by Aron White
For a city of just thirty thousand people, the city of Brisk left a disproportionate mark on world and Jewish history. In 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (the Belorussian name for Brisk) was signed in Brisk, ending Russia`s participation in World War 1. In 1913, Menachem Begin, the future leader of the Irgun, and iconic Prime Minister of Israel, was born in Brisk. And around the turn of the 20th century, Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik, the man who would revolutionise Jewish learning, moved to Brisk – and through that, he eternalised this small town in Eastern Europe, and blazed the name Brisk into the Jewish consciousness.
Rav Chaim, as he is known in Yeshivot, is the founder and patriarch of “the Brisker Derech,” a particular style of learning Gemara. Rather than learning with a focus on the practical Halacha, or a focus on the dialectic questions in the Tosafos style, the Brisker Derech focuses on the definition and refinement of Halachic concepts. It introduced a new type of question to the student of Gemara, one that focuses on the very definition of some of the most basic Halacha concepts. When I pay someone whose property I damaged, is that a punishment for wrongdoing or reimbursement for the lost money? When I commit a forbidden act on Shabbat, am I obligated for doing a forbidden action or for causing a forbidden result? Is a Succah that has walls that are too small an invalid Succah or not a Succah at all? Do we define the reading of the Torah in synagogue as a new mitzva or just an extension of the mitzvah of learning Torah? These new questions are more daring, and their answers more brilliant, than some of the styles that preceded the Brisker Derech.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, Rav Chaim`s grandson, compared this style of learning to the study of mathematics – one is focused on an abstract world of concepts, definitions and proofs. In his poetic way, he wrote that “Gone are the pots and pans” of the rules of Kashrut, and instead, one is transported to a world of pure concepts and ideas. In the Brisker Derech, one leaves behind the real world realities of workers, animals and property, and one is engaged in a world of abstract concepts.
Naturally, this style has developed, changed and fragmented over the past one hundred years, but we can say with some certainty that the style of Brisk is the most illustrious and dominant in Litvish and Modern Orthodox Yeshivot today. Many of the major sefarim of the last 120 years learned in Yeshivot today (Chidushei Rav Chaim, Shaarei Yosher, Kovetz Shiurim, Chiddushei HaGriz) were written by Rav Chaim and his students. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, Rav Nachum Partzovitz and Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, three of the greatest Lamdanim (analytical Torah thinkers) of the post-war generation, were directly connected to the Brisker tradition. Rav Asher Arieli, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Michael Rosensweig all continue on this chain today.
However, in this essay, I wish to look at whether the Brisker Derech is actually suitable for Modern Orthodox Yeshivot. I will argue that there exists a huge tension between the Brisker Derech, and the lifestyle and thought of Modern Orthodoxy.
Brisk and Kodshim
An instructive way to understand Brisk in a deeper way is to focus on what may be the most extreme branch of Brisk, the Yerushalayim branch, led by a grandson and great-grandson of Rav Chaim. The Yeshivot of Rav Dovid and Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveichik have a number of unique features, but one of them is that they only learn Seder Kodshim (the tractates dealing with Temple sacrifices), continuing a tradition of Rav Yitzchak Ze`ev Soloveichik, a son of Rav Chaim Soloveichik. I believe the reason why this chain of Brisk learns Kodshim runs to the heart of the Brisker Derech.
