Wednesday, April 06, 2011

New Writings from R. Kook and Assorted Comments, part 4

New Writings from R. Kook and Assorted Comments, part 4

Marc B. Shapiro

Continued from here.

Returning to the issue of creation, I found an interesting comment in R. Hayyim Hirschensohn’s commentary on Rashi, Nimukei Rashi. For those who are unaware of this commentary, I recommend that you examine it. You can order a bound copy (even soft-cover) very cheaply at I think that this is one of Hirschenson’s greatest works.[1]

In his comment to Gen. 1:13 Hirschensohn writes that belief in eternity (which here apparently means eternal matter in the Platonic sense, not an eternal universe in the Aristotelian sense) is not heretical, just foolish. He explains that something foolish by definition cannot be heretical, and gives an example: If you say that 2+2=5 this is false, but it is not heretical. It would be interesting to develop this theme further, and to see to what conclusions it takes you.

Also regarding creation, see his comment to Gen. 2:6 where he explains how evolution fits in with Torah, and where he differs with Darwin.[2] He sees support for his view in Rashi, although he acknowledges that Rashi himself didn’t have evolution in mind. Rather, one can explain Rashi in accord with modern views even though Rashi himself had no knowledge of modern science. Here is an example where a book, in this case Rashi’s commentary, is explained with no concern given to original intent, the notion being that a book has a life of its own and is not bound to the interpretations of its author. I cited material on this theme in Studies in Maimonides, and there is a good deal more I can add from traditional Jewish writings. (In my Hakirah response to Buchman, I promised to explore this issue in a future Hakirah article).

Here is Hirschensohn’s passage:

אל יחשוב הקורא שדעתי שרש"י ז"ל ידע מענין ההתפתחות והי' לו שיטה מצוינה מיוחד בזה, שאהי' בזה לצחוק לכל שומע, אמנם דעתי שרוח הקודש הופיע בבית מדרשו ופירושו בהפסוקים מתאימים לפרש על ידיהם שיטות פילוסופיות וטבעיות לפי אמתתם

Quite apart from his main point, I find Hirschensohn’s opening words here fascinating. We get a sense of whom he felt he was writing for when he says that if he were to claim that Rashi knew of the most advanced scientific thought, that it would be regarded as laughable. I think that even today if someone were to attribute prophetic-like scientific knowledge to Rashi, there are some circles where this would not occasion laughter, but great respect, on the assumption that as with Hazal, Rashi’s knowledge in these matters is all-encompassing.

I could have an entire post on the provocative material in Nimukei Rashi, but let me just give a couple of more examples. In his commentary to Gen. 4:16, Hirschensohn says that prophets can make mistakes, just like the rest of the people of their time. He says that they can even make such errors when it comes to principles of faith:

כי לא כל הנביאים ידעו הפילוסופיא האלקות האמתית . . . יכולים לטעות בטעותים אשר בני אדם בדורם טועים

He applies this insight to prophets who lived before the giving of the Torah. However, those prophets who lived after the Revelation at Sinai and were able to study Torah in a proper philosophical fashion were spared these types of errors.

ורק נביאי ישראל אשר למדו תורת ה' עמדו מן התורה ומן החכמה ודעת על אמתת הפילוסופיא האלקות . . . כי הנבואה לא בא להודיע רק את הדבר אשר הודיעה מפורש ובשאר דברים יכול האדם להשאר בטעותיו הקדומים ורק התורה עם החכמה והדעת המה מודיעים את האמתית [!] ועקרי האמונה והפילוסופיא . . . כי הקב"ה חפץ שהאדם יהי' דורש למצא את האמת לא ליתן לו את האמת בנבואה בלתי דרישה וחקירה.

In a previous installment of this series I dealt with Maimonides’ view that prophets can make errors, with the proof being how Ezekiel’s prophecy was based on incorrect science. I also noted Ralbag’s claim that one of Abraham’s prophecies contained an error. In other words, Hirschensohn’s basic point has an honored precedent.

However, as far as I know, no one prior to Hirschensohn claimed that prophets could make errors in basic theological points. Yet Hirschensohn’s argument is very strong, for his proof is from Cain. Cain must be regarded as a prophet, as God spoke to him. Yet Cain also erred in a basic theological point, as he didn’t think that God’s knowledge was all-encompassing. This incidentally illustrates why according to Maimonides the entire Cain and Abel story cannot be understood as historical. While Hirschensohn is able to say that “not all prophets knew the true divine philosophy,” for Maimonides this is the basis of prophecy and the only way it comes about. The notion that Cain, or Adam for that matter, could have developed his mind philosophically in order to achieve prophecy is obviously not a serious proposition. Therefore, according to Maimonides, it is clear that God never spoke to Cain. In other words, from Maimonides’ perspective the story never actually happened, and must be understood as a philosophical or moral tale.

