The Rav on Remaining True to Ourselves

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Knowing when to conform to one’s moral, intellectual, and social milieu, and when to stand against it, is a difficult and complex issue for the contemporary Orthodox Jew. Fortunately we are not the first generation to face this problem, and thus we can benefit from seeing how those who preceded us responded to the challenge in their time. What follows is a summary of one such response, articulated more than fifty years ago.

In 1958, American Orthodoxy was very much on the cultural defensive. Torah-observant Jews often lived a lonely and daunting life in the face of widespread secularism, Non-Orthodox communal dominance, and widespread dismissal of the values and practices of the Halachic mesorah presented in the name of science and various academic disciplines. At the time, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”), himself the recipient of a Ph.D. in modern philosophy, was giving weekly Gemara shiurim (lectures) at the Moriah synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sometimes followed by incisive comments and observations on American Jewish life. Unfortunately, because they were delivered in Yiddish, they remain largely unknown and inaccessible to many of our contemporaries.

What follows is a summary, certainly not a verbatim transcript, of the main ideas delivered at the conclusion of a shiur on Berachot 36a, that followed the Rav’s halachic analysis of the passage regarding the Borei Pri ha-Eitz blessing on fruits. The Yiddish audio of the Spring 1958 lecture can be found here (and located in the final 20 minutes of the lecture).

We learn important moral and hashkafic lessons from the Halachah, not just from the Midrash. Thus regarding the correct blessing over a fruit that has been processed, the Gemara Berachot 36a posits the principle that as long as be-milta kai, i.e., tzurat ha-pri kayemet (i.e. some of the original fruit remains visibly intact), one recites borei pri ha-eitz. If not, one recites (depending on whose view in the Gemara one follows) either borei pri ha-adamah or she-hakol.

Herein lies an important lesson. The status of fruit grown on a tree is particularly significant, as the Torah compares man to trees. (See for instance “For man is like the tree of the field… (Deut. 20:19) and “he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water that brings forth its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither…” Psalms 1:3) The Sages often use the same metaphor. In what respect is man like a tree?

Without a strong connectedness to their foundations they will not themselves flourish and in time will not produce future generations who will remain true to their past in turn

What is special about the tree is that it cannot survive over time if it is severed from its roots. A healthy fruit-bearing tree is always well-grounded and attached to its stock. So too with people: if they are to reach their fullest fruit-bearing potential, they must always be spiritually and emotionally connected to the roots from which they have grown, which, being grounded in the soil, provide ongoing nourishment and strength. Without a strong connectedness to their foundations, without remaining recognizably true to their formative sources, they will not themselves flourish and in time will not produce future generations who will remain true to their past in turn.

So it is too with Jews and Yiddishkeit. We are like trees that can flourish and bear fruit only to the extent that we remain faithful to our roots and as long as we refuse to embrace that which is alien to our tradition. This is the key to being able to produce future generations who will be able to retain the essential tzurat ha-pri of Yiddishkeit.

The Gemara in Berachot 6b states “What is a krum? It is a bird whose feathers change colors depending on the sunlight.” It seeks to survive in a predatory and constantly changing world by adopting colors that conform to the milieu of the moment. So too, we might say, many Jews, particularly in America, are like the krum: whether from conviction or convenience their religious and intellectual identities constantly adapt to the dominant ideology and fashion. Rather than being true to themselves and their roots, they fall under the excessive influence of the surrounding culture at the expense of their connection to the Torah. Of course, one should always strive to grow and develop and even change – but never in a way that negates one’s essence as a Jew rooted first and foremost in the Torah. This requires that we know when to take from, and adapt to, the surrounding culture and when to resist absorbing any of its influences and be true to ourselves.

A person is true to himself when he is faithful to the Torah and tradition, and faithfully upholds their fundamental principles, albeit in ways that reflect his unique persona

I was very young when I came to America and various people gave me advice how to be an effective Rabbi and teacher by following the example of this or that successful person. They meant well of course but had I followed their advice, I would not be what I am today. Of course I am nothing, but the little that I am is because I refused to change my persona. God has given each of us a unique identity, and to the extent that we are faithful to it we will be fulfilled. Why then do we see so many unsuccessful and frustrated Jews despite God’s promise that we will each be richly rewarded? It is because in developing themselves they did not remain faithful to their roots, to their true selves. My father, who was my real teacher, taught me this lesson. When I was young and we would learn Gemara together, I would repeat his words exactly, only to have him tell me “if you simply repeat what I said you will never be a lamdan – you have to explain it in your own words.” In other words, a person is true to himself when he is faithful to the Torah and tradition, and faithfully upholds their fundamental principles, albeit in ways that reflect his unique persona.