For many parts of Halacha, it simply does not seem like we are dealing with a world of a priori abstractions, divorced from the realities of this temporal world. There are so many laws in the Gemara and in the later commentaries which are explicitly based on psychological, historical and social realities of this world. The very common concepts of Anan Sahadi and Chazaka, whereby we can make certain assumptions about behaviour (for example, that people do not pay loans early), are based on facts in the real world, not abstract conceptualisations. Almost by definition, a Gezeira (rabbinic decree) is based on real world considerations of what people are likely to do. Numerous individual laws in the Gemara are based on economic and social realities. Tosfos in Gittin 14a writes that Chazal instituted a type of transaction called Maamad Shloshtan due to practical consideration, to make business easier. In Kesubos, the Gemara writes that Chazal made an enactment called Kesubas Bnin Dichrin, based on the amount of property fathers are willing to give their daughters in their dowry. In the later commentaries, we continue to see how many rulings are explicitly linked to real world realities. For example, the Geonim removed the earlier enactment of Bnin Dichrin, explicitly due to the changed social realities. In short, it is hard to learn the rules of interpersonal relations, sales, marriage, divorce, Shabbat and damages without striking upon real world realities, jarring one out of a world of ideal, a priori concepts. Halacha, in many areas, seems in fact to be very wordly.
However, Seder Kodshim is indeed a pristine, pure world. There are no enactments, no decrees, little human psychology, no economic or social realities, no development over history. Kodshim is a world where one can engage in pure conceptualisations –the relationship between a sacrifice and its libations, the distinctions between different types of meal offerings, the definition of the term Psulo BaKodesh. Kodshim is Brisk at it`s purest – an ethereal, pure world, untainted by human realities, unaffected by the exiles, qualms, desires and lives of the people studying it. It is natural that the most Brisk of Brisk will end up focusing on this area of Torah.
Brisk and Modern Orthodoxy
If Kodshim is Brisk at its purest, then the philosophy of Brisk seems almost diametrically opposed to the basic philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy. The idea of Modern Orthodoxy is surely to take the Torah and bring it to the world, rather than to take the Torah, and take the world out of it. Does it make sense to teach Modern Orthodox students through a style that is officially best at dealing with those parts of Torah that are least relevant? Is it practical to educate students to engage in the realities of this world, but teach them Torah through a philosophy that is intentionally uninterested in those realities?
Yeshivot, as institutions, are perfectly suited for Brisk – indeed, one`s time ensconced in Yeshiva is when one leaves the realities of the world and studies Torah in a “pure” setting. But after Yeshiva, in my limited experience, things get much harder. People who continue to learn whilst in university tend to be either the most dedicated or the most intellectual and theoretical, like a math major. For a student of, or someone engaged in, business, finance, social sciences and humanities, it is very hard to engage in the realities of our world but learn Torah in an abstract way.
In historical context, the Brisker style of learning might actually be the most abstract form of learning employed by Talmudic students since the Gemara was written. In the past, there were many times when areas such as Shvuot (vows) and Kodshim (sacrifices) were not studied in Yeshivot, and the Yeshiva schedule included those areas of Torah that were Halachically relevant. Today, in some sectors, the exact opposite has happened, where there are Yeshivot that only study the most abstract parts of Torah. Additionaly, in the past, even abstract styles of learning were closer to the real world than the Brisker Derech is today. Let us compare Brisk to the Baalei HaTosafos. The Baalei HaTosafos, despite being widely considered abstract theoreticians of the Talmud, nevertheless still bring in contemporary Halacha questions from their time quite often. For example, in Succah 45a, Tosafos write that the common practise of jousting with a groom is permissible, based on the Mishna in the fourth chapter of Succah. Famously, in Bechoros 2b, Rabeinu Tam discusses whether the limitations on partnerships with idolaters applies to Christians, a question which he says is relevant in his time. These are by no means isolated cases – throughout the Talmud, Tosfos discuss contemporary Halacha. One would be hard pressed to find any discussions of modern day questions in the sefarim of Rav Chaim and his disciples. Today, the distance between the study in Yeshivot and the realities of this world is as great as, or greater than, it has ever been.
Thus it would seem that both on a philosophical level, and on a practical level, there are major tensions between the stated other-worldliness of Brisk and the stated worldliness of Modern Orthodoxy. Brisk sees Torah as abstract, pure and non relevant, an approach that is best suited to those parts of Torah that are not significantly impacted by human and societal qualms. Modern Orthodoxy believes in engagement with this world, and the power of Torah to speak to, empower, and inspire this world. Where does this leave us?