This interpretation of Maimonides is nothing new. Lawrence Kaplan has already noted that the standard commentaries on Maimonides’ Guide—Efodi, Shem Tov, Falaquera, Ibn Caspi, and Narboni—leave little doubt that in their mind Maimonides' position is that the births of Cain, Abel, and Seth are to be understood allegorically.[3] When it comes to the Cain story I think the matter is fairly clear-cut, for if a brute like Cain can be regarded as a prophet this would contradict Maimonides’ entire philosophical understanding of what prophecy is.

R. Hananel Sari makes an interesting point that is relevant to what we are discussing.[4] He calls attention to the fact that matters which Maimonides does not regard as having been real historical events are treated as such, for educational or spiritual purposes, in the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides himself writes about how this was the practice of ancient courts in dealing with the Wayward Woman (Hilkhot Sotah 3:2):

ומגידין לה מעשה יהודה ותמר כלתו, ומעשה ראובן בפילגש אביו על פשטו

Sari offers two examples of this phenomenon in Maimonides’ writing. One is the story of the angels coming to visit Abraham, which Maimonides famously understands to have taken place in a dream. Yet from Hilkhot Evel 14:2 the reader would assume that Maimonides understood this event to have actually occurred. The second example Sari offers relates to Cain and Abel. According to the standard medieval commentators to Guide 2:30, Maimonides understands the Cain and Abel episode allegorically. Yet as Sari points out, in Beit ha-Behirah 2:2 Maimonides treats the Cain and Abel story as historical: והוא המזבח שהקריב עליו קין והבל

In fact, it is not only in the Mishneh Torah that we find the phenomenon Sari discusses, but in the Guide as well. Thus, while in Guide 2:42 Maimonides tells us that the entire story of Balaam and the donkey happened in a vision, in Guide 2:6 he speaks of the movements of the donkey as if this was an actual event.[5]

With regard to the story of Cain and Abel, Shalom Rosenberg has explained how Maimonides understood it allegorically:

Cain and Abel embody two types of life which epitomize the fullest development of human potential in man before he has reached his rational level. Maimonides refers here to the legend which says that before Adam begat his third son, Seth, his children for 130 years were demons.[6] For Maimonides, there is no doubt that the demons mentioned in this legend are none but Cain and Abel. Both Cain and Abel stand, for Maimonides, as symbols of types of life which have not reached their full perfection. This is the meaning of demons. For what, after all, is a demon? A demon is created when reason and thought, which are devised for protecting man’s perfection, are exploited by all sorts of devices which produce evil consequences. Thus, Maimonides sees the existence of demons as the most widespread sort of existence, the existence of human beings who are endowed with reason, but use their reason for evil purposes. Thus, a demonic existence is that of Abel, who—as one of Maimonides’ commentators remarks—stands for the fool, or for foolishness. But Cain, too, stands for man who had arrived at many technological achievements, but the purpose of these achievements is evil. When this evil predominates, it becomes the source of murder and war. These are the devices of human reason when used for evil purposes.[7]

Herbert A. Davidson writes:

Maimonides had hinted that the scriptural story of the creation of adam has in view the bringing forth of the entire human species, in other words, mankind in general; that in the rabbinic account of the formation of Eve out of Adam’s side, the male aspect of the original Adam symbolizes the human intellect, and the female aspect, man’s nonintellectual nature; that the serpent’s temptation of Eve and Eve’s temptation of Adam are an allegory for the deflection of the human intellect by the lower faculties of the human soul; that the names of Adam’s first sons, Cain and Abel, have allegorical significance, and that there is significance in Seth’s being the son of Adam from whom the entire species is descended.[8]

In 2000 R. Nissim of Marseilles’ commentary on the Torah, Ma’aseh Nissim, ed. Kreisel, was published, and it too deals with Cain and Abel. R. Nissim states explicitly (p. 271):

וכן שלשה בני אדם: קין והבל ושת – משל. או אם נמצאו ונולדו לאדם, יש בקריאת שמותם רמז והערה לשלש שלמויות האדם.

I think everyone who reads R. Nissim’s commentary will conclude that his preference is for the first possibility, namely, the non-historicity of Adam’s three children.

* * *

1. In this post I referred to what I termed an anti-intellectual comment from R. Kook’s Shemonah Kevatzim. I noted the radical nature of this comment, as it places the Jewish masses, and their natural morality, on a higher plane than the talmudic scholars.[9] I also noted that it is not surprising that R. Zvi Yehudah, recognizing the subversive nature of the comment, did not publish it.

R. Ari Chwat called my attention to the fact that, unlike R. Zvi Yehudah, the Nazir actually published the same sort of comment in Orot ha-Kodesh, vol. 2, pp. 364-365 (=Shemonah Kevatzim 1:140). While here too R. Kook speaks of how the masses need the Torah scholars, again we see that it is actually the Torah scholars who have more to learn from the masses then the reverse. Note how R. Kook privileges the masses, not only when it comes to natural morality, but in a whole host of areas. We see here how R. Kook felt that excessive book learning, with all of its details, had a negative effect on the pure Jewish soul.