I have students in the Yeshiva who have sharp minds and who can repeat my shiurim verbatim, exactly the way I gave them. But of what use is that? It is only when I hear them using their own formulations that I can tell if they truly understood what I said. Education is more than just repeating the rebbe’s words. Simple repetition, Rabbeinu Bachya (in Duties of the Heart, Service of God ch. 4) says, is like a chamor nosei sefarim, an ass bearing many books, i.e., one who reads but does not truly absorb what he reads. Much to be preferred is the one of whom Chazal say torato be-toch mei’av, “the Torah is in his intestines,” i.e., he has not only swallowed the words of the Torah, he has digested and fully absorbed them.

This is especially true when it comes to preserving Yahadut from one generation to the next. I knew a lot of fine and learned Jews who came to America from Europe. They did not lack in yirat Shamayim or in learning, yet they were not successful in transmitting Yiddishkeit to their children. Why? Because, like the bird that constantly changes its color, they submitted to the pervasive influences of the larger American culture. It was entirely understandable. After all, forty or fifty years ago in America there was a pervasive skepticism regarding all spiritual matters, especially Yahadut and the Talmud. This affected them and they themselves were changed. Had they instead remained faithful to Yahadut, had they not subjected themselves so much to the influence of their milieu, the Jew would today be facing a different reality in America.

As opposed to their fate, I also knew a number of simple Jews – butchers, carpenters, shoemakers, and the like, who knew very little, some of whom having davened every day for 60 years still were unable to read Hebrew well. Yet their children remained faithful to Yiddishkeit – because they were faithful to their Torah roots, with a strong sense of their uniqueness as Jews. Like them, each of us must be ourselves, avoiding any manifestation of an “inferiority complex”, while resisting the urge to be mitatef betalit she-eino shelo, i.e. covered in garments that are not ours.

In short, as the verse says, we should strive to be like a tree, so rooted in the past that even as we grow and develop we can produce fruit that will not lose its tzurah, its unique identity, remaining consistently recognizable and true to itself and to the Torah.

Shir Hashirim compares Israel to the tapuach be-atzei ha-ya’ar, (“a citrus among the trees of the forest” Song of Songs 2:3). How can this be – after all, citrus trees do not grow in forests, but in fields? The answer is simple. The verse is speaking of the small Jewish people that finds itself in an alien environment, surrounded by larger nations. It obstinately refuses their enticements to imitate them and take on their ways. Rather than directing its resources into growing large and powerful, its priority is to be true to its past, and committed to producing future generations who will reflect all that came before.

R. Akiva explained the phrase mah dodech mi-dod asher hishbatanu (“What is your beloved more than another, that you so resist us?” Song of Songs 5:9) as referring to the nations that seek to entice the Jew to follow in their ways by promising acceptance, riches, honor, aristocracy, and the like. But the Jew refuses to heed them, and instead chooses a way that is true to himself and to the Torah.

Thus do we preserve our unique tzurat ha-pri, ke-tapuach be-atzei ha-ya’ar, as a unique and rooted fruit-producing tree, in the midst of the trees of the forest.

These comments of the Rav bear particular resonance when we consider recent trends and developments within the Orthodox community. It is not only in the second decade of the 21st Century that Orthodoxy finds itself challenged to take principled stands against passing but alluring cultural fashions and politically correct thought and behavior. Throughout history, Jews have exhibited great courage in rejecting intellectual or cultural nostrums that, while they appeared to be intellectually or morally compelling, contradicted the Torah. Sometimes it was necessary to say “our way is the way of the Torah, even if we cannot now understand it fully. In time we will understand.” Of course, there were also times we were prepared to reinterpret the Torah’s teachings, but always in a way that preserved the essentials of Torah belief and halachic practice.

The Orthodox challenge is to strike the right balance between these competing priorities. No one should think that it is a simple task. Yes, we are part of the culture of modernity, but no, we are not defined by it. Rather, it is our roots that make us what we are. The litmus test for the correctness of our intellectual, spiritual, and behavioral choices will depend, as they always have, on the tzurat ha-pri, the degree to which our offspring in generations to come will adhere to our Mesorah (tradition).

