Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interview with Professor Lawrence Kaplan

Interview with Professor Lawrence Kaplan

Conducted by Baruch Pelta on December 22, 2008 at the 40th Association for Jewish Studies Conference

Transcribed Using the Services of Olivia Wiznitzer

Co-edited by Lawrence Kaplan and Baruch Pelta


Lawrence Kaplan received his BA from Yeshiva College, his MA and PhD from Harvard University, and his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He has taught at McGill University since 1972, and is currently Professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in its Department of Jewish Studies. In the spring of 2004 he held a Harry Starr Fellowship at the Center for Jewish Studies of Harvard.


Baruch Pelta is a senior at Touro College South majoring in Jewish Studies.


Olivia Wiznitzer is the Editor-in-Chief of “The Observer,” the Stern College for Women and Sy Syms undergraduate student newspaper. Olivia may be reached at for those interested in contacting her.


I have conducted two semi-formal interviews with Dr. Kaplan. While both interviews were conducted simply out of personal interest, I believe the latter will be of interest to Judaic Studies scholars, especially those who are interested in how Orthodoxy has developed. What follows is an edited transcript of said interview with footnotes. Although I meant to focus this conversation around his scholarly opinions about the rise of Daas Torah in Orthodoxy, we were able to discuss other topics within Dr. Kaplan’s realm of expertise as well. –BP


Baruch Pelta: I guess my first question has to be if you changed your position since writing your famous essay on Daas Torah [1] and also, has Daas Torah evolved as a conception since then?


Lawrence Kaplan: It’s an interesting question. I pretty much stumbled upon the subject- here’s a little prehistory. When Rav Hutner’s article on the Holocaust appeared in the Jewish Observer, it upset me greatly [2]. Oftentimes, things that get you angry turn out to be productive (similar to my being upset with Rabbi Meiselman’s article on the Rav [3] which led to my writing "Revisionism and the Rav" [4]). Most of my article in Tradition was really a critique of Rav Hutner’s basic position on the Holocaust---mainly a historical critique, but also somewhat of a theological critique [5]. While Rav Hutner himself did not refer to his article as  a Daas Torah perspective on the Holocaust, the editors of the Jewish Observer did. So just at the very end of my Tradition article, I decided to raise some issues about Daas Torah in a somewhat critical vein. Despite the rather tentative and preliminary nature of my remarks on the subject, it seems they received a fair amount of attention.  Therefore, when YU was having a symposium on “Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, the very  first Orthodox Forum, the organizors asked me to give a full-blown talk on the subject, which obviously required a good deal of work on my part. And, actually, I have a later Hebrew version of the article, where I elaborate upon some things I write in my English version, correct a few errors of mine – something I attributed to the Meiri was not really by the Meiri – and update a few comments here and there [6]. But what I want to emphasize is that, as I  explicitly state in my article, I wasn’t putting forward my own positive view of rabbinic authority. I was more criticizing the idea of Daas Torah as I think it’s popularly presented in the Haredi world. Some people might have misunderstood me to mean that I believe that all rabbis should speak only about pots and pans and should not have any say on communal matters. I never said that. And the other point which I made in my article is that I’m not sure if there’s necessarily throughout Jewish history one view of the limits and scope of rabbinic authority. Moreoever, I  acknowledged the traditional rabbinic authority accorded to the rabbi who is the rav of the kehillah – actually I may have done this more in my Hebrew article, based on a reference that Professor Marc Shapiro pointed out to me – where the rav of the kehillah, by virtue of being rav of the kehillah, is granted a good deal of extra-halakhic authority on general communal issues. But even with respect to the rav of  a kehillah, it’s not so clear – if you look at the Vaad Arba Aratzot, the laypeople oftentimes kept the rabbis on a short leash. If you look at the community in Amsterdam, it was the lay figures who put Spinoza in Cherem. Not the rabbis. Even though there were some prominent rabbis there at the time.


To repeat, a lot of times, even in term of rabbis of communities – certainly in the Middle Ages and early modern times – lay leaders played quite a great role. Now the Rashba, on the other hand –but again, he was the official head of the community – obviously played a major role in the Maimonidean Controversy. But it should be pointed out that other people weren’t afraid to disagree with him, even though they admitted his preeminent stature. Other figures weren’t afraid  to take issue with him, obviously respectfully, but they weren’t afraid to take issue with him.


