Masorah in the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

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by Jeffrey R. Woolf

Masorah in the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l1

A Word of Introduction

Careful consideration of the subject of Masorah (Tradition) has become pressing in the past few years in light of significant, unprecedented changes to the texture of Orthodox religious life in North America and (to a lesser extent), in Israel. In addition to the formal halakhic arguments offered about specific issues, some have claimed that innovations as varied as wearing a blue thread on one’s tzitziyot (ritual fringes), the ordination of women, or the granting of aliyyot to women are a violation of Jewish Tradition, itself a weighty consideration in Halakhic discourse.

The appeal to Masorah has invariably involved invoking the authority of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l (henceforth: the Rav). To begin with, he was, directly or indirectly, the master and teacher of the overwhelming number of rabbis and communities involved in these controversies. In the words of his late, much lamented son-in-law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, for over forty years, ‘sui generis sage that he was, the Rav bestrode American Orthodoxy like a colossus, transcending many of its internal fissures.’ Hence, over three decades since he retired from the public stage, his authority and persona still carry tremendous weight in the non-Haredi Orthodox community. He remains, as it were, the ultimate legitimator of Modern Orthodoxy.

The appeal to Rav Soloveitchik’s authority is also appropriate because he actually discussed the definition of Tradition on a number of occasions, both in print and in public presentations. There is, as a result, a public record of the Rav’s ideas on this subject to which appeal can be responsibly made. Furthermore, the Rav’s discussions on the subject of Masorah were presented in both theoretical and non-theoretical contexts. Hence, they can be cross-checked for consistency.

Despite the written and oral record, most of the recent discussions of Masorah in the Rav’s thought have been seriously deficient. Those who invoke it as a limiting factor tend to wield it as an axe to cleave the heads of the opposition. In other words, Masorah is treated as a self-evident consideration which may be blankly invoked like a Presidential veto. It functions, therefore, as a type of gross argument from authority. This leads those who are treated to the weight of the argument from tradition to deny that such an institution exists in Orthodox Judaism. As I hope to show in this essay, both sides are egregiously in error on this point. Masorah, traditional usage, is very much part of halakhic tradition from its inception. However, in Rav Soloveitchik’s eyes it has very definite components and its parameters can be clearly, and carefully delineated. As the preeminent representative and exponent of the Brisker School of Talmudic analysis, arguments from blind authority were foreign to the Rav. If he adopted a position, it was carefully reasoned and thoroughly based upon his massive control of the entire corpus of Torah ‘in the widest sense of the term.’  It therefore behooves all who would invoke his authority to first carefully examine what he actually said, prior to reaching conclusions.

Prior to commencing the present discussion, one further caveat is in order. While the Rav passed away twenty-three years ago, he had already retired from the public scene some seven years earlier. This raises the question as to the relevance and force of his position on a given contemporary issue. Most of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings were offered on the level of theory. As such, ipso facto, they are a permanent part of the eternal chain of Torah and Jewish Tradition. There is no question, as with Gedolei Yisrael in every generation, that he bequeathed therein basic principles and patterns of analysis with which his disciples and their disciples can grapple with an ever-changing, dynamic universe. One must be very careful before confidently asserting that, ‘This is what Rav Soloveitchik would have said’ on any given contemporary issue. On the one hand, there were issues upon which the Rav either adopted a clear position (e.g. prayer in a synagogue that lacks the minimal requirement of separate seating), or regarding which his opinion can be confidently deduced from his words. On the other hand, there are many topics upon which the Rav did not express a straightforward position, or where his writings are equivocal. In such cases, the application of his heritage remains the sole responsibility of the individual interpreter. This is fully in line with his belief that his disciples should form their own opinions and take responsibility for them. In addition, to the best of my knowledge, the Torah’s prohibition against necromancy (Deut. 18, 11) has never been revoked.

At the same time, as noted previously, the Rav did develop clear theoretical parameters on the issue of Masorah. These principles transcend the limits of time and geography. They are there to assist those who seek guidance therefrom to brave the strong currents of contemporary life.

It is to the delineation of some of those principles that we now turn.

A Complex of Components

The Rav ztz”l discussed the concept of Masorah on a number of different occasions. A review of those discussions reveals that, for the Rav, Masorah is comprised of a number of discrete, overlapping and interlocking elements that together form an integrated conception of Jewish Tradition.2 The sum total of Masorah is not, per se, restricted to written elements of Jewish civilization (Bible, Rabbinic literature, philosophic and mystical Writings). It is actually much broader. It comprehends much that is unwritten; viz. the unstated assumptions and values that envelop and inform, fashion and channel Jewish life and observance. This interface of values and spiritual assumptions is no less authoritative for its being passed on orally.3 For that which goes without saying, usually does.

For the present purpose, however, it will suffice to zero in on a few of these salient components of Masorah. These are, in my view, the most pertinent to the type of discussion that I mentioned before.

The Rav’s most famous, and focused, discussion of the nature of Masorah is a long, passionate discourse4 that he delivered in June of 1975 to the Rabbinic Alumni of the Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University. The unnamed, though unmistakable target for his address was R. Emanuel Rackman. The latter had recently proposed that one way in which to resolve the plight of women whose husbands refused to give them a religious divorce (get) was to cease to invoke the Talmudic principle that women will settle for very difficult marital circumstances in order to remain married.5 This legal presumption of behavior (hazakah), R. Rackman suggested, reflected the status of women in Talmudic times, but could not be maintained in contemporary, modern society.6 The Rav lashed forth with an impassioned critique of R. Rackman’s suggestion (while carefully avoiding ad hominem statements).

