Modern Rabbinic Thought: A Retrospective Glance
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
By Rav Yitzchak Blau
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
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 years 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 Netzivs 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. Hirschs bold attempt to explain the significance of the details of every mitzva relies on Talmudic erudition about those details. The same applies to R. Hutners thought. Whereas some of the classics of medieval Jewish philosophy make little use of halakhic texts, R. Hutners analysis often begins with sensitive probing of a formulation from the Gemara or from the Rambams 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.
R. Hutner and
seen a commonality between
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. Hutners published writings. Nor does he cite R. Kook, despite his
indebtedness to the latters guidance. Furthermore, he never cites the Rambams
Guide and rarely makes reference to the classic medieval philosophy works
such as Kuzari and Sefer Ha-Ikarim. This stands in sharp contrast
Lawrence Kaplan notes and explains this phenomenon:
A much simpler, albeit less profound and edifying explanation suggests itself for Rabbi Hutners 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.
I believe that Kaplan is correct. The Lithuanian yeshiva world views both the Rambams Moreh and R. Kook with suspicion, and the same can be said to a lesser degree about Mei Ha-Shiloach and R. Tzadoks sefarim. R. Hutners 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.
distinction highlights a narrowness often found in contemporary yeshivot.
Whereas a community rabbi from the turn of the twentieth century such as
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. Weinbergs 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.
Shubert Spero and Lawrence Kaplan 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. Hutners 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.
Here, R. Hutner furthers his antiZionist 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 1920s 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 Chazals equation of living in the galut with lacking a God applies even when no Temple stands. After all, the Talmudic prooftext is from Kind Davids feeling of exile before the Temple ever existed.
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. One Pesach sicha describes how full arevut (communal responsibility) in Am Yisrael only begins when they enter the Land. 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.
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.
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
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.
 See Yaakov Elman, R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakha, pp. 20-22.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 80, p. 147 and no. 157, p. 246.
 Lawrence Kaplan, Jewish Orthodoxy in the Twentieth Century: Between Two Worlds, Daat 35 (Summer 1995): pp. xvi-xvii.
 Holocaust A Study of the Term and the Epoch Its Meant to Describe, The Jewish Observer (October, 1977): pp. 3-9.
 See Speros letter in the January 1978 issue of The Jewish Observer, pp. 8-9.
 Lawrence Kaplan, Rabbi Isaac Hutners Daat Torah Perspective on the Holocaust: A Critical Analysis, Tradition 18:3 (Fall, 1980): p. 235-248.
 Holocaust A Study, p. 7.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 110.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 162, p. 254.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 63:9.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 21:3, 53:13.
 See the index to Lefrakim.