Rav Yitzchak Blau
Loving Memory of Beloved Father and Grandfather,
Ya'acov Ben Yitzchak, Fred
whose Yahrzeit is 25 Tammuz;
Ellen and Stanley Stone and
Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi
#45: Modern Rabbinic Thought: A Retrospective
This shiur is
dedicated for a refua shelema for Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Amital shelit"a, Yehuda ben
two years, this series has explored the thought of seven rabbinic authorities
from the last two centuries. As noted in the opening shiur, part of the
motivation was my desire to encourage the Modern Orthodox world to think beyond
the important works of R. Kook and R. Soloveitchik. We have encountered profound
thought from the other writers studied, and we have investigated issues not
addressed by the two most prominent Modern Orthodox luminaries. This final
shiur will look back and compare some of these rabbinic giants. For those
who only joined in the second year, shiur 30 from the first year
summarizes some of the first year’s major discussions.
noted the breadth of these figures, many of them productive in both
Gemara/Halakha and in Tanakh/machshava. At the same time, some of
them excelled in a particular medium, while others were more varied. The
outstanding quality and innovative nature of the Netziv’s commentaries on
Chumash, Sifra, and the Sheiltot make it difficult to
select his essential contribution. R. Hutner, on the other hand, made his major
impact in the world of Jewish thought.
Althought he was certainly a Talmudic scholar, the creative profundity of
his Pachad Yitzchak far outstrips his writings on Nazir and the
Sifra. Perhaps we can say that the great scholar is not a narrow
specialist, but he can excel in a particular genre.
the extensive knowledge of these scholars in varied disciplines guided their
insight in other areas of Torah.
The Netziv and R. Meir Simcha always provide excellent commentary, but
they are particularly helpful in the legal portions of Chumash, precisely
because they were Talmudic scholars.
R. Hirsch’s bold attempt to explain the significance of the details of
every mitzva relies on Talmudic erudition about those details. The same
applies to R. Hutner’s thought.
Whereas some of the classics of medieval Jewish philosophy make little
use of halakhic texts, R. Hutner’s analysis often begins with sensitive probing
of a formulation from the Gemara or from the Rambam’s great code. Extensive
knowledge of Halakha both inspires creative thought in Tanakh and
machshava and helps ensure that the creativity is sufficiently rooted in
the world of mitzvot.
R. Hutner and R. Meir
Simcha frequently emphasize the importance of free will. For
the former, determinism constitutes the essential contemporary challenge against
the dignity of mankind. The latter defines “the image of God,” mankind’s badge
of honor, as the ability to make free moral and religious choices. Both may have
been responding to external or internal developments. Science and technology’s
growing success in modernity sometimes leads to the idea that we should explain
human choices as biological or chemical responses to stimuli, an approach
leaving no room for authentic freedom. Alternatively, the deterministic elements
in Izbica chassidut, most manifest in the sefarim of R. Mordechia
Yosef Leiner and R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin, may have inspired a
response. As many have argued that
R. Hutner was familiar with, and even influenced by, R. Tzadok’s thought,
the latter possibility gains credence.
seen a commonality between R. Meir Simcha and R. Hutner, we now turn to an
important difference. Let us begin with a discussion of the sources R. Hutner
cites. He frequently addresses texts from Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Rabbenu Yonah,
Maharal and the Gra. Before
beginning to study R. Hutner in depth, I had thought that he did not cite
Aharonim, but this is simply false. He quotes lomdishe works, such
as Minchat Chinukh, Turei Even, and the Chiddushei Ha-Griz;
great poskim including the Chafetz Chaim and Chazon Ish; and some of
mussar’s leading lights, such as R. Yisrael Salanter, R. Isaac Blazer, and
R. Avraham Grodzinski.
expanded list further highlights the people R. Hutner does not cite. Although he
grew up in a Kotzker home and studied some Chassidic masters, he almost never
cites them in his talks. I am aware of a solitary citation of R. Tzadok and a
single mention of the Kotzker in R. Hutner’s published writings. Nor does he cite R. Kook, despite his
indebtedness to the latter’s guidance. Furthermore, he never cites the Rambam’s
Guide and rarely makes reference to the classic medieval philosophy works
such as Kuzari and Sefer Ha-Ikarim. This stands in sharp contrast
to R. Meir
Simcha, who addresses close to thirty different citations from
Moreh Nevukhim. This even contrasts with R. Tzadok, who makes several
references to the Rambam’s Guide.