הצד הבריא של היושר מצוי הוא באנשים גסים יותר ויותר ממה שהוא מצוי במלומדים ומוסריים, בעלי מחשבה. יותר מובהקים הם המלומדים בדברים הפרטיים של המוסר, בחוקיו ודקדוקיו, אבל עצם הרגשתו זאת היא מצויה באנשים בריאים טבעיים, שהם הם המון, עם הארץ. ולאו דוקא בהרגשת המוסר השרשית עולה הוא ההמון על אנשי הסגולה. גם בהרגשת האמונה, הגדלות האלהית, היופי, החושיות, הכל אשר לחיים בדרך ישרה, בלתי מסוננת על ידי הציורות המלאים שכר אגמי נפש של הדעה והחכמה הוא יותר בריא וטהור בההמון

Again I ask, is this not incredibly subversive? Since the writings of the early hasidic masters, have any of our great sages written anything that so undermines the status of the rabbinic elite? I will have more to say about this, with additional citations in R. Kook’s writings, in future installments to this series.

While not going to the extreme of R. Kook, let me mention a couple of other non-hasidic examples where book learning is “put in its place”, as it were. The late R. Mordechai Elefant told the following story: R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski once asked R. Elijah Hayyim Meisels, the rav of Lodz, why a man of his stature didn’t publish a book. R. Elijah got up, went into the other room, and came back with ledgers full of lists of widows and orphans whom he had helped. He told R. Chaim Ozer, “This is my sefer. All my life I was like you. I thought the important thing was to write a sefer on the Rambam. But as I got older, I realized this sefer is more important.”[10]

R. Hayyim Haikel Greenberg[11] recorded the same lesson in the name of another sage:

שבעת שהיה צעיר חשב שכל העולם זהו ספרים – ועכשיו לעת זקנותו העלפען א ארימע אלמנה אוף שבת און אאידען, וויכטיקער ווי אלע ספרים.

Greenberg mentions that after publishing this he was criticized by many important rabbis, but R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg supported him:

מי כמוני שאוהב ספרים ומחברים וכל העולם שלי זהו רק ספרים – ואני אומר בפה מלא ובלב שלם יישר כח שהדפיס והעתיק זאת.

In speaking of opposition to book learning, here is a text that is simply unbelievable, and which I have never seen mentioned in the scholarly literature.

It is from Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis (Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition). I don’t understand how the lesson is derived from the verse, but the lesson itself is clear enough: too much Torah study will lead to heresy. This is the sort of thing that one might expect to see in a medieval Catholic source, in justification of keeping the laity ignorant. Yet here we find the same attitude in a Jewish source. There are examples in rabbinic literature where we see that Torah study can have a negative result,[12] but I don’t know of any other text that is so blatant in its opposition to “excessive” Torah study. In the highly unlikely event that there are any high school students reading this who have been slacking off in Torah study, and have been challenged by their rebbe or parents to explain their inaction, see what happens if you pull out this text to explain matters.

I had seen this text a few years ago, and wanting to include it in the post I ordered the volume from interlibrary loan. The copy sent to me was from the University of Pennsylvania, and was originally found in the personal library of the late Dr. Judah Goldin. On the page we are looking at, Goldin underlined the strange passage (and also noted it on the first page of the book). On the side he added a reference to Targum Ps. Jonathan, Num. 22:5. Here it says that Balaam (who is identified with Laban) acted foolishly “from the greatness of his wisdom.” In other words, it was Balaam’s great wisdom that led to his thinking that he could curse the Israelites. Yet this passage only refers to Balaam’s general wisdom. It says nothing of Torah knowledge leading him astray.

With regard to R. Kook’s comments about the natural morality of the simple Jew, Joel Rich sent me chapter 4 of R. Soloveitchik’s Reflections of the Rav, ed. Besdin. The chapter is entitled “The Profundity of Jewish Folk Wisdom,” and is well worth reading. Yet you don’t find in R. Soloveitchik the notion expressed by R. Kook, that the natural morality of the simple Jew is superior to that of the scholar. For R. Kook, the simple Jew has something that the scholar does not have, and the scholar has that which the simple Jew lacks (halakhic knowledge). In this way, each can learn, and indeed is dependant, on the other. In dialectical fashion, the result of this will be a new type of Jew who combines in himself the best of both the scholar and the simple Jew. This is parallel to R. Kook’s discussion of the role of the non-religious. In the creation of the new Eretz Yisrael Jew the non-religious have that which is lacking among the religious, namely, the attachment to the physical world and the strength which Jews used to have when they lived on the Land, but which was forgotten during the long Exile. So the non-religious will bring that to the table, and the religious Jew will obviously bring Torah and spirituality. The result with be a synthesis of the two and the creation of an Eretz Yisrael Jew who, while being both Torah observant and spiritually enlightened will also be strong physically, able to build roads and fight wars. This is how Jews lived in days of old and how they are supposed to live when they return to the Land of Israel.

