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"You Think You're Smarter Than Him?!"
Who is an expert in Torah?
My goodness, did I hit a nerve. First, I wrote that Tashbatz, one of the prized sources for legitimizing the universal-kollel phenomenon of today, does not actually legitimize any such thing. Then, defending my ability to analyze Tashbatz’ responsa against those who claim that I “don’t know how to learn,” I pointed out that what the yeshiva world calls “knowing how to learn” is not actually related to getting to the truth of what the author of a text means, but has more to do with employing creative intellectual gymnastics (especially when a desired ideological conclusion is required). And to add insult to injury, I pointed to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s incredibly intricate expositions of Rambam as an example.
Reactions were fast and furious. “You’re saying that Rav Chaim didn’t know how to learn?!” “You think that you can learn better than Rav Chaim?!” “What a hypocrite - you respect the expertise of scientists but not of Gedolim!”
This was all too reminiscent of the controversy eighteen years ago, when Rav Moshe Shapiro condemned me for saying that certain statements in the Gemara are scientifically incorrect. I was defending myself, and people were yelling in horror, “You think that you know how to learn Gemara better than Rav Moshe Shapiro?!”
Rav Moshe Shapiro was a phenomenal genius who had spent a lot more time studying Gemara than me. But the point is that he had studied it from a passionate and committed religious Maharal-type perspective, that the Sages were always speaking about metaphysical essences rather than natural phenomena. This meant that he was a towering expert in how to learn Gemara from a Maharal-type perspective. It did not make him an expert into whether the Maharal-type perspective is what the Gemara actually means.
In fact, it actually hampered him in that. Rav Moshe Shapiro was so passionately single-minded about his approach that he could never deal with the fact that all the Rishonim and most of the Acharonim took a decidedly different approach to the Gemara. Accordingly, he had to studiously ignore them (just as Maharal himself did!) or claim that they were forgeries. Rav Moshe Shapiro’s followers emulate him in this approach - they enthusiastically quote authorities who interpret the Gemara according to an alleged “inner metaphysical essence,” but they religiously ignore all the Rishonim, and the multiple Acharonim, who did not believe that the Gemara’s statements about the natural world as referring to any such “inner metaphysical essence.”
The same is true with Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. As I pointed out, none other than Chazon Ish was of the view that Rav Chaim’s derivations of Rambam’s alleged meaning were simply unfounded, and were based on reading far more into Rambam’s words than Rambam ever meant. Did Chazon Ish “not know how to learn”?
Furthermore, as I pointed out, some of Rav Chaim’s expositions as to Rambam’s true meaning were contradicted by none other than Rambam himself, who wrote in subsequent letters that various problematic rulings of his were not to be resolved with the kind of approach that Rav Chaim used, but were simply mistakes. (For plenty of fascinating sources and discussion on this, see Marc Shapiro, Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters.)
The point is that Rav Chaim was a tremendous expert in learning Rambam according to the Brisker derech. But whether the Brisker derech is actually the correct way of getting to the truth of what Rambam meant is another matter. (Note that the question of the value of the Brisker derech is a different matter entirely; there can be much value to it even if it is not a way of getting to the truth of what Rambam meant.)
I’d like to finish by quoting the pithy words of one commentator to the previous post, who goes by the moniker of “Fozzie Bear” (though he deserves something much more respectable), and who wrote as follows:
R. Slifkin is correct in that he advocates a learning technique that is honest, context based, open to critique, and genuinely truth seeking as opposed to being centered around ideological defense.
And he didn't denigrate the value of experts. Nor did he say you can't challenge experts. What he said was that being an expert in, for example, the Brisk Derech isn't necessarily going to help you gain a better understanding of the meaning of Torah. If you spend years creating an institution that is committed to the concept to seeing the world in certain way, create a cadre of experts and students who follow that perspective and then it turns out that, because you didn't keep up with current broader knowledge, your concept is wrong, then all you have is an expert in something that is wrong.
The muppet nailed it.
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