Kaplan notes and explains this phenomenon:
much simpler, albeit less “profound” and “edifying” explanation suggests itself
for Rabbi Hutner’s decision not to cite secular philosophic sources, namely, his
desire to maintain the strictly internal, traditional, and purely Jewish
appearance of his essays, and so, thereby, to make them acceptable in the eyes
of the traditional Orthodox world.
After all, Rabbi Hutner not only fails to cite, say, Aristotle or Kant or
Hermann Cohen; he also never cites, to take just two examples, Maimonides’
Guide of the Perplexed and the writings of his own teacher, Rabbi Abraham
believe that Kaplan is correct. The
Lithuanian yeshiva world views both the Rambam’s Moreh and R. Kook with
suspicion, and the same can be said to a lesser degree about Mei
Ha-Shiloach and R. Tzadok’s sefarim. R. Hutner’s choice of explicit
references places him firmly within the world of traditional
yeshivot. This explanation
makes the contrast with R. Meir Simcha and R. Tzadok all the more striking. We would not view either one as part of
an especially enlightened or liberal circle, yet they had no difficulty
incorporating ideas from Moreh Nevukhim.
distinction highlights a narrowness often found in contemporary yeshivot.
Whereas a community rabbi from the turn of the twentieth century such as
Simcha cites Moreh Nevukhim without reservation, a later
Rosh Yeshiva never does so. The growing trend in Lithuanian yeshivot
after World War II was a constriction of the yeshiva curriculum. We cannot fully
identify R. Hutner with this constrictive impulse, since he put so much energy
into machshava; yet he did restrict the voices worthy of citation.
between R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg and R. Hutner, two former Slobodka students,
underscore divergent twentieth century trends. In an earlier shiur, we
noted R. Weinberg’s positive feelings about the Jewish State, even as he
criticized its secular character and Zionism that simply mimics the nationalism
of other nations. He admired Zionistic dedication towards improving the lot of
Jewry and saw the State as providing hope and succor following the
Hutner, on the other hand, was a fierce critic of Zionism. In one well-known lecture, he places
causal responsibility for the Holocaust on the Zionist movement. He argues that
the Mufti of Jerusalem was not rabidly anti-Semitic until he encountered Zionist
aspirations to reclaim the Land of Israel and that the Mufti thereafter played a
crucial influential role in convincing the Nazis to adopt the Final Solution.
and Lawrence Kaplan
point out many of the flaws in this argument. The assumptions that the Mufti liked the
Jews before Zionism or that the Nazis needed Arab encouragement to decide to
annihilate world Jewry are both quite dubious. The Mufti encouraged anti-Jewish
pogroms from the first year of his appointment in 1921, and the Nazi
Einsatzgruppen annihilated hundreds of thousands of Jews before the Mufti
ever arrived in Germany. Moreover, even accepting R. Hutner’s portrait, the
argument does not instruct us how to evaluate the worth of Zionism. If we were
to discover that halakhic observance promotes anti-Semitism, we would not stop
keeping mitzvot. People need
to follow their ideals and they cannot be held responsible for every possible
consequence, including those not easily foreseen.
Hutner sees a sinister component within Zionist discourse about the Nazi
cover its own contribution to the final catastrophic events, those of the State
in a position to influence public opinion circulated the notorious canard that
Gedolei Yisroel were responsible for the destruction of may communities
because they did not urge immigration.
