The Rav

The Rav and the Brisker Derech: A Unique Method


The Rav visiting a class at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in Long Beach, New York in the 1960s. Courtesy of HALB


Piety, faith and spirituality are terms not often associated with analytical precision or intellectual rigor. Experience and intellect are each thought to inhabit their own separate realms. For the Rav, however, the path to the ultimate religious experience, the rendezvous with the Almighty to which he often referred, was paved with rigorous, sophisticated and intensely cerebral Torah study. For the Rav, the intellectual and the experiential merged, and it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

The Rav’s derech halimud, his method of Torah study, was of course the Brisker derech that he inherited from his grandfather, Rav Chaim of Brisk. It is hard to overstate the creative genius of Rav Chaim and the impact of the revolutionary system of analysis he developed. Let me address some of the philosophical underpinnings of the Brisker derech and its theological corollaries.

The essence of the Brisker derech approach is to view Talmudic discussions and debates through the prism of logical constructs and categories rather than common sense concepts. For example, one of the compelling ideas of Rav Chaim, which was developed by the Rav, involves shtarot, halachic documents. According to Rav Chaim, the legal power of the shtar goes well beyond any common sense, practical notion of a shtar’s legal force. There is a halachic principle that if one possesses a shtar which attests that another person owes him money, the other person is precluded from denying the claim because of an umdena, a presumption, called shtarcha b’yadi mai ba’i, “What is your shtar doing in my hands?” In other words, there is a presumption that if the debtor had already paid the loan referred to in the shtar, then the creditor would no longer be in possession of the shtar evidencing the debt. But, contended Rav Chaim, if the existence of the shtar merely gives rise to a presumption, a mere common sense inference from the facts that leads to a reasonable legal conclusion, what creates the halachic obligation that the debtor swear that he does not owe the debt? Instead, Rav Chaim explained, the shtar must be considered to constitute actual testimony that the loan was not paid, even though the legal force of the shtar is based only on an umdena. The Rav used to say in Yiddish, “Biz Reb Chaim, shtarot geven a chaspa b’alma”—before Rav Chaim shtarot were mere paper. Similarly, until Rav Chaim came and explained Yoreh Deah, the Rav said, it was just about pots and pans. Halachah had been a practical world but Rav Chaim coverted it into a conceptual world.

The Brisker derech involves conceptual categories. Halachic acts, thoughts and objects are all conceptualized and placed in categories. Once placed in the proper categories, the halachic and conceptual characteristics of the phenomena become more clearly defined and logically comprehensible. The Brisker emphasis on categorization explains the well-known Brisker attachment to the Rambam. The Rambam took the entire corpus of halachah and categorized all its elements in a strictly rational, analytical order. This is the same conceptual groundwork on which the Brisker derech is based.

A defining characteristic of the Brisker derech is that in the course of analyzing a sugya, one constantly asks, “What category does this fit into?” The question that is repeatedly posed is “What?” not “Why?” A pair of anecdotes relating to the Ponovezher Rav, Rav Yosef Kahaneman, highlights this distinction. When the Ponovezher Rav passed away, I asked the Rav what his impression of him was. The Rav responded that he was a Torah giant and was self-sacrificing  in terms of building Torah. The Rav reminisced that his father, Rav Moshe, told him that the Ponovezher Rav had come to visit once when Rav Chaim was on vacation in order to speak to Rav Chaim in learning. Rav Chaim, however, curtailed the visit as he had to leave to help his daughter who was having a difficult childbirth. Rav Moshe ended up spending time learning with the Ponovezher Rav and telling over many of Rav Chaim’s chiddushim. The Rav told me that Rav Moshe was very impressed with the Ponovezher Rav.

The words the Rav used were “God’s will is self-justifying.” Man has to explain his actions but God does not.

