[Well, I finally finished Two Carriages and a Hot Air Balloon. It was an enlightening experience, and I intend to write a review essay about it in multi-post form starting Tuesday. Before I sign off for the duration of an extended weekend (no tidbits this week), I am presenting here a translation of part of one of the chapters at the end of the book. This excerpt contains a challenge, one which I would like you to seriously consider and discuss in the comments below. It’s well worth the effort.
Note to readers unfamiliar with yeshiva concepts: iyun is a term referring to in-depth logical analysis of Talmudic texts (according to Rabbinic rules of logic, such as those of Brisk). It is considered the highest form of Torah study in this world. – Avi/AIWAC]
[Taken from ‘Two Carriages and a Hot Air Balloon, p. 476-478. All responsibility for the accuracy of the translation rests on my shoulders alone]
‘Machshava’ and Halacha
In the yeshiva world, the learning of halacha be’iyun is usually not connected to the world of machshava or philosophy. They appear as two fields, or even two disciplines which are entirely unrelated. This is the place for one of the main hiddushim which is self-evident in light of what we have said up until now.
In iyun study one usually reaches abstract layers and quasi-mathematical definitions, as described by Rav Soloveitchik in Halachic Man. Continuing the questions beyond the usual iyun layer leads us straight into the world of machshava and philosophy. We will try to show that the difference between learning halacha be-iyun and the study of machshevet yisra’el, is not one regarding the contents which are studied. Its actualization is in one additional question: ‘Why?’ at the end of the regular halachic iyun. This question will transfer us from the plane of halachic iyun and analysis to the plane of Machshava-philosophic iyun. The difference between study of halacha be’iyun and machshav-halachic philosophy is not in the subject of study but rather the number of ‘why’ questions.
The ancient outlook which sees philosophy as a field concerned with knowledge of the divine and metaphysics is still prevalent in the Torah world. Today general philosophy deals with logical structure, language and law, aesthetics, ethics and many other fields beyond metaphysics (which as we saw has actually been somewhat neglected in the analytical age). By contrast, the main machshava books which are studied in the yeshiva world, if they are studied at all, are the Jewish philosophy books from the Middle Ages, such as the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, the Rasag’s Emunot VeDe’ot, Rav Yehuda Halevi’s The Kuzari &c. These books mostly deal only with the classic metaphysical questions, and most of them rely on ideas and concepts from the Greco-Muslim world.
Today we need a revolution similar to that done by the Rambam who introduced Aristotelian philosophy (which was dominant in his day) into the field of yeshiva discussion. Nowadays, we must continue and critically ‘convert’ Descartes and Leibniz, Hume and Kant, Russel, Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers. Parallel to the ‘conversion’ process, we must connect the machshavic study with iyun study of the halachic parts of the Talmud in order to simplify problems and decide various philosophical issues.
It should be noted that such a work was done by Rav Yosef Rozin of Rogatchov (‘The Rogatchover’) in his books called Tzofnat Paneach (punch in צפנת פענח in the title section here – Avi/AIWAC). The Rogatchover’s halachic doctrine was based on a conceptual system taken from philosophical literature (mainly the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed). In other words, the Rogatchover continued the Rambam’s project to an extent. After the ‘conversion’ of the philosophical problems and concepts by the Rambam, the Rogatchover came and connected them to the world of halachic-iyun study*. To be sure, the Rogatchover stopped at ancient philosophy since he based himself on the Rambam. We need to continue doing what he did to modern philosophy as well.
I wish to point out that the Rogatchover built his machshavic structure out of a desire to understand study in the classical meaning of the word however he saw fit to use a philosophical conceptual system. The Rogatchover did not intend for the clarification of the philosophical problems to be the purpose of his study, but rather to uncover the philosophical assumptions at the foundation of halacha. In contrast, here I am talking about figuring out philosophical problems in and of themselves. In that sense the trend offered in this chapter is another step in demonstrating the importance of these general issues as a Torah study principle which stands on its own.
A deep figuring out of this type requires advanced study of classical Torah methods, only after which should one develop an additional level of philosophical interpretation. Whoever tries to directly replace classical study with this kind of study is condemned to shallowness and superficiality. The point is to learn from the Torah and not to find one’s own thought patterns, or those of this or that philosopher, post-facto in the Torah itself, as we clarified above.
In the yeshiva world two contradictory statements are prevalent: On the one hand there is the outlook that the Torah contains all other human wisdom. On the other hand, concerning oneself with these fields is seen as something external and is considered bittul Torah. According to the interpretation proposed here, it would appear that the main difference is in the purpose of such study. If the study of ‘outside’ intellectual fields is done in order to figure out the opinion of the Torah and to form a Torah world-view, then it is part of Torah study. If the study is merely for intellectual pleasure – ‘lehishta’ashe’a bahem’, then it is merely permitted**. Clearly there needs to be an attempt here to figure out the truth, not just playfully bring up various possibilities. The type of study that characterizes such a figuring out would have to come from Torah sources, figuring out their positions on various subjects, in a manner similar to halachic study. However since this discussion is not explicitly spelled out in the sources, it must be derived through extrapolation. We will try to demonstrate this form of study below…
*An encyclopedic description of the work of the Rogatchover can be found in the book of Rav Menahem Mendal Kasher Mefa’aneach Tzefunot. We should also add in this context the books of Rav [Moshe Avigdor] Amiel and especially Hamidot Lecheker Hahalacha [Part I, Part II, Part III – Avi/AIWAC], which also try to do something similar. Rav Amiel’s goal, as well as the Rogatchover’s, was to uncover the metaphysical assumptions at the foundations of halacha and not to figure out the metaphysical problems themselves. As such they stay closer to halachic terminology and use philosophical concepts less often. Recently a book called Iyun Belomdut by Yitzhak Adler was published which tries to do things similar to Rav Amiel, if in my opinion, somewhat artificially and with less success.
** It is known that the Rambam interprets the words of the Talmud ‘the reflections of Abayei and Rabba are a small matter, and a big matter are ma’aseh bereishit and ma’aseh mercava‘ to mean that physics and metaphysics are the pinnacle of human pursuit, and not the reflections of Abayeh and Rabba. Those who disagree with him argued that his interpretation is incorrect since he wasn’t familiar with the world of Kabbala. It should be noted that the world of Kabbala is also involved in figuring out questions which are not ones of classical Torah study, and in this respect the Rambam is right. In other ones everyone agrees that the pinnacle of Torah study is not the reflections of Abaye and Rabba on the simple level, but rather more abstract clarifications. One could argue what these clarifications involve, and what tools to use to make them…