Modern Rabbinic Thought: A Retrospective Glance

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau



By Rav Yitzchak Blau



In Loving Memory of Beloved Father and Grandfather,
Ya'acov Ben Yitzchak, Fred Stone (A"H)
whose Yahrzeit is 25 Tammuz;
Ellen and Stanley Stone and their children
Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi


Shiur #45: Modern Rabbinic Thought: A Retrospective Glance

This shiur is dedicated for a refua shelema for Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Amital shelit"a, Yehuda ben Dvora.


For two years, this series has explored the thought of seven rabbinic authorities from the last two centuries. As noted in the opening shiur, part of the motivation was my desire to encourage the Modern Orthodox world to think beyond the important works of R. Kook and R. Soloveitchik. We have encountered profound thought from the other writers studied, and we have investigated issues not addressed by the two most prominent Modern Orthodox luminaries. This final shiur will look back and compare some of these rabbinic giants. For those who only joined in the second year, shiur 30 from the first year summarizes some of the first year’s major discussions.

We noted the breadth of these figures, many of them productive in both Gemara/Halakha and in Tanakh/machshava. At the same time, some of them excelled in a particular medium, while others were more varied. The outstanding quality and innovative nature of the Netziv’s commentaries on Chumash, Sifra, and the Sheiltot make it difficult to select his essential contribution. R. Hutner, on the other hand, made his major impact in the world of Jewish thought.  Althought he was certainly a Talmudic scholar, the creative profundity of his Pachad Yitzchak far outstrips his writings on Nazir and the Sifra. Perhaps we can say that the great scholar is not a narrow specialist, but he can excel in a particular genre.

Furthermore, the extensive knowledge of these scholars in varied disciplines guided their insight in other areas of Torah.  The Netziv and R. Meir Simcha always provide excellent commentary, but they are particularly helpful in the legal portions of Chumash, precisely because they were Talmudic scholars.  R. Hirsch’s bold attempt to explain the significance of the details of every mitzva relies on Talmudic erudition about those details. The same applies to R. Hutner’s thought.  Whereas some of the classics of medieval Jewish philosophy make little use of halakhic texts, R. Hutner’s analysis often begins with sensitive probing of a formulation from the Gemara or from the Rambam’s great code. Extensive knowledge of Halakha both inspires creative thought in Tanakh and machshava and helps ensure that the creativity is sufficiently rooted in the world of mitzvot.                    

Both R. Hutner and R. Meir Simcha frequently emphasize the importance of free will. For the former, determinism constitutes the essential contemporary challenge against the dignity of mankind. The latter defines “the image of God,” mankind’s badge of honor, as the ability to make free moral and religious choices. Both may have been responding to external or internal developments. Science and technology’s growing success in modernity sometimes leads to the idea that we should explain human choices as biological or chemical responses to stimuli, an approach leaving no room for authentic freedom.  Alternatively, the deterministic elements in Izbica chassidut, most manifest in the sefarim of R. Mordechia Yosef Leiner and R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin, may have inspired a response.  As many have argued that R. Hutner was familiar with, and even influenced by, R. Tzadok’s thought,[1] the latter possibility gains credence.

Having seen a commonality between R. Meir Simcha and R. Hutner, we now turn to an important difference. Let us begin with a discussion of the sources R. Hutner cites. He frequently addresses texts from Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Rabbenu Yonah, Maharal and the Gra.  Before beginning to study R. Hutner in depth, I had thought that he did not cite Aharonim, but this is simply false. He quotes lomdishe works, such as Minchat Chinukh, Turei Even, and the Chiddushei Ha-Griz; great poskim including the Chafetz Chaim and Chazon Ish; and some of mussar’s leading lights, such as R. Yisrael Salanter, R. Isaac Blazer, and R. Avraham Grodzinski.