As I hope to show, what earned Rav Soloveitchik’s ire was not so much the status of a behavioral presumption per se, as the fact that R. Rackman’s interpretation was fundamentally, and explicitly, historicist in nature.7 He objected to the reduction of the validity and authority of an essentially halakhic concept to its presumed historic sitz im leben. This, he asserted, was a violation of the methodological integrity, and axiological autonomy of Torah.8

In order to convey the theoretical basis for his objections, the Rav prefaced his remarks with a passionate and highly repercussive description of the methodology of Torah study, which he explicitly described as Masorah. When examined in light of the Rav’s broader oeuvre, it emerges that this speech incorporates many leitmotifs from his other writings. Since it is also the best known of his discussions of the subject, I believe that the most effective, and focused, way to present his ideas on the subject of Masorah is to carefully ‘unpack’ it, with reference to other passages. In order to stay within the parameters of the present forum, I will zero in on two key paragraphs.9

The Modality of Talmud Torah

The Rav opened his remarks with a description of the manner in which he, personally, experienced Torah study:

Teaching has a tremendous and very strange impact on me.  I simply feel that when I teach Torah, I feel the breath of eternity on my face… The study of Torah has a great cathartic impact upon me.  It is rooted in the wondrous experience I always have when I open up a gemara.  Somehow, when I open a gemara, either alone or when I am in company, when I teach others, I have the impression — don’t call it hallucination — I have the impression that I hear soft footsteps of somebody, invisible, who comes in and sits down with me, sometimes looking over my shoulder.  The idea is not a mystical idea — the mishnah in Avos, the gemara in Berakhos says yachid she-yoshev ve-osek ba-Torah, Shekhinah sheruyah.10 We all believe that the Nosein ha-Torah, the One who gave us the Torah, has never deserted the Torah. And He simply accompanies the Torah; wherever the Torah has a rendezvous, an appointment, a date with somebody, He is there…. 

However, Talmud Torah is more than intellectual performance.  It is a total, all-encompassing and all-embracing involvement — mind and heart, will and feeling, the center of the human personality — emotional man, logical man, voluntaristic man — all of them are involved in the study of Torah. Talmud Torah is basically for me an ecstatic experience, in which one meets G-d.

Since the study of Torah is above all an encounter with God, the result is that this spiritual reality sets the modality within which one studies.11 It is true, the Rav affirmed just prior to this, that there is a tremendous amount of room for the intellect in Torah study, and that intellectual creativity is its hallmark. However, that creativity must be undertaken in a posture of humility. As he says further on: ‘That is why Hazal stress so many times the importance of humility, and that the proud person can never be a great scholar, only the humble person.  Why is humility necessary?  Because the study of Torah means meeting the Almighty, and if a finite being meets the infinite, the Almighty, the Maker of the world, of course this meeting must precipitate a mood of humility.’

The emphasis that Rav Soloveitchik places here upon the encounter with God, and its attendant need for humility, invokes the notion of the dialectical nature of man’s encounter with God in the specific context of Talmud Torah.12 This is a theme to which he returned on many different occasions. Indeed, it is a central axis of his essay, ‘Al Ahavat ha-Torah u-Ge’ulat Nefesh Ha-Dor.’13 There, he dwells upon the double-edged character of Torah Study. On the one hand, the individual is bidden to create and dare, to aspire to intellectual greatness (gadlut mohin). On the other hand, he simultaneously is driven back to his Maker, as a child seeks the bosom of his parent (katnut mohin), and acknowledges his total dependence upon Him. The two sides of this equation balance one another. Taken alone, each can lead to very negative results.

In terms that anticipate his remarks in 1975, he observed to his interlocutor, Moshe Meisels:

American Orthodox Jews have encountered Judaism in the modes of Talmudic analysis (lamdanut), through intellectual cognition and cold logic. However, they have not merited to its living ‘sensual’ revelation; shaking and gladdening hearts. They recognize the Torah as an idea, but they do not encounter it as an unmediated ‘reality’ that can be felt by ‘taste, sight and feel.’ Owing to the lack of a ‘feel’ for Torah, many of them have an eviscerated (mesoras) approach to Torah. On the one hand, young Americans sometimes tend to outrageous extremism, terrifying in its arrogance; and frequently, they bend in the opposite direction and agree to concessions and to walking the path of least resistance. In a word, they are disoriented on the paths of Torah, and this confusion is a result of an underdeveloped world view and experience of the world.’14

The Rav expanded on the need to balance intellectual daring with humility in a series of lectures that he presented on Saturday Nights in Boston in the mid-1970’s.15 His point of departure was Maimonides’ description of the origin of avodah zarah. In the course of his discussion, he turned to Maimonides’ definition of the commandments to love God and to fear Him (ahavat HaShem and yir’at HaShem).16

And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures, and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightaway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great Name, even as David said, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42, 3). And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil frightened, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. And so David said “When I consider Your heavens, the work of your fingers- what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8, 4-5).17