Every few years, it seems, a different challenge to traditional thought presents itself in its own alluring fashion. To cite but a few instances, in generations past it might have been a dominating Christianity or Islam, or a self-assured Communist atheism. Today it might be a gender and sexual “everything goes” value-system, or an opposition to established religious text and authority, or a wholesale rejection of religious and cultural separatism in favor of cultural homogeneity, or a rampant materialism.

We must embrace only that which is truly in harmony with the timeless values and essential life-nourishing practices that our Mesorah embodies and teaches

Times have, indeed, changed since the Rav spoke in 1958. However, the moral challenge remains remarkably similar, as does the proper response. If I understand the Rav correctly, he is saying that the Orthodox task is to avoid a simplistic either/or response. Rather, as thinking Jews committed to the Sinai Mesorah, we must carefully consider and examine the intellectual and cultural mores of the world around us, absorbing what is undoubtedly true and good, but also remaining acutely aware that what is fashionable today might not be so tomorrow in the light of realities yet to be discovered. We must separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, and embrace only that which is truly in harmony with the timeless values and essential life-nourishing practices that our Mesorah embodies and teaches.

It is not an easy path and there are no simple formulae. At a time when, religiously speaking, so many choose extremism and one-dimensionality, our path requires ever greater Torah study, faithfulness to tradition, intellectual courage, personal humility, heartfelt prayer, and siyata di-shmaya (divine assistance). It also requires nuanced and informed guidance by our teachers, mentors, and halachic authorities. And if it will require that we take the road less travelled by our contemporaries, Jewish or otherwise, to the left or to the right, we will need to evince the courage of heart and fortitude of spirit of those who came before us, and upon whose giant shoulders we are privileged to stand.

About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is the editor of the recently published Avodat Halev Siddur of the Rabbinical Council of America.

8 comments

  1. Dear Rabbi Herring, Thank you for your exquisite presentation of the Rav’s thoughts. Simply because I have collected a number of quotations on similar lines, I thought I would share them with you and other readers. 1. MAN AS EVERYTHING AND NOTHING
    Rabbi Simcha Bunem [used to say]: Everyone should have two pockets. In one he should have a slip of paper which reads, ‘For my sake the world was created’. In the other, he should have a slip of paper which reads, ‘I am dust and ashes’. There are times when he should take out one slip and times when he should take out the other. The wise will know when.

    2. FOR MY SAKE THE WORLD WAS CREATED
    [Only one person was originally created] for the sake of peace among human beings, so that a man should not say to his fellow, “My father is greater than your father…”
    And also to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, praised be He. If a human being stamps several coins with the same die, they all resemble one another. But the King of kings, the Holy One, praised be He, stamps all human beings with the same die of the first man; and yet not one of them is identical with another.
    Therefore every individual is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created!”

    (Mishna Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5)

    3. WHY WEREN’T YOU ZUSYA?
    Rav Zusya of Hanipol used to say ‘When I get to heaven, G-d won’t ask me “Zusya, why weren’t you Moses?”. He’ll ask me, “Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?”.

    4. UNIQUE SERVICE
    Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the ‘Seer’ of Lublin: ‘Show me one general way to the service of God.’
    The Tzaddik replied: ‘It is impossible to tell men what way they should take. For one way to serve God is through learning, another through prayer, another through fasting, and still another through eating. Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose this way with all his strength’.

    The Maggid of Zlotchov was asked by a hasid: ‘We are told: “Everyone in Israel is duty bound to say: When will my work approach the works of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” How are we to understand this? How could we ever venture to think that we could do what our fathers did?
    The Rabbi expounded: ‘Just as our fathers found new ways of serving, each a new service according to his character: one the service of love, the other that of stern justice, the third that of beauty, so each one of us in his own way shall devise something new in the light of teachings and of service, and do what has not yet been done.’

    (Martin Buber, The Way of Man)

    5. GOD VALUE’S EACH PERSON
    The Talmud (Berachot Page 58a) teaches that one must bless the Almighty upon seeing a great number of Jewish people. The blessing refers to God as ‘hakham ha-razim – the One who understands the root and inner thoughts of each person’. Although the significance of each individual may seem to be lost in the crowd, God values each person separately. “Their thoughts are not alike and their appearances are not alike”.