The idea of Daas Torah, as a charismatic notion of rabbinic authority, is something different. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, so it’s not yeish me-ayin. But, as I and others see it, it is an expanded view of traditional conceptions of rabbinic authority, precisely because of greater challenges in the modern period to rabbinic authority. And the classical sources which have been cited as support for it don’t seem to prove the larger claims made on its behalf. One such source is the notion of Emunas Chachamim.  But it must be said that the phrase is very general; what it means is not so clear. The meaning attributed to it by the exponents of  Daas Torah seems to be a late nineteenth century development, imported from the Hasidic view of the Rebbe. The source cited most often in support of the notion of Daas Torah,  and which I focused on most in my article, is Lo Sasur. As I pointed out, according to most authorities it applies only to the Beis Din Hagadol. I further pointed out that the view of Afilu omrin lekha al yemin shehu semol is that of the Sifre. The Yerushalmi is the other way, that only if they say yemin is yemin  and semol is semol do you have to listen to them. In my article, particularly the Hebrew version, I went through all the different ways how different scholars try to reconcile the two sources. The authority who seems to be the key figure for the exponents of Daas Torah is the Sefer HaChinuch -- he’s the one who  applies the Sifre generally to Chachmei HaDor. But the Sefer HaChinuch’s view is more of a practical view; you have to submit to the authority of Chachmei HaDor not because they necessarily have such great understanding, but just because otherwise you’re going to have chaos and anarchy. So it’s a more practical view. So what I suggested is that the modern view of Daas Torah – again, I’m not saying it was made out of whole cloth – is arrived at by taking the idea of the Sefer HaChinuch applying Lo Sasur to all Chachmei HaDor and combining that with the view of the Ramban who talks about the Beis Din Hagadol’s great understanding and how God will protect them from error, etc [7].


Part of the problem in writing a critique of the concept of Daas Torah is that it is a moving target; people keep on defining it differently. When people are oftentimes defending it, they define it more modestly: it’s a limited notion, we’re not saying the "gedolim" are infallible, maybe there’s a plurality of views that are Daas Torah, but obviously rabbis should have some say on broader communal issues, etc. There was an exchange in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society between me and Rabbi Alfred Cohen -- where if I understood him correctly, he proposed this type of scaled-down notion of Daas Torah [8]. And if that is all that is meant by it, I’m not sure if I would necessarily disagree that much.  But what I find is that when it’s actually used in the rhetoric of the Haredi world, it’s used to make rather extreme claims. First of all, despite the idea of the plurality of Daas Torah, it’s pretty clear to me that originally within the Agudah circles, it was used to legitimate the Haredi world and to delegitimate the Modern Orthodox.


BP: You’re saying now or back then?


LK: Certainly there was no pluralism in Rav Shach‘s use of Daas Torah in  his harsh critique of Rav Soloveitchik [9], and I think that’s the way it’s still generally used. And the second thing is that it really is used to stifle dissent and any type of criticism. I think the example of Rabbi Slifkin is the key example. It’s really clear to me that initially many prominent American Roshei Yeshiva were upset at the way he was treated. I just reread the original ban on Rabbi Slifkin [10] and was struck by the extremity of the language, almost the violence of the language -- kefirah, minus, afrah le-pumei, it’s just such a terrible book, etc.   Then the banners claimed that the rabbonim who had given the book haskamos supposedly hadn’t really read the book, but they heard it was being used for kiruv so they wrote haskamos. But, of course, they all retracted their haskamos once the terrible kefirah in the books was called to their attention. We know all that is not really true, and it is also clear that the way he was treated, without giving him any time to present his case, was extremely unfair and unjust [11] –


BP: Can I interject right there, though –the story is that a lot of askanim had a lot to do with this ban [12]. So what’s the difference between those askanim and the Spinoza case?


LK: The difference is that in the Spinoza case the lay leaders were the ones who officially in the name of the community banned Spinoza. Here supposedly the askanim were there just to advise or inform the gedolim, but ultimately the idea is that the gedolim are the ones who make the final decision based on their good judgment. Of course, the question is often raised as to what extent are these askanim really limiting the flow of information and shading it and presenting it in ways in which they will get the conclusions they want to get, and I think that’s a serious question.


But getting back to the point, it seems to me pretty clear that to begin with the American Roshei Yeshiva were not happy with the ban, certainly with its language. I think they were upset and felt they would be looked upon by the general world as some type of primitives. But the bottom line was that there was no public criticism. They all fell into line. There can’t be any type of dissent. How can you disagree with the Gedolim, with Daas Torah? There was no one who actually publicly criticized the ban – supposedly, Rav Aharon Feldman originally supported Rabbi Slifkin– that’s the word. But then he too fell into line and  came out with a public attack on him [13].


BP: Maybe Rav Kamenetsky or Rav Belsky – they seem to have dissented from everybody else; they never retracted their haskamos.


LK: They never retracted their haskamos; that’s true. Then there was Rav Aryeh Carmell who continued to support Rabbi Slifkin [14]. But no one would actually criticize the actual banning of Rabbi Slifkin's books.


BP: I think Rav Kamenetsky said they’ll have to answer for it after the Resurrection [15]. It could be he’s an exception to the rule.


LK: Okay; perhaps he’s an exception. I wonder though if he made the statement publicly.


To return to the general issue of Daas Torah and to your original question as to what extent am I rethinking things. Dr. Benny Brown wrote about Daas Torah in an article, I think, in Mechkerai Yerushalayim [16]. His general point is that scholars like Professor Jacob Katz, his students, and  others who were influenced by his approach – including myself among those others – overemphasize, maybe, the break between Orthodoxy in the modern era and pre-Modern traditional Judaism. Brown also sees stages in development in the idea of Daas Torah. His more specific point is that people who wrote about the idea of Daas Torah – Jacob Katz, Gershon Bacon, myself – ignored the idea of d’kula ba, that everything somehow is contained, hinted at, or alluded to in the Torah, as one source for the idea of Daas Torah. But from my reading of the sources Brown cites, it seems to me that d‘kula ba was traditionally used not so much in the modern communal and political Daas Torah sense –  that is, d’kula ba gives the right to great rabbinic scholars to make authoritative and final decisions on matters of policy. It was generally used in more of a non-political sense, that is, you study the Torah and you get a great insight into nature and reality and history. The one who first used de-kula ba in the modern Daas Torah sense was Rav Elchanon Wasserman, I think at the Agudah convention in 1937. Here Brown criticized me, and he was right.