Man’s relationship with God is marked by an essential, eternal contradiction. He is fascinated by His infinite wisdom, which awakens in man an unquenchable thirst to know the Creator Himself. It is a passionate, burning drive to intimacy with God, via knowledge of Him, His creations and His Torah. Yet, if love of God is a natural result of Man’s fascination with His wisdom, fear of God, recoil and retreat, is its obverse. The vastness of the cosmos, the elegant intricacies of nature, and incomprehensibly endless nature of knowledge leads Man to a painful awareness of his limitations, of his abject inability to draw nigh to the source of all wisdom. Yet, amor vincit omnia, love conquers all (or at least, tries to). Despite the humility that is rooted in the fear of God, Man redoubles his efforts and resumes his pursuit of his beloved Creator, only to be driven back by the awareness of his limitations. ‘The spiritual life of human beings,’ Rav Soloveitchik concludes, ‘like the cosmos, is the result of this dialectical movement, coming close and retreating. It means to fly toward God and fly away from Him, forward and backward…The basic principle that is responsible for existence: love of God and fear of God, [involves] moving forward and backward, advancing and retreating.’18

The balancing of these two commandments serves a constructive, formative function. Without it, the emphasis would be on love alone, or on fear alone. If the former, such a circumstance opens up the real possibility of intellectual arrogance, and of cultural and moral narcissism.19 Yet, fear of God alone is equally hazardous, as it creates a state of intellectual and religious paralysis.20

These discussions flesh out the emphasis that the Rav placed upon his belief that since the act of Torah study is identical with an encounter with God, it must generate humility on the part of the learner, even as the latter is commanded to be creative and daring in his study. Humility is, as it were, a responsible corrective to the arrogance that attends to intellectual self-reliance.21

Intellectual Humility and Deference

Having established the centrality of intellectual humility in the act of Torah study, the Rav continues:

Why is humility necessary?  Because the study of Torah means meeting the Almighty, and if a finite being meets the infinite, the Almighty, the Maker of the world, of course this meeting must precipitate a mood of humility, and humility results in surrender.  What do we surrender to the Almighty?  We surrender two things: first, we surrender to the Almighty the every-day logic, or what I call mercantile logic, the logic of the businessman or the utilitarian person, and we embrace another logic — the logic mi-Sinai.  Second, we surrender the everyday will, which is very utilitarian and superficial, and we embrace another will – the will mi-Sinai. This is not, as I told you before, just derush, or homiletics. When the Rambam explains kabbolas ‘ol malkhus Shomayim in kerias Shema…he enumerates the elements of ‘ol malkhus Shomayim: ahavaso ve-yiraso ve-talmudo…she-hu ha-ikkar ha-gadol she-ha-kol taluy bo. Talmud Torah…means kabbolas ‘ol malkhus Shomayim.  This is the reason that one must not study Torah unless one says birkas ha-Torah; this is the reason for kaddish de-rabbanan: because talmud Torah constitutes an act of surrender, of kabbalas ‘ol malkhus Shomayim, of accepting the harness of mitzvos.  It is interesting that Hazal said ‘ol malkhus Shomayim; why not kabbolas malkhus Shomayim?  Because kabbolas ‘ol malkhus Shomayim means when malkhus Shomayim is convenient, when man has the impression that malkhus Shomayim is out to promote his everyday business, when malkhus shomayim is good, is acceptable, from a purely pragmatic or purely utilitarian viewpoint.  That is why Hazal have always inserted the word ‘ol — harness.  Harness means regardless of the fact that kabbolas ‘ol malkhus Shomayim is sometimes very uncomfortable and requires of man sacrificial action, and that it is a heavy yoke.

Humility, the Rav asserts here, leads inevitably to viewing the act of Torah dtudy as an act of surrender. More specifically, it is a gesture of ‘Accepting the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven’ (kabbolas malkhus Shomayim). In this paragraph, there are two key implications to this assumption. The first, to which we will turn shortly, is the requirement not to evaluate, and a fortiori judge, the Torah from the vantage point of pragmatic, utilitarian, or popular conceptions. The Torah must be studied and evaluated on its own unique terms (viz. ‘the logic mi-Sinai’). Second, the point of departure for the one engaged in talmud Torah is precisely that sense of intellectual humility that is the direct result of defining study as an encounter with God.22 Deference to the Torah is a condition sine qua non. One undertakes Torah study, ironically, in the awareness that one will not attain absolute mastery; but one is impelled to encounter God that way.23

A bit further on the Rav expands the definition of kabbolas malkhus Shomayim, to include the a priori acceptance of the integrity and authority of the Talmud and the classical medieval commentators and authorities:

Kabbolas malkhus Shomayim — which is an identical act with talmud Torah — requires of us to revere and to love and to admire the words of the Hakhmei Ha-Masorah, be they Tannaim, be they Amoraim, be they Rishonim.  This is our prime duty.  They are the final authorities, and an irresponsible statement about Hazal borders on, I don’t like to use the word but according to Maimonides it is so, the heretic.  When the Rambam says about Tzadukim:24 Ve-‘khen ha-kofer be-ferushah ve-hu Torah she- Be-al Peh ve-ha-makh’hish magideha ke-gon Tzadok u-Baitos.25 It’s very strange, I once discussed it with my father, zikhrono le-verakhah.  Whoever denies the truthfulness or the authenticity of the Torah she- Be-al Peh is a Tzaduki.  Why did he add ve-hamakh’hish magideha — whoever denies the authority of the scholars, the Hakhmei ha-Masorah?  Apparently the Rambam says that under the category of koferim ba-Torah are classified not only those who deny the Torah she-Be-al Peh…But, moreover, even those who admit the truthfulness of the Torah she-Be-al Peh but who are critical of Hakhmei Hazal as personalities, who find fault with Hakhmei Hazal, fault in their character, their behavior, or their conduct; who say that Hakhmei Hazal were prejudiced, which actually has no impact upon the Halakhah; nevertheless, he is to be considered as a kofer. 

