loving memory of Ya’acov Ben Yitzchak (A”H),
beloved father and grandfather,
whose yahrzeit was the 25th of Tammuz.
Dedicated by: Stanley & Ellen
and their children, Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and
Century Rabbinic Thinkers:
investigated the thought of five rabbinic figures functioning at roughly the
same time. Four of them were born
in the nineteenth century (R. Lipschutz was born in the previous century) and
their rabbinic careers were solely in that century (with the exception of
Simcha, who lived until 1926). These rabbis lived in various parts of
Europe and served different roles in the
Orthodox world. R. Lipschutz and
R. Hirsch were
community rabbis in Germany, an area with an Orthodox
community that was fairly integrated with the surrounding culture. R. Meir Simcha was a
community rabbi in a very different atmosphere, the Eastern European town of
Dvinsk. R. Berlin was Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin,
a mitnagdic stronghold, whereas R. Zadok flourished in a chassidic
specifics, I would like to mention shared qualities of rabbinic greatness. We noted several times the breadth
and range of these writers. Netziv
wrote commentaries on Chumash, Talmud, She’iltot, and Sifrei, as well as
repsonsa. R. Meir Simcha penned
commentaries on Chumash, Mishneh Torah and Talmud. R. Zadok wrote halakha and machshava
works, the latter incorporating a good deal of legal material. R. Hirsch produced a commentary on Chumash, many
works of Jewish thought, and important essays addressing the communal issues of
his day. In addition, his Chumash
commentary relies upon significant expertise in the areas of kodshim and
Of all these writers,
R. Lipschutz produced the fewest works, but his classic commentary on the
Mishnah is all-inclusive. In this
commentary, abstract Talmudic analysis and practical halakhic rulings appear
together with philosophic, historical, linguistic, and scientific
Each of these
thinkers manifests rabbinic excellence in his broad Torah knowledge and
erudition in Tanakh and Talmud, while formulating Jewish thought that is rooted
in halakhic details. The intellectual ailment of narrow specialization, common
in modernity, did not afflict these writers.
Furthermore, they all
reveal keen psychological insight.
One thinks of R. Lipschutz’s analysis of why studying away from home
promotes educational growth, R.
Zadok’s explaining how lack of internalized wisdom leads to scholarly arrogance,
and R. Meir
Simcha’s noting the reciprocal influence of the elite and the
common man’s attitudes to rising leaders.
Greatness demands more than erudition; it requires penetrating insight as
The thought of these
five writers reveal interesting parallels.
Both Netziv and R.
Meir Simcha deal with discrepancies between peshat and
derash in the legal portions of Torah. R. Berlin often explains that the
peshat meaning addresses the law for that generation, while the rabbinic
interpretation reflects the law for eternity. He applies this methodology to passages
about the red heifer, the Temple service on Yom Kippur enabling entry into the
Holy of Holies, and sending those ritually impure out of the camp. R. Meir Simcha adds a
different possibility in which peshat instructs us regarding a specific
halakhic scenario. For example, he
mentions a case in which a Jewish servant truly serves “le-olam.” I did not find a relevant parallel to
these methodologies in R.
Hirsch and Netziv both
treat the avot as great individuals with human limitations. In an earlier shiur, we noted
explicit texts from R.
Hirsch to this effect, including his faulting Ya’akov’s
educational decisions when raising Eisav.
Netziv contends that Rivka’s relationship with Yitzchak was not like that
of Sarah with Avraham or Ya’akov with Rachel. Both Sarah and Rachel were able to
articulate their disagreements with their husbands, but Rivka was always
intimidated by Yitzchak. Therefore,
she did not confront him directly when she disagreed with his apportionment of
their children’s blessings. I would emphasize that treating
the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as human does not entail attributing as many sins
to them as possible. Rather, it
means that they are subject to the emotional gamut of all human beings – hopes
and aspirations as well as fears, frustrations and
Netziv and R. Zadok
share an understanding that the process of the Oral Law during the First Temple period differed from that of the
Second. In R. Berlin’s magnificent
introduction to his commentary on the She’iltot, he contends that a more
intuitive kind of pesak ruled the day during the First Temple period; afterward, there was a move
toward halakhic rulings based on creative analysis. R. Zadok suggests that First Temple
Halakha was more based on ad hoc prophetic rulings than on the insight of
commonality, some differences of approach exist. For R. Berlin, both halakhic
methodologies reflect the work of sages; for R. Zadok, the sages only rise to
prominence during the Second Temple period. Additionally, R. Zadok thinks that the
old method ceased completely, while R. Berlin talks about an ongoing tension
between the two methods, with differences between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi
reflecting the continuing dialectic.
