Reviewed by Gidon Rothstein
A story about Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman, both Nobel Laureates in physics, captures some of the challenge presented by certain kinds of greatness. A student once said to Gell-Mann about some physics problem, “Why don’t we apply the Feynman method?” Gell-Mann said, “You know what the Feynman method is to solve a problem? You write down the problem, you think very hard and then you write down the answer.”
Great thinking can seem so beyond us as to be incomprehensible. (A bit paradoxically, others define genius as having ideas that are, after the fact, so simple as to make it incomprehensible why we didn’t think of them on our own.) In the context of halachah, the distance between us and the greats who have walked among us can create a more distressing distance, where we come to think of halachah and halachic thought as some kind of mumbo-jumbo, a matter of saying whatever we want and then tossing off sources that seem to support it, malleable to any and all approaches.
One cure is to immerse ourselves in halachic discourse, disciplining ourselves to remember how carefully and rigorously halachic thinkers analyze a proposition before they come to a conclusion. Unfortunately, even that is beyond many of us. Our Hebrew/Aramaic textual skills are too weak or our time is too pressed to drink deeply from the wells our greatest rabbis have left behind.
Rabbi Daniel Mann, a dayan (rabbinical court judge), respondent and editor for Eretz Hemdah, an Israeli institute devoted to preparing rabbinical court judges for the National Religious community in Israel and spiritual leaders for communities abroad, bridges some of that gap in his latest work, A Glimpse at Greatness. By presenting samples of the halachic reasoning of four authors known for their contributions to lomdus, or lamdanut (halachic analysis), Rabbi Mann hopes to make their process—and, by extension, the larger halachic process—more accessible to those who might not otherwise experience it, either regularly or at all.
He had several hurdles to clear. Translating the texts literally would not have worked, since that would bring the reader insufficiently closer to the discussion. Except for those who likely could have read the originals had they chosen to give them the time, the words and terms in translation, let alone the flow of the discussion, would be almost equally opaque.
To help readers, Rabbi Mann has penned a helpful introduction, defining lomdus and its goals, how it hopes to advance the cause of illuminating halachic discussions. Second, he offers a biography of each of the four thinkers—the Machaneh Ephraim (Rabbi Ephraim Navon), the K’tzot HaChoshen (Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hakohen Heller), Rabbi Akiva Eiger and the Minchat Chinuch (Rav Yosef Babad). These introductory sections are the most broadly accessible and useful part of the book, since even people familiar with the works in question likely do not know about the lives their authors lived. Biographies enrich our experience of these authors’ content, enhancing our sense of connection to them and to their contributions to halachic literature.
The central part of the book, though, is Rabbi Mann’s presentations of their analyses. He writes from the perspective of each author as he addresses his readers and clarifies the particular issue at hand (occasionally he confusingly switches to writing in his own voice, but that is a relatively minor issue). Using footnotes and endnotes—the former to clarify terms or references in the piece he is translating, the latter to expand on an aspect of the discussion—Rabbi Mann helps the reader make his way through topics that range from the monetary, such as the Machaneh Ephraim’s analysis of taking someone else’s property with assumed permission, to the mixed monetary/ritualistic, such as the K’tzot HaChoshen’s discussion of stipulations to allow over- or undercharging, to the ritual/institutional, such as the Minchat Chinuch’s investigation of when formulating new rules violates the prohibition of adding to the Torah.
The careful reader will come away richer, having been introduced to important figures from the intellectual history of Torah study and key studies and ideas from the world of halachah, as well as becoming more acquainted with a contemporary Torah scholar positively contributing to our halachic world today.
The question I have is, how much insight into the minds of halachic thinkers has Rabbi Mann succeeded in providing us? Sixteen essays, four each from much longer works, is barely a glimpse—not to mention the many authors who did not make it into the current volume. Whom will this dip into the waters satisfy?
In an e-mail discussion with Rabbi Mann, he suggested he was trying to “provide an experience for the few percent who can say, ‘Wow, I never knew Torah learning could be so intellectually challenging and rewarding in this way.’” His target readers are those who have found their intellectual side after their years of formal Jewish education were over, those never exposed to the Torah’s deep intellectual side, those who came to serious Torah study too late in life to build the textual skills necessary to access these works in the original and lawyers who might not realize that halachic thinking is as sophisticated as legal thinking and will enjoy discovering their error.
I agree that all of those audiences—and more—can benefit. As Rabbi Mann notes in his introduction, however, this is not a light read. The introduction and biographical essays are easy to enjoy, but the translated selections require a more rigorous approach. In the introduction, Rabbi Mann suggests establishing a chavruta, a study session with a partner, to work one’s way through the book. Even with all of Rabbi Mann’s considerable help, securing that glimpse still requires more than a little effort on our part.
And it will still only be a glimpse. Perhaps future volumes will give us more, but for now, for all that Rabbi Mann has opened a window separating us from these greats, and with such skill and clarity, we are left with the barest introduction of the wealth of Torah thought out there. For the rest, the solution remains what it always has been—to go and study.
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, a shul rabbi and high school and adult educator, is the author of Murderer in the Mikdash (2005), a third Beit HaMikdash mystery and We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It (2012). He blogs at torahmusings.com and the Times of Israel.