I believe very strongly that we should not reject Brisk – we would simply be giving up too much in terms of brilliance, rigour and depth of our learning, as well as a connection to the recent traditions of Eastern Europe from which many of our Yeshivot emerged. However, I think a shift, to complement Brisk, is necessary in Modern Orthodox Yeshivot. If Yeshivot learning Bava Kama would generally learn in a Brisker style during the morning seder (session), but once every week or two dedicate a morning seder to learning recent responsa about related issues like credit card fraud, car crashes or sports injuries, I do not think that would compromise the high standard of learning that Brisk demands. Responsa of the Rishonim, rarely studied in Yeshivot, articles in journals like Journal of Contemporary Halacha or Techumin, are other options of high level learning that can complement Brisk. The introduction of this into Yeshiva curricula would allow students to see Torah study as directly relevant to the world in which they live – something that is important if we wish students to continue learning in a serious way.
Whatever the solution is, I believe one thing should be clear. For the Modern Orthodox community, we surely say that Torah study is a sine qua non, and we must constantly reassess how our educational system is built to facilitate high levels of Torah study at every stage of life. We would be well served to search out alternative styles that can help Modern Orthodox Yeshivot supplement the brilliance of Brisk with a form of Torat Chaim, a Torah that deals with the realities of this world. Hopefully, this will be “Yagdil Torah VeYaadira” – it will make the Torah greater, and more glorious.
I do not see what in this critique is specific to Modern Orthodoxy. MO has a different definition of the ideal daily life, but it’s not like chareidim are uninvolved in berakhos, Shabbos and Yom Tov, or financial transactions. Of course there is value to learning in order to do.
Rav Rakeffet is wont to opine that Rav Chaim ruined the ability to pasqen in the Litvisher world. After all, once you can explain and accept both sides of every dispute, how can you pick one over the other? And so R’ Rakefet theorizes, this is why R’ Chaim insisted that in addition to hiring him as rav, the town needed to also hire a dayan who would pasqen for them. (In practice, they hired R’ Simcha Zelig Riger.)
R’ Moshe Feinstein was once distressed when he heard two boys in MTJ arguing. They were learning the issue of shomerim (“guardians” — including actual guards, borrowers, renters, and other people left responsible for your property). A boy borrowed another’s shaver, and the shaver broke during usage. Well, RMF wasn’t too distressed about the argument itself, it’s unrealistic to expect a dorm to be without them. But neither boy related the problem to the gemara they were spending all year learning!
When learning in the abstract, these things don’t even come up!
What makes that problem specific to one community or more at odds with one ideology over the others?
In any case, I don’t think the mesechta choice is true of YU or the Mir in Yerushalayim i”hq anyway.
R’ Mordechai Willig (speaking from 35 year old testimony) does learn gemara to rishonim to acharonim to contemporary halachic decisors. When the yeshiva learnt Shabbos (note: not Qodshim) in his shiur we needed a Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchisah.
Nor is Shaarei Yosher as per Brisker Derekh. (See my Kol haMevaser piece, “Brisk and Telz“.) The critique stands in that it is a lomdus that is not aimed at practical law. But on the other hand, Rav Shimon Shkop’s derekh shares in common with the Rav’s public-speaking variant of Brisk that thoughts are often tied back to points in Jewish Thought. So it inspires emotionally, in addition to inspiring intellectually the way Brisk’s abstract science of how the laws interact can.
For a student of, or someone engaged in, business, finance, social sciences and humanities, it is very hard to engage in the realities of our world but learn Torah in an abstract way.