While R. Soloveitchik might have been attracted to dialectical-type thinking, there was no way that he would see the masses as having anything to give the halakhic scholar. The most the Rav speaks of in this essay is that the common man, even in his speech, reflects Torah values, but not that he is superior in any way to the learned ones.[13]

In this essay the Rav offers a beautiful interpretation of the aggadah in Niddah 30b that before birth a fetus learns all of the Torah and then forgets it when he is born:

Rabbi Simlai is apparently saying that every Jew comes into the world with a natural responsiveness to Torah teaching. Every Jew begins with a share in Torah was vested him before his birth, and, though he is made to forget it, it is preserved in the deep recesses of his soul, waiting to be awakened by study and a favorable environment. Scholars, of course, convert this latent knowledge into actual living knowledge; but the simple Jew also has a share. Some members of the Massorah[!][14] community are scholars whose knowledge is well formulated and codified, while others, though unlearned, may be endowed with inspired and intuitive Torah wisdom . . . [W]hen a Jew studies Torah, he finds it native to his spiritual personality and he responds to it readily.

R. Shalom Messas[15] also offers an interpretation of this Aggadah. According to him, it means that before birth God planted in the fetus the ability to study all of the Torah. The angel, who causes him to forget, represents the yetzer hara which distracts people from studying Torah[16]:

אלא האמת דאין כאן לא מלאך ולא שו"ד, והכל רמז ומשל בעלמא, והכוונה היא כמו שאמרנו, שבשעה שיצר השי"ת את העובר, נתן בו כחות עצומים באופן שיכול לעתיד ללמוד כל התורה אם ירצה . . . ויש בכחו ללמוד את כולה, וכשיוצא לאור העולם בא מלאך הוא הטבע, שכאשר מתחיל לצמוח מתערב עמו היצה"ר ומראה לו יופי הטבע והבריאה ונמשך אחריהם, ומעכבים עליו מללמוד תורה

This, too, is a beautiful perspective. I think people will therefore be surprised to learn that R. Messas was actually criticized by two separate authors, each of whom thought that his allegorical understanding of the Talmud was incorrect. In their opinions the Talmud should be taken literally, that the child really does know all of the Torah. Both of these authors refer to a “yeshivishe story” (with minor discrepancies between them) about how a certain baby was born knowing all the Torah, and from the moment of his birth began “talking Torah.”

I always wonder when I hear Torah knowledgeable Jews repeat such nonsense as this yeshivishe story. What does this say about the Torah they learnt that they can be so gullible? I think the best we can say is that there is a difference between having book knowledge and being wise, and it is the latter that appears to be in such short supply. R. Messas replied to one of the authors in Shemesh u-Magen, vol. 2 pp. 322ff, and here is his reply to the second one, from Shemesh u-Magen vol. 3, p. 325.

I think R. Messas deserves a lot of credit for responding in such a polite fashion. Yet I have no doubt that if you spoke to him privately about this, his words would be much harsher in reflecting on how Torah students can be so foolish in believing such nonsensical stories.[17]

2. I have often been asked if I have pictures of R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg. As a matter of fact I do, and here are two that I was given by Moshe Weisz of Zurich, who in the 1960's was a student in the Montreux yeshiva. In the second picture, Weisz is the one handing Weinberg his coat.

There is actually an amazing picture of Weinberg from his time in the prisoner of war camp. I would have loved to include this in my book, but the person who showed it to me refused to allow me to do so. He didn’t think it was respectful to a great Torah sage for people see him in this state. Yet why is this disrespectful? How was Weinberg supposed to look in such circumstances? Was he supposed to have a black suit and hat? Obviously, Jews did not look their normal selves during the years of the Holocaust. Here, for instance, is a picture of the Belzer Rebbe, R. Aharon Rokeach, with R. Herzog. It appears in Shaul Maizlish, Rabanut be-Sa'arat ha-Yamim, p. 61.

The Belzer Rebbe was one of those rebbes who, for religious reasons, did not like to have pictures taken of himself. Yet because R. Herzog exerted so much effort in order to secure permission for the Rebbe to enter the Land of Israel, he agreed to have his picture taken when R. Herzog requested this. (Or Yisrael 21 [5761]. p. 257). This last source also records the following great story, told by R. Aharon about his father, the previous Rebbe R. Yissachar Dov.