    (Marc Angel, Loving Truth & Peace p. xvii)

    6. REACHING POTENTIAL
    Adam HaRishon’s tragedy was the failure to realize his vast potential. Avraham Avinu’s triumph was that he did. The Akiedah occurred when Avraham was already 137 years old. By that time, Avraham had introduced monotheism to the world; he and Sarah had brought many under the wings of the Divine Presence; he stood on one side while all the rest of the world stood on the other, and by so doing, revolutionized human society; he had been thrown into a fiery furnace and emerged unscathed; he had been tested nine times by Hashem and prevailed in each of those tests.
    And yet Avraham has still not reached his full potential nor had he stopped striving. Without the tenth and final test, without the command to kill his son, his only son from Sarah, the son whom he loved and in whom all his hopes were placed, Avraham would not have realized all the potential with which he was brought down to the world. Only as he raised the knife to slaughter Yitzchak was his life’s mission complete. At that moment, the angel called out, “Avraham, Avraham,” and the Yalkut Shimoni comments that the reference is to the two Avrahams—the one who exists as a potential in Heaven and the one who exists in this world. At that moment, the two Avrahams had achieved the goal for which we were all created—that of bringing the Avraham below into conformity with the ideal Avraham above.
    (Rabbi Yissochor Frand in Print pgs. 24-25)

    7. YOUR TORAH
    In the Gemara Avodah Zara Page 19a we are told that one should always study those parts of Torah that their heart desires. This principle is learnt from Tehillim 1:2 which reads “If his delight is in the Torah of Hashem, then in his Torah he shall meditate day and night”. The gemara interprets this verse to mean: If you delight to learn specific parts of G-d’s Torah, then through your study it will become your Torah. The Maharal explains this Gemara further and tells us that the reason why we desire certain parts of Torah is because we have an automatic link with that part of Torah.

    8. YOUR MITZVAH
    The Mishna in Makkot (3:16) tells us “Rabbi Chananiah ben Akashia says: The Holy One, Blessed is He, wished to confer merit upon Israel; therefore he gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance, as it is said “Hashem desired, for the sake of its (Israel’s) righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious [Isaiah 42:21].
    The famous question asked is, surely if Hashem wanted to confer merit on Israel, he should have given us less Torah and mitzvot to keep. The answer given by the Rambam in his Peirush HaMishnayot is: It is a fundamental principle of our faith found in Torah that if a person were to fulfil one mitzvah of the 613 mitzvot appropriately and as directed and did not associate with it any intention for material benefit, rather performed the mitzvah lishma and out of love, s/he will merit the world to come. Thus Rabbi Chananiah stated that due to the abundance of mitzvot it is impossible that a person would be unable to fulfil in all of his/her life one of these precepts to its fullest and thus gain life after death from that very action. And from what we learn from this principle, the question of Rabbi Chaninah Ben Tradiyon “Will I attain life in the next world?” [Talmud Avodah Zara Page 18a] and the response being “Did no action come to you?”. That is, have you ever performed a mitzvah appropriately [ie. fully]? He answered that he had tried to fulfil the mitzvah of tzedakah as best he could. For this reason he merited the world to come. And the explanation of the verse is that G-d desired to merit [His people] Israel, and because of this He made the Torah great and glorious.

    The Talmud (Megillah 27b-28a) records that numerous elderly Amoraim (rabbis of the Talmud) were asked ‘On account of which [meritorious practise] have you attained longevity?’ Each of them mentioned a trait they had practised for years, which they felt was responsible for their long life. For example, Rav Preida said ‘In all my days, no one ever came to the study hall before me’. Rav Elazar ben Shamua said ‘In all my days, I never used a synagogue as a shortcut [to get from one street to another]’. Rav Zeira said ‘In all my days, I never showed anger in my house’. Rav Nechunya ben Hakanah said ‘In all my days, I never derived honour from the shame of another person’. Twenty other amoraim gave reasons for their longevity…
    Rabbi Yechezkel Munk, Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivas Telshe in Cleveland, noted that the commentators find a common denominator in the replies of all the amoraim. Each one of them prefaced his words by saying ‘In all my days’, indicating that they were consistent in their behaviour. The primary virtue was this constancy in never deviating from a practise they undertook. Their long lives resulted more from their never having deviated from their noble traits than from the traits themselves.
    …Interestingly, Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid writes (Sefer Chassidim, note 210): “If you see a talmid chacham who enjoys longevity, know that he has accepted upon himself [seemingly] trivial and minor [meritorious] deeds that others don’t do. As we see in Massechet Megillah [where amoraim were asked]: ‘On account of which [meritorious practise] have you attained longevity?’ they each spoke of deeds they performed that were not [even] d’oraita (ordained by the Torah). They attached significance to practices that some people might consider to be trivial”.