This story is complemented by an anecdote concerning the same episode related to me by the Ponovezher Rav’s grandson, Rav Eliezer Kahaneman. I related to Rav Eliezer what the Rav told me about his grandfather’s attempted encounter with Rav Chaim, and he told me that he was familiar with the event from his family’s side of the story. He recounted to me that the Ponovezher Rav, as a young man, sought the opportunity to visit Rav Chaim and discuss matters of learning with him. His rebbe, the Chafetz Chaim, recommended that he visit when Rav Chaim was on vacation rather than in Brisk, where Rav Chaim would be too busy for such a visit. Taking the Chafetz Chaim’s advice, the Ponovezher Rav went to the resort area where Rav Chaim was vacationing and was able to arrange a brief visit. Rav Chaim asked him to say over one “shtikel Torah” after another, and at one point, the Ponovezher Rav, in a shtikel Torah on a sugya in Bava Kama, posed the rhetorical question, “Vi azoi vais di Gemara aza zach?  [From where does the Gemara get this concept?]” Silent until then, Rav Chaim interrupted him and, with his deep voice, declared, “Di Gemara vais veil di Gemara vais; m’darf fregen nor vas shtait in di Gemara! [The Gemara knows because the Gemara knows! You should ask only what is written in the Gemara, and nothing else!]” Rav Eliezer further told me that his grandfather always considered himself a talmid of Rav Chaim because of this succinct but powerful insight he heard directly from Rav Chaim.

(When the Ponovezher Rav was ill, I visited him in the Fort Tryon Nursing Home in Washington Heights, and he asked me to tell over some Torah from the Rav. As we were learning Masechet Sukkah at the time, I told him something regarding mechitzot of sukkah. He said to me, “Ah, Reb Yoshe Ber, he is the greatest rosh yeshivah in the world.”)

There are theological consequences that emerge from the Brisker derech’s focus on “what,” not “why.” The Rav said often that when we speak about the Ribbono shel Olam, it is improper to ask “why.” The words the Rav used were “God’s will is self-justifying.” Man has to explain his actions but God does not. This is the reason that, as the Rav often emphasized, Judaism is not worried about logical contradictions, or the “excluded middle.” Halachah is not based on common-sense notions but is an independent construct. Similarly, Rav Chaim thought that the quest to find reasons for the mitzvot, ta’amei hamitzvot, was inappropriate. He translated “ta’amei hamitzvot” as “the flavor of the mitzvot” to avoid implying that we are asking “why” God decreed a particular mitzvah or mitzvot.

In Ish HaHalachah, the Rav tells the story of witnessing the sunset of Yom Kippur, and his father, Rav Moshe, commenting that this is the most beautiful sunset of the year. For Rav Moshe, beauty was judged not on aesthetic grounds, but by halachic criteria—the sunset of Yom Kippur is mechaper, it contains the power of atonement.

The Rav’s goal in learning, however, was not to distill out the aesthetic and emotional, leaving only an austere cerebral concept at the core. On the contrary, for the Rav, the intellectual enterprise of Torah learning was infused with experiential drama. There was a dimension to the Rav’s learning  that when the Rav presented the Gemara, it was as though the Shechinah was listening in. The Rav once articulated that feeling himself in a yahrtzeit shiur. He said that when he was preparing a shiur alone he could feel a breath at his shoulder, the presence of the Divine, asking him, “Nu, Yossele, what do you think about this sugya?” As explained and exemplified by the Rav, talmud Torah is a form of tefillah, of avodah she’balev; learning is a means of connecting with Hashem.

We think of the Rav as a great philosopher but his philosophy was rooted in halachah. For the Rav, talmud Torah was at the root of many mitzvot. Sipur yetzi’at Mitzrayim is not merely an independent mitzvah but a form of talmud Torah. For this reason, the Rav explained, we recite the passage of Arami oved avi, which is a retelling of the Exodus story, and not the passages directly about the Exodus, because we have an obligation to be doresh kol haparashah, to study it in depth and bring out the meaning contained within this short retelling.

The Gemara in Sotah (13b) describes Moshe Rabbeinu as safra rabba d’Yisrael, the great scribe of Israel. The Rav explained that Moshe was a great scribe not because he wrote many books, but because he inscribed the Torah on the soul of Klal Yisrael. The Rav too wrote on the soul of his students, of those he communicated with, and that script is ultimately written into the hearts of the Jewish people.

In Hilchot Chagigah (3:6) the Rambam writes that Hakhel must be performed with the same fear and trembling of Matan Torah itself, because the king who reads the Torah at Hakhel is “the messenger of God to make His words heard.” That was the Rav’s mission; he was the king who was God’s messenger to make His words heard. Twenty-five years after the Rav’s death we still hear his echo reverberating, and the echo will continue until the end of time.  

Rabbi Menachem Genack is CEO, OU Kosher.

This article was featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Jewish Action.
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