BP: Because you said Rav Elchonon Wasserman never mentions it.


LK: Yes, so I was wrong on that. I mean, based on the writings of Rav Elchonon I had read,  I said that Rav Elchonon only speaks about de’ot torah, but doesn’t really speak about Daas Torah in the sense of this idea of special knowledge given to great Rabbis enabling them to make a final authoritative decision on public policy. There I was simply wrong, and I overlooked this talk of Rav Elchonon at the Agudah convention. But my present view is that this political communal twist to de-kula ba was actually Rav Elchonon’s own innovation, and here I would disagree with Brown.  Brown pushes it back to the Chafetz Chaim. As Brown pointed out, the Chafetz Chaim speaks about de-kula ba extensively. In my article I quote a text of the Chafetz Chaim or rather  an oral shemuah attributed to the Chafetz Chaim by Rabbi Greineman. And I say there that I’m not sure whether  the Chafetz Chaim said this or not, because it’s an oral shemuahI’m not saying Rabbi Greineman  was dishonest, but people remember things how they remember them; we have that all the time. That’s why we have to check the archives.


BP: Did you see Yoel Finkelman’s recent article [17]? It’s very relevant to what you’re saying.


LK: I responded to Toby Katz’s comment on Hirhurim about it [18].  Her view was that either something is 100% objective or it’s manipulation. In my view, good scholars try to be honest and present all the relevant evidence and different ways of interpreting it.  Of course, you have your own interpretation and cannot be completely objective, but still you try to give all the evidence, whether it supports your view or calls it into question, and try to be as fair as possible to opposing views. So I think it’s a false dichotomy she was drawing there.


Anyway, getting back to what I was saying. Someone was writing a memoir and remembered a conversation he had with Roosevelt on the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. And he remembered the meeting so clearly that he even remembered the chairs in which he and Roosevelt sat! And then he checked his diary, and he wasn’t in Washington that day! So he wasn’t there! He checked his diary or his journal of appointments, and realized he must have conflated different meetings.


So, how is this relevant to the Chafetz Chayyim’s view regarding de-kula ba? The point of the shemuah of the Chafetz Chaim that was attributed to him by Rabbi Greineman was [Dr. Kaplan opens up my copy of Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy and finds page 8] -- “The person whose view is the view of Torah can solve all worldly problems, both specific and general. However, there is one condition attached: the Daas Torah must be pure, without any interest or bias. However, if a person possesses Daas Torah but it is intermingled even slightly with other views of the marketplace,” then that’s not real Daas Torah. That’s a good example of Daas Torah delegitimating the more modern type of rabbis. Now Benny in his article was willing to attribute more authenticity to this statement of the Chafetz Chaim than I was. And what he found in his research were many other statements of the Chafetz Chaim in the area of d’kula ba that I didn’t know about. But it seems to me at least, and I discussed this with him, that none of the other statements of the Chafetz Chayyim that Benny cited actually made the point made by the statement attributed to him by Rabbi Greineman. All the other statements of the Chafetz Chaim were more general statements that a person who studies Torah is given insight into reality, can understand many things, etc. But the more political and delegitimating emphases of the statement attributed to him by Rabbi Greinman are not found in his other statements. The point, then, that I made to Benny was that the statements he cites from actual texts of the Chafetz Chaim himself do not really go as far as the oral shemuah. So my assumption is that Rabbi Greineman perhaps heard other statements of the Chafetz Chaim regarding d’kula ba, statements presenting the old, non-political version of de-kula ba, and he honestly misremembered them and inadvertatly conflated them with Rav Elchonon’s version of de-kula ba.


Again, I don’t think I ever said that the notion of Daas Torah was invented out of whole cloth; I do try to speak of a certain type of development. And perhaps Benny is right, and it has somewhat deeper roots than I or Gershon Bacon were willing to acknowledge. But this is a matter of degree;  I still maintain that in its current form maybe it’s drawing upon certain sources, but it’s pushing them and extending them in a more extreme direction.


You  asked me to look at ten statements and sources that Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb had cited in support of the concept of Daas Torah [19]. I have to say I was very unimpressed.


