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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Natan, you're wearing me down. I don't have time or energy to be 'outraged' anymore. Maybe I'll take a hiatus and come back later. You are increasingly shocking me with your ignorance. When we started on this endeavor, I believed you to be somewhat learned, if not perhaps a little misguided or mistaken on this particular issue. But your last two posts sound either like you do not understand Torah study at all, or you are just a plain Reformist.
What R' Chaim did was revolutionize Torah learning and encourage scholars to look inwards and understand the text more carefully, rather than create 'pilpulim', 'l'shitasos', and 'ukimtas' to answer complications. While the terminology he used may have been his own innovation, the concept was admired by virtually all the gedolim of his time. The fact that you think that you are even on the same level as them to disagree is astounding. Yes, the Chazon Ish may have disagreed with him from time to time, but he wrote glosses on his sefer, he did not reject the entire method lock, stock, and barrel. And while it is theoretically possible that a Rishon erred, it is a lot more likely that we simply do not understand what they were saying. There are many responsa from the Rambam to the sages of Luniel explaining what he said - sometimes using fine chilukim - and not saying that he erred. The practice of all the poskim throughout the ages is to assume that their predecessors knew what they were talking about, and they did not understand it, rather than rushing to say that they were mistaken. Only in extreme circumstances where it seems that something is blatantly wrong will later authorities disagree with earlier authorities, and even then, with the greatest deference. This is not a Charedi innovation. This is how the Halachic sausage has been made throughout the ages. All Nosei Keilim and Teshuvos strive to understand their predecessors, explain them, qualify them, and on rare occasions disagree with them.
Whether or not one uses 'Brisker' terminology in his learning is not the deciding factor whether one knows how to learn or not. 'Knowing how to learn' can be explained the same way (l'havdil) any other subject matter expert can be trusted in his field, and we would not trust an outsider. A Talmid Chacham is someone who both possesses the raw data of Torah required to arrive at a psak, and is also familiar with the methodologies used by poskim throughout the ages to arrive at such a psak. The same way we would not trust a high school grad anti-vaxxer who opened a few science books but has no clue how to process that data, likewise, is it utterly ridiculous when someone with seemingly no background with the halachic authorities and the methods they use to arrive at their conlusions, opens a Tashbetz and totally goofs. Sorry, but no offense. All R' Chaim did was crystallize this method of deeper understanding and give it terminology and influence future generations to study things on a deeper level.
And the first part of Fozziebear’s comment that you did not quote here (although you wrote there was ‘perfectly stated’) sounded like it came straight from a Reform rabbi. There are clear klalei hora’ah codified in Shulchan Aruch (CM 25:2) and these are how poskim throughout the ages have arrived at halachic rulings. The fact that you feel this, which is the ‘Charedi approach’ (as well as the approach of even non ‘Charedi’ rabbanim such as R’ Herzog, R’ Yosef, R’ Weinberg and R’ Waldenberg) is wrong, is the biggest vindication of what I’ve been saying the whole time.
Oy. While I am usually an admirer of your blog, your sheer ignorance of who R’ Soloveichik was and what his work was about is stunning. This whole post is so unnecessary and so tangential to your work. Anyone who has ever studied under anyone named Soloveichik knows that the entire effort is only to arrive at the clearest and most direct understanding of the text. Always. Always. That you portray R’ Chaim as some sort of creative intellectual gymnast is so grotesque and inaccurate. The techniques that he used that to you (and to us) appear so dazzling are in fact tools created and used by one of the great minds of history. Einstein, similarly, often spoke of the simplicity and clarity of his work, and it was simple- to him!
The arguments you put forward - that the CI disagreed with ‘some of’ Rabbi Soloveichik’s explanations, and that the Rambam (in sources that RS obviously didn’t have then) corrected himself - are nonsense and harmful because you use these ‘facts’ as a means to diminish RS. Look, you say - Rabbi Soloveichik isn’t so special - look - he was wrong about this, and so and so disagreed with him on this. (There was once someone named Moshe who was criticised, repeatedly, by a critic named Hashem.) it’s just so unnecessarily reductionist.
This is where you go wrong. You do not realize that there are worlds of comprehension and understanding that you (and all of us) haven’t achieved and will probably never achieve - and perhaps cannot achieve. Einstein would marvel at his realization, when he scaled new heights, of the new and much higher plateaus that now became visible, as yet unachieved - and it humbled him. I hate to say this, but if you have any flaw it is in a lack of some level of humility. None of us know ‘how to learn’ like R’ Chaim, or the CI - we can only be ourselves, and do the best we can. So be humble, ignore your detractors and focus on the as yet unrealised levels of accomplishment that you can get to -and I think you will get to - build on what you’ve done, and let that be your legacy.