פ"א דיבר מרן מוהר"א מענין זה בשם אביו זצ"ל שאמר שבספר יערות דבש כתוב דברים חריפים אודות עשיית תמונה, אבל היות שכל היהודים אינם מקפידים ע"ז אין ברצוני להיות פרוש מהם, שכלם יהיו בגיהנום ואני יחידי יהיה בגן עדן, טוב לי להיות עם כלל ישראל ביחד

(Yes, I know that someone will point out the irony of R. Yissachar Dov saying that he would rather be in gehinnom with the Jewish people when his son chose precisely the opposite course, and left the gehinnom of Europe. Here is not the place to go into this story. Suffice it to say that I find Monday morning quarterbacking very distasteful. In this case it is even worse, as R. Aharon’s children and grandchildren were all murdered.)

Here is a picture of R. Jacob Avigdor, whom I believe was a Belzer, from those difficult days (together with happier pictures).[18] Does anyone think this reduces him by showing how he looked during the Nazi years?

Incidentally, Moshe Weisz also told me about how in November 1965 Weinberg gave a hesped for four recently deceased rabbis, among them R. Yerucham Warhaftig and R. Eliezer Yehudah Finkel. These latter two were good friends of Weinberg, and Weinberg’s friendship with Finkel went back to their youth. After the eulogy Weinberg asked everyone in the room to stand up. They stood silently for around ten seconds and then he asked them to sit down. I presume this was intended as a show of respect rather than as a moment of silence, since the latter could be done sitting down.

Since I have spoken about pictures in this post, let me also include this picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It appears courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I thank Rabbi Jerry Schwarzbard who first showed it to me a few years ago.

As you can see, it is an Israeli stamp from 1999, and it can now be added to Shnayer Leiman’s collection of stamps of rabbis.[19] Yet for some reason the stamp was never put into circulation. I have been unable to find the reason for this, and there is no mention of the stamp in Maya Balakirsky Katz’s recently published The Visual Culture of Chabad (Cambridge, 2010). There are many Lubavitchers who read the Seforim Blog. Perhaps one of you knows the story of this stamp and why it was never released.

As for Balakirsky Katz’s book, I urge Lubavitchers to read it, without preconceptions, and offer their opinions. It appears, to me at least, to be a quite interesting book. I stress the need for no preconceptions since Balakirsky Katz has now been placed by Lubavitchers in the “enemy camp”, along with other contemporary authors such as R. David Zvi Hillman z”l, David Kamenetsky, David Berger, Bryan Mark Rigg, David Assaf, Menachem Friedman, and Samuel Heilman. Balakirsky Katz angered Chabad with her recent article in the AJS Review 34 (2010; “An Occupational Neurosis: A Psychoanalytic Case History of a Rabbi”), and this article is summarized in the new book (but is only a very small part of the book). She argued that the Rebbe R. Shalom Dov Baer Schneersohn (Rashab) was the rabbi who visited the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel in 1903. In those meetings the rabbi spoke about being sexually molested from his youth until his marriage. He also told about his sexual dreams and how he masturbated,[20] and described how his own brother carried on an improper relationship with his (i.e., the rabbi’s) wife (although it does not appear to have led to actual adultery).

I understand that Lubavitchers will regard Balakirsky Katz’s argument as beneath contempt. They will also regard as scandalous the fact that her essay was published in such a prestigious journal as AJS Review. I would not even ask them to dignify the argument with a response, any more than a non-Lubavitcher should be asked to respond to such claims about a close family member; for a hasid, the feelings for a Rebbe are just like those of a close relative. Yet there is a lot more to the book than the few pages dealing with the rabbi and Stekel, and I wonder how Habad insiders will appraise the rest of what she says.


It is common to hear among YU figures the expression “hakhmei ha-mesorah,” referring to authoritative rabbinic spokesmen. Readers can correct me if I am mistaken, but I don’t think that this expression, with the meaning currently applied to it, is part of the traditional rabbinic vocabulary. I also don’t recall ever seeing it in haredi writing. (When the words appear in rabbinic literature they refer to Masoretes.) The first mention of it that I know of appears in R. Soloveitchik’s famous attack on R. Emanuel Rackman regarding nullification of marriage. Needless to say, the expression makes an appearance in R. Schachter’s new book, Divrei ha-Rav. See e.g., p. 233.

This latter reference is part of an article that R. Schachter earlier published in Beit Yitzhak 38 (2006). The reprint in Divrei ha-Rav has two changes from the original. On p. 237 a sentence is added, according to which the Rav stated that in Europe he never heard the expression “Daas Torah.” The second change is that one entire paragraph, on pages 5-6, has been removed. Here is the paragraph.

From this paragraph we see that the Rav’s strong personal opposition to prayer in a synagogue without a mechitzah was not shared by all other rabbis, and that the Rav was willing to show some flexibility in this matter. The case discussed here was not like the other times that the Rav gave permission for a rabbi to take a position at a synagogue without a mechitzah. In those cases the heter was for a rabbinic appointment designed to be for a few years, and during that time the rabbi was supposed to try to convince the synagogue to install a mechitzah. The issue discussed in the Beit Yitzhak article was simply a High Holiday position at a non-mechitzah synagogue in order to make some money.