BP: But there was one that a lot of people I asked didn’t know why it wasn’t Daas Torah, where there was a pesak in the mahloket between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel about


LK: Oh yes, that was the gemara in Eruvin about whether noach lo l’adam she’nivra o she’lo nivra [20]. And because nimnu ve-gamruwhatever that means – that noach lo l’adam she’lo nivra mi she-nivra -- does that mean  that you have to believe that? Is that an authoritative hashkafic pesak, as it were? I mean, does the Rambam ever quote that – the Rambam obviously believes all existence is good; so does he believe it would have been better for man not to be created? Actually, the Rambam says that in matters of aggadah there is no pesak. There’s also another quote where I think Rabbi Gottlieb was simply wrong. Supposedly in  Hilkhos Mamrim the Rambam attributes authority to Beis Din HaGadol in matters of hashkafah. But the Rambam doesn’t talk about that there. He speaks about three types of law: peirushim mekubalim mi’pi ha’shmuah, laws derived through interpretation-- that is, through the use of the 13 Middos-- and Takanot and Gezeirot. I don’t see him speaking there about issues of hashkafah. Now, there are mitzvos that deal with emunah. That’s something else.


Returning to the larger isue: There are issues of public policy, which is one thing, and then there are issues of hashkafah. I think the issue of Rabbi Slifkin is more a matter of the limits of hashkafah. I firmly believe that  there’s a great  deal of room for plural views on matters of hashkfah, and equally firmly reject the idea that only the views I accept are legitimate, while the other views  are illegitimate. Rabbi Slifkin also said that if the Haredi gedolim had said that they don’t want his books in their communities – okay, that their right, it’s their communities. But to issue general bans is a different story [21].


BP: But to return to the gemara Rabbi Gottlieb cites about whether it would have been better for man ot be created or not…how would you deal with that one?


LK: It’s a very strange thing, but I didn’t really check it carefully. My knowledge of the Rambam, which is pretty good, is that the Rambam doesn’t agree with  the supposed pesak that it would have been better for man not to have been created – maybe others do. You can do some type of computer  search through the Bar Ilan program or one of the other programs, check all of the 5000 books on file. Actually, Maimonides says it’s the other way around; Maimonides attacks, for example, Razi -- in the Guide 3:12 I think it was--where Razi claims there’s more evil than good in the world. So it’s very hard to imagine how the Rambam would agree with that. In his letter on astrology to the Sages of Montpellier,  when discussing maamarei Hazal apparently disagreeing with his position, he says there are three possibilities. Either it was a daas yachid, or maybe the rabbi was saying it for his particular  audience, sort of like de’ot hechrachiyotnecessary beliefs or maybe the rabbi didn’t mean it literally but  intended some type of metaphorical interpretation. And in this connection, what exactly does noach lo l’adam she’lo nivra mi she-nivra mean? Perhaps the Rambam would give it a metaphorical interpretation .


But it certainly seems to me that traditionally – obviously, there have been debates about these issues – but traditionally there has been a sort of general consensus that within matters of hashkafah there are certain very broad boundaries, but there’s lots of room for differences within those boundaries, and we’re not really dealing with some type of pesak. Attempts to limit or narrow those boundaries, I find troubling. Particularly, getting back to Rabbi Slifkin, when it seems that the majority of rishonim actually agree with his position. Someone had this long list- I mean, a very long list of rishonim who support his position [22]. So you want to say it was good for them, it’s not good for us, OK. You want to say that we don’t accept Rabbi Slifkin’s position, fine. But to call it kefira, minus, etc.-- that’s pretty bad.


BP: I guess the question that a Haredi person would ask is okay, let’s say that’s all true. But why not have the rabbis as the ultimate authorities? In other words, let’s say we err. Like I want to be a good mitzvah-observing yid and if I err and the rabbis tell me what to do and I decide not to do it, right, so I’m erring – I’m going against the rabbis. But if I do what the rabbis say, I’m going to heaven on Rav Elyashiv’s coattails.


LK: But I think you have a certain responsibility to use your –


BP: To use your mind. But there’s a long anti-rationalist tradition within Judaism. So l’chora that’s the safe side, so why not just go with that? Because there you don’t have to think; you can do what they say to do and there’s long Jewish roots for such a tradition.


LK: Yes, but there’s the issue of whether you believe that what they say is really true. And is the anti-rationalist side so safe? This relates to some famous criticisms of Pascal’s Wager. First, Pascal is just assuming the issue is choosing between Christianity and Atheism. But what about Hinduism or Islam? But the other criticism is what happens if we get to Heaven and sure enough there is a God, but He says, “All those people who played it safe? I don’t like those types. The ones who used their own judgement, even if it led them not to believe in Me, them I like.” So how do you know that when you get to heaven, and you say to God that you latched on to Rav Elyashiv’s coattails, that God won’t reply, “Hey, c’mon, why didn’t you start thinking on your own? Obviously you should respect Rav Elyashiv’s view, of course take it seriously, study it, don’t just dismiss it out of hand. But who says I want you just to swallow it whole, particularly since there are other views out there. So why just him, and why did you assume that all the other views are illegitimate?" And of course, the truth of the matter is we know that within the Agudah’s circles there’s been a breakdown of the old unity. Rav Shach and others broke with the Agudah. It would be a worthwhile thing to read the Jewish Observer and see if they ever allude to the fundamental break when Rav Shach broke with the Agudah and founded his own party.


BP: The impression I get from the Haredi world is that even in their rhetoric there’s a certain allowance for limited pluralism. Kimmy Caplan and Nurit Stadler had an article in the AJS Perspectives on Haredim. So they emphasized in that article how this is a heterogenous community [23]. So I mean I think people say you have your Gadol, I have my Gadol and nobody can have Rav Soloveitchik because he’s treif. But I’m saying, that’s the impression I get. Is that what it is, is that how it’s always been? Or not really?