This expanded list further highlights the people R. Hutner does not cite. Although he grew up in a Kotzker home and studied some Chassidic masters, he almost never cites them in his talks. I am aware of a solitary citation of R. Tzadok and a single mention of the Kotzker in R. Hutner’s published writings.[2]  Nor does he cite R. Kook, despite his indebtedness to the latter’s guidance. Furthermore, he never cites the Rambam’s Guide and rarely makes reference to the classic medieval philosophy works such as Kuzari and Sefer Ha-Ikarim. This stands in sharp contrast to R. Meir Simcha, who addresses close to thirty different citations from Moreh Nevukhim. This even contrasts with R. Tzadok, who makes several references to the Rambam’s Guide.                  

Lawrence Kaplan notes and explains this phenomenon: 

A much simpler, albeit less “profound” and “edifying” explanation suggests itself for Rabbi Hutner’s decision not to cite secular philosophic sources, namely, his desire to maintain the strictly internal, traditional, and purely Jewish appearance of his essays, and so, thereby, to make them acceptable in the eyes of the traditional Orthodox world.  After all, Rabbi Hutner not only fails to cite, say, Aristotle or Kant or Hermann Cohen; he also never cites, to take just two examples, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and the writings of his own teacher, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.[3]

I believe that Kaplan is correct.  The Lithuanian yeshiva world views both the Rambam’s Moreh and R. Kook with suspicion, and the same can be said to a lesser degree about Mei Ha-Shiloach and R. Tzadok’s sefarim. R. Hutner’s choice of explicit references places him firmly within the world of traditional yeshivot.  This explanation makes the contrast with R. Meir Simcha and R. Tzadok all the more striking.  We would not view either one as part of an especially enlightened or liberal circle, yet they had no difficulty incorporating ideas from Moreh Nevukhim.

The distinction highlights a narrowness often found in contemporary yeshivot. Whereas a community rabbi from the turn of the twentieth century such as R. Meir Simcha cites Moreh Nevukhim without reservation, a later Rosh Yeshiva never does so. The growing trend in Lithuanian yeshivot after World War II was a constriction of the yeshiva curriculum. We cannot fully identify R. Hutner with this constrictive impulse, since he put so much energy into machshava; yet he did restrict the voices worthy of citation.

Differences between R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg and R. Hutner, two former Slobodka students, underscore divergent twentieth century trends. In an earlier shiur, we noted R. Weinberg’s positive feelings about the Jewish State, even as he criticized its secular character and Zionism that simply mimics the nationalism of other nations. He admired Zionistic dedication towards improving the lot of Jewry and saw the State as providing hope and succor following the Shoah.

R. Hutner, on the other hand, was a fierce critic of Zionism.  In one well-known lecture, he places causal responsibility for the Holocaust on the Zionist movement. He argues that the Mufti of Jerusalem was not rabidly anti-Semitic until he encountered Zionist aspirations to reclaim the Land of Israel and that the Mufti thereafter played a crucial influential role in convincing the Nazis to adopt the Final Solution.[4]  

Shubert Spero[5] and Lawrence Kaplan[6] point out many of the flaws in this argument.  The assumptions that the Mufti liked the Jews before Zionism or that the Nazis needed Arab encouragement to decide to annihilate world Jewry are both quite dubious. The Mufti encouraged anti-Jewish pogroms from the first year of his appointment in 1921, and the Nazi Einsatzgruppen annihilated hundreds of thousands of Jews before the Mufti ever arrived in Germany. Moreover, even accepting R. Hutner’s portrait, the argument does not instruct us how to evaluate the worth of Zionism. If we were to discover that halakhic observance promotes anti-Semitism, we would not stop keeping mitzvot.  People need to follow their ideals and they cannot be held responsible for every possible consequence, including those not easily foreseen.

R. Hutner sees a sinister component within Zionist discourse about the Nazi destruction:

To cover its own contribution to the final catastrophic events, those of the State in a position to influence public opinion circulated the notorious canard that Gedolei Yisroel were responsible for the destruction of may communities because they did not urge immigration.[7]

Here, R. Hutner furthers his anti–Zionist tirade in a manner difficult to justify. Not only are the Zionists causally responsible for the destruction of European Jewry, they then tried to cover this up by pointing an accusing finger elsewhere. I hope it is not disrespectful of me to wonder whether we should reverse the accusation at those defending the great rabbis who encouraged their students or chassidim to remain in Europe despite the Nazi threat. Perhaps these defenders jump on the chance to blame the Zionists partially as a means to avoiding facing the mistakes of our rabbinic leadership.         