Exactly the opposite (at least sometimes). There’s great utility in being engaged in a world where one attempts to sift the data to uncover the underlying signal (the abstract philosophical underpinning(s)) from the noise. It also makes one suspect (speaking on a personal basis) that the Brisker methodology is perhaps an iteration of methodologies getting closer to amita shel torah but not there yet (which imho even R’ Rosensweig will say each case must be evaluated on its own basis when questioned on certain overarching principles)
This is a very interesting thesis. The rarified atmosphere of kodshim may be perfect for a Brisker for the reasons explained, but the thesis is one which the Rav would reject. According to the the Rav, anan sahadi and umdena are a priori halachic constructs no different conceptually than pigul, for example (indeed, the Rav gave shiur on the gamut of Masechtos with varying levels of halacha lema’aseh and “realia”, ranging from Maseches Shabbos to Baba Metzia and Kerisus). The fact that certain halachic concepts are based on what we consider “reality” does not at all take away from their conceptual basis – all are subject to Brisker a priori definitions. On a deeper level, the Rav no doubt would strenuously object to the suggested change in Talmud curriculum for the following reason. Torah has a unique epistemology, a unique thought process. As you accurately noted, mathematics is not merely another discipline, it constitutes a unique way of thinking with its own language. To the Rav, the imperative of Torah education is to impart this language. Maimonides under the Rav’s leadership offered courses on Halacha lema’aseh as well as on Siddur, for example. However, the objective of teaching Talmud to students is to teach them to think in this unique way. To learn how a machlokes in the Gemara might be codified, for example, would be (to the Rav) a tertiary educational objective at best.
I disagree with Aron White’s thesis.The use of the Brisker Derech and the study of practical Halacha at the same time are not mutually exclusive. As a graduate of Maimonides founded by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, a foremost disseminator of his grandfather’s Brisker Derech, and as a musmach of the Rav at Yeshiva University, I can attest to the fact that at both yeshivos the Rav instituted the study of Mesichtos Shabbos and Pesachim precisely because of their Halachic relevance.
Rabbi Samuel Frank
In many areas it seems the Rav “dug new wells” using his grandfather’s technology.
Hanoch Teller writes “it isn’t clear why the Brisker Rav specifically promoted Kodshim as a method by which to develop the ‘Brisker derech’ “. He quotes students of the Brisker Rav that other parts of Shas are too thoroughly treated by Rishonim and Acharonim to allow for “rigorous, original and independent expression”. According to the Brisker Rav’s family, R. Velvel’s greatest proficiency was achieved in Kodshim, perhaps because it was this section that he studied the most under the aegis of his father(Soul Survivors, pp. 210-211).
“To the Rav, the imperative of Torah education is to impart this language. Maimonides under the Rav’s leadership offered courses on Halacha lema’aseh as well as on Siddur, for example.”
The Talmud curriculum of Maimonides was composed of practical tractates such as Shabbat, Chullin and Pesachim.
I agree with Arnie Lustiger. The takanos of the generations were also conceptual constructs, not band-aid solutions to local problems. The real reason we do not make these takanos nowadays is because of the paucity of learning. Because we are not such lamdonim like our predecessors, we cannot construct a takana in the spirit of the Rishonim. If the whole point of a takana is just social, there would be no difference between different generations.
I will post a couple of pertinent links on the author’s FB page, ayain sham.
The lack of learning of Halacha Lemaiseh and the Brisker Derech are completely unconnected. No yeshivah schedule contains within it time to learn a sugia including Beis Yoseph and Shulchan Aruch with all the relevant Noiseh Keilim. To suddenly jump from Tosifos and Rambam to a Teshuvah of say R Moshe would be an incomplete and patchy way to learn the sugia. This will not instill an appreciation of the development of Halacha through the Mesorah.
This is a trap which can often be there also for those who learn the “Brisker Derech”. It is famously quipped “Do you learn R’ Chaim to understand the Rambam or the Rambam to understand R’ Chaim?” The little reference which the Brisker seforim have for earlier Achronim or even many of the Rishonim on the same sugia can also foster a feeling of incompletion. This is less so in Kodshim as there aren’t many other Rishonim apart from Rambam.
The point of Yeshivah curriculum is not to create Poskim, it is to develop the Bochrim into thinking Torah Jews who “know how to learn”. That is why the Birsker derech is favoured.