LK: It’s a complicated question. My impression is that there are two levels. When they’re explaining the idea of Daas Torah, they explain it in a more pluralistic way. But in practice, Rav Elyashiv says something and everybody falls into place.


BP: Here’s another topic: You wrote your article about Rav Hutner, then you wrote your article about Daas Torah, and you also wrote to the Novominsker Rebbe about how he misunderstood Rabbi Lamm [24]. And so I was wondering if there were any consequences to that did anyone talk to you, did you get emails, did you get letters…?


LK: I remember ages ago when my article on Rav Hutner appeared, somebody came up to me—he is now a very noted scholar--and he told me oh how brave I was. But I don’t live in New York, I don’t live in Boro Park, I don’t live in a yeshivishe community, I don’t owe my parnassah to them. I live in Montreal and teach at McGill. I don’t think it required any particular bravery on my part. I know my article on Daas Torah has acquired a certain amount of fame --some might say notoriety-- but I would say that from my standpoint, I always thought my most important article—which I wish were better known-- is my article on the Shemoneh Perakim [25].


BP: That’s your real scholarship.


LK: Real scholarship, and I feel that it’s an important article, really a basic essay on the Rambam. I think I got to the heart of the Shemoneh Perakim, and various people who have studied the Shemoneh Perakim and then read my article tend to agree. I remember that I was once asked by a student what I thought  was my most important article,  and I answered the one on the Shemoneh Perakim. He said, “What about your article on Daas Torah? But from a scholarly point of view I think  my article on the  Shemoneh Perakim is more important. Not that there isn’t any scholarship in my Daas Torah article. Sometimes I feel bad because people assume it’s more of a critique or polemic, so they overlook the scholarly discussion. Like my discussion of Lo Sasur. As I said before, I explore in a systematic way—actually,  I probably do this more in my Hebrew article than my English one all the different ways in which both medieval and modern rabbinic scholars and commentators have tried to deal with the issue of the apparent contradiction between the Sifre, as quoted by Rashi, and the Yerushalmi. I went through all the ways they either tried to harmonize the apparently conflicting views, as well as looked at those who say, as does Rav David Zvi Hoffman, that maybe the Sifre and the Yerushalmi  simply disagree. So I think that there are certain discussions of Lo Sasur in more strictly scholarly articles which don’t quote me, when I feel they should have quoted me. Professor Moshe Halbertal in his book on the Ramban makes a point that there are two ways of reading the Ramban on Lo Sasur, a soft reading of the Ramban and a hard reading of the Ramban [26]. When the Ramban says that Torah nitna al daatam shel Hakhmei ha-Torah, does it mean that the Sages could be wrong in their ruling, but they’re given the authority to rule, so you can’t disagree with them? Or does it mean that the meaning of the Torah is indeterminate, and the Sages determine its meaning, in which case they can’t be wrong? Already in my article, I show how Avi Sagi opts for the soft reading and Aaron Kirschenbaum for the hard reading or is it vice-versa, I don’t remember. So Halbertal mentions these possibilities; he refers to some scholars who have discussed this; but he doesn’t refer to me, although I had already anticipated his point, because I don’t think he thought of looking at my article, since it’s considered more of a polemical work than a work of scholarship. And the truth is that it is both, and I say so in the article. I say, look, my article is not a strictly scholarly article,  but I would like to believe that it’s based on sound historical rabbinic scholarship, but obviously it has a certain ideological tendenz.  Anyway, I gather a lot of people have read it. It’s always nice when you write something and you find out people have read it and even appreciated it. Sometimes I feel I write articles and who knows who reads them. Perhaps they sunk like a stone into oblivion.This past summer I was at a conference in Frankfurt, and a young scholar said to me, I was very influenced by your article on Maimonides and Mendelssohn [27]." So I said "Really?" He replied that he liked my idea of looking at the roots of Mendelssohn‘s thought, of showing how Mendelssohn used Maimonides, and the article  influenced his way of looking at things.


But again, even though I obviously have my own take on things, I try to be as objective and scholarly  as possible. Someone actually once wrote – which I took as a compliment – that they feel that Kaplan has no agenda, particularly in terms of his interpretation of the works  of Rav Soloveitchik. I try to see things how they are. Well, everyone thinks that’s what they are trying to do.


BP: Speaking of the Rav, maybe we could briefly discuss “Revisionism and the Rav." So you took on the left, took on the right –


LK: More the right.


BP: Would you take issue with anybody more towards the center?


LK: The way it seems to me is that there are issues about Rav Soloveitchik which are really open to interpretation, and I might have a different interpretation of these issues than others. I wasn’t really speaking about that; I was speaking about clear cases of ideological revisionism, where I think the Rav’s position on the issues in question is pretty clear, but scholars try to deny the obvious for ideological reasons.


BP: In general, you don’t see revisionismfrom the center.