     Although deeply negative about Zionism, R. Hutner exhibited a great love of the Land of Israel, manifest in his coming to study in Chevron in the 1920’s and in his returning to live in Israel towards the end of his life. His personal correspondence and communal talks also discuss the significance of the Holy Land.  One letter argues that Chazal’s equation of living in the galut with lacking a God applies even when no Temple stands. After all, the Talmudic prooftext is from Kind David’s feeling of exile before the Temple ever existed.[8]

Another letter emphasizes how hard it is to leave Israel and how much he benefitted from his time studying there. “No approach, no teacher, and no educator could have penetrated to the innermost part of my soul as did the Land of Israel, the authentic place for a Torah life.”[9] One Pesach sicha describes how full arevut (communal responsibility) in Am Yisrael only begins when they enter the Land.[10] Other analyses stress Israel as the true place for religious service, so that leaving the Land means a diminution of our ability to be ovdei Hashem.[11]     

The above reflects an important corrective to a potential pitfall of Charedi ideology. In their desire not to grant any religious value to a secular movement, Charedi ideologues may also end up downplaying the importance of Eretz Yisrael in our tradition. If we identify Zionism and the Land, rejecting one slips into rejection of the other. R. Hutner avoided this danger, maintaining a strong distaste for secular Zionism with an intense love for our Holy Land. 

R. Weinberg and R. Hutner also differed regarding secular studies. In a previous shiur, we noted how R. Hutner draws a sharp dividing line between Torah sources and secular knowledge, arguing that the latter can only be a means; therefore, it can never provide the deepest joy of study. Furthermore, he never explicitly cites non-Jewish thinkers. R. Weinberg’s writings, on the other hand, make reference to Einstein, Goethe, Hegel, Herder, Kant, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Tolstoy.[12] Along similar lines, it is inconceivable that R. Hutner would have published essays on Achad Ha’am and Berdyczewski, as R. Weinberg did. 

The two Slobodka graduates made very different choices indicative of the divides in twentieth century Orthodoxy.  Some Orthodox Jews moved towards greater insularity and narrowness, whereas others advocated increased exposure to the broader world of Western thought. R. Hutner became a Rosh Yeshiva and R. Weinberg received a university doctorate. At the same time, we should not overstate the implications of the divide. R. Hutner and R. Weinberg remained friends and correspondents, indicating that common attachment to Torah and personal friendships can transcend some of these debates.  Furthermore, it would be a great mistake for Modern Orthodox communities to feel estranged from R. Hutner’s thought because they follow a different approach. We have no surplus of profound thinkers, and R. Hutner has much to add to our understanding of Torah and mitzvot.

I hope that our community will intensively pursue study of all the rabbinic thinkers surveyed in this shiur as well as the many others we did not discuss. 




[1] See Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakha,” pp. 20-22.

[2] Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 80, p. 147 and no. 157, p. 246.

[3] Lawrence Kaplan, “Jewish Orthodoxy in the Twentieth Century: Between Two Worlds,” Daat 35 (Summer 1995): pp. xvi-xvii. 

[4] “Holocaust – A Study of the Term and the Epoch It’s Meant to Describe,” The Jewish Observer (October, 1977): pp. 3-9.

[5] See Spero’s letter in the January 1978 issue of The Jewish Observer, pp. 8-9.

[6] Lawrence Kaplan, “Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s ‘Daat Torah Perspective’ on the Holocaust: A Critical Analysis,” Tradition 18:3 (Fall, 1980): p. 235-248.

[7] “Holocaust – A Study,” p. 7.

[8] Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 110.

[9] Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 162, p. 254.

[10] Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 63:9.

[11] Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 21:3, 53:13.  

[12] See the index to Lefrakim.