Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Yeshivot and General Philosophy

[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…


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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9 Responses to Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Yeshivot and General Philosophy

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  2. fred says:

    this, like others before, is a little too dense for me.

    1. again, can we *please* define machshava? without a clear definition any further conversation is pointless.
    2. ultimately, the rambam was not successful at harmonizing aristotelian thought with torah; what makes anyone think we can do better today?
    3. for 800 years the name of the game is talmud, and talmud study has been pursued almost exclusively at the expense of philosophy, certainly in the dominant ashkenazi world. do you really think it is best to challenge the longtime reigning pedagogical hegemony at this point?
    4. to a limited extent, machshava/hashkafa [sigh] has been incorporated into halakha. in this sense it has been ‘halakhified.’ in a related development, leibtag has lamented how in yeshivas tanach has been ‘lomdusified’ wherein nach is not studied as nach, but as part of toshba.
    5. are you really so sure that the rogotchovers foundation for his torah lies predominantly on the moreh nevuchim? this claim strikes me as grandiose and simplistic.
    6. whatever rambam said about the smallness of abbayes conversation, it would seem he spent a great deal of his very precious time on these dialogues. maybe we should stick to this formula too?

  3. AIWAC says:

    OK, first of all, keep in mind that this post is a translation of someone else’s opinion, not neccesarily my own. I don’t neccesarily agree with what is said, but I thought it important to bring his position to the table. I will try my hardest to make sure that the review essay (in my own words) will be as clear as possible. That said, let me see if I can respond:

    1. I though Rav Avraham put it really well. Machshava is simply the ‘why’ questions regarding Judaism – from theism to the rationale of halacha and minhagim as well as principles, ethics &c.

    2. Is this the unanimous conclusion of scholarship or just the position of the Straussians? If it is the former, then you may be right in your skepticism. If the latter, then perhaps we should be more hopeful.

    3. Yes, because far too many people in yeshivot are bothered by the ‘why’ questions (be they regarding philosophy or the rationale behind halachot). Rav Avraham himself has said elsewhere that youth that come to him with questions tend to be davka from yeshivot that forbid it. This is to say nothing of the multitude of frum adults who become RBOs later in life because they have no tools to deal with challenges.

    Besides, this isn’t really a challenge. Rav Avraham is not advocating replacing lomdut, indeed he is against the idea, but rather taking advanced students and having them move one step beyond.

    4. If so, then why is what Rav Avraham is suggesting such a problem?

    5. Again, these are not my words. I am not familiar with the Rogatchover; any content criticisms need to be directed at the author himself.

    6. Again, we are not talking about replacing it, but adding to it and enriching it.

    Hope this helps


  4. fred says:

    re 3:
    a] i think this is coming around to issues we have discussed before. are there any real answers to the great theological/theodical ‘whys’? i am afraid of rational belief in god because you are limiting god to your own capabilities, borderline heresy in my book [cf. y. liebowitz, and possibly chazon ish], and if you later find a proof to the contrary you are in religious trouble. cant we just go with, ‘thats how it is, life isnt fair, it never was, and far greater people than you and me have lived with it and made their peace with it’? overall, that has worked for me, or at least allowed me to sleep at night. usually. i find this approach is best if you are a theological minimalist — that is, you believe in the basics [say, creation, sinaitic revelation and ultimate reward and punishment], and see the rest as optional. it helps keep you out of trouble.
    b] and of course he would get questions from the bachurim in yeshivas where they cannot ask why; the guys from other yeshivas have responses locally. i only hope that those answers stand the test of time and critical thought, or you are inviting some serious cognitive dissonance and/or rejection.
    c] rbos?

  5. AIWAC says:


    Read the passage again. Rav Avraham is actually pointing out that merging philosophy and halacha is much, much more than just the ‘big questions’ of metaphysics nowadays (BTW, you may be right that it’s best to be ‘theological/metaphysical minimalist’; I happen to be a RYBS fan when it comes to theodicy). It has long since expanded into fields that are more down-to-earth like law, language, ethics &c. Surely this field is more manageable. It can deeply enrich understanding of halachot and minhagim and the underlying world and assumptions of the world of mitzvot and toshba. A person who does this can come away a much more powerful connection with God and his Torah than those who simply act by rote because of social convention.

