“Great Minds of the Twentieth Century”

I found “Great Minds of the Twentieth Century” very informative, extremely important, quite intriguing — and greatly disturbing.  The common characteristic of a number of the essays, while not antinomian, is clearly “extra-halachic.”  The justified effort to infuse with spirituality what is too often dry halachic observance ought not lead to Spinozan excursions.  Neither should that effort generate a sectarian dichotomy between the nature of the Oral Torah process in the Age of Prophecy and the Oral Torah process in the Age of the Sages.  It is to combat such notions that Rambam, in his Introduction to the Mishnah Commentary, negates the regular function of nevuah (prophecy) in the halachic process, and refers to this as “upon my soul, one of the great and powerful fundamental principles that are the support and foundation of the [Jewish] religion!”  Similarly, the attempt to reach halachic decisions on difficult modern problems must not circumvent the historically transmitted halachic methodology of Torah shebe’al peh (Oral Torah) in favor of an inner, spiritual grasp of Divine truth!  All these approaches reflect a growing fascination with “extra-halachism” in one form or another.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has shown the way to achieve a life of joyous activity with spirituality and a sense of Divine nearness based only on the halachic details and the halachic process.  In addition, his Torah im Derech Eretz approach, in which the Torah completely dominates and shapes the worldly Derech Eretz, avoids the pitfalls of a schizophrenic coexistence between the Torah and worldly knowledge and culture.

It is not surprising that the Hirschian legacy is being rediscovered and re-examined.

Yisrael Gur

New York City, New York


Rabbi Rappoport responds:

The oneness and indivisibility of Torah’s various disciplines, which Mr. Gur disputes, is clearly stated in the following words of Masechet Sofrim Perek 16:

“The Lord talked with you Panim el Panim,” face to face.  (Deuteronomy 5:4). “Panim” — two, “el Panim” — two, these are the four aspects of Torah: the written Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Aggadah.

It follows that Talmud and Aggadah represent two aspects of the same basic Truth.  Aggadah is not alternative medicine which may be viewed as an escape of the mystic from science and logic.  It is a source of understanding the true underlying concept of concrete halachot, so that Torah decisions could be made — and God’s intention thus revealed — in regard to new, hitherto unprecedented, situations.

It is true that in early ages of Talmud study, Rav Hai Gaon is quoted as stating: “The words of Aggadah are unlike statements that were handed over from Rav to a student (on which halachah is based) but they represent the ideas of each author of Aggadah, as they seemed to him, ideas that were a mere possibility, not final and decisive statement, that is why these cannot be relied upon (see Otzar Ha’Geonim Hagigah chapter 67-69, p.59-60 and also what is quoted ibid. in the name of Rav Shrira Gaon and ibid. page 65 in the name of Rabbeinu Sa’adia Gaon).  Rabbeinu Nissim, in his commentary on Nedarim 40b, writes: “we should not reject an halachic ruling that was in actual practice in order to accept an Aggadic saying.”

However, this attitude of unwillingness to accept Aggadah as an halachic source could be likened to the demur expressed by Rabbi Yosef Ibn Migash of the 11th century in responsum 114, to accept the Talmud as an halachic source. He rules that halachah should be obtained only from specific halachic rulings made by the Geonim.  “These who claim to reach halachic rulings by performing in-depth analysis of halachah by obtaining insights in the Talmud should be forbidden from doing so.  There is no person in our period who is worthy of this claim.”  600 years later, after the knowledge of Talmud became deeper, and methods of analysis were developed and honed to a fine edge, Rabbi Yehuda Leib of Prague (know as Maharal) writes in Netivot Olam, Netiv HaTorah chapter 15, that the very essence of learning Torah is acquiring halachic ruling directly from the Talmud using one’s own analysis rather then from halachic texts. Moreover, Maharal refers to scholars who make halachic decisions based on halachic texts as abusers of Torah.

In the same manner that Maharal’s attitude represents the advancement in Torah conception, his forward to his Be’er Ha’gola expounds on the difference between the intellect of the early generations of the Sages, which the Talmud (Eruvin 53a) likens to the opening of the Vestibule of the Temple that was 20 cubits wide, and that of the later generations which is likened to the opening of the Sanctuary of the Temple that was only 10 cubits wide.  Maharal says that the early generations had possessed such a high level of abstraction that it could not be brought down to concrete, everyday terms. The opening of the vestibule is considered to be twice as wide as a proper opening which adequately serves for entry into a house.  The later generations possessed just the right balance between abstraction and practicality, so their intellect is likened to a proper entrance to the Sanctuary, which represents a higher level of holiness than the Vestibule.  From that time on, Torah scholars’ intellect becomes less and less abstract and more concrete, until the abstractions of Aggadah might be totally foreign to their understanding.  It seems that with the proper guidance, though, once methods of understanding Aggadah are developed and used, as was done by Maharal himself, Aggadah could be interpreted in concrete terms, thereby being an appropriate source of halachah.

It is a matter of course that halachic decisions should be made by competent scholars.  Rabbi Moshe Sofer, in a responsum (Chatam Sofer Volume A siman 51) objects to the combination of halachah and kabbalah, as well as to the combination of halachah and philosophy, and compares these combinations to kilaim and to forbidden plowing using a horse and a donkey.  Still, in the same very responsum he is using a real midrash method to obtain an halachic ruling.  A real Torah scholar can unify all methods of Torah to attain the truth.  The way to the unification of Torah that Rabbi Avraham of Sochotshov started, does not encourage vagueness and superficiality.  On the contrary, it demands crystal-clear perception of a Torah subject in its totality, thus raising the level of intellectual effort invested in learning Torah, which is the glory of God in our world.

This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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