This paragraph provides important testimony that can balance some of the Rav’s more strident statements in this matter. If anyone can get a straight answer from R. Schachter as to why the paragraph has been removed, please share it with us. I would hate to think that we have here an example of revisionism—in other words, R. Schachter decided to delete the paragraph because he concluded that it is best that people not know this information, or he was responding to others who criticized him for including the paragraph.

With regard to the larger issue of how R. Schachter presents the Rav, Lawrence Kaplan has already noted that there are revisionist aspects of R. Schachter’s presentation of the Rav’s legacy. See his “Revisionism and the Rav,” Judaism, summer 1999, available here.

One aspect of this revisionism that Kaplan does not mention is that while Nefesh ha-Rav has an entire chapter on the State of Israel, there is no mention of the Rav’s view—which was expressed on a number of occasions, as well as publicly before hundreds of people—that there is no halakhic prohibition for Israel to return land to the Arabs.

It certainly says something about the transformation of American Orthodoxy in the last generation that R. Schachter became the one to carry on the Rav’s legacy. Unlike the Rav, R. Schachter is a talmudist and posek, and has no involvement with the broader philosophical and cultural issues of Western Civilization. Yet despite this, he is, by far, the most important and influential rabbi in Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy. When it comes to matters of halakhah, I wonder if there is anyone in the American haredi world who can compare to his wide-ranging knowledge. I have heard him in person and on tape many times, and I continue to be amazed at how he can speak for long periods, without notes, on literally any topic of halakhah. I have never seen anything like it. It is all at his fingertips, and he presents it in a fashion that keeps the audience’s attention. As for the liberal Orthodox, who oppose R. Schachter because of his strong stand against feminist innovations, even they must applaud his leading role in dealing with husbands who refuse to give their wives gittin. This has earned him the opprobrium of the Orthodox lunatic fringe, and one member of this group, Abraham Samuel Judah Gestetner, who styles himself a dayan, has even placed R. Schachter in herem (together with two well-known California rabbis). See here.

Gestetner is also the author of the ridiculous book Megilat Plaster, which attempts to show that R. Jacob Emden’s Megilat Sefer is a forgery perpetrated by the evil maskilim. Here is the title page.

His argument is completely demolished by R. Menachem Mendel Goldstein in Etz Hayyim (Bobov), no. 8(Shevat 5769), pp. 239-266. (Goldstein resides in that bastion of Haskalah known as Kiryas Yoel.). On the very first page of his article, Goldstein complains that the various publishers of Emden’s Megilat Sefer did not consult with gedolei Yisrael in order to determine what should have been censored. In other words, he takes it as a given that the masses need to be protected from what Emden has to say.

הספר מגילת ספר נדפס על ידי אינשי דלא מעלי שאין רוח חכמים נוחה מהם, ולא נתיעצו בגדולי חכמי ורבני דור דור האיך ומה להדפיס ומה להשמיט

To be continued.

[1] There is still a good deal more I plan to say about the whole Garden of Eden story. For now, let me respond to one question. We have seen the medieval philosophical approach that the episode with the snake is to be understood allegorically, and the snake represents the evil inclination. A few people want to know if we can find such an approach in Hazal. I actually think we can. In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 13 (referred to by Maimonides in Guide 2:30), it mentions that the serpent had a rider, Samael (Satan). Since at least some of the Sages identify Satan with the evil inclination, this opens the possibility that the snake in our story is also to be understood this way. Yet I think that most of the Sages probably understood the passage literally. For one example, see Bereishit Rabbah 19:1, where R. Hoshaya states that the snake stood up like a reed, and that he had feet. Whereas the medieval philosophers were reluctant to take literally a text that spoke of a talking snake (and donkey), this did not seem to bother the talmudic Sages.
[2] A fuller discussion of Hirschensohn’s view of evolution will appear in a future post. In the meantime, see his Seder la-Mikra, vol. 1, pp. 76-77:

אין השיטה הדארוונית מתנגדת כלל להתורה בדבר הבריאה בששה ימים, כי הימים בעצמם כל אחד הוא יום שכלו אורך תקופה שלמה . . . כי עדיין לא הי' עוד השמש לאור יומם לראשון השני והשלישי ובכל זאת נקראים ימים וגם אחרי בריאת המאורות לא ידענו כמה לקח זמן התפתחותם לאותות למועדים לימים ושנים שלנו, ואריכת ימי בראשית לא נדע לנו שכל יום הוא תקופה שלמה

