There is no doubt that Torah-observant Jews today who strive to lead lives dedicated to the service of the Ribbono Shel Olam face unique struggles and challenges that our ancestors could not have imagined. There is no historical precedent for the increasing intrusion of technology into our lives and the ease with which negative, foreign attitudes and values infiltrate our homes. Their influence and the damage they can cause must not be underestimated. Yet, on a fundamental level, the tension between contemporary culture and Judaism is not new. Throughout the generations, our gedolim wrestled with this challenge and found ways to address the difficult issues of their day and to present viable Torah approaches to the community. The pressing nature of this conflict is a recurring theme in many of the shiurim and writings of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, (the Rav) as he provided guidance in this area to his many students and to the broader community who looked to him for inspiration. The community has been very fortunate that since the time the Rav withdrew from public activity, we have had two great heirs to his legacy, two incredibly strong links in the chain of mesorah, to continue to teach and guide us.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky are leading students of the Rav, each in his own way. Rabbi Schachter was a close student of the Rav who rose to the position of rosh yeshivah and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University (YU). He sat at the Rav’s feet in yeshivah for many years and has long served as the leading halachic decisor to hundreds, if not thousands, of rabbis around the world. Rabbi Twersky, the Rav’s grandson, was also his longtime private study partner. Having served as a rosh yeshivah at YU for decades, Rabbi Twersky plays a role as a prominent Torah guide on contemporary issues. He is the amalgam of the Litvish royal house of Brisk and the Chassidic Twersky dynasty, and the personification of the “Halakhic Man” described by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Both of these gedolim bring compassion, understanding, warmth and laser-like focus to analyze all questions with an uncompromising adherence to halachah and mesorah.
There have been more than a few attempts to introduce new religious practices and attitudes into the Orthodox community. But the question remains: Are these ideas within the parameters of the mesorah?
For over twenty years, Rabbi Judah Diament has been publishing weekly divrei Torah by Rabbi Schachter, Rabbi Twersky and a few other leading Torah scholars on his TorahWeb website. These essays cover timely issues, often ripped from the headlines of communal controversy. A compilation of hundreds of essays written for TorahWeb, Insights and Attitudes: Torah Essays on Fundamental Halachic and Hashkafic Issues is an important addition to modern Torah literature. Written in a clear and eloquent manner, the essays examine and transmit a Torah perspective on many of the contemporary challenges faced by the Torah community.
Most of the divrei Torah were written in connection to a specific parashah and are organized as such. The last section of the book, entitled “Torah Guidance,” contains essays written to provide direction regarding pressing contemporary issues with no connection to any specific parashah. A topical index at the end of the book is helpful to readers who want to find essays on specific topics.
Included in the topics covered by Rabbi Schachter is the role of innovation in the piskei halachah of batei din, particularly when addressing the application of halachah to modern questions. In recent years, there have been more than a few attempts to introduce new religious practices and attitudes into the Orthodox community by individuals with apparent proficiency in reading Jewish and rabbinic texts. Frequently, the individuals who promulgate these radical ideas cite many sources in support of their position and seem to make a great deal of sense. But the question remains: Are these ideas within the parameters of the mesorah? Rabbi Schachter offers a careful, analytical and objective analysis of the issues before arriving at a conclusion. Despite his sober analyses, he does not mince words and expresses his opinion candidly. For example, regarding the freeing of agunot by issuing wholesale marriage annulments, Rabbi Schachter explains why it constitutes “making a farce of the Halacha.” Regarding another controversial topic, Rabbi Schachter explains at length why we do not change centuries-old customs, particularly when the underlying reason to do so consists of a rebellion against the mesorah.
Rabbi Schachter offers his views on a range of contemporary halachic issues, including the obligation to pay taxes, the permissibility of calling the police on a Jew who poses a danger to others, and how many days of yom tov a Diaspora Jew must observe when visiting Israel.
Rabbi Twersky, in one essay, discusses the preciousness of time and offers suggestions on how we as a community can implement changes that minimize the wasting of time.
In another essay, Rabbi Twersky notes that the frequently discussed challenges we face, particularly in our religious lives, are not a new phenomenon. Rather they always existed. Sefer Devarim, in particular, offers guidance on how to respond to spiritual setbacks. Ramban introduces the Book of Devarim by saying that one of Moshe’s goals in this sefer is to teach the Jewish people that Hashem’s mercy and forgiveness are the medicine for spiritual failures. Belief in Hashem and His belief in us instill self-confidence. We can move forward because Hashem has anticipated the possibility of failure and prepared for that moment with Divine mercy and forgiveness. We can do teshuvah, we can improve and succeed because we love Hashem and will persevere even when things appear challenging.
Other timely topics examined in this compendium are confronting materialism, maintaining Jewish pride and proper conduct in the workplace, the role and use of prayer, and seeking hashgachah pratit, Divine Providence, in everyday life.
If there is a flaw with this work, it is that it is too short. Those who consider themselves talmidim of Rabbi Schachter and Rabbi Twersky will thirst for more. Additionally, some of the topics discussed require more elaboration to be fully understood and appreciated. However, this presentation by two of our most gifted teachers provides a wonderful overview of very timely and important issues that affect us communally and personally.
Rabbi Benjamin G. Kelsen, Esq., practices law and is engaged in a variety of Jewish communal and political issues on local and national levels.