However, these two rabbis share a willingness to introduce some dynamic
change into their history of the nature of halakhic
Both R. Hirsch and R. Meir Simcha emphasize
that Judaism calls for the sanctification of the physical rather than its
renunciation. This parallel may be
less significant if it simply reflects mainstream Jewish thought. At the same time, it may also
indicate greater movement in this theological direction in the modern era.
With the possible exception
of R. Zadok, they all convey certain favorable attitudes towards the Gentile
world. This was most
pronounced in the commentary of R. Lipschutz, particularly on Avot. Recall his enthusiastic praise for
Jenner, Drake, Gutenberg, and Reuchlin and his insistence that they (and all
righteous Gentiles) surely have a place in the World to Come. R. Hirsch’s writings on Emancipation also convey a
sense of universal human brotherhood.
We do not find such passages in Netziv’s works, yet he does care about
the welfare of Gentiles. His
introduction to Bereishit emphasizes how kindly the Patriarchs treated
their Gentile neighbors, and his interpretation of the covenant in
Bereishit 17 includes a universal element. R. Meir Simcha argued that
murder of a Gentile may be worse than murder of a Jew due to the combination of
a heinous crime with a desecration of the divine name. For that reason, it is not a
death-penalty crime, since such a punishment cannot atone for the severity of
voices from quite divergent backgrounds all affirm Judaism’s concern for the
physical and spiritual well-being of the Gentile population. As previously noted, some of the
writers, including R. Lipschutz and R. Meir Simcha, also avow an inherent difference
between Jew and Gentile. Though I
am concerned that this approach may lead to chauvinistic arrogance or an
indifference to Gentile suffering, these rabbis avoided those pitfalls. They simultaneously state the difference
between Jew and Gentile and emphasize respect for every human being.
Almost all of the five discuss
rationales for the commandments.
This was clearly a major part of the Hirschian endeavor, and we can also
find such analysis in R.
Meir Simcha, R. Berlin, and R. Zadok. Though rabbinic voices exhibit differing
tendencies regarding the significance and implications of this enterprise,
almost all assume its worth.
The position that we must eschew all speculation about ta’amei
hamitzvot seems to be the position of a small minority.
contrasts reveals a few differences that fit our expectations. R. Zadok, the one chassidic figure, is
the most influenced by kabbalistic ideas, while the Western European
exhibits little interest in kabbala.
Conversely, R. Lipschutz and R. Hirsch are the most outspoken champions of
studying secular wisdom. Perhaps
more surprisingly, Netziv also writes of the benefits of secular wisdom, but he
does not cite the writings of Schiller or Cuvier as his German counterparts
do. Nor are we shocked to discover
that R. Lipschutz and R.
Hirsch write in more universalistic and humanistic terms than
R. Zadok does.
generate surprise. The assumption
that rabbis more open to secular wisdom would be the most interested in medieval
Jewish philosophy turns out to be false.
We noted R.
Hirsch’s lack of enthusiasm for abstract philosophizing and his
harsh critique of Moreh Nevukhim.
The eighteenth chapter of The Nineteen Letters faults Rambam for
letting foreign modes of thought unduly influence his Jewish philosophy. Both R. Zadok and R. Meir Simcha treat
Rambam’s Guide with greater reverence.
R. Zadok sometimes manages this by converting Rambam’s ideas into to fit
his own system, while R.
Meir Simcha often accepts Rambam’s philosophy at face
Rambam states that
Hebrew is called “the holy tongue” because it lacks terms for genital organs,
for the reproductive act, for urine and for excrement. When Hebrew needs to describe these
things, it borrows terms with other meanings or employs allusions. This linguistic limitation makes the
Ritva penned an entire work
entitled Sefer Ha-zikaron dedicated to defending Rambam from Ramban’s
critiques; yet he refused to defend Rambam’s explanation for “lashon
ha-kodesh.” Nevertheless, R.