As will soon become evident, this addition provides a segue to his next major point, the autonomy of Halakhah and its method of interpretation, and summary rejection of historicism.26 The Rav expresses that by setting forth two inter-related ideas: 1) The absolute and exclusive authority of Hazal in the interpretation of the Oral Law 2) The religious and intellectual integrity of Hazal. Both assertions are vulnerable to historicism, and hence the Rav thought it necessary to preface his discussion with the assertion that accepting the authority of Hazal is a condition sine qua non of the Orthodox understanding of Torah and Halakhah.27

However, it is worthwhile considering these remarks in the context of the modality, or ambience, necessary for talmud Torah. In 1974, Rav Soloveitchik offered what became a famous description of how he experienced the act of teaching.28

I start the shiur, I don’t know what the conclusion will be. Whenever I start the shiur, the door opens, another old man walks in and sits down. He is older than I am. All the talmidim call me the Rav, he is older than the Rav. He is the grandfather of the Rav; his name is Reb Chaim Brisker. And without whom no shiur can be delivered nowadays. Then, the door opens quietly again and another old man comes in, he is older than Reb Chaim, he lived in the 17th century. What’s his name? Shabsai Kohen- the famous Shach- who must be present when dinei mamonos (i.e. civil law) are being discussed…And then, more visitors show up. Some lived, some of the visitors lived in the 11th century, some in the 12th century, some in the 13th century, some lived in antiquity- Rebbe Akiva, Rashi, Rabbenu Tam, the Ra’avad, the Rashba, more and more come in, come in, come in.  Of course, what do I do? I introduce them to my pupils and the dialogue commences. The Rambam says something, the Ra’avad disagrees; and sometimes he’s very nasty….A boy jumps up to defend the Rambam against the Ra’avad. A boy jumps up to defend the Rambam against the Ra’avad and the boy is fresh. You know how young boys are. He uses improper language so I correct him. And another jumps up with a new idea; the Rashba smiles gently. I try to analyze what the young boy meant, another boy intervenes, we call upon the Rabbenu Tam to express his opinion, and suddenly a symposium of generations comes into existence.29

This passage concretizes the Rav’s previous, apparently dogmatic assertion of the need for deference to Hazal and Rishonim. That deference is not merely a principle of faith. It is experiential. Taking one’s place, as he states later on in our passage, by joining the ranks of the Hakhmei ha-Masorah’ (‘The Sages who transmit the Tradition’), has four components. The first is reverence for the great sages of old, with whom contemporary students are privileged to interact (and towards whom one must always act respectfully). Second is the conviction that there is a common methodological language that unites the generations, which enables the type of cross-generational symposium that he describes. The third component, which is integrally related to the second, is that Torah study in its theoretical mode, actually transcends specific historical eras and circumstances.30 Finally, while this discussion spans generations and geography, it is also a self-contained, closed exchange.31

The Autonomy of Halakhah

Upon completing his discussion of the modality within which Torah and Halakhah should be studied, the Rav turned to the question of the method by which talmud Torah should be undertaken:

What does kabbolas ‘ol malkhus Shomayim require of the lomed ha-Torah, the person who studies Torah?  First, we must pursue the truth, and nothing else but the truth.  However, the truth in talmud Torah can only be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is attained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses, and passed on from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the Hakhmei ha-Masorah. It is ridiculous to say “I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn’t know, the Ketzos didn’t know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge; I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new.” It’s ridiculous. One must join the ranks of the hakhmei ha-Masorah: Hazal, Rishonim, gedolei ha-Aharonim — and must not try to rationalize from without the hukei ha-Torah (i.e. the laws of the Torah) and must not judge the hukim u-mishpatim in terms of the secular system of values.  Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psychologism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of Torah u-Masorah; and, it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism; no matter how good the original intentions are of the person who suggested them. 


Second, we must not yield — I mean emotionally, it is very important — we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm — usually it is a transient and passing charm — of modern political and ideological sevarot.  I say not only not to compromise — certainly not to compromise — but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex.  The thought should never occur that it is important to cooperate just a little bit with the modern trend, or with the secular, modern philosophy.  In my opinion, Yahadut (Judaism) does not have to apologize either to the modern woman or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism.  There is no need for apology — we should have pride in our Masorah, in our heritage.  And of course, certainly it goes without saying one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends. And one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient values of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.

One overarching concern emerges from these paragraphs: the autonomy and integrity of the Oral Law, generally, and of Halakhah, in particular. This axiom is a central leitmotif of Rav Soloveitchik’s writings from Ish Ha-Halakhah (1944) and on.32 It is ultimately derived from the conviction that the Torah, along with the Oral Law, are rooted in divine revelation.33 We have already seen how this dictates modality of Torah study, and how it posits deference to Tradition as the default position of the Jew. Tradition is composed of two, mutually dependent, elements: content and method.