    (Paysach Krohn, Reflections of the Maggid pgs. 265-267)

    9. INDIVIDUAL POTENTIAL
    God commanded Moshe to exalt the status of every member of the Jewish Nation and to explain to them their individual potential and how to achieve greatness.
    (Ramban, Bamidbar 1:3)

    10. AN ENTITY UNTO YOURSELF
    It is as if the Creator Himself met with every single Jew and empowered him or her as an individual – as if He told them, “Besides from being part of the community, you as a person are an entity unto yourself”

    (Rabbi Yerucham Lebovitz, Chaver HaMa’amrim 58)

    11. OUR UNIQUE VISION
    At some point in every person’s life, God grants a vision, perhaps a form of prophecy. In this vision one sees a picture of oneself, of what he or she could look like, of oneself as the greatest individual one can become.

    (Rav Tzadok HaCohen, Tzidkat HaTzadik 149)

    12. GOD ADDRESSED EACH OF US PERSONALLY
    When God revealed Himself to the children of Israel in the desert, each individual standing at the base of Mount Sinai heard God’s word as a personal and unique address.
    (Psikta D’Rav Kahana 12:25)

  2. Thank you for sharing an excellent piece. There may be a meis Mitzvah element to rescuing Torah from tapes as well as translating it from the Yiddish. So this may be a double MM!

  3. R Herring deserves a major Yasher Koach in presenting and translating the above Dvar Torah and observations of RYBS-which are as relavant today as they were in 1958.

  4. It seems to me that R’ Herring sees this lecture presenting the Rav’s conservative side. The Rav’s message, for him, is that as we try as moderns to fit into the contemporary world, we must not succumb to the “-isms” of the moment, be they the Communism of the 1930s-1950s, or egalitarianism today, as they are opposed to fundamental Jewish values:
    The Orthodox challenge is to strike the right balance between these competing priorities. No one should think that it is a simple task. Yes, we are part of the culture of modernity, but no, we are not defined by it. Rather, it is our roots that make us what we are.
    This is certainly a common view, many have expressed it, notably (on this board) R’ Steve Brizel. If I may take a “secrets of the Guide” approach to this, it seems to me that the Rav is putting forth a more subtle, nuanced message, that actually reflects what I’ve heard from his more “progressive” students.
    First, his metaphor of the tree (a citrus tree, in R’ Herring’s reading) does not say, when read carefully, what its surface seems to mean. One of the prime issues in growing citrus trees, especially citrus, especially etrogim, is grafting. Attaching the branch, whose bud was formed by the DNA of the original rootstock, to a root from another line of trees that may be hardier in resisting frost or disease.
    On the surface, the Rav is saying that a tree is strongest when attached to its roots. Underneath, he’s clearly implying that that strength can be even better when trees are combined through grafting, joining a strong root (Torah) to a strong branch (new Jewish approaches to the world). His own life exemplified that – he was one of the first of the Orthodox Rabbi-Doctors, and the only one I can think of from that era (unlike R’ Saul Lieberman or R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught at the Seminary and were the mind and heart of its small-c conservative wing) who stayed and built up Orthodoxy from his position of synthesis.
    Halakhic Man may idealize a single-minded halakhist, but “Halakhic Man” could only have been written by a synthesist of secular and Torah thought.
    Second, the Rav in this piece clearly supports the independence of thought promoted by speaker after speaker at the EDAH conventions of 10-15 years ago. From R’ Riskin acting first and then getting guidance on women’s davening groups in 1972, (see the notes in the Frimer article on Women’s Prayer Groups for a full account) through R’ Yosef Adler’s permitting (some) congregants to use hot tap water on Shabbat based on a Beis haLevi (siman 2) suggested to him by the Rav, using language of “you know the Beis Halevi, I’m not going to tell you what to do, you have to decide for yourself.” (I’m not sure what the total circumstances of that psak are, but I heard him say this in a speech, may have been at a Cantors Conference in his shul in Teaneck), to today’s wedding innovations such as having women read translations of Sheva Brachot at weddings, or hold chuppa poles (per R’ Haskel Lookstein, personal phone call, 1991, leaving out the details of how he would structure it, for brevity). Or even R’ Dov Linzer or R’ Joel Wolowelsky allowing a “double-ring” ceremony. Listen to the Rav:
    I have students in the Yeshiva who have sharp minds and who can repeat my shiurim verbatim, exactly the way I gave them. But of what use is that? It is only when I hear them using their own formulations that I can tell if they truly understood what I said. Education is more than just repeating the rebbe’s words. Simple repetition, Rabbeinu Bachya (in Duties of the Heart, Service of God ch. 4) says, is like a chamor nosei sefarim, an ass bearing many books, i.e., one who reads but does not truly absorb what he reads. Much to be preferred is the one of whom Chazal say torato be-toch mei’av, “the Torah is in his intestines,” i.e., he has not only swallowed the words of the Torah, he has digested and fully absorbed them.
    He prefers an Oker Harim (innovator) to a Sinai (memorizer). And nowhere is this spirit of innovation more important than in balancing the pull of modernism with the necessity to preserve tradition, as his next line says:
    This is especially true when it comes to preserving Yahadut from one generation to the next.
    (I wonder if he said “Yahadut” or “Yiddishkeit” on the tape? The first would imply halacha, the second, more of what R’ Micha Berger calls a “gefeel” for what Judaism truly is, what will perpetuate it better).
    R’ Herring’s conclusion strikes a clear conservative tone:
    At a time when, religiously speaking, so many choose extremism and one-dimensionality, our path requires ever greater Torah study, faithfulness to tradition, intellectual courage, personal humility, heartfelt prayer, and siyata di-shmaya (divine assistance). It also requires nuanced and informed guidance by our teachers, mentors, and halachic authorities. And if it will require that we take the road less travelled by our contemporaries, Jewish or otherwise, to the left or to the right, we will need to evince the courage of heart and fortitude of spirit of those who came before us, and upon whose giant shoulders we are privileged to stand.
    Torah, guidance of teachers, and taking the principled path avoiding the –isms of the moment, these will see us through the dangerous path of contemporary psak. While not untrue, it paints a one-sided path, because it leaves out the innovation and synthesis, which were so much part of the Brisker tradition and the Rav’s own path, which has inspired so many among contemporary Orthodox laity and leadership.

