of these thinkers manifests rabbinic excellence in his broad Torah knowledge and erudition in Tanakh and Talmud, while formulating Jewish thought that is rooted in halakhic details. The intellectual ailment of narrow specialization, common in modernity, did not afflict these writers.
Furthermore, they all
reveal keen psychological insight.
One thinks of R. Lipschutzs analysis of why studying away from home
promotes educational growth, R.
Zadoks explaining how lack of internalized wisdom leads to scholarly arrogance,
The thought of these
five writers reveal interesting parallels.
Both Netziv and
Netziv and R. Zadok
share an understanding that the process of the Oral Law during the
commonality, some differences of approach exist. For R. Berlin, both halakhic
methodologies reflect the work of sages; for R. Zadok, the sages only rise to
prominence during the
With the possible exception
of R. Zadok, they all convey certain favorable attitudes towards the Gentile
world. This was most
pronounced in the commentary of R. Lipschutz, particularly on Avot. Recall his enthusiastic praise for
Jenner, Drake, Gutenberg, and Reuchlin and his insistence that they (and all
righteous Gentiles) surely have a place in the World to Come.
voices from quite divergent backgrounds all affirm Judaisms concern for the
physical and spiritual well-being of the Gentile population. As previously noted, some of the
writers, including R. Lipschutz and
Almost all of the five discuss
rationales for the commandments.
This was clearly a major part of the Hirschian endeavor, and we can also
find such analysis in
contrasts reveals a few differences that fit our expectations. R. Zadok, the one chassidic figure, is
the most influenced by kabbalistic ideas, while the Western European
generate surprise. The assumption
that rabbis more open to secular wisdom would be the most interested in medieval
Jewish philosophy turns out to be false.
Rambam states that Hebrew is called the holy tongue because it lacks terms for genital organs, for the reproductive act, for urine and for excrement. When Hebrew needs to describe these things, it borrows terms with other meanings or employs allusions. This linguistic limitation makes the language sanctified. Ritva penned an entire work entitled Sefer Ha-zikaron dedicated to defending Rambam from Rambans critiques; yet he refused to defend Rambams explanation for lashon ha-kodesh. Nevertheless, R. Zadok cites this view of Rambam as a legitimate option, even defending Rambam from the critiques of Ramban and Shem Tov.
He also endorses some of Rambams rationales for mitzvot, including the explanation that circumcision helps restrain sexuality. In another example, he utilizes Rambams rationale in a halakhic context. Acharonim debate whether a contemporary court, which invariably lacks real semikha, can levy fines or can only demand restitution of the principal. R. Zadok argues that the court can extract double or even fourfold payment in order to deter criminals. He notes that Rambam attributes the greater severity of double payment for a thief to the need for a harsher punishment as a deterrent, since burglary is more common than armed robbery. R. Zadok contends that our administering such fines to intimidate criminals reflects exactly what the Torah does in this scenario.
R. Zadok alters Rambams explanation of sacrifices, placing it in the context of his own thought. Rambam contends that the sacrificial order reflects a divine concession to the religious understanding of the ancient Near East. That world could not imagine religious life devoid of animal offerings, so God wisely included such offerings in His Torah, utilizing them to guide the people from paganism to pure monotheism. For R. Zadok, this illustrates the idea that the glory of light is only clarified against a backdrop of darkness. We appreciate the Jewish sacrificial order in contrast to pagan versions.
In a different passage, R. Zadok argues that Rambam reverses the correct causality. The Torah did not respond to ancient paganism; rather, paganism responded to the Torah. People can pervert any noble ideal and the parallels between certain mitzvot and pagan practices reveal a pagan perversion of Torah. This coheres with R. Zadoks zeh leumat zeh principle, in which historical trends find parallel expression in the Jewish and Gentile worlds.
Sometimes, R. Zadok
combines criticism with reverence.
Rambam writes that the
Of course, the option
of translating Rambams words into a different system of thought is easier for a
mystical thinker than for R. Hirsch.
The same can be said
about the contrast between
 Haamek Davar Bereishit 24: 65.
 Moreh Nevukhim 3:8.
 Or Zarua La-tzaddik, p. 46.
 Likutei Maamarim, p. 153. Rambams view appears in Moreh Nevukhim 3:49.
 Moreh Nevukhim 3:41. Rambams view differs from that of the gemara (Bava Kama 79b) which suggests that theft could reflect deeper religious shortcomings.
 Levushei Tzedaka pp. 3-4.
 Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.
 LIkutei Maamarim, p. 240.
 Or Zarua La-tzaddik, p. 19.
 Moreh Nevukhim 3:45.
 Likutei Maamarim, p. 207.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Vayikra 19:18, Devarim 6:5.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Bereishit 3:4.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Vayikra 26:6.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 15:11.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Devarim 10:13, 22: 10.
 Meshekh Chokhma, introduction to Vayikra.
 Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 40:5.