In the case of method, by dint of its divine origin and the religious integrity of its expositors, the values and legal constructs that the Torah comprehends must, by definition, transcend time and geography (even as it must, also by definition, be applicable in every era and every location).34 It possesses its own, a priori logic, postulates, assumptions and procedures. These, in turn, interact with protean reality and elicit the Torah’s response thereto. This is the basic assumption that underlies his remarks toward the end of his 1975 Speech, to wit: We are opposed to shinuyim (changes) of course, but hiddush is certainly the very essence of Halakhah.  There are no shinuyim in Halakhah, but there are great hiddushim.  But the hiddushim are within the system, not from the outside.

What Rav Soloveitchik was driving at here, and on other occasions, is just this. The Torah, as Orthodoxy has always perceived it,35 has its own methodological and axiological integrity. It stands on its own two feet, and does not need to be validated by any other source outside of itself. It is by no means externally static, but it is internally stable and consistent.

It was precisely this deeply held axiom that prompted the Rav’s passionate reaction to R. Rackman, who maintained (or so it appeared) that Hazal’s rulings were conditioned upon a specific historical reality. Absent that reality, Halakhah becomes eminently malleable and can be freely adapted according to the will (or whim) of the interpreter. He forthrightly condemned the subjugation of Judaism to external systems of values; coercing it to conform thereto, in violation of its textual and interpretive tradition.36

Such reductionism, effectively, makes Man the judge of God’s word whether because he thinks it is passé (historicism), it doesn’t fit what we now hold to be psychologically correct (psychologism), or doesn’t give the individual the personal satisfaction s/he was expecting (religious subjectivism). On the contrary, the Jew must struggle to fulfill God’s Word, even if it is inconvenient, even if it is difficult for the most dedicated to understand.37 One certainly does not dismiss it. Such behavior is an egregious expression of intellectual hubris.38

It is in this light that the Rav’s crescendo here should be understood: ‘One…must not try to rationalize from without the hukei ha-Torah and must not judge the hukim u-mIshpatim in terms of a secular system of values.  Such an attempt, be it Historicism, be it Psychologism, be it Utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of Torah u-Masorah and, it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism.’39

Making Judaism dependent upon external systems of thought and values, denies its integrity and, effectively, eviscerates it. The Torah, at this point, becomes a mere function of transient intellectual and cultural fashion; nothing more than a Jewish decoration (as it were) upon another culture. Anything that was originally part of Judaism that does not align itself with current norms will simply be dispensed with. Ultimately, the Torah itself is easily dispensed with. After all, if one’s central values lie outside of Judaism, why make the effort to maintain it, since sentiment alone is hardly strong enough to withstand the pull of a larger culture? The inevitable result, then, is assimilation, which is simply the exchange of one identity and value system for another.

At the same time, he definitely did not advocate a blind, ‘know nothing’ or fundamentalist stance toward the outside world and its culture, and their relationship to Torah. His epistemological model, which was beautifully mapped out by my teacher, Prof. Yitzhak Twersky z’l, assumed that one should courageously enlist the full panoply of Western culture for the explication and enhancement of Judaism.40 Judaism, in the Rav’s model, creatively engages and interacts with other systems of thought and value. It is enriched and our appreciation of it deepened by that interaction. It does not, however, subordinate itself to them, or makes its validity contingent thereupon.41 The core values and institutions of Judaism, rooted in the Talmud and its literature, control and balance the manner in which outside forces and ideas impact upon (and stimulate) it.42

This is not to suggest, however, that changes in social and historical circumstances do not affect Halakhah. Obviously, they do. However, the interaction between them (and the pace of that interaction) is predicated upon the tools that Tradition itself provides. That, I believe, is what lies behind the distinction that the Rav makes later in that address between ‘change’ and ‘novel interpretation’ (hiddush).

The Rav neither believed in freezing Judaism in time, nor did he ignore the existence of historical change. While he tended to be conservative in matters of halakhic decision-making, especially in the area of synagogue ritual and liturgy, he did not mechanically rule based merely on precedent. He issued rulings based upon his massive Torah scholarship, his heightened sensitivity to the responsibility of adjudicating God’s law, his deep deference to and reverence for the titans of Torah who preceded him, and a careful evaluation both of the needs of the questioner and the integrity of the Torah.43 He was, after all, the progenitor of the revolution of Torah learning44 that has changed the face of Orthodoxy.45 However, in all such cases, he responded to change through recourse to the traditional methodology of halakhic interpretation and decision-making.

A Final Word

As I said at the outset, the Rav bequeathed a large, inspiring corpus of teachings to his students, followers and to future generations. On the issue of Masorah, which I have here attempted to begin to outline, his ideas were clear and consistent over a span of many years. We have no way of knowing what he would have said in our present circumstances. And, in a real sense, that would very much be to his liking, since he believed in qualified students making up their own minds, but only within the parameters of the timeless manner in which Torah is studied, experienced and applied, as I have outlined here. Those parameters are there for those who wish to see them. Da orayta kulah ve-idakh perushah zil gemor – that is the entire Torah and the rest is commentary, go and learn.

Jeffrey R. Woolf is Associate Professor in the Talmud Department of Bar Ilan University and Director of Bar Ilan’s Institute for the Study of Post-Talmudic Halakhah. He studied for nearly a decade with Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and received his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University. His most recent book is The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz (1000-1300): Creating Sacred Communities.
The next installment in this symposium will appear Tuesday night, May 31. See previous installments here: link

  1. My Thanks to Professor David Berger and Sheon Karol, Esq. for their comments. All responsibility for the presentation is mine. 