  5. Jon Baker,
    While there’s certainly a lot of truth in your remarks, I think the concern is that there is a perception that some individuals, to draw on your DNA analogy, are taking the foreign rootstock and trying to kasher it with a little Torah DNA. Of course this is a subjective call and that’s why the Rav called for “Much to be preferred is the one of whom Chazal say torato be-toch mei’av, “the Torah is in his intestines,” i.e., he has not only swallowed the words of the Torah, he has digested and fully absorbed them.” Of course that too is a judgement call.

  6. Jon Baker,
    Can you double check the reference to the Beis Halevi? In the Hebrew Books edition siman bet is about a cheresh and chalitzah.

  7. Firstly, I want to thank each of the respondents to my posting. And thanks as well to those who’ve conveyed their responses in various other ways.
    To respond to Jon Baker, with utmost brevity (so much could be said, at length!):
    Of course you are correct in saying that the Rav believed strongly in koach ha-chiddush in Torah learning, and he surely fostered independence of mind in his talmidim. How could it be otherwise, when he himself was a master of chiddush in all areas of Torah and Chochmah, who blazed new paths in Torah and Jewish life in his time?
    But this is a far cry from attributing to him what can only be called a subversive agenda to graft foreign stock onto the “living tree” of Torah so as to produce a new “stronger” species. The Rav consistently opposed any attempt to dilute time-honored hashkafic principles with notions that were the product of the zeitgeist; he vociferously resisted those (whether they were on the left of Orthodoxy or on the right of the Conservative movement) who advocated changes in halachic practices that were not rooted in deep Talmudic and rishonic analysis (even when they relied on minority precedents that the rabbinic consensus had not embraced); and he certainly opposed sweeping communal role or ritual innovation by any but the greatest lamdanim of the generation. There is no need to cite chapter and verse on these points – they are well enough known by now.
    Finally, it is worth noting that the Rav made it very clear (unless of course one postulates that he really meant the opposite of what his words conveyed in their simple sense) that it is precisely when the Mesorah is under attack by people seeking change and accommodation to “new” realities, that it is imperative to insist more than ever, and in greater specificity, on fealty to past teachings and practice, even when they have no rational basis. God willing, in a future installment of these summaries, I’ll share his comments to the gemara Brachos 40b where he says precisely this.
    Basil Herring

  8. Joel i. Rich:

    “Beis haLevi” – sorry, I thought I had corrected that. I meant Chiddushei R’ Chaim Halevi. Right family, wrong generation.

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