Zadok cites this view of Rambam as a legitimate option, even defending Rambam
from the critiques of Ramban and Shem Tov.
He also endorses some
of Rambam’s rationales for mitzvot, including the explanation that
circumcision helps restrain sexuality. In another example, he utilizes Rambam’s
rationale in a halakhic context.
Acharonim debate whether a contemporary court, which invariably
lacks real semikha, can levy fines or can only demand restitution of the
principal. R. Zadok argues that the
court can extract double or even fourfold payment in order to deter
criminals. He notes that Rambam
attributes the greater severity of double payment for a thief to the need for a
harsher punishment as a deterrent, since burglary is more common than armed
robbery. R. Zadok contends that our administering
such fines to intimidate criminals reflects exactly what the Torah does in this
R. Zadok alters
Rambam’s explanation of sacrifices, placing it in the context of his own
thought. Rambam contends that the
sacrificial order reflects a divine concession to the religious understanding of
the ancient Near East. That world
could not imagine religious life devoid of animal offerings, so God wisely
included such offerings in His Torah, utilizing them to guide the people from
paganism to pure monotheism. For R. Zadok, this illustrates the idea
that the glory of light is only clarified against a backdrop of darkness. We appreciate the Jewish
sacrificial order in contrast to pagan versions.
In a different
passage, R. Zadok argues that Rambam reverses the correct causality. The Torah did not respond to ancient
paganism; rather, paganism responded to the Torah. People can pervert any noble ideal and
the parallels between certain mitzvot and pagan practices reveal a pagan
perversion of Torah. This coheres with R. Zadok’s “zeh
le’umat zeh” principle, in which historical trends find parallel expression
in the Jewish and Gentile worlds.
Sometimes, R. Zadok
combines criticism with reverence.
Rambam writes that the Temple’s incense comes to counteract the bad
smell generated by animal offerings. Not surprisingly, many later authorities
reject such a practical and prosaic reason for a mitzva. R. Zadok also disagrees, but he writes:
“Since these words came out of a holy mouth, they must be external garments for
the true reason for the mitzva according to the mystical tradition.” He proceeds to reinterpret Rambam’s
words in line with kabbalistic conceptions.
Of course, the option
of translating Rambam’s words into a different system of thought is easier for a
mystical thinker than for R. Hirsch.
Hirsch would not reinterpret Rambam’s words nor could he assume
that a holy mouth could not have uttered a purely mistaken position. Thus, R. Hirsch may only emerge as
more critical of Maimonides because R. Hirsch engages in a more straightforward
confrontation with Rambam’s thought.
Issues of temperament and ideology also play a role here, since R. Zadok
may have been more philosophically inclined than R. Hirsch.
The same can be said
about the contrast between R.
Hirsch and R. Meir Simcha, perhaps the most enthusiastic reader
of Moreh Nevukhim among our five figures. Meshekh Chokhma contains more
than twenty references to Rambam’s Guide.
He approvingly cites Rambam’s ideas regarding the limitation of
individual providence to humanity,
the nature of humanity’s first sin in Eden,
the idea that intensity of providence depends upon continued cleaving to God,
the doctrine of negative attributes,
and his explanations for the rationales for mitzvot. He even incorporates Rambam’s reason for
sacrifices, suggesting a compromise between it and that of Ramban. Bamot, private altars, are
intended to wean the people from paganism, while the Temple’s sacrifices serve
a more inherently valuable purpose.
Simcha strongly differs from Rambam’s position, he does not
mention the sage of Fustat by name.
He rejects Rambam’s reason for the incense offering, but only cites it as
the approach of kadmonim (early authorities). Apparently, due to his great reverence
for Rambam, he did not want to sharply criticize him in an explicit manner.
shiur analyzed R.
Meir Simcha’s extended discussion of the problem of free will
and divine foreknowledge. Clearly,
Simcha had a significant affinity for philosophic thought. These issues interested him much more
than they intrigued R. Hirsch. This
should caution us against too easily assuming what individual rabbinic thinkers
will say based on which “team” we think they belong to. Great figures are far too complex,
nuanced, and subtle for that. The
five rabbinic thinkers we have investigated certainly qualify as great. Our community can only benefit from more
intensive exposure to their thought.