LK: No, I don’t see revisionism from there. People have different opinions, both legitimate. For example, I disagree with Professor Dov Schwartz. Schwartz sees a very sharp difference between the figure of halakhic man in Ish Hahalakha and the figure of ha-Ish Elokim in U-Vikashtem Misham, while I see them as much more similar [28]. That’s a matter of interpretation; that’s not a matter of revisionism. Even with regard to secular studies – there are aspects of this issue where the Rav was vague, and there’s room for disagreement. In a forthcoming essay, I take issue with Professor David Shatz’s reading of The Lonely Man of Faith. Overall, I think his article is a great article,  but I think he had a bit too much of a positive take of the Rav’s portrait of Adam 1 in The Lonely Man of Faith [29]. He said that Adam 1 in imitating God’s creativity fulfills the comand of v’halakhta b’drachav; but the Rav, when he speaks about Adam 1's creativity, never quotes v’halakhta b’drachav. I also note that the term Hesed is only applied to Adam 2. Adam 1 attains dignity and responsibility, but only Adam 2 is motivated by a sense of Hesed. My feeling is – and I state this in my article that David’s essay would have been stronger had he focused more on the concrete man of faith who is both Adam 1 and Adam 2. So there are legitimate issues of interpretation.  Another issue open to disagreement is how you relate The Lonely Man of Faith to Ish Hahalakha or to other essays.Yet another is the Rav's view about evolution, and the import of his statement about it  in the beginning of The Lonely Man of Faith.  All these matters are open to interpretation. I might have my reading and have my reasons for thinking it is the most convincing reading, but I don’t think those who have other readings and disagree with me are engaging  in revisionism. There are also many similar questions about how to interpret Rav Kook.


In general, only now with the publication by the Toras Horav Foundation of many of the unpublished manuscripts of the Rav are we beginning to get a clearer picture of his thought. For example, the volume  The Emergence of Ethical Man, edited by Dr. Michael Berger, sheds new light, in my view, on the Rav’s view concerning evolution.


In this connection, I want to add something even if it’s off the topic. The Emergence of Ethical Man quotes Buber extensively, particularly Buber’s Moses. And not only does the Rav quote from it, but also, interestingly, the Rav’s idea that Avraham in leaving Mesopotamia behind to go to the land of Canaan was leaving the city behind for a more pastoral form of life is taken from Buber. You probably could find meforshim, maybe Abarbanel, who might say something similar, but the Rav’s way of phrasing the matter -- the pastoral mode of life as opposed to the urban mode of life-- reflects the influence of Buber, whom, again, he explicitly cites.  It seems he had read Moses at about the time he was writing his essay,  and obviously those views of Buber which are not Orthodox he leaves out, but other, “kosher“ views of Buber, as it were, he feels free to cite and make use of.


I was thinking when I get around to it I’d like to write  a review essay of that volume. But, then again, I often tell my students I have two lists. I have a list of articles I’ve written, and another list of articles I haven’t written, but hope to get around to writing someday.  And the second list is much longer and also probably much more interesting than the first list.


BP: What are you looking at writing?


LK: Well, I have this paper I gave yesterday which I am in the middle of  writing up on the Rambam’s Hakdamah to the Peirush Ha-Mishnah. There are also essays I’ve already written which haven’t appeared yet, but are forthcoming – one of these days! I have an article about the concept of faith in Rabbi Azriel of Gerona, where I take issue with Mordechai Pachter’s article on the subject, and offer a very different reading [30].Then I just mentioned my critique of David Shatz. It is part of a long article, which is taking forever to appear, on The Lonely Man of Faith and contemporary modern Orthodox Jewish thought. Most of the article is about Rabbi David Hartmans readings of The Lonely Man of Faith. Another article which I wrote – but is sitting in limbo, and I have no idea when it will appear is on Rav Hutner’s implicit theology of the Holocaust. I looked at a maamer in Pachad Yitzchak, Maamer Daled in the volume on Rosh Hashanah, where he speaks about Geon Yaakov. What does it mean when we use the phrase “Geon Yaakov on Rosh Hashana? My argument there is – the maamar, by the way, is a very fascinating maamar that even though Rav Hutner in the maamar never mentions the Holocaust, I can’t imagine and most people I discussed this with tended to agree with methat in light of several radical and daring points he makes in the maamar, that the Holocaust wasn’t on his mind when he wrote it. So these essays should be appearing eventually. Ironically,  one article, which I  completed after all of these, but which will most probably be appearing before all of themit should be out fairly soon is an essay on the relationship between Rabbi Emanuel Rackman and the Rav, in which I  show that they had a close working relationship in the 1950s and that Rabbi Rackman basically – and with the Rav’s approvalassumed the role of his intellectual lieutenant. For people who only know about the Ravs famous public attack in 1975 on Rabbi Rackman, it should prove to be an eye opener. So, stay tuned!