  2. See ‘Shenei Sugei Masoret,’ Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari Z’L, I, Jerusalem 2002, 241-261; ‘A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne,’ Tradition, 17(Spring), 73-83. Relevant recorded shiurim are, among others,,,, and

  3. Cf. Moreh Nevukhim I, 71. The centrality (and authority) of received custom in the Rav’s thought, are an important example of this element. As is well known, Rav Soloveitchik urged his students to maintain their familial practices, and not abandon them in favor of his (or anyone else’s). According to R. Herschel Schachter, and confirmed to me personally by R. Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l, there were only two cases where the Rav told his students to alter their behavior. One of these was not to tie the tefillin shel rosh with a square knot (the so-called ‘double dalet’). See H. Schachter, Nefesh HaRav, Jerusalem 1995, 105-106.

    On the idea of such an interface, see J. Woolf, The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz (1000-1300): Creating Sacred Communities, Leiden and Boston 2015, ix-xii. (The initial insight that led me to undertake that study came from the Rav’s definition of Masorah. Interestingly, many of his insights are paralleled by leading historians of the Annales school of Medieval studies, especially Jacques LeGoff and Aron Gurevitch. See, e.g., A. Gurevitch, Categories of Medieval Culture, London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1985 and J. Le Goff, History and Memory, New York: Columbia University 1992. 


  5. BT Yevamot 118b and parallels. 

  6. My student Dr. Aliza Bazak, examined the use made of this presumption by halakhic authorities over the course of half a millennium. She discovered, ironically, that prior to the post-War period Posekim overwhelmingly discussed this hazakah in two ways: 1) in order to show that it did not apply, or 2) to invoke it for the benefit of the woman. See A. Bazak, Ha-Shimush be-hezkat ‘tav le-metav’ be-si’ach ha-hilkhati ha-moderni, ‘avodah le-to’ar shlishi, Universitat Bar-Ilan, 5773. 

  7. Rav Herschel Schachter noted difficulties in the Rav’s interpretation of the presumption itself. See H. Schachter, Mi-Penine HaRav, Jerusalem 2001, 265-266.  A similar expression of exception has been quoted by close disciples in the name of R. Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l. Both registered serious question as to whether this presumption is really impervious to change as the Rav asserted. 

  8. The long, complex and nuanced relationship between Rabbis Rackman and Soloveitchik has recently been reviewed and analyzed by L. Kaplan, ‘From Cooperation to Conflict: Rabbi Professor Emanuel Rackman, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Evolution of American Modern Orthodoxy,’ Modern Judaism, 30 (2010), 46-68. 

  9. I have employed the transcription that was originally undertaken by Dr. Eitan Fiorino, and corrected by (with some added corrections of my own). 

  10. BT Berakhot 6a. 

  11. There is an echo here of themes that appear throughout the fourth chapter of R. Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayyim.  

  12. This dialectic also characterizes the way the Rav describes the relationship between Man and God, generally. The best known expression is the contrast between Adam One and Adam Two, in The Lonely Man of Faith. However, it is far from restricted thereto. See the fine discussion in R. Ziegler, Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Jerusalem 2012, 147-157. 

  13. Be-Sod Ha-Yahid ve-ha-Yahad, Jerusalem 1970, 401-432. The essay first appeared in 1960, and is one of the few major works of the Rav to be published between Ish HaHalakhah (1944) and The Lonely Man of Faith (1965). Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has been quoted as saying that this essay is the single most valuable point of entry to the Rav’s thought. See for an especially accessible, and incisive, discussion of this essay by Rabbi Meir Lichtenstein.  

  14. Ibid. 407-408 (Translation is mine-JRW). In this essay, the Rav places his main emphasis upon the need to combine intellectual study with emotional experience (a major, under-appreciated aspect of his overall message). 

  15. The shiurim are available on line, and Their substance appears in J. Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch, ed. D. Shatz et al., Jersey City 2008, 20-24. Last year, I was privileged to deliver a shiur in memory of the Rav at Bet Avi Chai in Jerusalem. Part of what ensues is based on that talk. It can be accessed in full,

  16. Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah, II:1-2. 

  17. Twersky, Maimonides Reader, 45-46 (with slight changes in the translation). 

  18. Abraham’s Journey, 24. 

  19. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Stephen Hawking ends his book, A Brief History of Time (New York 1988) with the famous assertion (which created a huge stir at the time): ‘”If we do discover a theory of everything…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God”(135).  

  20. See, J. Soloveitchik, Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah, ed. E. Clark, J. Wolowelsky and R. Ziegler, New Jersey 2007, 30-39.  

  21. Cf. H. Soloveitchik, ‘Three Themes in the Sefer Hassidim,’ AJS Review, I(1976), 339-357. 

  22. Cf. Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, IV:4-5. 

  23. This finds expression, says Rav Soloveitchik, in the obligation to preface Torah study with the recitation of Birkat HaTorah. He expounded upon this point in his shiurim on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim in 5742; when discussing, Taz, Orah Hayyim Sec. 47 s-p. 1. See also ‘Be-Inyyan Birkat ha-Torah,’ Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari, II. 

