Collected Essays, Vol. I

collected essaysCollected Essays, Vol. I
By Haym Soloveitchik
Littman Library of Jewish Civilization
Oxford, 2013
352 pages

Reviewed by Jeffrey R. Woolf

Professor Haym Soloveitchik is the leading contemporary practitioner of the discipline of “History of Halachah,” which examines the interaction of halachic tradition with protean reality. Over the past four decades, he has enriched Jewish scholarship and historiography immeasurably with groundbreaking monographs and books on a broad range of topics. His work has set a (very high) standard for other scholars who labor in these fields. In this volume—the first of a promised three—the author has updated and significantly expanded his previously published articles. In addition, in the last two sections, he has added several new innovative studies alongside other material that was not previously available in English. Equally important, since the present volume is aimed at a wider audience, a number of essays have been rewritten to make them accessible to the thinking layperson.

The book is divided into four sections. The first section, entitled “Overview of the Tosafist Movement,” discusses the character and genesis of the two great cornerstones of Talmudic study which have framed the Talmudic text since the turn of the sixteenth century: the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafists. The author clearly and carefully traces the background and unique qualities of Rashi’s commentary. He then explains the nature and origins of the Tosafist enterprise, its relationship with Rashi’s commentary and its impact upon both Talmudic commentary and all subsequent halachah. Along the way, the reader encounters the great figures among the ba’alei haTosafot: Rav Yaakov Tam and his key disciples, Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre and Rabbi Samson of Sens, and learns just how the Tosafot were created, composed and preserved. The author’s discussions should be required reading for both traditional and academic students of the Talmud.

The next two sections address two halachic issues that have been at the center of Dr. Soloveitchik’s research: “Usury” and “The Ban on Gentile Wine.” The author has reissued his essays on these topics in their original form (with updated bibliography throughout the footnotes). He follows each piece with new appendices in which he discusses, sometimes acerbically, various points at issue between himself and other historians. Here the reader has the unique opportunity of entering the historian of halachah’s carrel and see him at work. The subjects might appear somewhat daunting, but with the author’s careful guidance, the effort proves well worth it.

Of the two sections, the essays dealing with the ban on Gentile wine (yayin nesech and stam yaynam) are the more accessible. Of particular note for the reader who seeks to understand both the topic and the author’s methodology is the essay “Can Halakhic Texts Talk History?” Here, one is invited to attend a seminar on the subject. After a brief introduction, from both a legal and historical perspective, a series of sources is carefully and meticulously presented and analyzed from the Talmud up until the end of the Tosafist era. Dr. Soloveitchik demonstrates in the case at hand that halachic change can derive as much from the theoretical study of the Talmud as from external forces and pressures (to which point, we will return). Along the way, the reader is treated to insights about such varied topics as the rate of wine consumption in medieval France and Germany, the character of pre-Crusade Ashkenazic piety, along with the genesis and development of Rashi’s Talmud commentary.

The final section of the volume is entitled “Some General Conclusions.” At its center lies the author’s seminal article, “Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example.” As the title indicates, the original essay argued that because religious law is believed to be of Divine origin, the “unalignability,” the “non-adaptability,” if you wish, of religious law is a premise which must underlie all our investigations of the history of halachah. Certainly, no halachist of any integrity would consciously force halachah to bend to changing circumstances. Such behavior would have been viewed as nothing short of blasphemous.

Nevertheless, Dr. Soloveitchik asserts that “at times the very intensity of religious conviction and observance can be conducive to a radical transformation of religious law.” He argues that for medieval Franco-German Jews, established popular practice (nohag) was deemed to be of such authority and sanctity that when it deviated from the apparent implications of the relevant Talmudic passages, halachists consciously (re)interpreted these in order to resolve the contradiction, much as one might resolve the apparent contradiction between recalcitrant Talmudic passages. The source of the authority of practice, Dr. Soloveitchik maintains, was the group’s unique self-image as a pious, God-fearing, sacred community. In this connection, he examines the flagrant disconnect between the modes of martyrdom practiced by Ashkenazic Jews during the First Crusade and the parameters laid down by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a).

With this thesis, the author clears a middle ground between those who maintain that halachah is immutable and those who view it as an extremely plastic system that is bent in every generation by its practitioners. The author here, and in other essays in this volume, posits the religious integrity of the halachist and the constraints that Jewish legal literature places upon him. On the other hand, he does not deny that halachic changes do occur—consciously or unconsciously. The historian’s task, as he sees it, is not only to note those changes; he must determine whether they are the product of internal Talmudic interpretation, or the result of outside pressure. Even in the latter case, how did the halachist perceive the reality within which he worked, and the boundaries of movement allowed by the Jewish legal tradition?

As the last point implies, these essays will be of great interest to all students of the Talmud, halachah and Jewish history. The questions with which the author grapples are germane to understanding both medieval and contemporary Jewish life.

This volume (and those that follow) should find pride of place on many bookshelves.

Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey R. Woolf is senior lecturer in the Talmud Department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in the Winter 2014 issue of Jewish Action.
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