Getting back to future projects, people tell me that I should collect my essays on the Rav and make a book of them, and do the same for my essays on the Rambam. But I still have more essays to write on the Rambam and the Rav. As I just mentioned, I am in the middle of  writing a long, and – at least I would like to believe-- very important essay on the Rambam’s Hakdamah to the Peirush Ha-Mishnah. I’ve pretty written up the first half, but I have to do the  second half and then the  footnotes. And I don’t know if you heard the paper of Dr. Mordechai Cohen this morning on Ein Mikrah Yotzei Midei Peshuto in the Rambam. I have had an ongoing discussion with him about this, we’ve been exchanging emails; I have a different take on the subject, and one of these days I would like to write about this as well.  There are a number of review essays I would like to write as well.  First a review essay on some of the recent literature on the Ramban, then another review essay on some of the recent literature on Halevi. Finally, I’d like to write a review essay on the third volume in Toras HoRav, the one on mourning, death, and sufferingOut of the Whirlwind. This review will be different from my review essay of Worship of the Heart in Hakirah, where I was quite hard on its editor, Rabbi Shalom Carmy [31]. Parenthetically, while I still believe that my criticisms of the editing were correct, and, as far as I can tell, they remain unrefuted, in retrospect it seems to me that I might have softened somewhat a harsh phrase or two, and I regret that I did not do so. Be this as it may, I thought the editors of Out of the Whirlwind did a very good job of editing. There are a few points here or there where certain things could be a little clearer; they could have given a few more references here or there, but on the whole they did a very good job, and I will be happy to say so. Contrary to what some people seem to believe, I do not take particular  pleasure in writing negative reviews. And then in the review essay, assuming I will ever get around to writing it, I will discuss the Rav’s views on aveilus and  how one should respond to evil and suffering, and, with reference to aveilus, take issue with the Rav about some matters – his reading of a comment of Rashi and his understanding of certain aspects of the Rambam on the subject. I checked my ideas out in a phone conversation with Rav Elyakim Koenigsberg, who is a Rosh Yeshiva of YU who edited  a volume of the Rav’s torah on aveilus [32]. That is a more lomdishe volume than Out of the Whirlwind. So I ran my criticisms by him, and he said okay. He’s not saying that he agrees with my criticisms, but I’m not off the wall. So if he says I’m not off the wall, you can agree, disagree, but it sounds okay to him—that’s good enough for me to go ahead. I feel safe  in putting them forward, and that no one will say “Kaplan, you’re such an am haaretz, how can you even say such things?


Things always take longer than you expect. My daughter-in-law was recently joking that  she can see me 50 years from now still writing [Dr. Kaplan scribbles on piece of paper in mock anger], “This guy got it all wrong.”


Actually, I told people that I’m not going to write any more negative reviews, like my review of David Sorkin’s book [33]. From now on, I will review a book only if I can honestly say that it is a good book. Then, of course, I can proceed to discuss the issues the book raises, disagree with the author’s intepretation, you read the evidence this way and I read it that way, etc. Not that I don’t think it’s not important to write harsh reviews sometimes. You have to maintain standards and scare people, so people should know that you should write about things you know about and not write about things you don’t know about, do your homework, and don’t assume that you can write something sloppy and you’re not going to be called on it. Someone may sit down and rip you to pieces, so be careful! But I’ve written  my share –some may say more than my share --of such reviews, and from now on I’ll leave that necessary, but unpleasant job to other people.


[1] Lawrence Kaplan, "Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority," in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, ed. Moshe Z. Sokol (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1992), 1-60

[2] Yitzchok Hutner, “Holocaust – A Study of the Term, and the Epoch It Is Meant to Describe” trans. and ed. Yaakov Feitman and Chaim Feurman, Jewish Observer, October 1977: 6-12

[3] Moshe Meiselman, "The Rav, Feminism, and Public Policy: An Insider’s Overview," Tradition 33.1 (1998): 5-30

[4] Kaplan, "Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy," Judaism 48, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 290-311(accessed July 29, 2009).

[5] Kaplan, "Rabbi Isaac Hutner's 'Daat Torah Perspective' on the Holocaust: A Critical Perspective," Tradition 18, no. 3 (Fall 1980): 235-248

[6] Kaplan, “Daat Torah: A Modern View of Rabbinic Authority,” in Zev Safrai and Avi Sagi, eds., Between Authority and Autonomy in Jewish Tradition, 105-145. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1997 [Hebrew].

[7] For the location of all of these sources and explication on how Dr. Kaplan interprets them, see “Daas Torah.”

[8] See Alfred Cohen, “Daat Torah,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 45 (Spring 2003): 67-105 and the ensuing correspondence between Rabbi Cohen and Dr. Kaplan in idem. 46 (Fall 2003): 110-123.

[9] Eliezer Menachem Man Shach, Michtavim U'Maamarim Mi'maran Ha'gaon Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach 4:320

[10] Michel Yehuda Lefkovitz, Yitzchak Shiner, and Yisrael Elya Veintraub, "Giluy Daat,"Zoo Torah,  (accessed July 28, 2009) [Hebrew]

[11] For an example of an article which promulgated the rumor that rabbis who gave their haskama to the book retracted, see the cached version of G. Safran, "Gedolei Yisrael Ban Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's Books," Yated Ne'eman, January 12, 2005, (accessed July 28, 2009). The Yated’s website later “updated” this article correcting this error while neither the Yated nor the website issued an official retraction of the claim. See G. Safran, "Gedolei Yisrael Ban Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's Books," Yated Ne'eman, January 12, 2005,  (accessed July 28, 2009). For Rabbi Slifkin’s account of how his books were banned and he was not given a chance to present his case, see Natan Slifkin, “Account of Events,” Zoo Torah,  (accessed July 28, 2009).