In another twenty years, I wonder if the younger generation will believe us when we tell them that Hirschensohn’s position was accepted throughout the haredi world, and was standard fare in the kiruv movement and in “science vs. Torah” discussions. There was a time when I, and so many others, would never have believed that “young earth” fundamentalism could ever become a binding principle of faith in the wider haredi world, precisely because it would mean rejecting a position that had been so central to the haredi Torah-science reconciliation.
[3] Link”Rationalism and Rabbinic Culture,” pp. 240ff.
[4] Mesorah le-Yosef 4 (2005), p. 183.
[5] This point was noted by Kaplan, Link”Rationalism,” p. 300 n. 225.
[6] See Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters, p. 111.
[7] Good and Evil in Jewish Thought (Tel Aviv, 1989), p. 63.
[8] Moses Maimonides (Oxford, 2005), p. 407.
[9] See also my post here where I noted R. Itzele of Ponevezh’s statement that how the Jewish masses feel is more important than what the rabbis think: וכלל ישראל הוא גבוה ונעלה מגדולי התורה . This is obviously diametrically opposed to the haredi conception of Da'as Torah. In my Torah in Motion lectures I discussed how R. Itzele’s conception parallels the Catholic notion of “sense of the faithful.”

In addition to the passages of R. Kook referred to in my earlier post, there are many other sources that one could quote. One that comes immediately to mind is Haym Soloveitchik’s understanding of medieval Jews committing suicide. He sees this as an example of the “sense of the faithful” which was not in line with established halakhah, but which ex post facto had to be justified. Even the murder of one’s children to prevent them from being forcibly apostatized could not be judged according to halakhic texts, or else people regarded as kedoshim would lose this status, an untenable possibility under the circumstances of medieval Jewish life. See 'Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example,' AJS Review 12 (1987), pp. 205-221. Soloveitchik writes (p. 209):

The magnitude of this halakhic breach is enormous. Whether one is permitted to suffer voluntary martyrdom is highly questionable; suicide is forbidden beyond question, and the permissibility of murder needs no discussion. Thus, if the law were to be followed, the scholars of these communities would have had to rule that all the martyrs—qedoshim, or “holy ones,” as they were called—were not only not “holy,” but they were “self-killers,” and murderers; that not only should they not be buried with honor, but perhaps they should even be denied burial, or at best be buried in the far end of the cemetery where the most vile criminals are interred. Such a conclusion, needless to say, was an emotional impossibility.

After speaking of the “sense of the faithful,”—or what Jacob Katz and Soloveitchik describe as “ritual instinct,” “religious intuition,” and “religious sense”—this article concludes with a couple of paragraphs that I think readers will find very interesting:

I remember my own shock when, after studying Yoreh Deah, I realized that there is no need for separate milk and meat dishtowels, separate dishracks or cabinets, and that if food is served cold, there is no need for separate dishware altogether. Again, there is all the difference in the world between not having hamets in the house (בל יראה ובל ימצא) and the house being what we call pesahdiq.

The simple truth is that the traditional Jewish kitchen and pre-Passover preparations have little to do with halakhic dictates. They have been immeasurably and unrecognizably amplified by popular religious intuition. We all know this, but our religious sense, our religious experience belies this knowledge, and our instincts reject this fact out of hand. To serve cold cuts on a “dairy” dish is treif—everything in Yoreh Deah to the contrary notwithstanding.

The prevalent has not here expanded the normative, it is the normative, and anything less is inconceivable.

Upon hearing one of my TIM lectures, R. Yonasan Rosman sent me a nice example of how the “sense of the faithful” operates independently of, and sometimes even in opposition to, halakhic particulars. It comes from Making of a Godol, p. 1188:

My father also was fond of quoting an interpretation of the Mozhirer Maggid, R. Shmuel Rabinowitz, of the gemara in Massekheth Brakhoth that

כנור היה תלוי למעלה ממטתו של דוד וכו' ומנגן מאליו

(a fiddle hung above the bed of King David, etc., and it played on its own) to mean that Jewry senses what policy is vital for its existence and does not probe whether the course of action (or inaction) is halakhically sound or not. One of the several examples he gave was by asking rhetorically, “Who gave the Slabodka Yeshiva bahurim the halakhic permission [היתר] to marry at so late an age?” and in answer, he paraphrased the gemara (which he translated into Yiddish), “און דער פידעלע שפילט פון זיך אליין (and the little fiddle plays on its own.”) He was out to prove that when some position is of crucial importance to Jewry—such as increasing the number of intelligent Jews getting in more years of Torah study before going off into their occupations—halakhic minutiae are set aside.

It is precisely sources like this, and the others I have quoted, that are crucial for anyone wishing to challenge the pan-halakhic understanding of Judaism that has taken root in Centrism.