  24. Or, Sadducees. The Sadducees were the emblematic opponents of the Oral Law. See Hil. Mamrim III, 1-2 and the superb discussion in Y. Blidstein, Samkhut u-Meri be-Hilkhot Ha-Rambam: Perush Nirhav le-Hilkhot Mamrim I-IV, Tel Aviv 2002. 

  25. Hil. Teshuvah 3, 8: ’Who is a heretic?…One who denies its interpretation, which is the Oral Law, and one who denies its bearers (or, tradents), such as Tzadok and Baitos.’  

  26. Historicism is the interpretation of ideas, among other things, as necessarily being a direct result of specific historical circumstances. It rejects the position that ideas exist independent of their context. As a result, it tends strongly to reject the notion that ideas have core meanings that transcend the generations. The result is that changing circumstances and sensibilities must by definition alter the meaning and relevance of ideas and beliefs. Everything is, again by definition, relative and in flux. As will be noted further on, the conditional nature of ideas is rendered even more unstable by virtue of the fact that the historical reconstructions upon which ideas and cultures are evaluated are themselves, based upon conjecture, theory and the weight of evidence available at any given time.  

  27. There is nothing, per se, revolutionary in the Rav’s remarks here. The primacy of the Babylonian Talmud is a given of Halakhah. The intellectual and religious integrity of Hazal is essential to the credibility of the Oral Law and its transmission. Indeed, this was a major issue between Karaites and Rabbinites. See, respectively, J. Woolf, ‘The Parameters of Precedent in Pesaq Halakha,’ Tradition, 27(1993), 41-48 and D. Sklare, Samuel Ben Hofni Gaon and His Cultural World: Texts and Studies, Leiden and Boston 1996. 

  28. The audio is available See T. Pittinsky, The Role of Teacher and Student in Jewish Education According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,’ Ten Daat, 8 (available 

  29. The presentation is rooted in R. Soloveitchik’s ubiquitous message that Jewish time-consciousness conflates past, present and future. It underlies, for example, his discussions of Pesach, Hanukkah, Purim and Tisha B’Av. See J. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition, ed. D. Shatz et al., New Jersey 2003; idem, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah, ed. J. Wolowelsky and R. Ziegler, New Jersey 2006; and idem, Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah, ed. E. Clark et al., New Jersey 2007. I discuss this, in extensor (with references) in J. Woolf, ‘Time Awareness as a Source of Spirituality in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,’ Modern Judaism, 32(2012), 54-75 

  30. See L. Kaplan, ‘Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophy of Halakhah,’ Jewish Law Annual, VII(1988), 139-197.  

  31. While he does not address it here, the dilemma that is raised by undertaking halakhic decision-making (yirat hora’ah) is directly relevant to the question of deference to earlier authorities. Deference to the collective decisions of the generations, regarding the acceptance or rejection of a specific opinion, is part and parcel of this subject. See, Kesef Mishneh ad Hil. Mamrim 2, 1 and R. Moshe Feinstein’s introduction to Iggerot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, I, New York 1959. See also Woolf, ‘The Parameters of Precedent,’ passim. 

  32. His major published essay in pure philosophy, The Halakhic Mind (New York, 1988) is almost entirely devoted to this point. See Ziegler, Majesty and Humility, 334-344. 

  33. I do not know how Rav Soloveitchik interpreted statements such as ‘Everything that a veteran student was destined to interpret was revealed to Moses at Sinai,’ (VaYikra Rabbah, Parashat Aharei Mot, parashah 22 par. 1) or the enigmatic description of Moses’ visit to the Beit Midrash of R. Akiva (Menahot 29b). 

  34. On a number of occasions, Rav Soloveitchik called this the ‘Fourteenth Principle of Faith.’ 

  35. For these purposes, Jacob Katz’ point that Orthodoxy is a modern creation is absolutely irrelevant. For here there is substantive continuity between pre-modern Judaism and post-Emancipation Orthodoxy. See, e.g., J. Katz, ‘Shilton Ha-Halakhah Ha-Mesortit Le-Halakhah u-le-Ma’aseh,’ Halakhah ve-Kabbalah, Jerusalem 1984, 237-254. 

  36. See the important discussion by Prof. David Berger in “Texts, Values, and Historical Change: Reflections on the Dynamics of Jewish Law.”  In Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold and Tamra Wright, Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 201-216 

  37. This speaks to another central theme in the Rav’s thought, that there is a strong sacrificial element in Jewish life. See, e.g., “Sacred and Profane, Kodesh and Chol in World Perspective,” Gesher, 3(1966), 5-29 and the remarks by R. Aharon Lichtenstein,

  38. As I was completing this essay, my colleague and friend, R. Yoni Rosenzweig formulated this point perfectly ( (1) The laws in the Torah were given by Hashem. As such they are axioms. It is impossible to question those axioms, or else the entire system falls apart – as in any system.

    (2) Halakhic logic is internal, not external. In order to evaluate the correctness of a halakhic claim, it must be analyzed using its own terminology, not terminology which is foreign to that specific field. Just as an aesthetic analysis would be foreign to an evaluation of a scientific theory, so too psychological or historical approaches to Halakhah are invalid as a first port of call. They are, of course, important in providing a secondary insight, but cannot govern one’s entire approach….(4) Precedent. Like any system of law, precedents are important, and halachic change works in accordance with them. Not only the laws themselves need to make sense, but the way they are grown and made to adapt also needs to make sense. The way Halakhah is ruled is just as important as what halakhah is practiced.