R. Hutner furthers his anti–Zionist tirade in a manner difficult to justify. Not
only are the Zionists causally responsible for the destruction of European
Jewry, they then tried to cover this up by pointing an accusing finger
elsewhere. I hope it is not disrespectful of me to wonder whether we should
reverse the accusation at those defending the great rabbis who encouraged their
students or chassidim to remain in Europe despite the Nazi threat. Perhaps these
defenders jump on the chance to blame the Zionists partially as a means to
avoiding facing the mistakes of our rabbinic leadership.
negative about Zionism, R. Hutner exhibited a great love of the Land of Israel,
manifest in his coming to study in Chevron in the 1920’s and in his returning to
live in Israel towards the end of his life. His personal correspondence and
communal talks also discuss the significance of the Holy Land. One letter argues that Chazal’s
equation of living in the galut with lacking a God applies even when no
Temple stands. After all, the Talmudic prooftext is from Kind David’s feeling of
exile before the Temple ever existed.
letter emphasizes how hard it is to leave Israel and how much he benefitted from
his time studying there. “No approach, no teacher, and no educator could have
penetrated to the innermost part of my soul as did the Land of Israel, the
authentic place for a Torah life.”
One Pesach sicha describes how full arevut (communal
responsibility) in Am Yisrael only begins when they enter the Land.
Other analyses stress Israel as the true place for religious service, so that
leaving the Land means a diminution of our ability to be ovdei Hashem.
above reflects an important corrective to a potential pitfall of Charedi
ideology. In their desire not to grant any religious value to a secular
movement, Charedi ideologues may also end up downplaying the importance of
Eretz Yisrael in our tradition. If we identify Zionism and the Land,
rejecting one slips into rejection of the other. R. Hutner avoided this danger,
maintaining a strong distaste for secular Zionism with an intense love for our
and R. Hutner also differed regarding secular studies. In a previous
shiur, we noted how R. Hutner draws a sharp dividing line between Torah
sources and secular knowledge, arguing that the latter can only be a means;
therefore, it can never provide the deepest joy of study. Furthermore, he never
explicitly cites non-Jewish thinkers. R. Weinberg’s writings, on the other hand, make
reference to Einstein, Goethe, Hegel, Herder, Kant, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and
Along similar lines, it is inconceivable that R. Hutner would have published
essays on Achad Ha’am and Berdyczewski, as R. Weinberg did.
two Slobodka graduates made very different choices indicative of the divides in
twentieth century Orthodoxy. Some
Orthodox Jews moved towards greater insularity and narrowness, whereas others
advocated increased exposure to the broader world of Western thought. R. Hutner
became a Rosh Yeshiva and R.
Weinberg received a university doctorate. At the same time, we
should not overstate the implications of the divide. R. Hutner and
remained friends and correspondents, indicating that common attachment to Torah
and personal friendships can transcend some of these debates. Furthermore, it would be a great mistake
for Modern Orthodox communities to feel estranged from R. Hutner’s thought
because they follow a different approach. We have no surplus of profound
thinkers, and R. Hutner has much to add to our understanding of Torah and
hope that our community will intensively pursue study of all the rabbinic
thinkers surveyed in this shiur as well as the many others we did not
 See Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakha,” pp.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 80, p. 147 and no. 157,
 Lawrence Kaplan, “Jewish Orthodoxy in the Twentieth Century: Between Two
Worlds,” Daat 35 (Summer 1995): pp. xvi-xvii.
 “Holocaust – A Study of the Term and the Epoch It’s Meant to Describe,”
The Jewish Observer (October, 1977): pp.
 See Spero’s letter in the January 1978 issue of The Jewish Observer,
 Lawrence Kaplan, “Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s ‘Daat Torah Perspective’ on the
Holocaust: A Critical Analysis,” Tradition 18:3 (Fall, 1980): p. 235-248.
 “Holocaust – A Study,” p. 7.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 110.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot U-Ketavim, no. 162, p.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 63:9.
 Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, no. 21:3, 53:13.
 See the index to Lefrakim.