(Regarding yeshiva students marrying later, see R. Shlomo Sofer, Hut ha-Meshulash [Munkacs, 1894], p. 7b, that in late eighteenth-century Frankfurt, yeshiva students would sometimes wait until age thirty to marry.)
[10] For R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg’s essay on Meisels, see Seridei Esh, vol. 4, pp. 345-352.
[11] See Ahiezer: Kovetz Rabani-Torani, vol. 4 (1969), p. 17.
[12] Sotah 21b states: “R. Eliezer says: Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity. . . . Read, rather: as though he had taught her obscenity” Rashi explains: שמתוכה היא מבינה ערמומית ועושה דבריה בהצנע

Meiri, Sotah 20a explains (and as with the Ralbag quoted in a prior post, apologies to the women reading): שמתוך הבנתה ביתר מגדרה היא קונה ערמימות מעט, ואין שכלה מספיק להבנה הראויה והיא סבורה שהשיגה ומקשקשת בפעמון להראות את חכמתה לכל
[13] There are, of course, many other differences between R. Soloveitchik and R. Kook. From the excerpt printed in The Rav Thinking Aloud, pp. 155-156, we see that the Rav regarded R. Kook as a saintly figure, but not as an intellectual great. Yet this impression was derived from one short conversation. All the gedolim who knew R. Kook had the exact opposite impression. They correctly saw that R. Kook was a master of the entire Torah, in all of its facets. I think you have to go back to Maharal, or perhaps even Nahmanides, to find such a wide-ranging Torah scholar as R. Kook.

Experts on the Rav’s writings can correct me, but the only place I recall where he mentions R. Kook is in On Repentance, p. 161 (and this was not actually published by the Rav himself, but by Pinchas Peli). See incidentally, ibid., p. 224, where the Rav states, referring to the State of Israel: “Bondage to the State can also become idolatry.” When this appeared in 1975, in the original Hebrew edition Al ha-Teshuvah, R. Zvi Yehudah Kook responded with a very sharp statement (later reprinted in Le-Hilkhot Tzibbur):

The Rav in turn said about R. Zvi Yehudah: “If you follow the philosophy of Tzvi Hirsch [!] Kook a Jew outside of Eretz Yisrael is a non-Jew. And this is exactly against the passuk of כי לי כל הארץ. A Jew outside of Eretz Yisrael can be a perfect Jew. Where you accomplish more is up to the individual. . . . Kook comes out with the Ramban [who says that mitzvah observance in the Diaspora is not at the same level as in the Land of Israel] as if he is the only one to whom the Ramban has entrusted the text.” The Rav Thinking Aloud, pp. 225, 229. See also, ibid., p. 154, where he says that R. Zvi Yehudah “has an aura of kedushah about him.”
[14] See Appendix.
[15] Introduction to his Tevuot Shemesh, Even ha-Ezer, and Shemesh u-Magen, vol. 2, p. 321.
[16] See also Maharsha, Niddah 30b.
[17] With regard to what else fetuses are said to be doing in the womb (aside from learning Torah), there is a very strange passage in Otzar ha-Geonim, Berakhot 28b (p. 71). I hesitate to elaborate on it lest this post be blocked by internet filters:

כשאדם כורע במודים צריך לו לכרוע עד ברכיו לפי שהילד בעודו במעי אמו ראשו מונח בין שתי יריכיו והמילה שלו בתוך פיו ובעבור זה צריך לשוח עד ברכיו.

[18] The picture comes from Esther Farbstein’s Be-Seter Ra’am (Jerusalem, 2002).
[19] See here.
[20] With regard to masturbation, R. Simcha Ross called my attention to the responsum printed here by an unnamed talmid hakham. He argues that masturbation is permissible. When Rabbi Ross first alerted me to this (and also expressed his disagreement with the arguments of the author), I thought this was some sort of Purim Torah. But then I examined the responsum, and other responsa on the site, and I could see pretty quickly that this was a serious man, whose arguments were carefully thought out. There are so many books published today that simply repeat what others have said, without offering anything new, that it is a pleasure to see original thinking, Based on his permission to masturbate, he also concludes that homosexual activity is permissible, as long as there is no mishkav zakhur. See here.

(This anonymous author has also placed on his website his commentary on R. Baruch Ber Leibowitz’s Birkat Shmuel, and also many posts discussing talmudic sugyot.)

I showed this responsum to someone. Yet instead of examining the arguments, all he was interested in was the identity of the author, who, as can be seen from various responsa on the site, is clearly from the haredi world. Maybe some readers know who he is, but I think that someone like this has to be in “deep cover.” We all know how the powers that be would destroy anyone who argued that masturbation is permissible. Since this involves a halakhic matter, I am certain the response would be even more severe than how they dealt with Slifkin and Kamenetsky. This talmid hakham would be branded not merely a heretic and a Reformer, but also a sexually dissolute degenerate. So yes, I understand why the author chooses to remain anonymous. My request to readers is as follows: The argument permitting masturbation is so far removed from anything I have ever seen that I would like those with more halakhic learning than myself to examine his teshuvah and let us know if you think there is anything to his argument.

Also, please look at other material on his site. Is it possible that instead of a “progressive” talmid hakham we are dealing here with a Trojan Horse? That is, someone who aims to undermine traditional Judaism from within, much like Saul Berlin attempted to do.


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