    Halacha is a complex system, and while it sometimes may seem arbitrary, I think we need to understand that this portrayal is erroneous. Just as people have respect for science even though they are not privy to the entire process and do not understand what scientists do, we need to have respect for the Halachic process, understand it is a complex system, put our trust in it, and strive to learn about it to the best of our abilities. 

  39. It is important to emphasize that this is the central element of Rav Soloveitchik’s famous critique of Korach Some have asserted that this is rooted in his critique of Conservative Judaism. That is only partially correct. By the time he delivered his lecture about Korach, the existential threat to Orthodoxy from the Conservative movement had receded considerably. The Rav was concerned with pegging the basic principles of Judaism, especially Halakhah, to historicist relativism. This concern was not (and is not) limited to non-Orthodox denominations. If there is an echo of his active criticism of Conservative and Reform Judaism here, it is rooted in the fact that both (especially the former) are explicitly historicist in their self-definition. 

  40. ttp:// A few years ago, contra claims that the Rav withdrew from secular studies in his later years, Rav Lichtenstein noted that in the mid-1980’s his father-in-law discussed his plans to write about the Book of Bemidbar. In order to do so, however, the Rav noted that it would be necessary to take into consideration the writings of certain Christian theologians. (I cannot find the exact reference, but Rav Lichtenstein’s comments are contained in one of his famous at the Gruss Center.)  

  41. See W. Kobrener, ‘Into the Whirlwind: The Persistence of the Dialectic in the Works of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,’ Tradition, 40(2007), 78-95

  42. In the 1975 speech, the Rav characterized contemporary Western society as ‘neurotic.’ On a number of different occasions, he discerned the wave of moral and cultural relativism that would later sweep the West. I suspect that this is the reason why he mentioned the danger of nihilism here.  

  43. This point is inherently related to another aspect of creative activity within the internal dynamic of Masorah, according to the Rav: the role of intuition on the part of the posek. In a recently published responsum, he states that ‘in all fields of human intellectual endeavor there is always an intuitive approach which determines the course and method of the analysis.’ ‘On Drafting Rabbis and Rabbinical Students for the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplaincy,’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, ed. N. Helfgott, New Jersey 2005, 24.

    In line with the above, I received from my friend Sheon Karol, the following report about remarks that the Rav made to a group of graduate students (many of whom were not observant) at Yeshiva University in the late 1970’s, which he attended: ‘A student asked how the Rav could justify limits on women’s role in communal prayer and other feminist issues despite a lack of explicit sources.  The Rav responded that the Ba’alei ha-Masorah have an intuitive feeling for Halakhah and their intuition is a valid source of authority. The Rav compared the Masters of the Masorah in this respect to one of the greatest astronomers of whom it was said that “he had the stars at his fingertips”.’ The Rav made a similar point regarding the intuitive intimacy between great Torah scholars and the Torah, in his eulogy for his uncle, the Brisker Rov ztz”l, ‘Mah Dodekh mi-Dod,’ Divrei Hagut ve-Ha’arakha, Jerusalem 1982, 70-82. At the same time, though, the intuition of the posek must be backed by logical argument and marshal the arguments required by halakhic discourse. This is not, therefore, an argument on behalf of an unsubstantiated mode of da’at Torah, neither is it a capacity to which every person can lay claim.

    [Some may find the idea of intuition in legal reasoning to be problematic, even authoritarian. However, in other fields it is often noted that great minds, who are immersed in their fields, intuit the direction that these should proceed and can show the signs of that progression. I recall that my teacher, the late Prof. Nachum N. Glatzer, once remarked that in matters historical, Prof. Fritz Baer had an intuitive grasp for Jewish history, and the same was true of Prof. Saul Lieberman regarding rabbinic literature. And, on a more popular level, the massive admiration for the fictional TV medical genius, Gregory House, was largely based on that very quality.]   


  45. In this connection, it is important to note Rav Lichtenstein’s bold, yet nuanced discussion of feminism, women’s Talmud study and their implications. On the one hand, he emphatically (quoting the Rav in this connection) stood behind the overwhelming good that results from women attaining the widest Torah education possible. On the other hand, when asked about the broader implications of this position, he demurred by saying that he does not know what posekim will say about women’s authority (samkhut nashim) in another thirty years. He does, however, know that it is important for women to know Torah. In light of everything we know, it is very reasonable to assume that the Rav could have easily endorsed his son-in-law’s sentiments. See H. Sabato, Mevakshei Panekha, Tel Aviv 2011, 165-178. The last point is on page 177.  

About Jeffrey Woolf

Jeffrey R. Woolf is Associate Professor in the Talmud Department of Bar Ilan University and Director of Bar Ilan's Institute for the Study of Post-Talmudic Halakhah. He studied for nearly a decade with Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and received his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University. His most recent book is The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz (1000-1300): Creating Sacred Communities.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this article.

    I still don’t quite understand the distinction, concretely, between halacha being affected by social and historical changes, and the shinuim that are not from within that the Rav opposes ?

    For example, what is the difference between Rabbi Rackman’s suggestion about the status of women to solve the agunah problem, and Rav Moshe Feinstein’s psak on chalav nochri ? In both cases, the application of halacha changes because the historical reality that mandates the previous application of halacha has evolved ? Or did the Rav disagree with Rav Moshe’s psak ?

    I am not trying to make a point, just candidly asking.

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