[12] “Account”

[13] See idem. on Rabbi Feldman’s original support for Rabbi Slifkin. Rabbi Feldman later wrote an essay attacking the positions espoused by Rabbi Slifkin. See Aharon Feldman, “The Slifkin Affair – Issues and Perspectives,” Zoo Torah,  (accessed July 29, 2009).

[14] Rav Aryeh Carmell gave a haskamah and, when the ban came out, reiterated his support for Rabbi Slifkin. See Aryeh Carmell, Zoo Torah, (accessed July 28, 2009) and Aryeh Carmell, "Re: ‘The Science of the Torah’ by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin" Zoo Torah, (accessed July 27, 2009).

[15] Daniel Eidensohn, "Age of the Universe," Hirhurim, entry posted June 20, 2006,  (accessed July 28, 2009). There have been a few other Haredi dissenters: see Toby Katz, "My 300-Page Book on the Slifkin Affair," Cross Currents, (accessed September 9, 2009); Rav Chaim Malinowitz's letter of support for Rabbi Slifkin available at Zoo Torah  (accessed September 9, 2009); and Marvin Schick, "Richuk Karovim," Cross Currents,  (accessed September 9, 2009)

[16] Binyamin Brown, "The Da'at Torah Doctrine: Three Stages," Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 19 (2005): 537-600 [Hebrew]

[17] Yoel Finkelman, “Nostalgia, Inspiration, Ambivalence: Eastern Europe, Immigration, and the Construction of Collective Memory in Contemporary American Haredi Historiography” Jewish History 23, no. 1 (March 2009): 57-82

[18] The original comment by Mrs. Katz reads as follows:

…I have news for you. EVERYONE manipulates history, everyone. Have you read any history textbook lately, and compared it to any history textbook of thirty or forty years ago? Women are much more prominent, Indians are noble and pure and one with nature, yada yada. No matter who writes the book, there is an agenda. Everybody has an agenda. Everybody. The myth of pure, dispassionate research -- "just the facts, ma'am" -- is just that, a myth. And academics are just as guilty of selective memory and revisionism as ArtScroll hagiographers, if not more so.

      See Toby Katz, comment on "Nostalgia as History," Hirhurim, comment posted December 17, 2008, #604322 (accessed July 27, 2009).

[19] Dovid Gottlieb, "Sources for Daas Torah,",  (accessed July 27, 2009)

[20] Eruvin 13b

[21] Rabbi Slifkin discusses this view in various articles on his website. See for example Slifkin, “In Defense of My Opponents” Zoo Torah, (accessed July 29, 2009).

[22] DES, "Sources Indicating That Chazal Did Not Possess Perfect Scientific Knowledge," Torah, Science, Et Al., entry posted April 30, 2006,  (accessed June 27, 2009)

[23] Kimmy Caplan and Nurit Stadler, "Haredim and the Study of Haredim in Israel: Reflections on a Recent Conference," AJS Perspectives, Spring 2008, 32

[24] Kaplan, “Modernity vs. Eternity” Jewish Observer, April 1994: 13

[25] Kaplan, "An Introduction to Maimonides' 'Eight Chapters,'" The Edah Journal 2, no. 2 (June-July 2002): 2-23

[26] Moshe Halbertal, Al derekh ha-emet : ha-Ramban ṿi-yetsiratah shel masoret (Jerusalem: Mekhon Shalom Hartman, 2006) [Hebrew]

[27] Kaplan, "Maimonides and Mendelssohn on the Election of Israel, the Origins of Idolatry  and the Oral  Law" in Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism, edited by Alfred L. Ivry, Elliot R. Wolfson, and Allan Arkush (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1998), 423-445

[28] Dov Schwartz, Religion or Halakha: The Philosophy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Trans. Batya Stein (Leiden: Brill, 2007)

[29] David Shatz, "Practical Endeavor and the Torah u-Madda Debate," Torah U-Madda Journal 3: 98-149. See also Kaplan, "Rabbi Soloveitchik's Lonely Man of Faith in Contemporary Modern Orthodox Thought" (Lecture, Studies Exploring the Influence of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik on Culture, Education and Jewish Thought: An International Conference Commemorating the Centenary of his Birth, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, December 31, 2003), Van Leer Jerusalem Institute,  (accessed July 29, 2009).

[30] Mordechai Pachter, “The Root of Faith is the Root of Heresy,” in Roots of Faith and Devequt: Studies in the History of Kabbalistic Ideas (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2004), 13-51.

[31] Kaplan, review of Worship of the Heart: Essays on Prayer, by Shalom Carmy. Hakirah 5 (Fall 2007): 79-114.

[32] Elyakim Koenigsberg, Shiuirei ha-Rav `al Inyenei Aveilus ve-Tisha be-Av (Jerusalem: Mesorah,1999)

[33] Kaplan, review of Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, by David Sorkin. AJS Review 23, no. 2 (1998): 300-307.


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