    Not every engagement with philosophy is a theological mine-field, only some are. This is why, according to Rav Avraham, the ‘conversion’ must be a critical one which probably operates a number of filters to ensure we seperate the wheat from the chaff.

    Regarding rationalist ‘proofs/arguments’ for God/metaphysical discussion: I’ll get to this in depth in my review essay later next week, but the jist of Rav Avraham’s argument in his book is that these questions do not fall under rationalist (i.e. formal logic and analysis) rules but rather ‘synthetic-apriori’ foundational axioms (through internal recognition/epistmology, intuition &c). I believe, though I’m not sure, that ‘converting’ philosophy has much more to do with using these methods as a tool for unlocking and clarifying the philosophical foundations of halacha.

    I do not support opening a constant ‘theological’ pandora’s box of permanent doubt about the major issues and I don’t believe Rav Avraham is either. He is simply saying that we should deal with this stuff on our own terms, to the extent that we can, rather than leave the whole playing field to heretics.

    RBO = Religious Burnout; a frum Jew who has a religious crisis and decides to completely shut down his mind to prevent the questions he has from making him into a heretic.

    I very much sympathize with your concerns. Please understand that the purpose of these posts is to search for ways not only to cope with problems but also to get out of the quagmire and restart religious growth. I’m trying to help; you may disagree with me, but I am not trying to destroy Orthodox Judaism; quite the opposite – I want to help rejuvenate it. I want to move from a world where everyone is divided into the cynical/ironic and the fundamentalist bullies. I believe there are healthier ways to be an Orthodox Jew in the modern world. This is what this blog is all about.

    Shabbat Shalom

    Avi Woolf/AIWAC

  6. fred says:

    as always, a lot to think about.
    first, i know that you have judaisms best interests at heart; this is clear from your every post. [tangent: as a rule, i think the same is true for all but the most extreme leftists. their positions and vision of israel may be radically different from mine, and even destructive, but they love israel and the jewish people just the same. i wish more people felt this way.]
    maybe its my education, my english, or my concrete-ness, but i just dont understand a lot of the terms thrown around: metaphysics, “‘synthetic-apriori’ foundational axioms (through internal recognition/epistmology.” im lost. care to explain, maybe with examples, or use simpler english?

    i am also not sure orthodoxy really needs rejuvenation. the overall dropout rate from those who started out strongly committed [not chafif, lite, what have you] seems to be relatively low.
    i also wonder about the dogmatic-cynical [perhaps rosh yeshiva-turned-off former yeshiva guy?] divide. i think the silent majority of balebatim, the real force behind this religion, is doing okay. and i think there is place for cynicism in orthodoxy. [bullying, not so much.]
    i also wonder about rbos. many may just have a headache dealing with issues that have no ultimate answers, and, to a great and honorable degree, are just going on faith, simple and pure. they just want to get on with their lives…

    an example of halachification of philosophy/aggada: israel is ‘the heighest of all lands.’ chazon ish applies this to where to situate the international date line. i do not think this is what avraham has in mind; i am not sure exactly what he does have in mind…

  7. AIWAC says:


    Terms like metaphysics, axioms &c will be explained in my review essay next week. Patience, grasshopper :).

    I agree that baaleibatim tend to get by as best they can, but we cannot ignore the fact that the ideological forces at the margins (which often indirectly determine the direction of the ‘silent majority’), are divided thus. See, for instance, the debates on Hirhurim whenever a question of halachic/hashkafic challenges is raised. It’s very disheartening to watch (I’m thinking of stopping altogether).

    But even if we just focus on baaleibatim, I’d like to find ways to help them grow as well. This conception that Jewish education and growth stops at high school/yeshiva/college and then you use up what you have does not seem very healthy to me. Judaism is a life-long journey; it should not have to be just about ‘getting by’.

    Shabbat Shalom


  8. Pingback: Interesting Book Alert: Rav Dr. Michael Avraham on Religion and Evolution | QED

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